Archive for the ‘World Health Organization’ Category

Because Kent Brantly is a physician who has watched people die of Ebola, there was an especially chilling prescience to his assessment last week, between labored breaths: “I am going to die.”

His condition was grave. But then on Saturday, we saw images of Brantly’s heroic return to U.S. soil, walking with minimal assistance from an ambulance into an isolation unit at Emory University Hospital.

“One of the doctors called it ‘miraculous,'” Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported from Emory this morning, of Brantly’s turnaround within hours of receiving a treatment delivered from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “Not a term we scientists like to throw around.”

“The outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization, said on Friday in a plea for international help containing the virus. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives, but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”

In that light, and because Ebola is notoriously incurable (and the strain at large its most lethal), it is overwhelming to hear that “Secret Serum Likely Saved Ebola Patients,” as we do this morning from Gupta’s every-20-minute CNN reports. He writes:

Three top secret, experimental vials stored at subzero temperatures were flown into Liberia last week in a last-ditch effort to save two American missionary workers [Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol] who had contracted Ebola, according to a source familiar with details of the treatment.

Brantly had been working for the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse as medical director of the Ebola Consolidation Case Management Center in Monrovia, Liberia. The group yesterday confirmed that he received a dose of an experimental serum before leaving the country.

In Gupta’s optimistic assessment, Brantly’s “near complete recovery” began within hours of receiving the treatment that “likely saved his life.” Writebol is also reportedly improved since receiving the treatment, known as zMapp. But to say that it was a secret implies a frigid American exceptionalism; that the people of West Africa are dying in droves while a classified cure lies in wait.

The “top-secret serum” is a monoclonal antibody. Administration of monoclonal antibodies is an increasingly common but time-tested approach to eradicating interlopers in the human body. In a basic monoclonal antibody paradigm, scientists infect animals (in this case mice) with a disease, the mice mount an immune response (antibodies to fight the disease), and then the scientists harvest those antibodies and give them to infected humans. It’s an especially promising area in cancer treatment.

In this case, the proprietary blend of three monoclonal antibodies known as zMapp had never been tested in humans. It had previously been tested in eight monkeys with Ebola who survived—though all received treatment within 48 hours of being infected. A monkey treated outside of that exposure window did not survive. That means very little is known about the safety and effectiveness of this treatment—so little that outside of extreme circumstances like this, it would not be legal to use. Gupta speculates that the FDA may have allowed it under the compassionate use exemption.

A small 2012 study of monoclonal antibody therapy against Ebola found that it was only effective when administered before or just after exposure to the virus. A 2013 study found that rhesus macaques given an antibody mix called MB-003 within the 48-hour window had a 43 percent chance of surviving—as opposed to their untreated counterparts, whose survival rate was zero.

This Ebola outbreak is the largest in the history of the disease, in terms of both cases and deaths, 729 887 known so far. As Chan warned in her call for urgent international action, the outbreak is geographically the largest, already in four countries with fluid population movement across porous borders and a demonstrated ability to spread by air travel. The outbreak will be stopped by strategic quarantines and preventive education, primarily proper handling of corpses. More than 60 aid workers have become infected, but many more will be needed to stem the tide.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), is encouraged by the antibody treatment.

“Obviously there are plans and enthusiasm to expand this,” Fauci told me. “The limiting factor is the extraordinary paucity of treatment regimens.” Right now the total amount available, to Fauci’s knowledge, is three treatment courses (in addition to what was given to Brantly and Writebol).

NIAID did some of the original research that led to the development, but this is owned by Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. “They are certainly trying to scale up,” Fauci said, “but I’ve heard that their capability is such that it’s going to be months before they have a substantial number of doses, and even then they’re going to be limited.”

“We’re hearing that the administration of this cocktail of antibodies improved both Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol, but you know, we don’t know that,” Fauci said, noting the sample size (two) of this small, ad hoc study. Proving effectiveness would require a much larger group of patients being compared to an untreated group. “And we don’t know that they weren’t getting better anyway.”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/the-secret-ebola-treatment/375525/

Daifailluh al-Bugami was just a year old when his parents noticed that his lips turned blue as he slept at night. It was his weight, doctors said, putting pressure on his delicate airways.

Now Daifailluh is 3, and at 61 pounds he is nearly double the typical weight of a child his age. So the Bugamis are planning the once unthinkable: To have their toddler undergo bariatric surgery to permanently remove part of his stomach in hopes of reducing his appetite and staving off a lifetime of health problems.

