The pandemic started quietly.In the spring of 2017 A few hundred dead chickens appeared in markets in Hong Kong and a few other cities in China. Public health officials in China were slow to respond.They did not want to panic the public about an avian flu outbreak.Nor were they eager to take the steps necessary to contain such an outbreak—the killing hundreds of thousands of chickens and poultry with devastating economic consequences.While the delay went on a few cases began to occur on Canadian and American poultry farms.Department of Agriculture experts traced the outbreak to waterfowl migrating from Northern flyways, probably from Asia. Inquiries were made about avian flu outbreaks in Asian nations.Then the unthinkable happened. Humans in Hong Kong began to get sick.Very sick.Some died.Those who died were in their twenties.
The avian flu virus had mutated.H7N9m had transformed into an agent that not only could infect humans but did so with a transmissibility and lethality that had not been seen since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.
Then the first American died.A young man back from a business trip to Hong Kong.The media, already primed for hysterical coverage following the severe Zika outbreak in the Southern United States in the summer and fall of 2016, went into full panic-dispensing mode.‘Experts’ began to appear on the cable channels who suggested that the outbreak was the result of irresponsible genetic research in China.Still others suggested that it was the bioterror work of North Korean scientists.One or two pointed toward ISIS arguing that they had grown desperate in the face of the massive air war that the new administration had launched.Still others saw the hand of right or left wing domestic terrorists.And an accident at an American lab was put into the boiling cauldron of speculation and conspiracy.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Those words spoken by Helen Keller nearly a century ago remain powerful and relevant today.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that thousands of lives could be saved every year if health care facilities and public health departments work together to track and stop antibiotic resistance – and if they communicate with each other about these infections to prevent spread from one facility to another.
Even if one health care facility follows all recommended infection control practices, antibiotic-resistant organisms can spread when patients are transferred among facilities. Even the best health care facilities can’t go it alone when it comes to antibiotic-resistant infections and C. difficile.
We need to protect our whole community; advance warning of possible antibiotic-resistant infections at one facility allows actions to be taken to prevent spread at the receiving facility.
New modeling data from CDC project that a community-wide approach – in which hospitals, long-term acute care facilities, nursing homes and health departments across an area work together – could reduce the number of patients infected with carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (better known as CRE) by up to 70% over five years. CRE is a nightmare bacteria because it does not respond to most antibiotics and is extremely deadly should it enter the bloodstream – especially if a patient is already sick. A significant drop in these infections would be a life-saving scenario for patients.
Health care facility administrators are key to making this coordinated approach a success. Hospitals, long-term acute care facilities and nursing homes all need better systems to alert one another when transferring patients carrying drug-resistant bacteria and C. difficile. Strict infection control practices must be implemented in every health care setting, and clinical staff need access to prompt and accurate laboratory testing to identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“The night I found out, I slept one and a half hours,” recalls D, a 29-year-old black gay man.
He’s talking about being diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“Even though I work in public health and tell people daily that HIV is not a death sentence, that first night that’s all I could think of,” says D. “This has to be wrong, I thought. I work in public health. This can’t happen to me.”
D, who requested anonymity, says he contracted the virus when a condom broke during sex. Two weeks later, he was tested for two sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – chlamydia and gonorrhea – but not for HIV. Shortly afterward, he went back for an HIV test and found out that he had the virus.
Soon after his diagnosis, D moved to Atlanta, which also happens to be the epicenter of a re-emerging national HIV crisis.
BOSTON, Ma. — It was Christmas Day. I was on call at the hospital and was waiting for my wife and 6-week-old son to come so we could eat lunch together. She was bringing kimbap, sweet potatoes, and avocados. But then my pager buzzed.
On the phone was a hospitalist physician.
“Is this ID? We have a new consult for you,” she said. “This man has a history of dementia. For some reason he has a urinary catheter to empty his bladder. We gave him an antibiotic, but now his urine is growing a resistant bacteria.”
I sighed. Yet another catheter associated urinary tract infection.
I walked up the stairs to his hospital room. He was bald, thin, and sitting alone in bed. The peas and fish on his tray were untouched. There were no gifts or tree in his room. I washed my hands, put on gloves and a yellow isolation gown, and introduced myself.
“How are you?”
“Ok, I guess,” he replied.
“Do you know where you are?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You are in the hospital. Do you know what day today is?”
At 6:30 AM, I kissed my 14-week-old son Joe on the forehead and headed off to work at the hospital. By 3 PM I was back in bed with a hacking cough and a fever. I had influenza.
As a doctor training in infectious diseases, I knew that the flu can be dangerous in vulnerable populations like little babies. I had visions of Joe being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, as I swallowed a pill of oseltamivir (brand name “Tamiflu”) and shivered under the covers.
Should I also give my little boy Tamiflu to prevent him from getting sick? The answer should be clear to an infectious disease physician-in-training, right?
I felt competing instincts. Paternal: to “do something” to prevent Joe from getting the flu. Medical: “do nothing,” as the rampant overuse of antibiotics in children has had negative consequences and the same might be true for antivirals.
