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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

Mass. Becomes First State To Require Price Tags For Health Care

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Massachusetts residents can now shop for their health care online, seeing prices for procedures and visits. (screenshot)

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Massachusetts residents can now shop for their health care online, seeing prices for procedures and visits. (screenshot)

Massachusetts has launched a new era of shopping. It began last week. Did you notice?

Right this minute, if you have private health insurance, you can go to your health insurer’s website and find the price of everything from an office visit to an MRI to a Cesarean section. For the first time, health care prices are public.

It’s a seismic event. Ten years ago, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get cost information — nothing. Occasionally over the years, I’d receive manila envelopes with no return address, or secure .zip files with pricing spreadsheets from one hospital or another.

Then two years ago Massachusetts passed a law that pushed health insurers and hospitals to start making this once-vigorously guarded information more public. Now as of Oct. 1, Massachusetts is the first state to require that insurers offer real-time prices.

“This is a very big deal,” said Undersecretary for Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation Barbara Anthony. “Let the light shine in on health care prices.”

There are caveats.
Continue reading

If You Build A Crew Program For Overweight Kids, They Will Row — And Get Fitter

There was no comfortable place for 17-year-old Alexus Burkett in her school’s typical sports program of soccer and lacrosse and basketball.

“They don’t let heavyset girls in,” she says.

Alexus was “bullied so bad about her weight,” says her mother, Angelica Dyer, “and there was no gym that would take her when she was 14, 15 years old. There was no outlet.”

But Alexus has found a sports home that is helping her bloom as an athlete: an innovative program called “OWL On The Water” that offers rowing on the Charles River specifically for kids with weight issues.

She has lost more than 50 pounds over half a year, but more importantly, says her mother, “They’ve given me my daughter’s smile back.”

Alexus Dwyer during warm-ups before instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Alexus Burkett stretches during warm-ups before “OWL On The Water” instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It’s given me a lot of good strength and it’s making me more outgoing,” Alexus says. “We’re all best friends and we’re all suffering with the same problem — weight loss — so we’re more inspiring each other than we are competing against each other.”

OWL On The Water offers a small solution to a major national problem: According to the latest numbers, 23 million American kids are overweight or obese, and only about one quarter of 12-to-15-year-olds get the recommended one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Heavier kids are even less likely to be active, and only about one-fifth of obese teens get the exercise they need, the CDC finds.

“I know I need to be active, but please don’t make me play school sports!” That’s what exercise physiologist Sarah Picard often hears from her young clients at the OWL — Optimal Weight for Life — program at Boston Children’s Hospital that sponsors OWL On The Water.

Many gym classes still involve picking teams, “and my patients are the ones that are always picked last,” she says. “You’re the biggest one, you’re the last one, you’re picked last, and you’re uncomfortable.”

They are strong, powerful people.
– Sarah Picard

School fitness testing is important, Picard says, but it, too, can be an ordeal: “I have kids who sit in my office and tell me that they didn’t go to school for a week because they wanted to miss the fitness testing,” she says.

While many a coach might see bigger bodies as poorly suited to typical team sports, Picard sees them as having different strengths. Particularly muscular strength.

“What I’ve observed is that these kids are much better at strength and power-based activities,” she says. And rowing is particularly good for them, she says, because though it is strenuous, it is not weight-bearing, and thus more comfortable for heavier bodies — yet a heavier, strong body can pull an oar much harder than a smaller person’s body. The program begins by building on that muscular strength, she says, and then works on aerobic fitness. Continue reading

Boston-Based Partners In Health Leaps Into Ebola Crisis

Members of Partners in Health work with representatives from Liberia and Sierra Leone via conference call to help combat the Ebola outbreak. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Members of Partners in Health work with representatives from Liberia and Sierra Leone via conference call to help combat the Ebola outbreak. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

An advance team from Boston-based Partners In Health heads for Ebola-stricken Liberia Monday. Four doctors, including co-founder Paul Farmer, and two operations staff will lay the groundwork for an ambitious two- to three-year project that will require well over 100 volunteer doctors, nurses, lab techs and public health workers. The budget for just the first year is $35 million.

