Hurricane Watch: These aren’t ‘natural’ disasters

There’s a smart perspective in The Washington Post this week called Why it’s time to stop calling these hurricane disasters ‘natural,’ by MIT professor of atmospheric science Kerry Emanuel. He argues that it’s really on us because we’re making these disasters worse in two ways: by our flawed coastal policies (e.g., through interest groups manipulating insurance premiums down, thus not reflecting the true risk of coastal living), and by our acceleration of climate change which makes the storms more intense.

Professor Emanuel: “We must first recognize the phrase ‘natural disaster’ for what it is: a sham we hide behind to avoid our own culpability. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires are part of nature, and the natural world has long ago adapted to them. Disasters occur when we move to risky places and build inadequate infrastructure.”

Miami Beach a year before the Category 4 storm of 1926, and this year. The reinsurance firm Swiss Re estimates that a similar storm would inflict more than $200 billion in damage if it hit Miami today. (The New York Times)

Miami Beach a year before the Category 4 storm of 1926, and this year. The reinsurance firm Swiss Re estimates that a similar storm would inflict more than $200 billion in damage if it hit Miami today. (The New York Times)



Evidence and Empathy

There was a time, says Harvard history of science professor Naomi Oreskes, when governments accepted scientific evidence and used it to make good policy. Interestingly, though, she points out that the disparaging of science and the creation of alternative facts didn’t start with the current occupant of the White House; rather, it goes back to the 1930s and the origins of public relations and mass marketing media and, the tobacco industry had a lot to do with it.




Professor Oreskes was discussing the US response to climate breakdown, but her thesis could just as easily be applied to Washington’s handling of industrial scale livestock production and its role in the creation of the public health crisis we find ourselves in. Science journalist Maryn Mckenna explains: Since at least 1976, she says, we’ve known that antibiotics given to farm animals produce antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the guts of the animals that receive them. Those bacteria then move through the environment and enter other animals and people. And when a few million of us each year become infected with these drug-resistant “superbugs” our illness is one which is harder to treat and often deadly.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Eveline was a young girl in the Netherlands whose life was threatened by MRSA – which, the evidence showed, she contracted from the pigs on her father’s industrial farm. “This moment changed the life for me,” he says, and, as it turned out, because of a grassroots movement, it also led to a countrywide reduction in the use of antibiotics in food production resulting in healthier animals and people. The Dutch, in other words, driven by the facts, changed their animal food production policy because of empathy – they didn’t want what happened to one young girl to happen to anyone else.

Eveline, fortunately, survived and is interviewed in the story, below. But the question Americans and Canadians have to ask themselves is, why haven’t we made the same beneficial policy shift as the Dutch?

We have the evidence. Where’s the empathy?


Future Medicine: Accurate diagnosis of infection in a day

Draw one vial of blood. Sequence the DNA. And within 24 hrs. you get an accurate diagnose of over 1,000 different kinds of infections – thus not all known infections – whether they be bacterial, viral, or fungal.

That’s what happened when a California biotech start-up was called in as a last resort to solve the case of a 3-year old girl with a rash. She had been tested & treated for weeks with no luck and she was getting sicker. The day after the company was called in they had a diagnosis: “rat-bite fever” – likely from her pet rat – and that told them what antibiotic to use. Case solved.

The CDC using standard diagnostics eventually came to the same conclusion – months later. That lengthy time frame is what gives rise to misdiagnoses, faulty treatments, e.g. the wrong antibiotic, patients getting sicker, or worse. So this technology is a huge deal.

The company is hoping to treat chronically ill patients next. They say It will be some time before the test is used in routine medical care. Here’s an interview with the scientist who did the work:

Doctors say this start-up could revolutionize how we fight infectious diseases from CNBC.

The Force of Nature

tree man

As we just witnessed on a macro-level with Hurricane Harvey, nature can act with overwhelming force. But what’s often lost in the shuffle is that nature can operate just as devastatingly on a micro-level too.

The above picture is of a man’s hand overrun with human papillomavirus (HPV) that turned into “tree man” disease, so-called because the tumors can resemble wood or bark. Fortunately, according to the NPR story, surgeons at a Jerusalem hospital were able to restore his hand to near normal, though the growths will probably return necessitating more surgery.

