Gov. Patrick Announces $1M Grant To Help Develop Faster Ebola Test

Dr. Rick Sacra, a Massachusetts doctor who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia, and Gov. Deval Patrick converse Tuesday at the State House. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Dr. Rick Sacra, a Massachusetts doctor who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia, and Gov. Deval Patrick converse Tuesday at the State House. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency, will issue a $1 million grant to help develop a faster, more accurate test for diagnosing Ebola, Gov. Deval Patrick announced Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, a Massachusetts doctor who had Ebola announced he’s returning to Liberia, where he contracted the virus, to resume his work.

The grant will support a partnership of local life sciences companies, nonprofits and academic institutions that will try to speed up the launch of an Ebola detection tool already in development by Diagnostics For All, a nonprofit organization.

Officials on hand for the State House announcement promised the new tool — which will accept a “single finger-stick of blood” and provide a clear “yes” or “no” response in 45 minutes — will be cheaper, easier to use and lead to earlier diagnosis than current tests.

They said current tests are time- and labor-intensive and not always sensitive enough to detect Ebola at its earliest onset, which they said is critical to containing and effectively treating the disease. Continue reading

Why To Exercise (Outdoors) Today: Tranquility For Aging Ladies

(frodrig/Flickr)

(frodrig/Flickr)

It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s uninviting out there. So, all the more reason to drag yourself outside and do something.

In yet another study on how exercise can combat the bad physical and mental effects of aging, new research suggests that women who can get out the door, fight the elements and exercise might find some nifty benefits. Those benefits include alleviating depression and increasing adherence to an exercise program.

The small study, published in the journal Menopause, asserts it’s the outside air that really helps (as opposed to the stuffy gym or the treadmill in your basement, though I’ve found that when you’re desperate, those work too):

“Between baseline and week 12, depression symptoms decreased and physical activity level increased only for the outdoor group…” write the authors, led by Isabelle Dionne of the University Institute of Geriatrics of Sherbrooke in Quebec.

From the Reuters report:

Outdoor workouts left women in a better mood and kept them exercising longer than counterparts who exercised indoors, according to a small study from Canada.

Results of the three-month trial involving women in their 50s and 60s suggest that outdoor exercise programs should be promoted to help older women keep active, the researchers conclude…Only about 13 percent of Canadian women older than 59 years and less than 9 percent of older American adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week… Continue reading

Brigham And Women’s Vivek Murthy Confirmed To U.S. Surgeon General Post

A Brigham and Women’s physician will become the next U.S. surgeon general.

Democrats squeaked out a 51-43 vote Monday to confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy, 37, in the waning days of their control over the U.S. Senate.

Dr. Vivek Murthy is an internist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His nomination for U.S. surgeon general has stalled, largely due to his advocacy of gun control. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Dr. Vivek Murthy (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Murthy’s nomination stalled earlier this year when the National Rifle Association raised objection to Murthy’s characterization of guns as a health issue. Murthy said he would focus on childhood obesity, not guns, if approved as the nation’s top doctor. Many public health leaders and physicians fumed about the NRA’s influence, but the White House did not press for a vote and many of Murthy’s supporters assumed the nomination was dead.

Then on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, using a procedural move, put Murthy’s nomination back in play. And on Monday he was approved by a single vote majority a year after being nominated and 17 months after the position was vacated.

Continue reading

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The Psychological Aftermath Of The Sydney Siege

A hostage runs to armed tactical response police officers for safety after she escaped from a cafe under siege at Martin Place in Sydney, Australia, on Monday. (Rob Griffith/AP)

A hostage runs to armed tactical response police officers for safety after she escaped from a cafe under siege at Martin Place in Sydney, Australia, on Monday. (Rob Griffith/AP)

By Jessica Alpert

The images of five hostages escaping from the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney are striking. A woman runs into the arms of law enforcement, her trauma and fear palpable.

This story is still developing, but one thing is for sure: “It really doesn’t take much to instill fear,” says Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University and an expert on terrorism. “This one guy managed to shut down an entire city, divert many planes away from Sydney, and transfix the world in real time following this story.”

As of press time, police were reporting that the hostage taker and two people were killed. For those who survived, what lies ahead psychologically?

