Vol. 232 May 1, 2020 SARS-CoV-2 is not only NOVEL; It Is WEIRD

May 1, 2020

A few not-so fun facts about the strange behavior of COVID-19 (the disease) caused by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus).

COVID-19 is proving to be so unpredictable with so many variations that it really is weird. Most other coronaviruses merely cause a mild cold. This one can be lethal.

It’s deadliness is presumed to be from a “cytokine storm”, an explosive immune response to the virus within the infected person. This “hyper immune response” causes massive vascular damage in the lungs (and now kidneys and brain and toes.), BUT the people most vulnerable to the virus are those with suppression of their immune system (the elderly, people on chemotherapy, people taking high doses of steroids). You would expect that if your immune system was suppressed you would be less likely to have a “cytokine storm”.

SARS-CoV-2 causes major damage to essential organs, but it can also cause isolated loss of smell and taste, gastro-intestinal upset, headache, aches and pains, and, most mysteriously, just purple bruises on the toes of young adult males.

It is more likely to  kill the elderly and those with chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and autoimmune diseases, but it can kill healthy 21 year olds with no other disease. There is some evidence that the amount or “dose” of the virus one receives is the cause of this variability. Young, healthy health care workers caring for Covid-19 patients in ICUs have higher rates of serious illness presumably due to the large amount of virus shed by their patients to which the workers are exposed.

It is highly contagious because one infected person can infect 2 or 3 other people before they have any symptoms. The SARS and MERS epidemics, the two previous lethal coronaviruses we experienced, were not so contagious. Both were spread by people who already knew they were sick, so it was possible to identify infected people, isolate them, and take containment steps. Also SARS and MERS  killed their hosts (patients) so quickly that the spread of the infection to others was much less. In truth, why SARS and MERS disappeared before becoming a wider spread epidemic is not really known. (Maybe that’s where Trump got the idea of “a miracle” saving all of us from economic ruin.)

The higher death rate of infection in blacks and Hispanics has been explained by 1) assumed ethnic/racial differences, 2) the close living of tightly packed urban areas, and now 3) the greater exposure to air pollution from increased tiny particles (PM 2.5 – 2.5 millimeters in size) more prevalent in city air. Maybe all three?

Men are much more likely to die from the virus than women. Studies are now under way  to test whether female hormone administration might protect infected males. We know that women are hardier than men in many diseases, and that it may be genetic rather than hormonal, but who knows?

Originally it was thought to skip children, but recent data from China shows that it can infect and cause serious illness in children, including infants. The virus apparently does not cause infant infection in utereo,  but it is unclear whether infant infection occurs during the birth process or later by contact with the infected mother.

Rational, specific recommendations to meet a pandemic in the U.S. were developed in detail by a 2005 Pandemic Task Force  started by President George Bush after he read an account of the 1918 influenza epidemic while on vacation. It was disbanded by Trump in a cost cutting move, and its report was ignored.

Pharmaceutical companies don’t like to invest in developing vaccines. It is very expensive, and they make little or no profit. Vaccines are administered once or maybe twice in a lifetime. Big Pharma makes more money out of treating chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer because those patients are on medications for a long time (like the rest of their lives). Even the development of antibiotics is low profit because patients only take them for 7-10 days, and they’re cured. 

We know that three medications in combination suppresses HIV (the “AIDS cocktail”) . That treatment changed AIDS from an acute, lethal disease to a chronic, livable condition. Likewise, it may take several different medications in combination to suppress this virus.

Very rich capitalists (Bill and Melinda Gates) in the absence of  governmental funding have given millions of dollars to support vaccine and medication development for the use of the world-wide population. (“Taking money from the rich to benefit the poor” sounds like Socialism doesn’t it?) Bill Gates sounded a pandemic warning as long ago as 2015, and as recently as this week.(1)

SARS-CoV-2 infection may or may not provide protection from reinfection. Most viruses, like measles, can infect you only once because the infection causes you to produce protective antibodies that persist for years. Unfortunately other coronaviruses studied have shown that their antibodies persist only for a few months, certainly not for over a year. This obviously has implications for administration frequency of any soon-to-be-developed vaccine. 