“We are at a dangerous moment with Ebola,” said Farmer as he prepared for the trip. “Even though this is a huge jump for PIH, I am confident we will succeed.”

PIH will work with two established groups, Last Mile Health in Liberia and Wellbody Alliance in Sierra Leone, to strengthen existing public health clinics and train several hundred new community health workers. In addition, PIH will open two 50-bed Ebola treatment centers in rural areas of each country.

The plan began to take shape last week, as the World Health Organization reported a near doubling of Ebola cases in Liberia and an estimate from Columbia University projects 30,000 cases by mid-October if conditions in the country deteriorate.

“There’s more doctors on a single floor of the Brigham than in the entire country of Liberia.”
– PIH's Paul Farmer

In the colorful offices of PIH, decorated with art from countries where the group works, some staffers are flashing back to 2010 and the weeks following Haiti’s earthquake. Ebola is creating another humanitarian crisis, one that is unfolding right before their eyes.

The call for volunteers went up on PIH’s website five days ago. More than 100 people responded within 24 hours, but it will take some time to determine if the skills of applicants fit the needs of these rural Ebola treatment and isolation units. PIH is trying to screen potential recruits quickly. It plans to send a first round to a training run by the Centers for Disease Control next week and open the centers by mid-October or early November.

“To do this right, we will depend on people who are willing to fight against this terrible crisis,” said Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer at PIH. “The reason we will need a lot of non-Liberians, non-Sierra Leoneans — these countries simply do not have enough doctors and nurses.”

“There’s more doctors on a single floor of the Brigham than in the entire country of Liberia,” added Farmer, who is also chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

He hopes to tap the medical wealth of Boston for the Ebola project, but the PIH board has demanded that a plan to treat and evacuate sick volunteers is in place before the operation begins. Farmer and Mukherjee are talking to the U.S. Department of Defense and other possible partners about transportation and care options.

A fourth doctor in Sierra Leone died Saturday, bringing the total number of health care worker deaths in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea from Ebola to 150. Continue reading

From Pimples To Desire, What Might Happen When You Ditch The Pill

(Becca Schmidt/Flickr via Compfight)

(Becca Schmidt/Flickr via Compfight)

By Veronica Thomas
Guest Contributor

So you’re thinking about going off the pill. Maybe you’ve been feeling depressed, getting headaches, or keep forgetting to pop the tiny tablet. Perhaps you’ve been experiencing some really strange stuff that didn’t happen before you started the pill—like inflamed, bleeding gums or cringing at another person’s touch.

Both personal anecdotes and research studies have linked these and other side effects, such as breast tenderness and nausea, to the pill. (One study suggested it might even make you pick the “wrong” partner by altering your chemical attraction to a man’s scent.)

Most randomized control trials haven’t actually found any real difference in the frequency of side effects among women taking the pill versus those taking a placebo.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” says Dr. Alisa Goldberg, director of clinical research and training at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “Clearly some women are sensitive to the pill and experience these things, but when you try to study it scientifically on a population basis, there’s really no difference.”

Still, while four out of five American women have used the pill at some point, 30 percent have discontinued its use due to dissatisfaction—most commonly because of its side effects. The latest federal statistics on contraception use are due this fall, and experts expect trends from recent years to continue: IUD use will continue to rise, while pill use seems to have plateaued.

I tried five different formulations of the pill, but never managed to escape all the annoying symptoms.

The issues a woman experiences—or whether she has any at all—vary greatly based on the specific dosage of hormones and the unique individual swallowing them every day. Personally, along with bloating and mood swings, I got migraines with an aura, or what felt like a laser light show in my left eyeball. Twice I had to retreat to my office’s “Pump and Pray Room”—reserved for new mothers and religious employees—to lie down and recover. (What I did not know at the time was that, because of this symptom, I should not have been on an estrogen-containing pill in the first place. Women with aura migraines, along with other conditions that put them at risk for strokes, blood clots, heart disease or some cancers, should not take combination pills.)