That such a young child would be considered for weight-loss surgery—something U.S. surgeons generally won’t do—underscores the growing health crisis here and elsewhere in the Middle East. Widespread access to unhealthy foods, coupled with sedentary behavior brought on by wealth and the absence of a dieting and exercise culture, have caused obesity levels in Saudi Arabia and many other Gulf states to approach or even exceed those in Western countries.

While solid national data are hard to come by, some experts say that obesity has turned into a serious health problem for Saudi children, with an estimated 9.3% of school-age youths meeting the World Health Organization’s body-mass-index criteria for obesity, according to research published in 2013 in the Saudi Journal of Obesity. About 18% of school-age children in the U.S. were considered obese in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Daifailluh’s doctor, Aayed Alqahtani, is a leading advocate of a radical approach to the problem. Patients travel to him from across the country and the Gulf region. Over the past seven years, he has performed bariatric surgery on nearly 100 children under the age of 14, which experts on the procedure believe is the largest number performed by one doctor on young children.

Dr. Alqahtani’s work is being watched amid a global debate about the appropriate age for bariatric surgery. In the U.S., the minimum is generally considered 14. The World Health Organization, in a 2012 report on pediatric bariatric surgery, concluded that there is a dearth of data available on the long-term outcomes of the procedure in children and that a “conservative approach” is necessary until long-term studies are conducted.

Bariatric surgery has been embraced as an effective and relatively safe procedure for morbidly obese adults. The concern with children revolves mostly around nonsurgical risks, such as how the abrupt change in nutrition could affect long-term brain development and sexual maturation.

Dr. Alqahtani says the decision to operate on Daifailluh is a difficult one because of his age. But after nearly two years of consultation with the clinic, Daifailluh’s obesity-related medical problems haven’t gotten any better. “We should not deprive our patients from bariatric surgery based on their age alone,” the surgeon says. “If they have [medical] conditions that threaten their lives, then we should not deny the bariatric surgery.”

The worsening obesity problem here also is manifesting itself in other ways. Some 20% of the Saudi adult population has Type 2 diabetes, a condition linked to obesity, according to the International Diabetes Federation, compared with 8.3% in the U.S., according to the CDC. The cost of diabetes treatment in Saudi Arabia is expected to rise to $2.4 billion in 2015, more than triple that spent in 2010, according to a recent study in the Journal of Family and Community Medicine.

Obesity, particularly among women, has become rampant across much of the Middle East, particularly in oil-rich Gulf nations. In Kuwait, almost half of adult women are considered obese, while 44% of Saudi women and 45% of Qatari women meet the criteria, according to the International Association of the Study of Obesity. Experts says Saudis, in particular, are more likely to carry certain genes linked to obesity.

Saudi lifestyle and parenting practices may exacerbate the problem, according to doctors at weight-loss clinics. Nannies or cooks are often employed, so parents may not know what their children are eating. Saudis often are coaxed to eat large quantities of food when visiting relatives and friends.

In Riyadh, physical activity is limited, particularly for girls, and high temperatures and few green spaces make walking difficult. School gym classes generally take place just once a week. Western-style fast food is abundant, particularly at the air-conditioned malls frequented by children and families.

Bariatric surgery has become an accepted treatment among obese Saudi adults and is paid for by the government. An estimated 11,000 bariatric surgeries were performed on Saudis in 2012, according to Dr. Alqahtani.

The surgery, of which there are several types, generally reduces the size of the stomach and, with some techniques, rearranges the digestive path to bypass much of the intestines. Some types are reversible but generally considered less effective. After the surgery, patients must eat very small meals—ideally for the rest of their lives. Many studies have shown that adults, on average, lose over 50% of their body weight after surgery.

Increasingly, youngsters are heading to the operating room here, where parents see no other options. These days, Dr. Alqahtani performs surgery on three to four youths a week.

“I have seen in my clinic patients who cannot sleep lying down—they sleep sitting—because of sleep apnea, and their age is 10 years, sometimes 5 years,” says Dr. Alqahtani, a professor in the college of medicine and an obesity specialist at King Saud University.

Pediatric surgeons in the U.S. say they also are facing demands from families to operate on younger patients. Thomas Inge, surgical director of the Surgical Weight Loss Program for Teens at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, says he will be operating on a 12-year-old later this month. He says that as younger and younger children are referred for consideration of surgery, care teams will need to carefully weigh the pros and cons.

