Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Cholera: A Shame, Not a Whodunit

Titling Maggie Fox’s article on the source of the Haitian cholera outbreak “Whodunnit?,” Reuters makes distraction the main attraction.

Finger pointing about the “cause” of the outbreak — finger pointing at Nepalese peace keepers, the UN mission, relief workers, or Haitian health workers — is a way of avoiding the fundamental problem:  insufficient political will to create working infrastructure for poor countries.  Haiti being the leading example, the cholera outbreak being the case study.

Given how shaky the living arrangements have been for many Haitians since the January earthquake, given the pre-existing destitution and the anemia of efforts to fix that, it’s a tribute to the Haitian health system that cholera didn’t break out until October.  It might have been much sooner.

But now that cholera is spreading, it seems that more energy is going into using the outbreak to whip up political animus in, and about, Haiti than to figuring out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

This week, the politicization of the cholera outbreak seems to get worse by the day (Crawford Kilian’s cholera coverage at H5N1 continues to keep abreast of both the cholera outbreak and the political uses it’s being put to).   I talked to John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee about this on The Takeaway yesterday, pointing out that the problem is social crisis, not Nepalese troops.  It’s poverty, lack of adequate sanitation, poor access to clean water — not foreigners.

Here’s the segment of The Takeaway:

In contrast to the misleading headline of Reuters’ piece, what Ms. Fox covers is not the (pseudo) mystery of “who brought cholera to Haiti?”  It’s the effort by CDC, the Haitian health ministry, and PAHO to determine whether the outbreak likely started from a single source or multiple ones.

The findings are reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report this week:  Haitian cases all carried Vibrio cholerae of the O1 serogroup, serotype Ogawa (a very common strain), with DNA of a single pulse-field gel electrophoresis pattern.  Because of the propensity for mutation or recombination events in the reproduction of bacteria, it would be extremely unlikely for different people to be carrying bacteria with the identical PFGE pattern unless they had all been exposed to an identical strain.  [N.B.  Strictly speaking, cholera is not an infection:  the illness results from poisoning by V. cholera in the intestine, not from actual infection of tissue.  Therefore I write “exposed to” rather than “infected by.”]

Based on the findings so far, CDC and its partners concludes that the outbreak probably began with a single strain.

Did this strain arrive in cholera recently, or has it been around for some time and only recently came to attention as a cause of mass morbidity and mortality?  Did it arrive in a person and contaminate the environment via feces, or arrive in food or water?  Was there a single initiating exposure, or did cholera arrive inside multiple people or food items?  As Fox points out, the study can’t answer these questions.

It makes sense to seek information on how the outbreak got started in order to plan for better systems to prevent future outbreaks.  CDC is on the right track here.

But by calling this a whodunit, Reuters is pandering to people who want to inflame tempers, not spreading information about what can be done to make Haiti healthier.  Shame on you, Reuters.

Bed Bug Worry, Mosquito Mayhem

You hear a lot about bed bugs these days, here in New York City.   The bed bug infestation has become part of New York angst, the newest of our plagues.  The NY Times had its top infectious disease writer cover the recent CDC-EPA joint statement on bed bug control.  There’s even an iPhone app with GPS-enabled bed bug maps of New York and other big cities.

Early this month, a couple of friends, thinking they might splurge on a downtown hotel to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, were soliciting bed bug reports before choosing where to stay.  And at a family gathering last week, one young man — recently graduated from an elite college, an intellectual usually given to ironic mockery of the nuttier trends evident in the generation that still uses e-mail — told me that while he’s afraid of bees and doesn’t like mosquitoes, bed bugs really terrify him.

Bed bugs are unpleasant.  Their bites can itch.  Their feces and molted shells can set off asthma attacks or other allergies.  It’s sensible to avoid them, and get rid of them if they’re in your home.  I wrote a few months ago that it makes perfect sense that health authorities do something to limit bed bug woes.

But if you ask me what insects worry me most as a public health professional, I certainly wouldn’t say “bed bugs.”  Ticks, especially as Lyme disease spreads geographically.  Phlebotomine (sand) flies, as leishmaniasis becomes a more serious problem.  Mosquitoes, always.   Bed bugs are far from the top of my list.

The Aedes mosquitoes that carry yellow fever, dengue, rift valley fever, and chikungunya viruses, are most troubling right now.  Ae. aegyptii most of all, of course, but increasingly Ae. albopictus.

An extensive outbreak of rift valley fever in South Africa produced dozens of human cases earlier this year, and seems to be continuing among livestock.  An epidemiologist friend in Europe told me a few weeks back that he and other European disease control specialists, already concerned about dengue and yellow fever, are looking at RVF exposures in the southern part of the continent — a worrisome finding for a virus that has primarily been African.   The European Center for Disease Control is, appropriately, concerned about the establishment of Ae. albopictus in Europe.