As I researched the question further, I learned that the decision to give prophylactic Tamiflu is anything but simple.
Close contacts of people with the flu (including babies) can receive Tamiflu if they are at high risk for influenza complications. One Greek study of 13 newborns found that the drug was safe but did not address its effectiveness. Moreover, the number of babies who would need to receive Tamiflu to prevent one serious case of influenza is unknown.
Call it a tale of two infections. It’s the story of how hospitals have blocked transmission of a dangerous infection that patients can give doctors, while a hospital-caused infection that can kill patients continues to be widely tolerated. It involves saved lives and endangered ones – and also of billions of dollars spent needlessly due to unsafe care.
The infection that’s been conquered is occupational transmission to doctors and other health care workers of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. When AIDS first burst on the scene in the early 1980s, it was “disfiguring, debilitating, stigmatizing and inevitably fatal,” in the words of Dr. Paul Volberding, a treatment pioneer. With the disease’s spread poorly understood, “the fear of contagion [was] hanging over our heads,” Volberding recalled.
However, once the mode of transmission was identified– exposure to HIV-infected blood or other bodily fluids – precautions were rapidly put into place. From 1985 through 2013, there were just 58 confirmed cases of occupationally acquired HIV infection reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to a Jan. 9 CDC report. Since 1999, there’s been only one confirmed case of occupational transmission, involving a lab tech infected via a needle puncture in 2008.
Reported occupational infection “has become rare,” the CDC concluded, likely due to prevention strategies and “improved technologies and training.”Continue reading…
The recent Ebola cases and fatality have triggered a collective process of finger pointing as we struggle to understand events and hold someone accountable.
Hence, the television footage of health officials hauled off to Congress, accusatory headlines (“Alarming stumbles by the C.D.C.”) and appointment of czars. In the desire to pin the blame somewhere, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we overlook the essential fact that in the United States public health responsibilities are fragmented among federal agencies, and decentralized throughout state and local government. The laws and regulations governing public health activities at federal, state and local levels is truly wonky terrain, but understanding these details is critical to being able to improve our response to public health emergencies. We need to know who actually has the authority to deal with specific public health functions and who should be held accountable (spoiler alert – it is not the Czar, nor the Secretary at DHHS, nor the Surgeon General, nor the Director of CDC). Often, it is a state health official, local health official or professional organization.Continue reading…
In response to several reader questions on the CDC post on safe handling of Ebola and recommended lab procedures, the CDC got back to us with this update:
In the Ebola guidance for healthcare workers and specifically for Specimen Handling for Routine Laboratory Testing of persons under investigation (PUI) for Ebola disease , CDC reminds all laboratory personnel to consider all blood and body fluids as potentially infectious. The guidance further informs laboratory personnel that strict adherence to the OSHA bloodborne pathogen regulations and Standard Precautions protects laboratory workers from bloodborne pathogens, including Ebola. In this guidance, emphasis is placed on the OSHA regulation’s requirement for performance of site-specific risk assessments. These assessments should consider the path of the sample throughout the laboratory, including all work processes and procedures, to identify potential exposure risks and to mitigate the risks by implementing engineering controls, administrative controls (including work practices), and appropriate PPE to protect laboratory personnel. Implementation of these recommendations requires that there is designated staff that is trained, competent, and confident in performing risk assessments within their laboratories.
Some years ago I was in Australia’s Northern Territory. The intrepid explorer that I was, I was croc-spotting from the comfortable heights of a bridge over the East Alligator River. The river derives its name because it is east of something. And because it’s croc-infested.
I was reading a story about a German tourist (it’s usually a German) who was attacked by a saltwater crocodile in the vicinity (1). The story concluded to reassure that one is more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a saltwater crocodile.
I imagined what the apotheosis of a left brain thinker, the data-driven Renaissance man, might have done with that statistic. Might he have peeked in to the East Alligator River looking for a vending machine and seeing none, jumped right in?
This empirical fact is useful if you suffer from croc-phobia and live in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the biggest voyage you ever plan to undertake is to the Hamptons. But it’s not terribly useful, and marginally harmful, if you’re deciding whether to kayak rivers in Northern Australia.
The vending machine has reared its deadly head again. It seems that more Americans have been killed by vending machines than have died from Ebola. Well let’s head to Liberia for the winter, because there are fewer vending machines there.
Sorry, I jest. But this is not a joke. Some actually think this is a relevant statistic to put Ebola in perspective. And some are actually reassured by it!
When Thomas Eric Duncan first came into the hospital, he arrived with an elevated temperature, but was sent home.
On his return visit to the hospital, he was brought in by ambulance under the suspicion from him and family members that he may have Ebola.
Mr. Duncan was left for several hours, not in isolation, in an area where other patients were present.
No one knew what the protocols were or were able to verify what kind of personal protective equipment should be worn and there was no training.
Subsequently a nurse supervisor arrived and demanded that he be moved to an isolation unit– yet faced resistance from other hospital authorities.
Lab specimens from Mr. Duncan were sent through the hospital tube system without being specially sealed and hand delivered. The result is that the entire tube system by which all lab specimens are sent was potentially contaminated.Continue reading…