Finally, I gave up on the pill—only to be blindsided by a whole new challenge: the unexpected side effects of going off the pill. To help others avoid similar unpleasant surprises, I spoke with three experts about what to expect when you ditch the pill for another birth control method.

Of course, just as each woman has a unique reaction to the pill, she’ll also have a unique reaction to going off. According to the feminist women’s health organization Our Bodies, Ourselves, there is “enormous variability in any individual’s response to her own hormones or any synthetic hormones she takes.” One woman’s skin may break out in pimples, while another’s clears up completely.

With this disclaimer in mind, here are eight possibly unexpected changes you might experience when you cancel your monthly refill of that crinkly foil packet:

1. Most of the side effects should disappear in a few days.

First off, while many women decide to have their period before pitching the pack, it’s safe to stop taking the pill at any point. However, you should stop immediately if experiencing any serious side effects, like headaches or high blood pressure, says Dr. Jennifer Moore Kickham, the medical director of a Massachusetts General Hospital outpatient gynecology clinic. Continue reading

Hidden Price Of That Succulent Lobster: Health Woes Of Stoic Lobstermen

Longtime Maine lobsterman Jon Rogers (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Longtime Maine lobsterman Jon Rogers (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By Richard Knox

Mainer Jon Rogers started lobstering 47 years ago at the age of 10, when he’d go out on his grandfather’s boat.

Ask him about his health and he says, “No worse than anyone else who uses his body in his work. My hips are sore, my knees are sore, my shoulders are sore, my back is sore. I get up every day and it takes me awhile to get going. I hurt every day.”

But Rogers, who lives on a skinny, south-pointing finger of land in Casco Bay called Orr’s Island, doesn’t go to the doctor much. “I never really complained about too much unless I was really hurting,” he says.

“I’d schedule a doctor’s appointment with all the intentions of going,” Rogers says. “But if there was an opportunity to haul traps for a few days, I’d set aside the doctor’s appointment and go haul traps.” This summer he’s running 800 traps, which means his days starts around 5:30 a.m.

Rogers appears to be pretty typical of Maine’s 5,000 lobstermen, and of all 9,000 people who work in the state’s fishing industry.

“They work really hard and have a lot of chronic diseases,” says Miranda Jo Rogers, Jon’s daughter. “These people have a stoic mentality — they don’t seek health [care] until they really need it. So there are no really positive role models on how to be proactive and keep healthy.”

Lobsterman Jon Rogers with med-student daughter Meredith Jo Rogers, who is studying the health of lobster harvesters. (Courtesy)

Lobsterman Jon Rogers with med-student daughter Miranda Jo Rogers. (Courtesy)

Miranda Rogers aims to do something about that. Although she’s still a Tufts Medical School student, she’s taken on a project she expects will take her to graduation and beyond — maybe decades beyond.

“I am happily indebted to the community that raised me, and I wish to make a long-lasting difference in Maine,” she wrote recently to the state’s lobster harvesters, asking them to fill out a 24-page questionnaire on their health.

It will be the most complete look ever at the health of a difficult-to-reach population with special health care needs, low rates of health insurance and high skepticism of outsiders.

“Up and down the coast, the commercial fisherman is very talkative on his own turf, but it’s a very secretive bunch and not that trusting,” Jon Rogers says. Continue reading

Even In Mass., Hundreds Of Young Central American Refugees Seek Care

"Flor" (Richard Knox for WBUR)

“Flor” (Richard Knox for WBUR)

By Richard Knox

CHELSEA, Mass. — The young Honduran woman appeared at the Chelsea HealthCare Center last February, fearing she was pregnant.

“Flor” — a pseudonym to protect family members back in Honduras — had paid a “coyote” $8,000 to escort her and her 3-year-old daughter to the U.S.-Mexican border. But when they got to the border town of Nuevo Laredo, the coyote sold her to a gang that held her in a tiny room with seven other women.

They raped her, then told her to pay $17,000 or they’d sell her daughter’s organs and force her into sex slavery.