Ditto chikungunya, which as produced 33 cases in Delhi, India, this year, possibly including an illness in the city’s mayor.

Dengue  demands control most pressingly of all.  Although the CDC is busily advising Americans not to worry (“Nearly all dengue cases reported in the 48 continental states were acquired elsewhere by travelers or immigrants,” its info page reads), there is active spread through much of the Caribbean basin — see the map at Dengue Watch, for instance.  The Mexican ministry of health reports dengue transmission in areas bordering the U.S.  There has already been an outbreak in Texas (in 2005).  And other highly industrialized countries with strong surveillance and control systems are experiencing dengue cases, including the first report of domestic transmission within France this summer.

(Hats off to Crof at H5N1, who has been following both chikungunya and dengue assiduously.)

The expansion of the range of Ae. albopictus, a secondary but by no means ignorable vector for dengue, makes the geographic extension of these pathogens worthy of concern.

With climate changing, trade routes always in flux, area spraying of insecticide disfavored because of environmental considerations, and of course mosquitoes evolving to take advantage of new niches, it seems unlikely that North Americans can go on counting on the mere improbability that virus and vector will coincide.

Mosquito control programs are in place, and U.S. authorities expend considerable effort at controlling Ae. aegyptii in Puerto Rico.  But the West Nile fever outbreak of 1999 and its subsequent extension in North America reveals the porousness of mosquito control.

Mosquitoes are much more worrisome than bed bugs.

In the mouth of death

The Miami Herald‘s article yesterday on cholera reaching Port-au-Prince quotes a homeless resident of the Haitian capital, fearful at the approach of the disease:  “Of course I’m scared — we’re in the mouth of death.”

Haiti today: in the mouth of death.  Not just Haiti, of course.  Deadly, gruesome, and hard to stop, cholera seems emblematic of the many failures that preceded the earthquake and have been exacerbated since.  We Americans are paying attention to Haiti lately — because of the earthquake; because of proximity; or because however bad things are here, what with high unemployment and poor economic prospects, Haiti conveniently reminds us of what we’re not.  But really much of the world, of the dollar-a-day world, is in the mouth of death much of the time.

With cholera, the relief agencies are hard at work.  Ansel Herz, a freelance journalist who blogs at Mediahacker, writes that there have been five cholera deaths in Port-au-Prince as of this morning, although the authorities say those people came to the capital from elsewhere and that cholera isn’t yet spreading in Port-au-Prince.  Still, cholera mortality is over 200 nationally.   Herz describes the earnest efforts of aid workers.  But his reportage, along with that of the Miami Herald, the NY Times, and others, also reveals the shortcomings of relying on aid organizations to contain the complex problems — of which cholera is the latest.

Partners in Health, to my mind the most earnest and committed of the aid organizations, is compiling reports on the spread of cholera and, of course, trying to do something about it.  But here’s the problem: if it’s the aid workers who are trying to stop cholera, it’s too late.  I don’t mean that they’ll fail; I mean that there should have been infrastructure in place to make sure cholera doesn’t break out at all.  And if there’s no such infrastructure, cholera will happen again, however well it’s halted this time.

It’s hard to escape the image, provided by Herz, of a new water tank installed near Cité Soleil by the International Organization for Migration — which stands empty, because nobody has provided clean water to fill it.

This is the problem with aid:  of course there must be organizations, like Partners in Health or MSF, that provide relief to the suffering.  But if there’s no support, or demand, for permanent public health infrastructure, the aid workers will always be scrambling to keep up with crises, and the crises won’t stop happening.

In the New Yorker this month, Philip Gourevitch takes a skeptical view of humanitarian aid (abstract here; full article requires subscription).  He summarizes the message of Dutch journalist Linda Polman sympathetically:

The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them – no way to act without having a political effect.

Now, Gourevitch is talking specifically about crises created by political conflict.  But something of this dilemma pervades the problem of relief.  Public health is political.  It takes political will — not just oral rehydration therapy — to install water supplies and sewage systems, and housing with running water even for the poor.

Canada is going to send a million dollars to Haiti to help with the cholera problem (thanks to Crof at H5N1 for picking that up).  No doubt the U.S. will outdo its neighbor in looking mournful and concerned, and donating even more money.  But where’s the support for good government, and real public health, and necessary infrastructure?

What are we doing to promote the implementation of good public health? What are we doing to generate the political will to install even just the ordinary civil engineering works that we take for granted in America, but which would make a difference to the people who are living in the mouth of death?

A Blog Worth Following

If you haven’t already, put Crawford Kilian’s H5N1 blog on your regular reading list.  There, while you’ll still get updates on the H5N1 avian flu virus and occasional pieces on H1N1 flu (and you can see a multitude of archived posts from 2009  filled with international material on the progress of last year’s flu — and the reaction to it), you now get a much-expanded scope, including news and commentary on the spread of infectious diseases of different sorts.

