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The Great Influenza of 2013?


The CDC has noted an early and nasty start to the flu season. Perhaps their own website has caught it, because as I’m writing this, the whole thing is down. Assuming it recovers, I will insert relevant links per routine. Otherwise, I wish it well, and leave you to find your way there on your own.

It’s a bit soon to say, but the virus and the outbreak pattern at this point seem to resemble those of the 2003-2004 flu season, in which nearly 50,000 Americans died. At least two children have already died of flu complications this fall.

This is not the sort of stuff a public health physician can ignore.

So, I recently noted on LinkedIn andTwitter that I’ve been vaccinated — as I am every year — and recommend this year’s vaccine, which appears to match the prevailing viral strain quite well, to everyone else. I promptly got comments back from naysayers, including at least one self-identified microbiologist, who noted he never got vaccinated, and had “never gotten the flu.”

I believe him. But this is like that proverbial “Uncle Joe” everyone knows, who smoked three packs a day and lived to be 119. It could happen — but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Uncle Joe is that rare character who somehow comes away from a train crash with a minor flesh wound. The rest of us are mortal.

But there is something more fundamentally wrong with the “I’ve never gotten the flu, and therefore don’t need to be vaccinated” stance than the Uncle Joe fallacy. Let’s face it — those who were ultimately beneficiaries of smallpox or polio immunization never had smallpox or polio, either. If they ever had, it would have been too late for those vaccines to do them any good.

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App-Happy Health Care Full of Optimism, Money


There is a corner of the health care industry where rancor is rare, the chance to banish illness beckons just a few mouse clicks away and talk revolves around venture deals, not voluminous budget deficits.

Welcome to the realm of Internet-enabled health apps. Politicians and profit-seeking entrepreneurs alike enthuse about the benefits of “liberating data” – the catch-phrase of U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park – to enable it to move from government databases to consumer-friendly uses. The potential for better information to promote better care is clear. The question that remains unanswered, however, is what role these consumer applications can play in prompting fundamental health system change.

Michael W. Painter, a physician, attorney and senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is optimistic. “We think that by harnessing this data and getting it into the hands of developers, entrepreneurs, established businesses, consumers and academia, we will unleash tremendous creativity,” Painter said. “The result will be improved and more cost efficient care, more engaged patients and discoveries that can help drive the next generation of care.”

The foundation is backing up that belief with an open checkbook. RWJF recently awarded $100,000 to Symcat, a multi-functional symptom checker for web and mobile platforms. Developed by two Johns Hopkins University medical students, the app determines a possible diagnosis far more precisely than is possible by just typing in symptoms as a list of words to be searched by “Dr. Google.” Symcat also links to quality information on different providers and can even direct users to nearby emergency care and provide an estimate of the cost.

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A (Real) Tragedy at the CDC

At the recent Health Care Quality Summit in Saskatoon, Sarah Patterson, the Virgina Mason Medical Center expert on Lean process improvement, noted,  “I’d rather have no board rather than an out-of-date board. They have to be real.”  She was referring to the PeopleLink Board that is placed is key locations in her hospital to provide real-time visual cues to front-line staff as to how they are doing in meeting quality, safety, work flow, and other metrics in the hospital.

Now comes the CDC, announcing in April 2012, that 21 states had significant decreases in central line-associated bloodstream infections between 2009 and 2010.

CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, said “CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network is a critical tool for states to do prevention work. Once a state knows where problems lie, it can better assist facilities in correcting the issue and protecting patients.”

I am trying to be positive when progress is made, and I am also trying to be respectful of our public officials — whom I know to be dedicated and well-intentioned — but does Dr. Frieden really believe that posting data from 2009 and 2010 has a whit of value in helping hospitals reduce their rate of infections?

Try to imagine how you as a clinical leader, a hospital administrator, a nurse, a doctor, a resident, or a member of the board of trustees would use such data.  Answer:  You cannot because there is not use whatsoever.

I am also perturbed by the CDC’s insistence on using a “standardized infection ratio” as opposed to a simple count of infections or rate of infections per thousand patient days.

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Drug Data Shouldn’t Be Secret

In the fall of 2009, at the height of fears over swine flu, our research group discovered that a majority of clinical trial data for the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu ― data that proved, according to its manufacturer, that the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization, serious complications and transmission ― were missing, unpublished and inaccessible to the research community. From what we could tell from the limited clinical data that had been published in medical journals, the country’s most widely used and heavily stockpiled influenza drug appeared no more effective than aspirin.

After we published this finding in the British Medical Journal at the end of that year, Tamiflu’s manufacturer, Roche, announced that it would release internal reports to back up its claims that the drug was effective in reducing the complications of influenza. Roche promised access to data from 10 clinical trials, 8 of which had not been published a decade after completion, representing more than 4,000 patients from every continent except Antarctica. Independent verification of the data seemed imminent. But more than two years later, and despite repeated requests, we have yet to receive even a single full trial report. Instead, the manufacturer released portions of the reports, most likely a very small percentage of the total pages. (One of us, Tom Jefferson, has been retained as an expert witness in a lawsuit relating to some of these issues.)

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Behind the New Autism Numbers

Yes, I am going to talk about…autism.  The last time I did so I was inundated with people trying to convince me of the dangers of immunizations and their causal link to autism.  I really, really, really don’t want to go anywhere near that one.

