Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

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.

Why Vaccinate Children Against Flu?

Scientists shill for vaccine manufacturers in doing routine research.  This week, HealthDay reports that University of Rochester researchers found lower flu-immunization coverage in states with less Medicaid coverage for vaccination.   Instead of asking whether pediatric flu immunization has any public health value, research like this assumes that flu immunization is useful.  It helps make sure the vaccine manufacturers sell more flu vaccine.

What is the value of mass immunization of children against flu?

CDC claims that flu is dangerous for children and recommends immunization.  This claim seems to be based on the 50 to 150 pediatric deaths attributed to flu each year.  Preventing children’s deaths is a good reason to immunize those who might get very sick were they to be exposed to influenza.

But to translate a small number of possibly preventable deaths into a national policy of mass immunization?  That takes a special relationship with the vaccine manufacturers (see here and here and here and here for my comments on the collusion of officials with pharmaceutical interests).

The evidence that flu vaccine is effective in children is shaky, as Dr. Tom Jefferson’s exhaustive scrutiny of study data reveals.  Immunization of children seems to be weakly effective at reducing influenza-like illnesses in a general population, as Ritzwoller et al. showed in a study published in Pediatrics in 2005.  Partial immunization was ineffective — an issue worth considering if more than a single dose is required.

A few studies suggest that mass immunization of children is a way to prevent flu among young adults.

A community trial of immunization of children against flu, published in Vaccine in 2005, showed the ineffectiveness of immunizing children:  there was no reduction in acute respiratory illnesses among children in the concurrent or subsequent flu seasons, compared to communities where kids were not immunized.  There were slight reductions in ARI incidences among adults in the community where children were immunized — but this study wasn’t designed to show whether it was the immunizing of kids that protected the adults, or something else.

Similarly, a 2000 study published in JAMA by Hurwitz et al. showed that flu immunization of children in day care had the effect of reducing acute febrile illnesses among household contacts, compared to household contacts of daycare attenders who were not immunized (abstract here, full article requires subscription).  So immunizing children in daycare might help their parents to avoid getting sick.

In general, there’s suggestive evidence that mass immunization of small children against flu lessens the impact of flu outbreaks among young adults.

But few young adults die of flu.  It’s an annoying and sometimes serious illness.  The reason the public health authorities are interested in preventing flu among young adults isn’t to reduce suffering; it’s to keep them from staying out of work.  Should we immunize children so that the nation’s economic machine doesn’t slow down?

To put it a little differently:  should we shift large amounts of taxpayer money into the hands of pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturers for the purchase of flu vaccine for children, basically in order to spare employers the loss in profits that would arise when workers stay home?

The news from ProPublica this week, that they and associated journalists found many cases of physicians taking money from big pharmaceutical companies, is alarming but comes as no surprise.  ProPublica’s new searchable database shows that the seven pharmaceutical companies (collectively accounting for 36% of market share) that provided data together made $257.8 million in payments to physicians.

What’s more alarming is that pharmaceutical companies often don’t even have to bother paying to push their products.  That’s especially true when the product is a vaccine.  Even flu vaccine, despite its limited and highly variable effectiveness.  Policy decisions made by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and CDC, practice decisions by medical organizations, research-grant funding, and so on are thoroughly organized around immunization.  Despite the evidence.

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.

A Must-Read Book

I urge you to stop what you’re doing and read Rebecca Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010).   It’s a rare combination: clear reporting on how medical science works, insightful consideration of deep moral issues about the uses of human tissue for the advancement of knowledge, and a moving, often troubling, family narrative.

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in 1951.  From samples of her cervical tissue, the immortal cell line called HeLa was developed (by Dr. George Gey, at Hopkins).  Skloot’s story covers the family’s travails before and since, but also digs deep into the problem of race in the business of American medicine.  Her account challenges, or should move us to challenge, the smug certainties about our supposedly post-racial society, and the convenient formulae about “informed consent” and “access to care.” I guess I should say, The Immortal Life should make us ask just what “care” means in today’s system.

Henrietta Lacks and her family members were almost never taken seriously as humans with real problems.  First, they were poor and uneducated black people from tobacco country relocated to Baltimore; then, they were the bearers of the same genes as a woman (Henrietta) who had died of a remarkably aggressive, and therefore medically interesting, cancer; later, they were background and local color to the story of the origin of the thriving, and therefore scientifically interesting, HeLa cell line.

To Skloot’s credit, she’s taken to heart, and acted on, the problem:  she founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help raise funds for education and medical expenses for Henrietta Lacks’s family.  Skloot’s blog, Culture Dish, carries updates about some of the achievements of the foundation and sometimes takes up issues germane to the book, especially regarding personal rights to genetic information (here, for instance).