Evan Nadler, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is considering doing the operation on two young children. He and the family of a 7-year-old D.C. boy have agreed that surgery likely is the best option, he says. The family of an 8-year-old from the Middle East has decided to wait until their daughter is older and can better understand the surgery, he says.

Many doctors say they aren’t ready to follow Dr. Alqahtani yet. Kirk Reichard, chairman of the pediatric-surgery committee for the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, notes that there are no data to show that surgery doesn’t affect young children’s long-term sexual maturation or cognitive functioning. The brain, particularly in growing children, is sensitive to nutrition and needs enough energy to mature properly. Nutrition also has the potential to affect hormones linked to sexual maturation.

Dr. Alqahtani says he has seen evidence of normal growth following the procedure in his under-14 patients, many of whom are now four years postsurgery.

“We will certainly use his experience to inform us in some ways, but [Dr. Alqahtani’s work] won’t take the place of trials,” says Dr. Reichard.

One of the main criticisms from some weight-loss experts about performing the surgery on those under 14 is that changes in diet and exercise can prevent further weight gain. In addition, says Dr. Reichard, “there are a lot of other therapies short of surgery that can be helpful in managing” related medical conditions.

Saudi Arabia’s Dr. Alqahtani says he requires his child patients to enroll in a weight-loss program for at least six months because patients able to lose even a bit tend to have better outcomes after surgery. But he says that by the time families come to him, their children have such substantial health problems it is generally too late for diet and exercise alone.

Dr. Alqahtani was trained as a surgeon at McGill University in Montreal and at a minimally invasive surgery center in Denver. When he returned home to Riyadh in 2002, he says, he was inundated with pediatric patients so obese they were suffering from advanced stages fatty liver disease, diabetes and sleep apnea, a disorder in which patients repeatedly stop breathing for short periods during sleep—all diseases typically not seen until middle age.

Om Abdullah Asiri says she tried to help her 11-year-old son lose weight by restricting his eating at home. But he would eat fast food while out with his friends and plays videogames for hours on end, she says. “I can’t control him outside the home,” she says.

He grew to 250 pounds. His body-mass index—a calculation that uses weight and height to estimate percentage of body fat—was 61. A BMI of 40 or above is the most severe obesity category, according to the World Health Organization.

Ms. Asiri traveled with her son, Abdullah, from their home in Abha, more than 600 miles south of Riyadh, to see Dr. Alqahtani for the operation. Lying on a hospital bed the day before his surgery, Abdullah said he is “happy and ready” for the surgery.

His mother says surgery is the best solution for Abdullah, who has high blood pressure, fatty liver, hip pain and severe sleep apnea. Afterward, he won’t have a choice but to eat better, she says. “The surgery will make him change.” She says he dreams of playing soccer with his friends.

The procedure Dr. Alqahtani performs is called the gastric sleeve, which slices off a portion of the stomach but leaves the rest of the digestive tract intact. It is gaining in popularity because of its good weight-loss results and minimal side effects. The operation, conducted through tiny incisions in the abdomen, takes him just 30 minutes.

One recent morning, he operated on a 20-year-old, two 17-year-olds, a 12-year-old, then Abdullah, who was then 10.

Complications can include bleeding in about 10% of cases, and leaking and blood clots in 1% to 2%. Dr. Alqahtani says he has had only two leaks in 1,700 cases, neither in children.

Dr. Alqahtani says each of his pediatric patients has lost at least some weight, and nearly three-quarters have lost more than 50% of their initial body weight. Abdullah has lost close to 50 pounds since his surgery about two months ago, according to his 29-year-old brother, Ahmad.

Dr. Alqahtani says about 90% of his patients have seen medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension clear up, according to a paper scheduled for publication in the journal Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases. He published outcomes on 108 children in the peer-reviewed Annals of Surgery journal in 2012.

Recovery involves a six-week transition diet starting with clear liquids and puréed food. Patients eventually can resume solid foods at much-reduced quantities. At first, patients feel full after just 1 to 2 spoonfuls of food, though they gradually can eat more as their stomachs stretch.

Some bariatric-surgery experts have raised questions about whether children are capable of maintaining the restrictive lifetime diet after surgery or whether they will sabotage the procedure when they become teenagers and have a greater autonomy to eat what they want. Some experts question whether parents should make such a drastic and permanent decision for a child.