We don’t know if SARS-CoV-2 will mutate like the flu virus does. If it does, then vaccination frequency will be like that for the flu: every year to protect against our the best guess of the strain that will appear that year.

Scientists are suspicious that this virus may become “seasonal” like influenza, despite it’s appearance world-wide in very different climates. It flourished in our winter and Australia’s summer, in our cold, wet  Northeast and in sunny, dry California.

With the current state of knowledge about this virus it seems to me that we all are enrolled in a giant clinical study while  awaiting the development of a vaccine and effective treatment. We are even dividing ourselves into “experimental groups” like Oklahoma, Iowa, and Florida that are lifting social restrictions and “control groups” like New York and Massachusetts that are not. Unlike the usual clinical study no one asked for our consent. It is just happening.

Clinical studies are very expensive for a variety of good reasons.  It is very clear that this one, though unintentional, is costing all of us a great deal. Let’s hope that some results come soon.

References:
1. New England Journal of Medicine 382;18 April 30, 2020


Vol. 231 April 15, 2020 After The Pandemic – Back To The Future??

April 15, 2020

 

“The transmission of SARS-CoV-2 could resemble
that of pandemic influenza by circulating seasonally
after causing an initial global wave of infection.”

 

 

A recent mathematical simulation study from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health suggests that our current pandemic could follow the path of the 1918 flu pandemic, i.e. recurrent surges of infections after quarantine measures are relaxed.

FACT: SARS-CoV-2 was, and is, NOT containable. Each infected person transmits the virus to 3 other people on average. Most people infected with this virus will have mild cold-like or flu-like symptoms. In fact, two other known coronaviruses are the second most frequent cause of colds. Unfortunately this coronavirus of SARS-CoV-2 can cause severe illness and even death in some per cent of the infected.

FACT: “Flattening the curve” through social distancing and isolation does not decrease the number of infected people. It’s sole purpose is to change the timeline of illness to reduce the peak demand for services for the severely ill (estimated 3% hospitalized). It is hoped that spreading that demand over time for ICU services (estimated about 1%) will reduce the number of deaths due to “lack of available resources”.

FACT: There are really only two ways to stop an pandemic, a vaccine or herd immunity. Immunity develops when individuals get infected, respond by making antibodies, get better, and end up protected from getting the illness again. Herd immunity exists when so many people have developed antibody protection that the few people who don’t have such immunity are surrounded by others who cannot have the disease again, and so can not transmit it to them. (There is a third way an epidemic stops, of course, where most people die before they can pass it on, like Ebola, but this virus is not like that.)

You have heard about herd immunity for children unvaccinated against measles (another very highly contagious virus) when they are surrounded by children who have been vaccinated against measles. Herd immunity works by lowering the risk of anyone being exposed to a person with the infection. I can remember the “last of the chicken pox parties”, another method to expedite herd immunity in a timely fashion, in my old neighborhood in the 80’s.(The chicken pox vaccine became available in 1984). An epidemiological term for herd immunity may be more intuitive, though it sounds a whole lot colder; “depletion of susceptible individuals.” The estimated herd immunity threshold for measles is 95% of the population vaccinated. The ideal is often stated as 98% vaccinated against measles.

SPECULATION: A team of scientists from Harvard using mathematical model simulations have diagramed how herd immunity might develop for SARS-CoV-2 depending on different durations of social distancing while we wait the 12-18 months necessary for vaccine development and testing. Their study of other coronaviruses (the common cold ones) indicates that a herd immunity threshold of 60% would reverse the epidemic,  BUT that different durations of social distancing could result in a HIGHER number of total cases.

I, as a pediatrician, don’t do math very well, so I’ll let the conclusions of their mathematical model simulations speak for themselves. These estimates assume rigorous social distancing and that about 80% of us will eventually be infected. 

No social distancing – 60% herd immunity reached in October, no peak delay, no “flattening of the curve”.

4 weeks of social distancing (to mid May) – peak is delayed, 60% herd immunity threshold is reached in October, total number of cases are 10% higher than “no social distancing”.

8 weeks of social distancing (to mid June) – peak is delayed, 60% herd immunity is reached in November with 15% higher number of total cases than “no social distancing”.

12 weeks of social isolation (to mid July) – markedly reduced new cases during the summer, 60% herd immunity in January,  and 20% higher number of total cases than “no social distancing”.