Up in Massachusetts, her mother and father scrambled to borrow the money and wire it to Nuevo Laredo. Her kidnappers released Flor and the little girl; she doesn’t know what happened to the other women.

Flor and her daughter are among hundreds of Central American immigrants who’ve made their way to the blue-collar town of Chelsea, Mass., over the past year.

They represent a quiet influx that began months before the phenomenon hit the headlines and protests began flaring in communities from Cape Cod to California.

They come to Chelsea because many of them have family there. Sixty-two percent of the town’s 35,000 residents are Latino, and many are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

As we sit in a conference room at the Chelsea health center, the sun backlights the thick dark hair that frames Flor’s broad face as she tells me how and why she made the 2,300-mile trek from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

“The decision I made, why I came here, was to give a better future to my daughter,” Flor says in Spanish, silent tears trickling down her cheeks. “In Honduras, it is very difficult. The gangs, they’re killing a lot of people. You have to give money month-to-month or they go to your house and they kill you.” Continue reading

Pop Awake At Night? Researchers Blame ‘Sleep Switch’ In Your Aging Brain

(eflon via Compflight)

(eflon via Compflight)

If you’re on the older side and find yourself popping hideously awake in the middle of the night or far-too-early morn, here’s your line for the next time it happens: “Oh, that darned ventrolateral preoptic nucleus of mine! How I miss my old galanin!”

Researchers have just reported in the journal Brain that they’ve found a group of neurons — in the aforementioned nucleus — that function as a kind of “sleep switch,” and whose degeneration over the years is looking very much like the cause of age-related sleep loss. It’s also looking pivotal in the insomnia that often causes nocturnal wandering in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is the first time that anyone has ever been able to show in humans that there is a distinct group of nerve cells in the brain that’s critical for allowing you to sleep,” said the paper’s senior author, Dr. Clifford Saper, chair of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

You may well be wondering exhaustedly how soon this insight — based on the post-mortem analysis of 45 human brains — will lead to better sleeping pills for older folks. I asked Dr. Saper that, too. No promises with timeframes at this point, but he does see the prospect for better-targeted sleeping pills for seniors, with fewer side effects like Ambien’s balance-related problems.

Our conversation, lightly edited:

Can this group of neurons actually explain the lion’s share of sleep problems that older people and people with Alzheimer’s disease have?

It really can. Let me give you a little background. We discovered this cell group in the brains of rats in 1996. We found that there’s a group of of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that fire when animals are asleep. And we later found that if you eliminate those nerve cells, that animals lose up to 50 percent of all their sleep time, and the remaining sleep is fragmented. They can’t sleep for long bouts at a time; they keep waking up all the time.

At that time, we weren’t sure whether this would be the same in other species. So we looked at the brains of half a dozen other species — of mice and cats and monkeys — and we found that all of them have this cell group and that the cells were active during sleep in all of them. In every species we looked at, this same cell group had a particular neurotransmitter in it, called galanin.

I’ve never heard of that neurotransmitter before… Continue reading

How Transgender People Are Changing Their Voices

Lorelei Erisis, a transgender woman, tries out the Eva app in her Ayer home. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Lorelei Erisis, a transgender woman, tries out the Eva app in her Ayer home. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Lorelei Erisis taps the screen of a borrowed iPhone. The key of A, with kazoo-like resonance, fills her living room in Ayer, Mass.

Erisis taps another button labeled “start,” takes a deep breath, and sings the word “he,” trying to match the tone.

A number, 75 percent, pops onto the screen.

“My pitch was too low,” Erisis says. “Oh well. Let me try again.”

Erisis, a transgender woman, is trying out Eva, a mobile phone app that may be the first of its kind. Transgender men and women who want to raise or lower the pitch of their voice can go through a series of breathing and pitch exercises designed to help with what can be the most difficult characteristic to change — their voice.

“What I often hear is, ‘I pass as a woman until I open my mouth,’ ” says Kathe Perez, a speech language pathologist who designed the Eva app. Continue reading