The decision has been excruciating for the family of Daifailluh, the toddler from Ta’if. Daifailluh was referred to Dr. Alqahtani’s clinic about two years ago after difficulty breathing sent him to the intensive-care unit at a hospital in his hometown. Doctors there determined the toddler was seriously overweight. His mother, Hessa Salem al-Bugami, says she tried to improve his diet but didn’t have good guidance until she came to Dr. Alqahtani’s clinic, a trip of nearly 500 miles from Ta’if. “I feel like I failed,” she says.

At first, the family wanted Daifailluh to lose weight without the operation. Ms. Bugami says her son has always had an “open appetite” and never refuses food. She says she feeds him brown bread and boiled chicken and rice, and limits his portions, hiding the rest of the food. But his obesity hasn’t improved, she says.

Daifailluh will cry and sometimes throw temper tantrums when he wants food, she says. She has tried distracting him with toys, locking the two of them in a room to play for so long she ended up missing her own meal.

“When he starts crying, it’s hard not to give him any of the food, to make the crying stop,” she says. “I feel like I work really hard, but it’s just too much on me.”

Daifailluh, who was hospitalized again for pulmonary problems, is waiting for a surgery date, which will come if he gets final medical clearance from Dr. Alqahtani.

The entire family is worried about the surgery, particularly the effects of anesthesia and whether the surgery will reduce his appetite too much. Ms. Bugami also worries that her son will regain the weight when he leaves the house eventually and is no longer under her watch.

But that is a concern for another day. “Right now is the most scary situation,” she says.

Write to Shirley S. Wang at shirley.wang@wsj.com

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304851104579360992538215578?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702304851104579360992538215578.html

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

ftn of youth

Jackie Snow
for National Geographic
Published July 23, 2013

Five hundred years ago in June, the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon started his journey back to Puerto Rico from Florida after becoming the first European to land on mainland America. After exploring the east coast of Florida, he circled the peninsula and explored the west coast, including modern-day Charlotte Harbor, most likely the location he chose for his second voyage.

According to legend, the explorer set out in search of the fountain of youth, a fabled stream that would extend the life of anyone lucky enough to drink from it.

Thanks to the myth of Ponce de Leon’s trip, Florida—known for its large population of retirees—is now awash in “fountains of youth.” Dozens of bodies of water claim the title of the one legendary fountain, from mineral springs to deep-water wells, not to mention water from a variety of sources that is piped into various built structures.

Only one, however, is known to be radioactive. And, oddly, it might be actually extending life.

In Punta Gorda, a town on Charlotte Harbor, a blocky, green-tiled fountain abuts an empty lot near the harbor. A spigot juts out near the top to release water from the artesian well below. Each of the four sides features a picture of a ship, a tribute to Ponce de Leon.

On the side facing away from the street, a public health notice warns that the water “exceeds the maximum contaminant level for radioactivity.”

The water from the well is also heavy in sulfates, which give it a distinctive smell of rotten eggs. This hasn’t stopped the locals from drinking from it regularly.

“I drank out of that well every day,” said Gussie Baker, a resident of Punta Gorda for all of her 78 years.

Baker used to live down the road from the Hotel Punta Gorda, whose guests would frolic in a pool filled with water from the same aquifer. Baker learned to swim in the pool and passed the fountain on her way to school.

“I love artesian water,” she said. Baker doesn’t live as close to the fountain anymore, but says she would drink it if she were nearby.

Punta Gordians proudly declared the existence of a rejuvenative fountain as far back as 1894. In 1926, they mounted a collection drive to pay for the stout little structure that stands to this day. At the height of its popularity, in the mid-20th century, the handle on the tap had to be replaced every six months.

The environmental movement threatened to put a stop to the locals’ enthusiasm for the fountain. In 1974, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to determine safe levels of a variety of contaminants, including radium. All public water sources were to be tested.

Punta Gorda’s water clocked in at 9.2 picoCuries of radium-226 isotope per liter when it was tested in 1983. This exceeded the recommended radium limit, set at 5 picoCuries per liter.

As a result, in 1986, the city council mulled plugging the well, moving the fountain, and hooking it up to city water. But locals fought back.

“They’ve tried several times over the years to close it down, to seal it up, to move it or hook it to the city water, and the public has always defeated that,” said Wilson Harper, a 71-year-old former water utilities supervisor better known as “Water Bill.”

“The last 15 years it’s been as quiet as a church mouse,” he said.

Lindsay Harrington has worked across the street from the fountain in a real estate office and watched the comings and goings since 1997.

Visitors “usually come with lots of plastic bottles, or big plastic jugs that hold maybe five or ten gallons,” he said.