20 weeks of social isolation (to late August) – markedly reduced new cases through November, 60% herd immunity in February, and 20% higher number total of cases than “no social distancing.” (1)

The mathematical model predictions represent infections only, not amount of severe illness or death rates.

I know just enough mathematics to appreciate that there are lots of assumptions incorporated into mathematical modeling, just like CFO reports to Boards of Trustees, you know , as in “smoke and mirrors”, but these predictions are sobering.  The researchers suggest that periodic, intermittent relaxation of social distancing might give the best results in the long run, i.e. allow and deal with recurrent surges of infections from relaxation of restrictions until most of the population becomes immune.

“Intermittent social distancing might maintain critical care demand within current thresholds, but widespread surveillance will be required to time the distancing measures correctly and avoid overshooting critical care capacity.”

Thankfully for us mathematically impaired the study stated some conclusions in English :

SARS-CoV-2 can proliferate at any time of year.

The duration of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is not known. If immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is not permanent, it will likely enter into regular circulation.

High seasonal variation in transmission leads to smaller peak incidence during the initial pandemic wave but larger recurrent wintertime outbreaks.

New therapeutics, vaccines, or other interventions such as aggressive contact tracing and quarantine – impractical now in many places but more practical once case numbers have been reduced and testing scaled up – could alleviate the need for stringent social distancing to maintain control of the epidemic.

Then they blur that bit of hopeful glance into the future with, of course, “virus mutation might give us a new SARS-COV every winter season just like the flu . . . until 2024”!

Enough of these not-so-fun medical facts. Let’s finish with some good news.
The recovery rates from this virus as of today are 78% in the  U.S.
For even more good news (on a variety of subjects) tune into SGN – SOME GOOD NEWS , a brand new weekly YouTube news program by John Krasinski.

References:
1. Boston Globe, April 12, 2020, Ideas Section K; includes excellent graphs of the different social distancing duration scenarios.


Vol. 230 April 1, 2020 Biden Picks His Running Mate

March 31, 2020

Press Conference

Former Vice President

Joe Biden

(Official Transcript   April 1, 2020)

BIDEN: Good morning everyone. I am glad to see all 8 reporters are sitting 6 feet from each other. I know it is burdensome, but we must work together to defeat this awful Zika. . . Rebola. . . flu . . . er, what?,  . . . I mean, you know, the Coroner virus.

Speaking of the current virus crisis . . . boy that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? . . . it almost rhymes . . .I would like to announce my pick of a running mate; Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease of NIH since 1984. . . almost twenty or . . .  er. . . many years ago.

Now before I start to answer your questions, let me give you some reasons for my choice.

Number 1: Dr. Fauci is smarter than I am, but I am taller and younger than he is.

Number 2: He is very experienced. He has worked with many Presidential administrations since he came to Washington . . . in the 1980’s as I remember. He told Ronald Reagan about the AIDS epidemic, advised two Bushs . . .  one of them gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom . . . by the way, Ben Carson got his medal during that same ceremony, . . . where was I? Oh, yeh . .  .two Clintons . . .  yes two, remember Hilary’s Health Care Plan?. . . and, of course, an Obama or two. 

Number 3: He gives very good TV interviews, even on Fox News with Sean Hannity trying to mislead the viewers.

Number 4: His medical training has given him that special skill that all physicians must have to succeed  — “Always sound right,  and if you don’t know an answer, make one up.”  But he is more like my famous namesakes on Dragnet . . .  Sgt. Joe Friday . . .”Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Now I’ll take your questions.

[Sounds of shouting, general loud babbling, a baby crying, a chair falls over]

REPORTER:  “ Mr. Biden have you moved away from your promise to pick a female running mate?”