It’s also impressive that Skloot interweaves in her narrative (and takes up more fully and explicitly in an Afterword) the vexing question of ownership of tissue samples.  She highlights how the expanding capacity to extract information from genetic sequencing ups the ante on the questions of privacy of tissue samples — since it’s now possible to ascertain potentially identifying information from genetic sequences even in a sample from which the usual verbal identifiers (name, address, and so forth) have been removed.  And she asks how the profits potentially available from exploitation of new discoveries should be shared.

The intersection of these problems with the matter of race makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, like James Jones’s Bad Blood and Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, a book that should be required reading for everyone involved in the health sector today.

Anti-Tobacco Crusaders

It’s hard to understand why the public health industry is so irrational about tobacco use.  Yes, it’s dangerous  to inhale the fumes of burning tobacco.  Smoking can be very bad for people.  But why vilify tobacco use in all its forms?

The anti-tobacco crusade is a modern-day version of Revivalist religious fervor.  It sure isn’t science.  And it isn’t about protecting people’s health.

The CDC estimates that 442,000 Americans die from tobacco smoking each year.  These estimates are slippery; they’re based on a fairly loose definition of what it means to die “from” a behavior — but let’s agree that a lot of people die sooner than they otherwise would because they smoke cigarettes.

Alternative ways of self-administering nicotine allow users to avoid the disastrously harmful drug-delivery device, the cigarette.  You’d think that Big Public Health, 45 years into a campaign to get people to stop smoking, would be promoting all sorts of safe methods of nicotine delivery.

That’s not what happens.  Instead, the industry pours anathema on light cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and other safer-than-cigarettes products.

The latest sermon is an article in this month’s The Nation’s Health — the newsletter of the American Public Health Association (APHA, which has turned into the High Synod of Public Health Religion).  The article  claims that “New Types of Smokeless Tobacco Present Growing Risks for Youth.”

The title is a double rhetorical turn now (alas) typical of APHA:  (1) your kids are going to die, and (2) the “risk” to them is increasing.  The piece would seem silly if the author, named Kim Krisberg, weren’t so serious.  After all, it isn’t kids who die from smoking, and the risk of smoking-related death isn’t increasing at all.  But we’re not in the realm of truth here.

Since Big Public Health isn’t dealing in truth when it comes to tobacco, evidence isn’t part of the story.   The head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids can say “the time to stop the spread of dangerous products is before they become the fad of today,” insouciantly sidestepping the fact that smokeless tobacco products aren’t dangerous.  Brad Rodu’s invaluable website Tobacco Truth explains — see Brad’s June 16th post, for instance.  Or go to this page at the excellent resource TobaccoHarmReduction, or see this article published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention in 2004.

The public health industry’s animus for tobacco leads it to label as harmful something that is really a boon to public health — the increasing use of products that provide nicotine without burning tobacco.  Surely it’s better to have people chewing nicotine-containing products that won’t harm them than to allow them to continue smoking tobacco in order to get a nicotine dose.

Moralistic fervor makes you stupid.  Stupid enough to write, as two physicians with FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products did,

As state and local communities across the United States adopt indoor clean-air laws that restrict smoking in public areas and workplaces, the tobacco industry seems increasingly focused on the development and introduction of novel smokeless tobacco products

… as if the tobacco industry were magically making Americans who would otherwise stop smoking suddenly crave smokeless tobacco — and as if that would be bad for them.  Drs. Deyton and Cruz, you should know better.

But Matthew Myer with Tobacco-Free Kids isn’t unintelligent.  Nor, I assume, are Deyton and Cruz.  And I can’t imagine they really want people to suffer.

Still, do they really think that safe non-smoked tobacco products are going to bewitch our kids?  Do they believe that apocalypse comes in a package of smokeless tobacco?

Are they just so obsessed with battling tobacco companies that they’ve lost sight of the aim of public health, i.e., to reduce suffering?

Or is it simpler?  Has the public health industry’s big-money anti-tobacco campaign allowed too many people to make too good a living by saying stupid things about tobacco?

The cigarette manufacturers have been scurrilous, dastardly, and sometimes appallingly inured to the misery and death their products have hastened.  Maybe they deserve the Myerses of the world.

But the public health industry could be a lot more focused on helping people to live less painful lives, and less obsessed with its private demons.

As Carl V. Phillips suggests in a post this week, the FDA will have to break with the public health industry’s moralism if people who use nicotine are going to protect themselves from cigarettes.

If the FDA can’t overcome Big Public Health’s obsession with satanic tobacco rituals, re-introduce truth into the discussion, and re-focus on making real people’s lives less miserable, the zealots are going to turn stupidity into bad policy.