“We did have an occasion where a gentleman would wash his car there, and I always thought maybe he was hoping it would lengthen the use he would get out of it,” he said. “It was his own automobile fountain of youth.”

Radium shows up in 3 to 4 percent of water around the country, according to a recent study by the United States Geological Survey. Many areas have no radium in their local water. Radium mostly turned up in places that had certain rock formations with particular water chemistry that created the perfect radium sink. Florida made up the third most likely area in which to find radium-laced water.

Zoltan Szabo, a co-author of the study who has worked at the United States Geological Survey for 28 years, explained that Florida’s water is frequently encased in limestone, which doesn’t absorb or store radium. “It’s like a bad paper towel,” Szabo said of the common Floridian rocks.

Artesian water supplies are especially low in oxygen, which also helps draw radium out of the water. Szabo hasn’t looked at the Punta Gorda water supply in particular but says the levels of radium at which the fountain tested are not especially dangerous.

The EPA’s recommended levels are very conservative, Szabo said, and are based on drinking a liter a day for 70 years. Even if that was the amount and length of time someone drank the water, the chance of getting cancer is still low, Szabo said, in the range of 1 in 20,000.

“You’re taking a quantifiable risk,” he said. “If you’re smoking a cigarette, you’re taking a quantifiable risk. Probably more than drinking that water.”

But radium isn’t the only thing that turns up in the water. In fact, a much more humdrum ingredient might hold the secret of its appeal. The water from the aquifer is high in magnesium, the second most common mineral in the body after calcium.

More than 80 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium, which helps the body regulate heart muscles and control high blood pressure. The World Health Organization recommends that drinking water contain at least 25 milligrams of magnesium per liter, and a U.S. Academy of Science study from 1977 found that 150,000 deaths a year in the United States could be prevented with additional magnesium in water.

According to Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, the fountain’s 46 ppm of magnesium puts it on par with other mineral waters like San Pellegrino.

The compound magnesium sulfate also makes an appearance in the water. It’s better known as Epsom salt, which has been used in baths to ease aches and pains for years.

Magnesium is regularly removed from many bottled waters by a process known as reverse osmosis. And the fluoride added to many public water supplies counteracts magnesium, too.

Magnesium is especially good for older people: Magnesium deficiency increases with age as the body stops being as efficient in absorption, and many drugs senior citizens take interfere with the body’s ability to digest magnesium.

“Water Bill” Harper has noticed that the fountain is especially popular among Punta Gorda’s older folk.

“One of the problems with city water is we have to maintain a chloride disinfection. It makes everything taste funny,” he said. “The people have learned they can go down and take that water, which is not chlorinated, and let it sit in the refrigerator.

“It’s tasty; it has no reaction with any of their medication. Also, [magnesium sulfate] keeps you regular.”

To Harper’s knowledge, the fountain’s water has not been tested for at least 25 years—although the EPA recommends biannual testing.

When this reporter sent the water off recently to be tested, it got a reading of 14.4 picoCuries per liter, plus or minus 6.4. This is, according to Szabo, within the range of what showed up in the previous test. According to the EPA website, zero is the goal for radium levels.

Between this warning and the ubiquity of bottled water, the fountain is much less popular today. Harrington says days will go by without him seeing anyone at the fountain. But there are still some dedicated drinkers.

Margaret Baumherdt has been drinking from the fountain since 1967, years before any warning went up. Baumherdt, who is now 88, moved to the area when she was in her early 40s and remembers having to wait in line to drink the water.

She gets her daughter to drive her to the fountain from her home in nearby Port Charlotte, the town across the harbor, and fills up as many as 40 gallon jugs at a time. She drinks the water exclusively and even uses it to cook meals like spaghetti. Tap water’s chlorine content doesn’t sit well with her. The fountain water, however, is just right.

“I love the taste,” she said.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130719-florida-fountain-of-youth-radioactive-magnesium-health/

MERS-CoV

Saudi Arabia reported today that five more people have been infected with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), as if to underline yesterday’s warning from the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the novel virus is a global threat.

In a brief statement, the Saudi Ministry of Health (MOH) said, “Within the framework of the epidemiological surveillance of the novel Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), the Ministry of Health (MOH) has announced that five novel Coronavirus cases have been recorded among citizens in the Eastern Region, ranging in age from 73 to 85 years, but they have all chronic diseases.”

