Author Archives: Rachel Zimmerman

Blogger, CommonHealth Rachel Zimmerman worked as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for 10 years in Seattle, New York and in Boston as a health and medicine reporter. Rachel has also written for The New York Times, the (now-defunct) Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the alternative newspaper Willamette Week, in Portland, Ore., among other publications. Rachel co-wrote a book about birth, published by Bantam/Random House, and spent 2008 as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Rachel lives in Cambridge with her husband and two daughters.

Opinion: Why America’s Ebola Fears Are Dangerously Misplaced

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

By Richard Knox

At the memorial service last weekend for the only person to have died of Ebola on American soil, the Liberian clergyman who eulogized his countryman Thomas Eric Duncan posed a question we all should be thinking hard about right now.

“Where did Ebola come from to destroy people — to set behind people who were already behind?” Methodist Bishop Arthur F. Kulah wondered.

Here’s the reality: Until the world (and especially the United States of America) refocus on the “people who were already behind” in this battle of virus-versus-humanity, no one can rest easy.

Ebola is an animal virus that has sporadically caused local human outbreaks in Africa for at least 38 years. But now it has crossed into people who live in densely populated African nations with barely functioning health systems and daily jet connections to the rest of the planet.

“It’s like you’re in your room and the house is on fire, and your approach is to put wet towels under the door.”
– World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim

This is entirely predictable, as scientists who watch emerging diseases have long known. They just didn’t know which virus would be the next to terrorize the world. (SARS and HIV showed how it can happen, remember?)

Those of us who, like me, report on global public health have a sense of inevitability as we watch the Ebola crisis unfold. We always knew it would mostly affect, as Bishop Kulah so aptly puts it, “people who were already behind.”

And we knew the people least affected by this scourge — privileged denizens of wealthier countries — would overreact out of misplaced fear for themselves, rather than a reasoned and compassionate understanding about what needs to be done.

So we see the freaked-out, wall-to-wall, feedback-loop media coverage we’re experiencing now. Schools closing down in Ohio for completely unnecessary disinfection. Recriminations against hapless health workers who suddenly find themselves dealing with an exotic new threat. Continue reading

Outbreak On Trial: Who’s To Blame For Bringing Disease Into A Country?

Francina Devariste, 3 years old, is one victim of an ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed 8,000 people and sickened over 700,000. (2010 photo courtesy of the United Nations)

Francina Devariste, 3 years old, is one victim of an ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed 8,000 people and sickened over 700,000. (2010 photo courtesy of the United Nations)

By Richard Knox

If an international agency introduces a devastating disease to a country, should it be held accountable?

That’s the big question at the heart of a court proceeding that gets underway next Thursday. The international agency is the United Nations. The disease is cholera. And the nation is Haiti.

Four years ago this month, thousands of Haitians downstream from a U.N. peacekeeping encampment began falling ill and dying from cholera, a disease not previously seen in Haiti for at least a century.

Since then cholera has sickened one in every 14 Haitians — more than 700,000 people; and over 8,000 have died. That’s nearly twice the official death count from Ebola in West Africa thus far.

A year ago, a Boston-based human rights group sued the U.N. for bringing cholera to Haiti through infected peacekeeping troops from Nepal, where the disease was circulating at the time. The U.N. camp spilled its sewage directly into a tributary of Haiti’s largest river.

There’s little doubt that the U.N. peacekeepers brought the cholera germ to Haiti. Nor is there argument over the poor sanitary conditions at the U.N. camp.

When I visited the scene in 2012, it was plain how untreated sewage from the camp could easily contaminate the Meille River that runs alongside before it spills into the Artibonite — Haiti’s Mississippi — which provides water for drinking, washing and irrigation for a substantial fraction of the country’s population.

The smoking gun, scientifically, is a molecular analysis of the Haitian cholera bug compared to the Nepalese strain from the same time period. It showed the two differ in only one out of 4 million genetic elements.

“That’s considered an exact match, that they’re the same strain of cholera,” Tufts University environmental engineer Daniele Lantagne told me last year. Continue reading

Don’t Worry, Be Rational: Why Extreme Fear Of Ebola Is Bad For Your Health

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Let’s face it, Ebola is scary. My kids are scared. The moms at school are talking about giving their children extra multi-vitamins to boost their immune systems in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, to protect their families. But we live in Boston and there are no cases here — yet. Still, that “yet” can make us crazy.

So, in a crisis, who do you call for comfort? The level-headed risk perception consultant: David Ropeik, who spoke with me briefly today about why such intense, prolonged worry and anxiety can backfire, make your body weaker and perhaps even damage your health:

Here, edited, is our short interview:

RZ: So, why is being scared of Ebola bad for your health?