BIDEN: Did I say that?  When was that? . . . Oh, it was during one of those debates? . . . I wouldn’t call it a debate, and I wouldn’t call it a promise. It was a statement from which I am now socially distancing myself, and its a very timely question.  .  . .This social distancing is for the pits. I haven’t smelled somebody’s hair in weeks. . . for the record, my test was negative . . . and I will ensure that women’s voices will be heard in my administration by appointing several to my cabinet. Elizabeth Warren naturally will be Secretary of the Treasury. Kamala Harris as an experienced prosecutor would be an excellent head of the Department of Justice . . . I think she is Latino too, isn’t she?. . . I am not sure about Senator Amy Kolbuchucker from Minnesota, but she has great hair. Marianne Williamson, . . . remember her, the physic healer. . . could serve as Chief of Alternate Universes  . . .excuse me, Alternate Therapies within HHS.  Adding Senator Gillibrand to the cabinet would weigh the group too heavily towards New York, since Dr. Fauci is from Brooklyn.  I will, of course,  appoint Tulsi Gabbard as Ambassador to America Samoa.

REPORTER: “Do you have any concerns about any regrettable incidents in Dr. Fauci’s past?”

BIDEN: Not really. My staff has vetted him very thoroughly. The only whiff of scandal we found was his medical school yearbook picture where he was being lifted by two of his taller classmates so as to appear even taller than they. None of them were in black face.

 Also some people may have difficulty knowing how to pronounce his name correctly. It is pronounced as “Fow-chi” with the soft  “chi” sound common to many Italian names, . . .  and as the Senator from Nevada I wish to say that I have many Italian-American friends who are hard-working, decent citizens, but I must excuse myself from this Corleone hearing for another important committee meeting . . . oh, sorry . . . was I channeling the Godfather again?. . .  a great movie.

There is another small concern, since he is from New York City and his name ends in a vowel people may think he is associated with Rudy Giuliani. . . . but  we know that he is taller than Mike.

We have completely debunked the New Yorker Magazine stories that Dr. Fauci has recommended internal alcohol to kill the coronavirus since external alcohol really doesn’t work. In fact, he only recommended it as an antidote to the daily briefings of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Dr. Fauci also noted that internal alcohol effects may be briefer than the briefings, so viewers may repeat a dose “PRN” (as necessary). 

REPORTER: “ Is it true that as noted in your background Press Release you just handed out that Dr. Fauci was born on Christmas Eve, and are you concerned about any back lash from Trump supporters who regard Trump as the “Second Coming.”

BIDEN: Dr. Fauci is an American. Even though he was born in Brooklyn, as I remember, there is no question about his eligibility for this office. I think that a resurgence of the Birther Movement which was so viscously directed at my close friend and mentor, Barrack Obama, . . .  there I finally got his name out there. . .  would be very unfortunate. Next question.

REPORTER: “Has Dr. Fauci made any significant contributions in fields other than virology and infectious diseases.”

BIDEN: Well let me tell you a down-to-earth, fascinating story of one of Dr. Fauci’s most recent contributions. It will be a short story, I promise. Since the Coroner virus pandemic has taken over all the headlines, editorial pages, social media memes, political cartoons, TV shows, graphic artist shops, and a lot of other things which has displaced our awareness of the Opioid Death epidemic, Dr. Fauci has developed a new attention-getting graphic to replace the familiar 1-10 faces of pain;  the 1-4 faces of Pandemic Panic levels.

REPORTER: “But face 4 is the same as face 2. Isn’t that a confusing message.”

BIDEN: Exactly

“Thank you Mr. Biden, and Happy April Fools Day.

 


Vol. 229 March 15, 2020 Beware the Ides of March

March 14, 2020

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, a soothsayer attracts Caesar’s attention and tells him:
            “Beware the ides of March.”
Caesar demands:

            “What man is that? Set him before me, let me see his face.”
When the soothsayer repeats his warning, Caesar dismisses him, saying:

            “He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass.”

When I started writing this blog a couple of days ago I was going to call it “A Politically Incorrect View of the Coronavirus” because I wanted to say that the virus will not be contained, that it will very shortly be community-wide,  and that we should marshall our efforts at monitoring, protecting, and treating the high risk people. But today, that is no longer “politically incorrect.” Many of our civic leaders and our leading medical scientists (Anthony Fauci, MD is my most famous medical school classmate, Class of ’66 Cornell Medical College) are now labeling COVID-19 as “community spread” , i.e. not containable through contact tracing since the sources are so numerous that we can not pinpoint a source, like the common cold and the flu.  We are now “mitigating” COVID-19, not “containing” it; just trying to “blunt the peak” on the graph of numbers of infected people.