Also, two more deaths from MERS have been reported in the past few days. Yesterday Agence France Presse (AFP) reported the death of France’s first MERS-CoV patient, a 65-year-old man whose illness was first reported on May 8. And on May 26 the Saudi MOH announced the death of an 81-year-old woman.

With today’s Saudi announcement, the unofficial global case count has reached 49; the death toll stands at 24, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unofficially, Saudi Arabia has had 37 cases, with 18 deaths.

WHO concern
Deep concern about MERS-CoV was expressed yesterday by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, MPH, as she closed the annual World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s policy-making body.

“Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus,” she said as quoted in a WHO press release. “We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control.

“These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world.”

The WHO plans to send a second team to Saudi Arabia in coming weeks to help investigate the mysterious virus, according to a May 25 Arab News story that quoted Chan. The source of the pathogen remains unknown, but several case clusters have shown that it can spread between people in close contact.

“Without that proper risk assessment, we cannot have clarity on the incubation period, on the signs and symptoms of the disease, on the proper clinical management and then, last but not least, on travel advice,” Chan told Arab News.

The WHO, which sent a group of experts to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, will provide a fresh risk assessment ahead of this year’s Haj pilgrimage, which will take place in October, the story said.

Details on deaths
Concerning the five new cases, the Saudi MOH left many questions unanswered, including whether the patients are part of a hospital-centered outbreak of MERS-CoV that began in April in the Al-Ahsa region of Eastern province. The cluster has been reported to include 22 cases with 10 deaths. The statement gave no information on the patients’ conditions, gender, where they live, or how long they have been sick.

The French patient who died became ill on Apr 23, six days after he returned home from a vacation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Another person contracted the virus after sharing a hospital room with him from Apr 27 to 29.

The 81-year-old Saudi woman who died was among the previously announced cases in Al-Ahsa governorate, the Saudi MOH said in a May 26 statement. It said she was suffering from chronic kidney failure and other chronic diseases.

Her case appears to be the one announced by the WHO on May 18. That announcement said the 81-year-old’s illness was the 22nd case in the hospital-centered cluster in Al-Ahsa.

The May 26 MOH statement also said that nine other case-patients have recovered and been discharged from hospitals since the first MERS-CoV in Saudi Arabia, which occurred in June 2012.

MERS-CoV designation

In other developments, the WHO announced today that it is accepting the name MERS-CoV for the novel virus, despite a general aversion to geographic references in the names of newly discovered viruses.

“Given the experience in previous international public health events, WHO generally prefers that virus names do not refer to the region or place of the initial detection of the virus,” the agency said in a statement. “This approach aims at minimizing unnecessary geographical discrimination that could be based on coincidental detection rather than on the true area of emergence of a virus.”

The name was proposed by the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, the WHO noted. The statement said the term emerged from consultations with a large group of scientists and represents an acceptable consensus

Patent issues
Also today, a story in BMJ offered more details on intellectual property issues related to MERS-CoV. Albert Osterhaus, DVM, PhD, head of viriology at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, told the journal that Erasmus has applied for patents on MERS-CoV genetic sequences and on possible related products such as diagnostics and vaccines.

Erasmus scientists were the first to analyze the virus and identify it as novel last year, after an Egyptian physician working in Saudi Arabia sent them a sample. Last week Chan and Saudi officials complained that restrictions imposed by Erasmus on use of MERS-CoV samples that it has supplied to other labs were impeding the investigation of the outbreak.

Erasmus officials have rejected the criticism and said they have supplied samples to all labs that want to use it for public health research and are equipped to handle if safely. But Osterhaus told BMJ, “We have patent applications submitted and that is on the sequences and the possibilities to eventually make diagnostics, vaccines, antivirals, and the like. It’s quite a normal thing if you find something new to patent it.”

He added that Erasmus has not made a deal with any company yet, because it’s too early. “At the end of the day, if you want something to happen for the benefit of public health—including making a vaccine, antivirals, whatever—you need to have at least some intellectual property. Otherwise the companies will not be interested,” he said.

http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/other/sars/news/may2813corona.html

130412032821-3-bird-flu-0412-horizontal-gallery

A new variation of bird flu that the WHO says has caused at least 11 deaths in China has genetic characteristics that make it well-adapted to infect people. In a report published late Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, samples from three patients — all of whom died — had mutations that have previously been shown to increase transmissibility, and to help the virus grow in a mammal’s respiratory tract. The analysis comes amid a modest but steady stream of human cases since the end of March. Saturday, China reported a 7-year-old Beijing girl is the latest person to become infected with the H7N9 flu strain, bringing the total to 44.