What I value about H5N1 is the tracking of the mosquito-borne viral diseases, like dengue and chikungunya as well as H1N1, that reveal the effects of the elision of ecosystem boundaries; the close attention to outbreaks that stem from changes in human-animal interactions — like the recent outbreak of plague in Tibet and, of course, H5N1; and the watch it keeps on the vaccine trade, as in yesterday’s post picking up a report in The Nation on the purchase of flu vaccine from France and one last week on a US tech company’s trials of a new flu vaccine (which won’t help the public but is, apparently, already helping the company to get richer).

The kind of close attention to the details of complex interactions amongst humans, animals, and both the natural environment and the economic one that H5N1 shows is indispensable.   It should spur more interest in wresting public health away from the simple-minded mass-vaccination schemes of medical officials in the U.S. and other wealthy countries — the point of which is usually to transfer public monies into the hands of pharmaceutical companies.  And move us to toward a more complex and inclusive view of the nature of health.

Public Health Priorities: Follow the Money

Thanks to Crof at H5N1 for bringing to our attention a strong editorial in yesterday’s Bangkok Post.   The editorialists note that H1N1 preparedness efforts were not always successful and that WHO, fresh from announcing that the H1N1 pandemic is over, is now promoting fears of renewed outbreaks of H5N1 (avian) flu.  The editorial continues:

While it would be foolish to dismiss such warnings as this latest one on bird flu, it is important we keep a sense of proportion and not let them distract us from countering the unfashionable but widespread potential killers such as tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, diabetes, cancer, dengue and malaria. These are the diseases already causing widespread illness and economic harm….

Rather than competing for cash, the threat from newer diseases should serve as a catalyst to combat existing epidemics.

Competing for cash is key.

Funding for TB languishes, dengue incidence expands, more people with the AIDS virus are getting treated but new infections continue to occur, water scarcity (and displacement because of wars and natural disasters) makes diarrheal illness a persistent problem, and malaria transmission continues to threaten billions of people who live in tropical and subtropical regions — but flu preparedness dominates the public health scene.   Why?

Here’s the infernal logic of WHO and the public health officers of wealthy countries (U.S., U.K., etc.):  (a) At the start of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, a sensible worst-cast forecast was about a million deaths worldwide; the more likely scenario was well under 500,000 deaths.  (b) TB + malaria + diarrhea + AIDS together kill 6 or 7 million people a year.   (c) Immunization against flu is notoriously variable in its effectiveness and mass immunization is almost never effective (except if instituted in an isolated population well before the flu virus makes inroads into the population).

Sounds like it would be worth it to pump lots of resources into reducing the incidence of malaria, TB, AIDS, and diarrhea.  But that’s hard.  It takes political will.  Whereas immunizing against flu is easy: it just takes money.  And national health officials were eager (it turned out) to transfer billions of dollars, pounds, and euros into the hands of vaccine manufacturers in order to be able to immunize their populations against H1N1 flu.

To an official whose job is to watch out for the needs of the economic machine, immunization pays.

One flu vaccine manufacturer estimates that in the U.S., employers lose $2.1 billion each year in productivity because of flu-related absences from work.  Let’s be skeptical about this estimate, coming as it does from one of the beneficiaries of federal largesse in response to flu fears.  But the point is clear enough:  it was a great boon to the private sector to have the federal government spend $1.6 billion of taxpayer money on flu vaccine in 2009 even though the outbreak was mild and vaccine did virtually nothing to stop it.  Because with the feds footing the bill, the burden on corporations was slight, whereas the private sector would have lost a lot of money if many Americans had fallen ill with flu.

It’s not just the vaccine manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies who stand to capitalize on the absurd calculus of protecting American businesses instead of poor people’s lives:  scientists do, too.

Robert Webster is an eminent virologist who has become dean of those American scientists who purport to be able to foresee a future flu catastrophe.  Perhaps he’s right, but of course nobody knows.  So when Webster says

We may think we can relax and influenza is no longer a problem. I want to assure you that that is not the case,

as he just did in a meeting in Hong Kong, it’s a good sign that the preparedness crusaders are worried about their funding.  They should be.

The preparedness crusaders have been unmasked as shameless shills for the private sector,  even if the vaccine and antiviral manufacturers aren’t paying them directly.  And the ones who are scientists have been revealed as self-important promoters of their own research — so fiercely protective of their own turf that they might use their prestige and the imprimatur of science to hoodwink officials into ignoring the more serious, and more certain, problems of the developing world.

Let’s hope that more opinion makers take the stand that the editors in Bangkok just did.