The stakes are higher for COVID-19 (the name of the disease) then for the seasonal flu because it is more deadly to certain segments of our population. The name of the actual virus that causes COVID-19 is SARS-cov-2, and that is a real clue as to the nature of this virus given our experience with previous coronaviruses.

The good news is that the death rate is not expected to be as high as the past two coronavirus epidemics SARS (10% death rate) and MERS (35% death rate). SARS originated in Southeast Asia bats and civets (small, cat-like mammals) . MERS originated in Middle Eastern camels. SARS-cov 2 has been attributed at various times to be transmitted from bats, snakes, and now, pangolins (anteater-like reptiles with scales); all animals available in Southeast Asian “wet markets” of live animals. There is no evidence that implicates domestic dogs and cats as vectors for the virus. There is also no confirmed evidence that a mother can transmit it to her newborn during delivery.

As the number of identified cases increases (the denominator) we were hoping that the calculated death rate would decrease since the actual calculation =  #of deaths/#of cases. It appears now that the death rate could be between 1.6% (University of Bern, Switzerland estimate based on China’s CDC data) to 3.4% (WHO’s estimate from selected outbreaks), clearly at least 10 times the death rate for seasonal flu (0.1%). However, South Korea has the largest number of tested cases with cold symptoms (140,000) and their death rate is 0.6%. Of even more interest, of those 140,000 South Koreans with cold symptoms who were tested, only 4% were positive for SARS-cov-2, i.e. 96% of those with symptoms were infected with the flu virus or some other non-coronavirus.

The bad news is that about half of those in high risk populations who develop significant symptoms will require hospitalization.  80% of those hospitalized will be so sick that they will require ICU care for a number of days. The people at highest risk of requiring hospital-based medical care are those with underlying chronic diseases, called co-morbidities, like congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic kidney disease, and those over 80 years old (a stage of life, NOT a co-morbidity thank you!).

Nearly 90% of COVID-19 cases have been in people between 30-79 years old. Less than 1% were in children under 9 years. Despite this fact that children are not the primary vector for this virus (unlike influenza), we are closing many elementary schools. In the swine flu epidemic of 2009 we closed 1300 schools for 7-14 days because of evidence that children were primary vectors for its spread. Despite the run on toilet paper resulting in empty market shelves, diarrhea is not a common symptom of the disease.

If COVID-19 is going to be as common as a cold or the flu, but has a lethal potential for select groups of people, how do we triage the people who think they have it while we wait for the coronavirus nasal swab test to become widely available?
The simplest triage diagram has just three branches in the decision tree:

  1.  If you have cold symptoms (but remember a runny nose is not a common symptom of COVID-19) — treat it like a cold with rest, fluids, and decongestants and try not to spread it to other people. (YOU wear the mask, not everybody else)
  2. If you have a fever over 101 and a cough — go see your primary care provider.
  3. If you have the above and feel weak or tired and are short of breath — the PCP may send you to the hospital.

How do people with COVID-19 die?  In the severe stage of the disease (called ARDS- Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome) respirator machine support (a ventilator) in an ICU is usually needed. Another cause can be an overwhelming secondary bacterial pneumonia and sepsis later in the disease (similar to deaths caused by the flu) and, unexpectedly, some deaths have occurred without pneumonia or severe lung inflammation, particularly in patients with very high blood pressure or those on kidney dialysis.

Watch out for advertisements of fraudulent cures or “protections” from COVID-19. The FDA has formally warned 7 companies, including the Jim Baker Show, that their advertisements for “silver solutions” to kill the virus must stop. There is no evidence that solutions of colloidal silver can kill the virus. Vitamin C is no help either. If Purell with alcohol can kill the virus some people think that alcohol by mouth could kill it. Unfortunately alcohol does not kill the virus. Soap and water or bleach does. Do NOT gargle bleach.

The AMA has responded quickly to the epidemic and filed a request for a rush approval of a CPT code for COVID-19 testing (necessary for insurance reimbursement, hence maybe the urgency of the request). AMA President Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. has said,  “By streamlining the flow of information on novel coronavirus testing, a new CPT code facilitates the reporting, measuring, analyzing, researching, and benchmarking that is necessary to help guide the nation’s response to the public health emergency.” Also as I said, health insurance companies will be asked to pay for the test.