DR: The health ramifications of this are profound. When we worry, that, biologically, is stress — that’s a mini fight-or-flight response going on in the body. When stress persists for more than several days (short-term stress is not the problems), it becomes damaging to our health. Chronic stress raises our blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems; it suppresses our immune system and makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases or get sicker from them if we do. It interferes with neurotransmitters associated with mood, and it is strongly associated with clinical depression. Chronic stress interferes with digestion and memory and depresses fertility and bone growth (slows it down).

[The negative effects of chronic stress are widely reported, but Ropeik cites the book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," by the biologist Robert Sapolsky, as a key source here.]

So you think people are overreacting and we’re moving into some kind of widespread nation-wide chronic stress phenomenon here?

We’re on the cusp. It’s like what the fear of SARS did to people in Canada — it freaked [them] out for weeks: “Here it comes again,” is what they’re saying.

How do you see all this evolving?

In the last day and a half the criticism of how health officials have handled things and the mistakes they made in Dallas, real as those mistakes are, have become a focus, and it’s now starting to undermine trust in our health care system.

In a crisis, trust is the pivotal factor for how worried people are. Continue reading

Mass. Lawmakers Hear Calls For Ebola Training

As nurses raised alarms that they are untrained and ill equipped to handle cases of Ebola virus, Massachusetts hospital officials said Thursday that the health crisis emerging from West Africa demands a unique response.

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

At a Public Health Committee hearing, Massachusetts General Hospital Emergency Preparedness Chief Dr. Paul Biddinger said handling cases of Ebola is “fundamentally different” than regular medical care, and suggested hospitals should create a “highly trained expert cadre” to handle Ebola rather than attempting to train all staff equally.

Massachusetts has not had a confirmed case of the deadly disease, though there have been suspect cases and two nurses at a Texas hospital have been infected with the disease. Ebola is spread from the fluids of a person who is infected and symptomatic.

Massachusetts Nurses Association President Donna Kelly Williams said the training and equipment at Massachusetts hospitals is “inconsistent,” and nurses have said they have been provided with “flimsy” garments that Williams said would not adequately protect them against infection.

Continue reading

‘Ether Dome': The Story Of Numbing And Inflicting Pain

Greg Balla, Lee Sellars (seated), Tom Patterson and Richmond Hoxie act in a scene from "Ether Dome." (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre)

Greg Balla, Lee Sellars (seated), Tom Patterson and Richmond Hoxie act in a scene from “Ether Dome.” (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre)

On Oct. 16, 1846, a flustered young man named William Morton raced up marble steps to the dome of Massachusetts General Hospital.

“He was late, and you don’t want to keep surgeons waiting,” said Dr. John Herman, a psychiatrist at Mass General who is steeped in the history of that day.

A group of physicians awaited Morton in the operating room, located high above other floors because “before ether, people screamed,” Herman said.

Morton, a dentist, had promised to put an end to those screams, to the pain patients endured during surgery.

That day, with a patient waiting, Morton pulled out a glass bottle of ether that he had colored red, according to Herman, to disguise the common gas. Morton told the patient to inhale. Moments later, a surgeon sliced into the neck of a relaxed man.

“As he came out of the anesthesia, the surgeon, John Collins Warren, said ‘Mr. Abbott, did you feel pain?’ and Abbott said, ‘Did you begin the procedure?’ ” Herman recounted. “The world changed. Within days, news of what happened here traveled by steamship and by locomotive … to the capitals of the world.” Continue reading

Harvard Poll On Ebola Risk Finds Public Dazed And Very Confused

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

By Richard Knox

Americans are seriously confused about how Ebola spreads. And it’s no wonder.

A new national poll from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans think someone can catch Ebola if an infected person sneezes or coughs on them.

Not so, according to all health authorities and 38 years of research on this virus. But maybe people can’t be blamed for thinking Ebola can be spread through the air as they see powerful images day after day of health workers clad in head-to-toe protective coverings and face masks.

And there’s little to no possibility that Ebola will mutate into a virus easily spread by aerosol droplets, like influenza or SARS, for reasons that Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out in The Washington Post.

Similarly, all the attention on the imported Ebola case of a Liberian man in Dallas and subsequent infection of two of his nurses (so far) is apparently leading many Americans to overestimate their risk of getting the virus.

In contrast, the great majority (80 percent) think they’d survive Ebola if they got immediate care. That’s probably right — though no sure thing.

(Courtesy of Harvard School of Public Health)

(Courtesy of Harvard School of Public Health)

The Harvard poll, conducted between last Wednesday and Sunday, finds that a little over half of Americans worry there will be a large outbreak of Ebola in this country over the coming year.

More than a third worry they or someone in their immediate family will get Ebola. Continue reading

For Hospitals And Clinics: Insurance To Protect Against Losses From Ebola

A Boston-based insurance broker is rolling out a new policy for Ebola-related losses at hospitals and clinics across the country.