The strain is normally found in birds, and until last month was never known to infect people. “The H7N9 situation is evolving very quickly,” said Nancy Cox, director of the Influenza Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One thing of concern is the pace at which we are seeing the identification of cases.”

On a more reassuring note, investigators have found no evidence that the virus has passed directly from person to person. More than a thousand “close contacts” of the patients are being monitored by Chinese health officials, according to the World Health Organization. One concerning mutation, known as “Substitution Q226L,” was found in two of the first three victims. Past experiments have shown it to make viruses — including the H5N1 bird flu virus — more likely to infect ferrets, which are commonly used in flu research. The same mutation was also found in the viruses that caused the 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics. A second mutation, known as “PB2 E627K,” was found in all three virus samples. According to Dr. Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist, this mutation allows the virus to reproduce at much lower temperatures than a standard avian influenza virus. The change lets it grow in a human respiratory tract, which is cooler than the virus’ natural home: a bird’s gastrointestinal tract. In mice, Fouchier said, the mutation makes the infection as much as 1,000 times more virulent. A number of other mutations were found as well, including changes that are characteristic of viruses found in mammals.

“Known normal bird viruses have to adapt substantially to infect people, but not these,” said Fouchier, who said the changes are enough that he would no longer call the H7N9 strain “bird flu.” The first three patients to be identified are an 87-year-old man and a 27-year-old man from Shanghai, and a 35-year-old housewife from Anhui. The woman had visited a chicken market about a week before falling ill. The younger man was a butcher who worked in a market where live birds were sold, although he did not butcher any birds. The 87-year-old had no known exposure to live birds. All three died after suffering severe respiratory symptoms, including acute respiratory distress syndrome and eventually septic shock and multiple organ failure.

In a commentary that ran with the article, Cox and Dr. Tim Uyeki, a physician with the CDC, noted that patients were not given antiviral medication until their illness became severe. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) should be administered as soon as possible to patients with a suspected or confirmed H7N9 infection, the two wrote. Cox said it remains unclear whether the severe illnesses are typical of H7N9 infection or simply the tip of a large iceberg in which a large number of mild cases are going unnoticed.

“As surveillance has expanded, we’re also seeing individuals with milder cases,” said Cox. “We’re still seeing very severe disease in some cases, but overall I think it’s somewhat reassuring.” The CDC is in the final steps of refining a diagnostic test to identify H7N9 in patients, and Cox said it should be available for distribution in a matter of days. A widely available diagnostic test would allow faster identification of patients who actually have the infection, and would also help disease detectives zero in on how people are being exposed.

Work has begun on a vaccine, although Cox and others said that even if it is eventually needed, a vaccine likely won’t be available for several months. While the overall picture is concerning, flu experts urged calm. “I wouldn’t say a pandemic is more likely than it was a year ago,” Fouchier said. “The only thing we can do as virologists right now is to point out the interesting characteristics of the virus, try to get to the bottom of this story and try to stop further infections.”

http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/12/health/bird-flu/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

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A tiny Samoa airline is giving passengers a big reason to lose weight: Tickets sold not by the seat, but by the kilogram. Samoa Air is pricing its first international flights based on the weight of its passengers and their bags. Depending on the flight, each kilogram (2.2 pounds) costs 93 cents to $1.06. That means the average American man weighing 195 pounds with a 35-pound bag would pay $97 to go one-way between Apia, Samoa, and Pago Pago, American Samoa. Competitors typically charge $130 to $140 roundtrip for similar routes.

The weight-based pricing is not new to the airline, which launched in June. It has been using the pricing model since November, but in January the U.S. Department of Transportation approved its international route between American Samoa and Samoa. The airline’s chief executive, Chris Langton, said that “planes are run by weight and not by seat, and travelers should be educated on this important issue. The plane can only carry a certain amount of weight and that weight needs to be paid. There is no other way.”

Langton, a pilot himself, said when he flew for other airlines, he brought up the idea to his bosses to charge by weight, but they considered weight as too sensitive an issue to address. “It’s always been the fairest way, but the industry has been trying to pack square pegs into round holes for many years,” he said.

Travelers in the region already are weighed before they fly because the planes used between the islands are small, said David Vaeafe, executive director of the American Samoa Visitors Bureau. Samoa Air’s fleet includes two nine-passenger planes for commercial routes and a three-passenger plane for an air taxi service. Langton said passengers who need more room will be given one row on the plane to ensure comfort.