The story serves as a vivid reminder that when we hear vague phrases such as “pathogen-infested swamp,” referring to the aftermath of Harvey floodwaters; or that “millions of pounds of toxic chemicals” are pouring from damaged Houston area petrochemical plants — that these invisible-to-the-naked-eye substances will also have real-world consequences, every bit as much as the viral-induced growth seen on the hand.

The difference, however, is that with Harvey so many more people will be affected.



After the Hurricane: Harvey Floodwaters are Loaded with Pathogens



As we reported last week, “Infectious diseases could sweep across Texas as Harvey floods Houston … turning entire neighborhoods into contaminated and potentially toxic rivers … [and] the city into a sprawling, pathogen-infested swamp.”

Now the details are starting to come in and the news isn’t good. CNN is reporting that “unfortunately the numbers are stunningly high … especially bacteria, especially fecal bacteria.” For example, the number of viable E. coli cells in public water should be zero, yet CNN found as many as 8,600 such cells (colony forming units) in their small-sized samples – and they’ll continue to multiply, exponentially.

And because the pathogen count in general is so high there’s “the potential for sewer plant malfunction or sewer plant continuing to discharge untreated or partially treated waste.”

What you should therefore do: “take a bath or shower … as soon as possible after coming out of that water … [and] get rid of the clothes you had on because just washing them will not destroy the harmful bacteria.”

How to Raise a Child Without Antibiotics

Child 3


Since this Atlantic article was tweeted by @BradSpellberg you know it’s worth a careful read. It’s the unusual case of a 14-year old boy who, though he had been sick, had never been given an antibiotic. That’s because his parents understood the foundational rule: That antibiotics only work on bacterial-driven infections not viral-driven ones. Thus, for example, when you have the cold or flu antibiotics are not for you.

But this can be hard to follow in practice especially when facing your sick child. The article nicely explains why:

 Take a cold, for example, or bronchitis. Our friends know on one level that these are usually caused by viruses, but after a week or two of yuck and snot they’ve had it — so they call the pediatrician for an antibiotic. The harried doctor knows it’s likely viral but doesn’t want to fight with yet another parent about antibiotics — so out comes a prescription. “Just in case this thing’s bacterial, let’s cover our bases,” the doctor says, and moves on to the next patient. The child takes the antibiotic, and around the same time the cold would run its course anyway, the child gets better. Everyone is happy, right? No harm done. Except there’s lots of harm done.


So to avoid falling into this trap, there’s 5 refrigerator-door rules to know & follow:

  • Antibiotics are unnecessary for colds or bronchitis, even when they last longer than two weeks. Colds and bronchitis often take more than two weeks to resolve, so if there are no signs of pneumonia, then antibiotics can be withheld safely.
  • Green sinus discharge and green sputum does not mean you require antibiotics. Sinus discharge, sputum, and phlegm all turn various colors as the body fights infection, and many studies have shown that green sputum is as likely to be viral as bacterial.
  • Ear and sinus infections don’t always require antibiotics. Medical guidelines for sinus and (hot off the presses) ear infections suggest that patients without red flag symptoms can be observed without antibiotics; your doctor can help ensure this is safe.
  • If your child gets a prescription for antibiotics, ask your doctor to explain why.
  • The diagnosis of pneumonia — a legitimate indication for antibiotics — can not be made without a chest X-ray. Since the symptoms and physical examination can be the same in bronchitis (which is usually caused by a virus) and pneumonia (often bacterial), a chest X-ray is needed to determine if the diagnosis is really pneumonia, and therefore if antibiotics are needed. Don’t accept a prescription for antibiotics for pneumonia without a chest x-ray.

There is, of course, one other factor – luck. As the author points out: “Granted, we have been very lucky. Our son has never been in a major accident, needed surgery, or contracted any major illnesses. He was born healthy, he was breastfed, and he got his vaccines. He’s had his fair share of colds and a particularly scary case of flu, but never, not even once, required antibiotics.”