Two surveys released this week show that the Corona beer brand is suffering from a negative buzz. A 5W Public Relations poll of 737 beer drinkers in the U.S. showed that 38% of them wouldn’t buy Corona “under any circumstances”, and another 14% said they wouldn’t order a Corona in public.  However, Corona beer and seltzer sales actually increased in February.

 


Vol. 212 May 1, 2019 MMR Vaccination Updated and DTaP Explained

May 1, 2019

YET ANOTHER STUDY PROVES THAT MEASLES VACCINE DOES NOT CAUSE AUTISM
An eleven year study of 657,000 Danish children showed that those who received the MMR vaccine had no increased incidence of autism. In fact, the girls who received the vaccine had a 5% reduction in their risk for autism. In Denmark all vaccinations are free of charge and voluntary. When 95% of children in a community are vaccinated against measles the 5% of unvaccinated children are protected through “herd-immunity” due to the reduction of exposure to the highly contagious measles virus.

Measles was declared “eradicated” in 2000. Since then we have had unexpected U.S. measles outbreaks in 2014 and presently we are breaking all records for new cases (78 cases just this very week). Since January 1, 2019 the U.S. has had 465 cases in 19 states. Recent U.S. measles outbreaks in Brooklyn, NY, Portland, Oregon, and Rockland County, NY were caused by unvaccinated visitors to an annual Jewish pilgrimage in the Ukraine returning to their unvaccinated orthodox Jewish communities in the U.S.

Surrounded by states with nearly 700 new measles cases Dayton, Ohio is voicing concern about a measles outbreak in their city. Of the 9 counties in Ohio 8 have measles vaccination rates between 90 – 93%. Montgomery County, Dayton is the county seat, has a rate of only 88%. Remembering that herd immunity is achieved at 95%, Ohio, which requires proof of vaccination within 14 days of school attendance, is considering rewriting their current reasons for exemption (about 9% in Montgomery County) of “religious, medical, or reasons of conscience.”

THERE IS NO HERD-IMMUNITY FOR TETANUS
The “T” in the DTaP vaccine stands for tetanus. Tetanus is not a contagious disease like measles. It is caused by wound contamination with a bacteria that causes intense, painful muscle spasms, clenched jaw (“lockjaw”), and extremely unstable vital signs.  The tetanus vaccine is the only protection against tetanus.  It is rare because most children receive the tetanus vaccine. Oregon in 2017 reported its first case of tetanus in thirty years. An unvaccinated 6 year old sustained a cut on his forehead while playing on a farm and developed tetanus. His 2 month hospitalization cost $800,000. The total bill for his care including rehab services and transportation exceeded $1 million. Upon discharge the parents continued to refuse any immunizations for him  including a tetanus vaccine booster to complete their child’s protection!

PERTUSSIS (“WHOOPING COUGH”) OUTBREAKS HAPPEN IN THE SPRING
The “P” in DTaP immunization stands for pertussis and the standard recommendation is to get 4 DTaPs before age 18 months ,starting at 2 months, with a booster at 6 years and as a teenager. Our periodic pertussis outbreaks can not be blamed wholly on anti-vaxxers who refuse immunizations because the pertussis vaccine is not as effective as other vaccines in maintaining protection; the immunity created by the vaccine wanes over time. The little “a” in front of the “P” stands for “acellular”. The acellular vaccine has less of the side effects of injection site pain, temporary fatigue, and a fever than the earlier vaccine that contained cells of the bacteria. But, this newer vaccine (introduced in the late 1990s) produces a smaller increase in and a shorter duration of immunity. “P” vaccinated people can get pertussis, but unvaccinated children and adults are 8 times more likely to get pertussis.

Pertussis immunization is now recommended for all pregnant women since protective antibodies pass through the placenta to the unborn child affording protection to the infant in the first months of life. Pertussis can be diagnosed in some one with a persistent cough by a simple nasal swab done in the office, and it can be treated effectively with antibiotics.

WHAT ABOUT THE “D” IN DTaP?
Diphtheria is a bacterial disease with a terrible sore throat. When severe it can form a membrane in your throat that blocks off your air and sometimes it produces a toxin that attacks the heart, causing death.  In 1921 the U.S. had 206,00 cases of diphtheria with 15,420 deaths.  The diphtheria vaccine is so effective that such cases are extremely rare in the U.S. Herd immunity is important in diphtheria. The CDC estimates that 94% of kindergarten pupils in U.S. are immunized against it. The Soviet Union, India, and Yemen remain areas with large numbers of diphtheria cases.