The new pricing system would make Samoa Air the first to charge strictly by weight, a change that Vaeafe said is, “in many ways… a fair concept for passengers. For example, a 12- or 13-year-old passenger, who is small in size and weight, won’t have to pay an adult fare, based on airline fares that anyone 12 years and older does pay the adult fare,” he said.

Vaeafe said the pricing system has worked in Samoa but it’s not clear whether it will be embraced by travelers in the U.S. territory. Langton said the airline has received mixed responses since it began promoting the pricing on its website and Facebook. Langton said some passengers have been surprised, but no one has refused to be weighed yet. He said he’s given away a few free flights to some regular customers who lost weight, and that health officials in American Samoa were among the first to contact the airline when the pricing structure was announced.

“They want to ride on the awareness this is raising and use it as a medium to address obesity issues,” he said.

Islands in the Pacific have the highest rates of obesity in the world. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, 86 percent of Samoans are overweight, the fourth worst among all nations. Only Samoa’s Pacific neighbors Nauru, the Cook Islands and Tonga rank worse. In comparison, the same study found that 69 percent of Americans are overweight, 61 percent of Australians, and 22 percent of Japanese. Samoa ranked just as poorly in statistics measuring those who are obese, or severely overweight.

Samoa’s Director General of Health, Palanitina Toelupe, said the airline’s plans could be a good way to promote weight loss and healthy eating. “It’s a very brave idea on their part,” she said. She added that flying on the airline may become too expensive for some large people and that the charging system could only ever be a small part of a larger strategy on weight issues. She said she’d be interested in meeting with the airline to discuss working together.

Ana Faapouli, an American Samoa resident who frequently travels to Samoa, said the pricing scheme will likely be profitable for Samoa Air. “Samoa Air is smart enough to find ways to benefit from this service as they will be competing against two other airlines,” Faapouli said.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57577683/samoa-airline-introduces-pay-by-weight-pricing/

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A drug-free life beckons for some people with HIV

Two weeks after the revelation that a baby has been “cured” of HIV, reports suggest that a similar treatment can cure some adults too. Early treatment seems crucial, but does not guarantee success.

Asier Sáez-Cirión of the Pasteur Institute’s unit for regulation of retroviral infections in Paris analysed 70 people with HIV who had been treated with antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) between 35 days and 10 weeks after infection – much sooner than people are normally treated.

All of the participants’ drug regimes had been interrupted for one reason or another. For example, some people had made a personal choice to stop taking the drugs, others had been part of a trial of different drug protocols.

Most of the 70 people relapsed when their treatment was interrupted, with the virus rebounding rapidly to pre-treatment levels. But 14 of them – four women and 10 men – were able to stay off of ARVs without relapsing, having taken the drugs for an average of three years.

The 14 adults still have traces of HIV in their blood, but at such low levels that their body can naturally keep it in check without drugs.

On average, the 14 adults have been off medication for seven years. One has gone 10-and-a-half years without drugs. “It’s not eradication, but they can clearly live without pills for a very long period of time,” says Sáez-Cirión.

Last week, a baby was reported to have been “functionally cured” of HIV after receiving a three-drug regime of ARVs almost immediately after birth. Sáez-Cirión warns that rapid treatment doesn’t work for everyone, but the new study reinforces the conclusion that early intervention is important.

“There are three benefits to early treatment,” says Sáez-Cirión. “It limits the reservoir of HIV that can persist, limits the diversity of the virus and preserves the immune response to the virus that keeps it in check.”

Further analysis confirmed that the 14 adults were not “super-controllers” – the 1 per cent of the population that are naturally resistant to HIV – since they lack the necessary protective genes. Also, natural controllers rapidly suppress their infections, whereas these 14 mostly had severe symptoms which led to their early treatment. “Paradoxically, doing badly helped them do better later,” says Sáez-Cirión.

The researchers are trying to identify additional factors that could explain why early intervention only works on some people, hopefully extending the scope for more functional cures.

“This whole area is fascinating, and we’ve been looking very closely at issues of early initiation of treatment, and the potential for functional cures,” says Andrew Ball, senior adviser on HIV/AIDS strategy at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

“The big challenge is identifying people very early in their infection,” says Ball, adding that many people resist testing because of the stigma and potential discrimination. “There’s a good rationale for being tested early, and the latest results may give some encouragement to do that,” he says.

Journal reference: PLoS Pathogens, DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003211

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23276-more-hiv-cured-first-a-baby-now-14-adults.html