A Braintree cop places police tape around a Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates sign on Sunday. A patient there complained of Ebola-like symptoms, briefly closing the center. (Steven Senne/AP)

A Braintree cop places police tape around a Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates sign on Sunday. A patient there complained of Ebola-like symptoms, briefly closing the center. (Steven Senne/AP)

How much money might hospitals lose during an Ebola-related quarantine? And will patients use hospitals that treat the virus? Phil Edmundson at William Gallagher Associates developed Ebola insurance to address these risks.

“People may choose to put off their health care, or to get it at an alternative facility, if they feel there’s a reason to suspect Ebola in a given clinic or hospital,” Edmundson said.

Ebola policies could run half a million dollars or more for large hospitals. They will not cover the cost of closing off wards, training staff or overtime.

Other insurers are offering similar coverage for theaters, restaurants, hotels and other public spaces that may have to close if they have a customer with Ebola.

“All Massachusetts hospitals have general insurance policies and liability policies in place for extreme events,” the Massachusetts Hospital Association said in a statement.

The group said it’s aware that hospitals in the state may be evaluating whether “additional insurance for Ebola-specific events” is necessary.

More Coverage:

Project Louise: What To Do About Cholesterol?

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

One of my original goals for this project was: “Lower my cholesterol and triglycerides.” I’ve been doing some serious thinking about that lately, along with a bit of research, and I’d like to share the results with you.

The serious thinking started last spring, when I ran across the current controversy about the risks of statins in postmenopausal women.

A growing number of physicians and researchers are arguing that, for some women like me, the risks of taking statins to lower cholesterol may outweigh the potential benefits. And the risks are scary: muscle pain (and, more rarely, permanent muscle damage), kidney and liver issues and – yikes! – increased risk of diabetes. Aside from being my own biggest fear, diabetes also, ironically, increases the risk of heart disease, the very thing statins are meant to prevent.

All this gave me pause, because my doctor had prescribed a statin a while ago, and my argument to the nurse practitioner (whom I actually see more often than the doctor) that I didn’t really want to take it had been met with a firm insistence that I should. Based on my numbers, she said – total cholesterol around 350, with an HDL (“good” cholesterol) of around 60 – there was no question.

So I took it for about a month, but I felt tired and achy – maybe just because of life in general, but the achiness felt worse than usual. So when I saw the new studies, I thought, “You know what? I’m just going to stop.”

And I did, and I felt better. But I’ve been avoiding going back to the nurse practitioner to tell her. All of which strikes me as the behavior of a naughty child, rather than a mature adult.

So, as a mature adult, this week I sought another opinion. My editor, Carey Goldberg, suggested I talk with Dr. Vikas Saini, a cardiovascular specialist and the president of the Lown Institute. He’s known for promoting the cause of “right care,” or “avoiding avoidable care” – that is, for arguing that modern medical practice too often overtreats patients, with frequently expensive and sometimes disastrous results. This seems self-evident to me, though it has been enough to create huge controversy in some circles.

In any case, I called Dr. Saini and talked with him about statins, in both general and personal terms. After noting that statins have become a fairly polarizing issue in the medical community, he asked a few questions about my personal and family history.

Dr. Vikas Saini

Dr. Vikas Saini

I gave him my numbers, which he agreed create a slightly increased risk – on paper, anyway. But when I told him that both my grandmothers had high cholesterol but lived into their 90s (and neither died of heart disease), and that neither of my parents, who also had high cholesterol, died of heart disease, either, he said that this history “makes me very, very suspicious of any attempt to paint your high cholesterol as a risk factor. It doesn’t add up.”

Well, hurrah. So I’m not being stupid to stop taking the statin?

“I don’t think that’s stupid at all,” Saini said. “I personally wouldn’t do much of anything except check your numbers.”

And, of course, keep increasing my commitment to exercise – “at least get it up to three times a week” – and eat your basic Mediterranean diet with plenty of olive oil, and work on stress reduction. All these factors, he noted, clearly help prevent heart disease. Continue reading

Selling Mass. On A New Idea: Shop For Care

(Screenshot from Get The Deal On Care)

(Screenshot from Get The Deal On Care)

Could Massachusetts be the only government in the world trying to persuade citizens to shop for health care? I’m scanning Google, trying to come up with another country, province, city…maybe some remote island that has decided: It’s time to learn how to get the best deal you can on care.

Nope, I can’t come up with any other place.

But here it is: Get The Deal on Care. In addition to the website, you may see ads on the T, Twitter or Facebook that will encourage patients to become more savvy consumers of health care.

“We’re at the beginning of a movement here,” said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary for consumer affairs and business regulation, referring to a provision in a Massachusetts law that took effect Oct. 1. It requires all insurers to make real-time prices available to members online and over the phone, and provide members their cost for the service, taking into account co-pays and deductibles.

“We hear about the dawn of patient-centered care,” she said. “We want to put patients in the driver seat. Well, you can’t put consumers or patients in the driver seat if they don’t have information.”
Continue reading