No, I am not going to talk about the cause of autism; I am going to talk about my observation of the rise of the diagnosis of autism, and a plausible explanation for part, if not most of this fact.  The thing that spurs me to write this post is a study by the CDC which was quoted in the NY Times:

The new report estimates that in 2008 one child in 88 received one of these diagnoses, known as autism spectrum disorders, by age 8, compared with about one in 110 two years earlier. The estimated rate in 2002 was about one in 155.

The rise in numbers is cited as one of the main evidences for some external source – a new thing in our environment – that is causing this rise.  The article, however, gives another clue:

The frequency of autism spectrum diagnoses has been increasing for decades, but researchers cannot agree on whether the trend is a result of heightened awareness, an expanding definition of the spectrum, an actual increase in incidence or some combination of those factors. Diagnosing the condition is not an exact science. Children “on the spectrum” vary widely in their abilities and symptoms, from mute and intellectually limited at one extreme to socially awkward at the other.

Children with such diagnoses often receive extensive state-financed support services — which some experts believe may have contributed to an increase in numbers.

That last sentence holds the golden ticket.  What would make me think this?  My experience.

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2011 EHR Adoption Rates

On Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of its yearly survey on Electronic Health Records (EHR) adoption for office-based physicians. No surprises. Generally speaking, the majority of physicians in ambulatory practice are now using an EHR, and over half of surveyed doctors say that they intend to seek Meaningful Use incentives. The report is also presenting results broken down by state, so you can learn what folks are doing in your immediate vicinity. The more instructive exercise is to compare last year’s survey results [Fig. 1] to this year’s estimated EHR adoption numbers [Fig. 2].

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Americans Must Stop Overusing Antibiotics

This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will kick off its annual campaign aimed at reducing the overuse of antibiotics, drugs that one by one are becoming useless in the war against antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The CDC campaign – “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work” – urges consumers to use these drugs sparingly and many Americans have taken that message to heart. Recent data from the CDC show that antibiotic use is leveling off in the United States. In 1994, 300 out of every 1,000 pediatric office visits resulted in an antibiotic prescription. By 2007, that number had fallen to 229, a 24 percent decrease. However, interactive maps by Extending the Cure, a research project of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, show regional disparities in the use of antibiotics, including very high consumption in some Southeastern states.

These findings can and should be used by public health officials to understand why certain regions show high patterns of consumption and then put in place solutions, including public education campaigns tailored to stop the overuse of these powerful drugs.

The new research reveals a high rate of antibiotic use in some Southeastern states and much lower rates in the Pacific Northwest, compared to the rest of the country. West Virginia and Kentucky had striking rates of antibiotic use: People living in those states took twice as many antibiotics as people living in states like Oregon and Alaska.

High rates, like those seen in the southeastern United States, might reflect an environment in which consumers are anxious to get an antibiotic prescription for a case of the flu – and doctors are only too willing to comply. But antibiotics do nothing to combat viral illnesses such as common colds or influenza.

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Reduce Antibiotic Resistance: Get Your Flu Vaccine

A study published in the July issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology shows that antibiotic prescriptions tend to spike during flu season, even though influenza is caused by a virus and cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Some of these antibiotic prescriptions are justified – bacterial pneumonia, which must be treated with antibiotics, is also common during the winter months. And getting the flu puts you at higher risk for developing complications from secondary infections, including bacterial pneumonia.

Yet some people suffering from the flu virus alone may demand–and get–an antibiotic even though viral infections do not respond to antibiotic treatment.

According to Extending the Cure, a nonprofit project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, between 500,000 to one million antibiotic prescriptions are filled each year during flu season for patients who have the flu and no bacterial illness.

Why should we care about how many antibiotics are prescribed?

When antibiotics are overused or inappropriately used, bacteria can develop antibiotic resistance, or the ability to withstand antibiotic treatment, making bacterial infections difficult to treat. Antibiotic resistance can develop quickly. Today’s antibiotics – the wonder drugs that transformed modern medicine – are used so commonly that we face the prospect of a future with a multitude of resistant bacteria and a shelf full of ineffective drugs.

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Drug Suspected in Michael Jackson Death Subject of Recall

Ritalin-SR-20mg-1000x1000 Results of Michael Jackson’s toxicology tests have not yet been released, but suspicions have centered on the powerful anesthetic and sedative drug propofol, also known by the brand name Diprivan. It was reportedly found in Jackson’s house, and a nurse who worked with him said he begged for propofol to help him sleep. 

Now, some lots of propofol are being recalled for contamination.

Last night, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug
Administration advised clinicians immediately to stop using propofol
from two lots found to be tainted with elevated levels of endotoxin, a
toxin made by bacteria. Regulators said Teva Pharmaceuticals, the
manufacturer, had begun a voluntary recall of the lots.

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CDC Officials Blocked Public Health Report

The Center for Public Integrity, a public interest investigative journalism organization, has obtained copies of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of environmental and health data in eight Great Lakes states that was scheduled for publication in July 2007. The report, which pointed to elevated rates of lung, colon, and breast cancer; low birth weight; and infant mortality in several of the geographical areas of concern has not yet been made public.

A few days before the report was slated to be released, it was pulled. Meanwhile, at precisely the same time, its lead author, Christopher De Rosa, has been removed from the position he held since 1992.  The Center for Public Integrity is asking why.

The study, “Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern” was developed by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent U.S-Canadian organization that monitors and advises both governments on the use and quality of boundary waters.

The CDC report brings together two sets of data: environmental data on known “areas of concern” — including superfund sites and hazardous waste dumps — and separate health data collected by county or, in some cases, smaller geographical regions.Continue reading…

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