Dr. David Gitlin, Brigham and Women’s Hospital vice chair of clinical programs and chief of medical psychiatric services, says recent research suggests reliving or “debriefing” survivors is counterproductive and “actually may precipitate the development of PTSD.”

Instead, health professionals are encouraged to use a resilience model in the immediate aftermath of an event like this one, “helping people think about the things they need to do to feel safe and secure…to deal with things on their timetable,” says Gitlin. Of course, this may come into conflict with the needs of law enforcement, who are looking for further control of an event or preparing evidence for prosecution. As this siege has ended and it’s believed that the assailant acted alone, Gitlin hopes that those now released will not be interrogated at this time.

Gitlin, who led the Brigham’s psychiatric team after the Boston Marathon Bombings, explains that “people need to be surrounded by their loved ones, put into a safe environment, and only process this when they are ready to do so.”

Acute Stress Reaction and PTSD

There are two types of trauma, says Gitlin. Continue reading

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Foggy Days, Sleepless Nights: When Alzheimer’s Care Goes Nocturnal

(Ronel Reyes/Flickr via Compfight)

(Ronel Reyes/Flickr via Compfight)

By Jessica Alpert

Marion Tripp was what you might call a quintessential “Yankee.” From impeccable pie crusts to crackshot deer hunting, she regularly impressed people with her wide range of skills. When her daughter and son-in-law started an organic farm in rural Maine, she’d bundle up in a snowmobile suit and sell their rutabagas at the local farmer’s market. I never knew Marion but her grandson — my husband — loves to remember her this way.

Not the way she was at the end.

Alzheimer’s ravaged Marion’s brain and left her confused, “mean,” paranoid, and violent. The last three years of her life, she had round-the-clock care since she rarely slept more than a few hours at a time. Her nocturnal habits were not unique. Indeed, in the world of Alzheimer’s, this tendency toward nighttime wakefulness is known as “sundowning.”

“Several things go awry with Alzheimer’s that affect the person’s brain chemistry and changes their circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Paul Raia, vice president of clinical services for the Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. He says there are various reasons for this nocturnal shift including lack of melatonin, diminished access to natural light and less rapid eye movement or REM sleep.

But it’s not just about being unable to sleep for long stretches of time. Like Marion Tripp, many Alzheimer’s patients are often agitated, angry, even violent. “During that period [of REM sleep], you are ridding the toxins from your brain and you’re stabilizing memory and you’re dreaming and essentially you are paralyzed with your body in a relaxing mode,” says Raia. “[The patients] may take a series of small naps throughout the day and when they wake up, they may not be fully awake. They can’t navigate well or negotiate well in their environment.” Continue reading

French Kissing For Science And Sharing More Than Romance

Photo: Compfight

(.craig/Flickr via Compfight)

That kiss last night? You may have left with more than butterflies. According to Dutch researchers, the average 10-second french kiss can result in the exchange of around 80 million pieces of bacteria.

And they have the data to prove it.

Twenty-one couples recently volunteered to kiss for science. This all went down at the Amsterdam Royal Artis Zoo in 2012. The Dutch researchers studying bacteria surveyed the kissing habits of each partner in each couple with questions like, “How often do you kiss? and “When did you last kiss?” Researchers then swabbed each partner’s tongues for “salivary microbiota,” before and after a “controlled kissing experiment” (read: a tightly timed 10 seconds).

Then there was a second kiss. One member of the couple was asked to swig some probiotic yogurt beforehand. This made it easier to look at the bacteria from the yogurt both on the tongue of the person who drank it — and the tongue of the person who didn’t.

So what do we learn?

Turns out shared microbiota can actually survive on another person’s tongue. Samples of oral flora from the partner were more similar than those drawn from randomly selected passersby. Continue reading

Teen Birth Rate In Mass. At Historic Low

The birth rate among teens in Massachusetts is at its lowest recorded level in the state’s history, a report out Friday says.

The birth rate of teens ages 15-19 fell 14 percent last year, from 14 births per 1,000 women in 2012 to 12 births per 1,000 women in 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Health reported.

“This is terrific news for all Massachusetts families, and a dramatic indication that our decisions to invest in our young people — through education, support and resources — can have a real and lasting impact on their lives and in their communities,” Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement.