“Good ole” Montgomery County, Ohio had one of the last reported U.S. diphtheria cases; a teen age girl with a bad sore throat in 2014. That rare event got lots of press coverage which might be why Montgomery County is a particularly skittish about a possible measles outbreak in 2019.

Diphtheria can be treated effectively with antibiotics and anti-toxins. Any contacts of the person with diphtheria can also be treated to prevent spread of the disease. A simple skin test (Schick test) identifies people with no immunity to diphtheria, so efforts to control its spread can be highly targeted.

MY MODEST PROPOSAL MAY NOT BE THAT “FAR OUT”
My previous blog suggesting that one way to change the behavior of anti-vaxxers would be to sue the parents of an unvaccinated child for neglect to recover the cost of the medical treatment, loss of wages of caretakers, loss of school performance, continued rehabilitation of complications, etc. of any person who then got measles from the unvaccinated case. Perhaps that might send an effective message to anti-vaxxers of a personal financial risk where scientific data holds no sway. What if the parents of the Oregon tetanus-afflicted child were sued by tax payers in Oregon to “recover” the medical care costs of nearly a million dollars presumably borne by Oregon’s tax payers?


Vol. 211 April 15, 2019 A Modest Proposal To Eradicate Measles In The U.S.

April 15, 2019

Measles was declared “eradicated” in 2000. Since then we have had unexpected U.S. measles outbreaks in 2014 and presently we are breaking all records for new cases (78 cases just this very week). In 2014 there were 667 cases of measles in Amish country of Ohio. Since January 1, 2019 the U.S. has had 465 cases in 19 states.

For those of us who are used to hearing big numbers every day—size of the national debt, baseball player salaries, number of immigrants pounding on our door, etc.—these numbers don’t sound very compelling. BUT, measles is a preventable disease. One measles vaccine shot protects the recipient 93% of the time. When you add the second shot years later the individual’s protection goes to 97%. 

 Measles, the most infectious disease we know, can cause debilitating encephalitis (brain swelling), pneumonia, and, very rarely in the U.S., death in both infants and adults. Madagascar is not so lucky. Because of its poverty Madagascar has a vaccination rate of only 58% despite the population’s desire for vaccination. They had 1200 deaths in the115,000 who got measles last year. Europe had 41,000 measles cases in 2018. A community vaccination rate of 90-95% is necessary for effective “herd immunity” in which the vaccinated keep the un-vaccinated safe just be reducing their chances of exposure.

You are not likely to be exposed to a case of Madagascar measles, but if you happen to be in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, or Rockland County, NY, or  Portland, Washington, or near Sacremento, California, you may be exposed. These four hot spots of current measles outbreak apparently share an unintended consequence of easy-access global travel.  Unvaccinated Orthodox Jews returning from the September annual Hasidic Pilgrimage from Israel to Uman, Ukraine unexpectedly brought measles back to their unvaccinated, ultra-orthodox Jewish U.S. communities.

There is no aversion to vaccination in the Bible, the Quran, or even Sanskrit texts. It is speculated that these communities have low measles vaccination rates because of “anxiety about science”, “concern about risks of new technology”, and, especially in Soviet emigres, “distrust of the government”. 

In 1896 a Jewish man in Britain refused vaccination contending that it was against his religion. The prosecutor, also Jewish, asked the opinion of the Chief Rabbi of Britain who answered, “Hogwash.” The London court agreed.

Anti-vaxxers don’t respond to facts, They reject scientific data. They are apparently immune to dreaded stories about sick, dying children but appear to believe dreaded stories of assumed vaccine reactions. The mayor of New York City has declared a public health emergency and wants to fine any Williamsburg orthodox Jew who refuse the measles vaccine $1000. He has threatened to even close non-compliant Yeshivas. Rockland County tried to bar unvaccinated persons from public places including . . . gasp, . . . malls! A judge with a cooler head put that on hold.