Frontline Re-Airs “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria” Tonight



In case you missed it the first time round, be sure to watch Frontline’s re-airing tonight of their exceptional report on the rising plague of antibiotic resistance. As they put it:

Has the age of antibiotics come to an end? From a young girl thrust onto life support in Arizona to an uncontrollable outbreak at one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals, FRONTLINE investigates the alarming rise of a deadly type of bacteria that our modern antibiotics can’t stop.

Infectious disease specialist Brad Spellberg, MD, who runs the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center, calls their report a “phenomenal story.”

Here’s the trailer:

Health Care Watch: From Robin Hood to Robbing the Hood

Since 2004 the US health care system has consistently ranked last among high income countries, according to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine. For example, “its population is sicker and has higher mortality than those of other high-income countries” and “the rate of death from conditions that can be managed and treated effectively is far higher than in other high-income countries.”

Three reasons are given: Too many people simply can’t afford US health care; there’s too much bureaucratic “hassle” for those that can afford it, and; the system marginalizes the poor, the less-educated, and those of a certain “race or ethnic background” (read: African-Americans & Hispanics). The common thread is “these three features disproportionately affect the quality of care for populations with higher health risks due to lower income, lower educational level, or minority status.”





Yet the Journal goes on to argue optimistically that the “United States could achieve the best-performing health care system in the world by undertaking coordinated efforts that address each of these challenges.” And we should begin, the Journal says, by expanding the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid eligibility.

But the government has a better idea: repeal the ACA and thus eliminate Medicaid expansion. Which would, according to the Congressional Budget Office (1) increase the number of uninsured by 18 million in the first year of the repeal (2) increase that number to 32 million by 2026 (3) immediately hike insurance premiums by 20 – 25% for those able to afford private coverage, and (4) further raise those premiums by 50% by 2026.

Hmm, that seems like a strange way to move the US from the bottom right on the graph to the top left, as the Journal says we’re quite capable of doing. Oh, wait a minute, what was it President Obama (and pretty much everyone else) said about the real reason for the repeal?

The Senate bill, unveiled today, is not a health care bill. It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America. It hands enormous tax cuts to the rich and to the drug and insurance industries, paid for by cutting health care for everybody else. … Simply put, if there’s a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family—this bill will do you harm.


MRSA Goes to Hollywood


BEVERLY HILLS, CA: MRSA, traditionally a hospital bug, is on the move. Increasingly it’s being found in the community, especially where people gather: athletic facilities, schools & daycares, military barracks, and downwind of industrialized food animal farms. And now, a California lawsuit reveals, it’s hanging out on Wilshire Blvd at the Beverly Hilton Hotel – home of the Daytime Emmy and Golden Globe Awards.

Texas businessman, reality show developer, & now plaintiff, Larry Poe, went for a facial at the Hilton Hotel spa just as he has 100 times before. But this time was different. Poe says the spa aesthetician poked him with a pair of tweezers in an attempt to remove a hair from his upper lip, and this caused a small wound to open. The tech applied a cream to try and sooth it but it was too late – MRSA had either already slipped in, or was contained in the cream and entered the wound upon application. Either way, his lip soon began to swell and after 3 days of unrelenting pain & swelling Poe finally went to the ER where he was diagnosed with MRSA. He was immediately quarantined and needed 4 days of hospital care to get well again.

Larry Poe is just one of the more than 80,000 people a year in the US who suffer a serious MRSA infection. Thankfully, he was not one of the more than 11,000 people who die from it. But he’s paying a price: on top of his pain, anxiety over treatment outcome, and missed work, he’s left with a permanent scar (troubling because he’s a public speaker), tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, and the travails of pursuing a civil suit against a well-resourced corporation.



Antibiotics and unintended harm

Here’s a great infographic by ID specialist Michael Edmond, MD, on the unintended harm caused by antibiotics. It nicely summarizes the JAMA paper published last week that we ran a brief report on here.

Notice the figure at the bottom left that says “19% of antibiotic regimens not clinically indicated.” Meaning 19% of the antibiotics prescribed shouldn’t have been, and as the JAMA paper points out these prescriptions also harmed 1 in 5 patients. And this is Johns Hopkins, ranked as one of the best hospitals in the US. Across the country that number is much higher. A report in Medscape says “… up to 50% of antibiotic prescriptions in the United States continue to be unnecessary or inappropriate.”


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