According to the report, there were 2,732 babies born to teen mothers between 15 and 19 years old in 2013, down from 3,219 the previous year. The number of children born to teen mothers in that age bracket is significantly lower than the 7,258 births reported in 1990. Continue reading

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Why You Really Need A Flu Shot (Even Though The Vaccine Isn’t Great)

(WFIU Public Radio/Flickr)

(WFIU Public Radio/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

This flu season is shaping up to be a bad one. And this year’s vaccine doesn’t work very well against the most common flu virus going around. So should you even bother getting a flu shot?

Yes. Putting it a different way: My wife, my daughters and I will. And the evidence says you’d be somewhere between slightly foolish and dangerously blasé if you don’t — depending on your personal risk factors.

I know there are naysayers — the Internet is full of them. “I recommend that my patients of all ages not take these incessantly promoted immunizations, primarily because of their lack of effectiveness,” writes blogger Dr. John McDougall. He says he’s not one of those across-the-board vaccine deniers but just doesn’t think flu vaccines (of any given year) are worth taking.

To understand why I think he’s wrong — even this year, when vaccine effectiveness is expected to be even lower than usual — you need to know something about the situation we’re all in.

Several viruses circulate during any given flu season. And flu viruses are always changing — sometimes not so much from year to year; sometimes in a bunch of little ways (a phenomenon called genetic “drift”); and sometimes in a big, sudden way, called a “shift,” which touches off pandemics.

Drifts Or Shifts?

Public health researchers constantly monitor flu virus mutations. But even the smartest flu dudes can’t know in advance when they’ll happen, or whether mutations will be drifts or shifts.

This year, one of the flu viruses outwitted them. Or, since viruses can’t have intentions, it’s better to say that random genetic drift in that viral strain, called H3N2, happened in late March. That’s a bad time in the annual cycle of vaccine production.

Just a few weeks earlier, leading flu specialists gathered at the World Health Organization in Geneva and decided that this season’s vaccine (for the Northern Hemisphere) should contain the same viruses as last year’s — two type-A viruses (an H1N1 that caused the pandemic of 2009 and has stuck around since, and an H3N2 that first appeared in Texas two years ago) and two type-B flu viruses.

Late-Breaking Mutant

Making each year’s flu vaccine is a complicated business that waits on no virus. The recipe has to be decided in February to get the chosen viruses growing in hundreds of millions of special chicken eggs, the first step in vaccine production. Continue reading

Culture Clash: U.K. Embraces Homebirth As Best For Some Women

Sarah Parente shortly after the homebirth of her daughter Fiona (Courtesy of Leilani Rogers)

Sarah Parente shortly after the homebirth of her daughter Fiona (Courtesy of Leilani Rogers)

By Jessica Alpert

Sarah Parente, an Austin, Texas-based doula and mother of four, gave birth to her first child in the hospital with no complications. But then she decided to make a shift: Parente delivered her next three babies at home. “For women with low-risk pregnancies, home birth can be a great choice,” she says. “You have less stress because you are in your own home surrounded by a birth team of your choosing.”

Though home birth has recently gained cache in the U.S. — with some celebrities trumpeting the benefits of having their babies at home  — the practice remains uncommon and the majority of pregnant women give birth in a hospital setting. Still, Parente may be getting a little more company, albeit slowly. Data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) earlier this year shows the rate of homebirths in the U.S. has increased to 0.92 percent in 2013 and the rate of out-of-hospital births (including home) has increased 55 percent since 2004.

Experts in the United Kingdom are saying that’s a good thing.

The London-based National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recently released recommendations that homebirths and midwife-led centers are better for mothers and often just as safe for babies as hospital settings, the BBC reports. Of the 700,000 babies born in England and Wales each year, nine out of 10 are born in obstetric-led units in hospitals. Continue reading

Mass. Officials Say Most Have Yet To Pay For Health Plans

State officials say about 150,000 people have determined eligibility for insurance plans on the state’s overhauled Health Connector website. But less than 1 percent has paid for 2015 coverage with a deadline fast approaching.

The connector rolled out its new website on Nov. 15 to replace the one that was crippled by technical problems, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary Medicaid coverage.

Residents eligible to buy insurance through the connector have until Dec. 23 to make their first payment. The Boston Globe reports that few have sent checks so far, but state officials aren’t worried because people historically wait until the last week to pay.

The head of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans has expressed concern about the low enrollment and the prospect of many people going uninsured.

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