After reading about the British 1896 court case a modest proposal just sprang out of my head: We should sue an anti-vaxxer, the parent of an unvaccinated child, for civil damages!

It has been recently and repeatedly affirmed that one way to get things done in America, to effect change, is to sue somebody—your spouse, your neighbor, the police, the National Enquirer, the President, whomever. 

So, all we have to do is wait until an unvaccinated child with measles exposes a vaccinated child. Since we know that the measles vaccine is not truly 100%  effective, the vaccinated child has a small chance (probably 3% – 7%) of getting measles. If the vaccinated child now with measles develops the more common complication of pneumonia, or the rare one of encephalitis, or the even rarer one of death, his or her parents could sue the unvaccinated child’s parents for all present and future medical bills, loss of school days, future loss of income due to brain damage, loss of companionship, and other compelling emotional stresses dear to personal injury lawyers. If encephalitis were the complication, the huge jury award would be enough to get the attention of even the most adamant anti-vaxxers. They would learn that their stance is not just a risk to society; it could be a large monetary risk to them personally.

References:
1. “A Modest Proposal”, Jonathan Swift, 1729 


Vol. 193 May 15, 2018 Antibiotics are Beneficial: A Reminder

May 15, 2018

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A disease outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere.”
-Dr. Tom Frieden, Director U.S. CDC

 

We read a lot about the dangers of using too many antibiotics. The popularity of “organic foods” is due in part to their claim to be from “antibiotic-free” animals and plants. Concern about the increasing antibiotic resistance of germs due to antibiotic overuse is real as is frequently described in scientific journals as well as the general press. Why, then, would the New England Journal of Medicine publish an article describing the benefits of random, mass distribution of an oral antibiotic to nearly 100,000 children who had no symptoms or diagnosis! Maybe because that effort reduced the death rate of children aged 1-5 months by 25%!

As you’ll remember in my last blog,  I was impressed by Bill Gate’s knowledge of the medical literature because during his presentation he cited this antibiotic clinical trial which had been published that very same week. Well, full disclosure, he knew about the study because his foundation funded it! This study is the kind of innovative medical study related to global health that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports. I think it is worthwhile to review the details of the study, if just to remind us that antibiotics are good, that medical science advances on the shoulders of previous work, and that sometimes simple answers, like putting iodine into salt or fluoride into water, can prevent a whole lot of disease.

Previous studies in sub-Saharan Africa showed that blindness caused by trachoma, an infectious disease, could be reduced markedly through the mass distribution of an oral antibiotic, azithromycin. Other studies suggested that the same antibiotic could prevent other infectious deaths like malaria, infectious diarrhea, and pneumonia. It is known that azithromycin affects the transmission of infectious disease, so that treatment of one person might have benefits on others in the same community. The data in two of these studies of trachoma prevention in Ethiopia suggested that mass distribution of azithromycin “might” reduce childhood deaths. Since death (after the neonatal period) is a relatively rare event, even in these settings, the trial had to be conducted in a large population. Hence the need for a large grant to carry it out.

A single dose of oral azithromycin was given to 97,047 children aged from 1 month to 5 years in three African countries during a twice-yearly census. 93,191 children in different communities of the same countries were given a placebo. Over the two-year study the “treated” children received 4 oral doses of azithromycin, each about 6 months apart. Children were identified by the name of the head of the household and GPS coordinates of their location for subsequent censuses. Approval for the study was obtained from 9 ethics committees in 6 countries (3 in the US, 1 in the UK, and 2 in Africa).

The average reduction of annual death rates of children receiving a single dose of the antibiotic every 6 months was 13.5% . Children aged 1 month to 5 months receiving the antibiotic had a mortality rate reduction of 25%. At the conclusion of the trial all the children in the communities of Niger, which has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world and a mortality rate reduction of 18% for all ages in this study, were offered treatment with azithromycin.

This study is a beautiful example of the testing of a simple hypothesis, generated by the results of previous work, using innovative methods, requiring a large population for validity,  and implemented by a multi-national team of medical scientists with a large grant from a private foundation that resulted in clear benefits for better global health.

I, for one, am happy to trumpet some good news about antibiotics and this example of “medical research for all” at its best.

Reference:
Azithromycin to Reduce Childhood Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa, NEJM 378;17, April 26, 2018

 

 

 

 


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