Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Cholera: Problem Solved?

Once again I’m grateful to H5N1 for bringing cholera news to my attention.   This week, epidemiologists from France have presented evidence suggesting that the Haitian cholera outbreak began when the causative bacteria were brought in by Nepalese UN troops.

In an article in the July issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, just out, Piarroux and colleagues assert that (quoting from their abstract) “Our findings strongly suggest that contamination of the Artibonite [River] and 1 of its tributaries downstream from a military camp triggered the epidemic.”

So the mystery is solved, more or less.  The news media have taken note:  articles on the EID report have already been written by the AP, Guardian, and other sources, and are being picked up fairly widely today.

The news, based on a report ordered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,  is being treated as an about-face on the UN’s part — because the organization, along with WHO and CDC, refused last fall to do an in-depth investigation of the origin of the outbreak.  So, according to the media’s coverage, this week’s report exposes some hypocrisy on the part of the health organizations.

That’s silly, and wrong.   I’m usually critical of WHO and CDC, but in the case of the Haitian outbreak they were completely correct to refuse to “investigate.”  As I wrote last fall, cholera isn’t a detective story, it’s a disaster.  To investigate the so-called origin of an outbreak that is as self-evidently the result of  calamitous conditions, state poverty, and helpless officialdom is to shift the blame.  Dodge the truth.

The work by Piarroux and colleagues in establishing a clear description of the origin and progress of the Haitian outbreak is impressive, often elegant, quite convincing.  But to believe, as some do, that it somehow proves that the UN and WHO are responsible for a catastrophe, or that sending foreigners into Haiti is always bad, or even that (as the authors of the EID paper say)

Putting an end to the controversy over the cholera origin could ease prevention and treatment by decreasing the distrust associated with the widespread suspicions of a cover-up of a deliberate importation of cholera

is to misunderstand public health.

The problem in Haiti is, and has been, a problem of predisposition — nature out of balance, people on the move, dire straits of all kinds (food, medicine, clean water, toilets, housing, etc.)  too tolerable to weak leaders.  Colonization by one aid group after another (UN included).  It was inevitable that cholera was going to break out.

To take the Piarroux report as definitive is to mistake the germ for the disease, mistake the outbreak for the problem, mistake the detective story for the real disaster — the real disaster being self-explanatory and not in need of “investigation”:  not enough money and not enough political will to keep the public from getting sick.

W.H.O. and the Medical Industry

At EP-ology, Carl Phillips has a new post on the World Health Organization’s failure to care about suffering.   It’s worth reading — especially if you (still) believe that the WHO’s main aim is promoting health.

Phillips’s focus in that post is on a new WHO Atlas on headaches

and the problem that headaches cause people to stay home from work, or work less productively.   The agency estimates that Europe-wide, the lost productivity from migraines alone is worth 155 billion euros each year.  It isn’t that you feel crummy when your head hurts, and that chronic headache makes your life miserable.  It’s that you might not perform your expected per-capita service to the expansion of wealth.

Here’s how EP-ology assesses the agency:

The WHO is not the humanitarian organization that many people might think it is.  It is a special-interest medical-industry-oriented organization with an emphasis on the interests of governments, not people.  Its emphasis on productivity in looking at headaches … ignores people’s welfare…

Now, I can’t agree with Phillips’s analysis that the WHO’s ethical system is either “communist” or “fascist.”  For self-described public health agencies like the WHO to be concerned primarily with productivity and the generation of wealth — and only secondarily, if at all, with suffering — has been a hallmark of capitalism since the British Parliament passed the world’s first Public Health Act in 1848.

In fact, the laws institutionalizing public health in Britain in the late 1840s were passed by the Whig (liberal, more or less) government of Lord John Russell.  Public health was a legacy of efforts not by the nascent socialist and communist movements, but by radical capitalists — who sought to secure a moderately hale labor force to serve British industry with little cost to the factory owners.  And aimed to blame individuals for their own misery.

But it’s impossible to disagree with the main point of Phillips’s post:  WHO’s aim is to serve industry.

As further evidence, consider this follow-up note on Tamiflu by Helen Epstein, published in the May 26th issue of NY Review of Books (I discussed Epstein’s main article in a post last month).  It seems more and more apparent that potential dangers of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) in children were ignored.  Epstein reports that

the risks of delirium and unconscious episodes were indeed significantly elevated in children who took Tamiflu, especially if they took the drug during the first day or so after influenza symptoms appeared….  If these results are confirmed, they are especially worrying, since the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control both recommend that Tamiflu be taken as soon as possible after symptoms appear.

I was not the only one unaware of this important study; neither, apparently, were the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Centers for Disease Control. When I contacted these agencies in January and February 2011, their spokespeople assured me that there was no evidence that Tamiflu causes neuropsychiatric side effects in children. [emphasis added]

In the rush to move taxpayer monies into the hands of wealthy private corporations, the WHO (with CDC and other agencies) proclaimed a flu emergency in 2009.  And ignored evidence on possible dangers of the products they were touting as part of the “preparedness” response.

USPHS Back in Bed with Big Pharma

Just in case you thought that the U.S. Public Health Service’s main interest is the public’s health:

Recently, Paul Sax reported at The Body on a plan to issue guidelines on the use of pre-exposure HIV prophylaxis (PrEP) using a combination of antiretroviral drugs, announced in the January 28 issue of CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The effect of issuing guidelines is to endorse the procedure, which will help enrich pharmaceutical companies — the first being Gilead, which makes Truvada (combination of tenofovir + emtricitabine).

Here’s the CDC’s rationale for issuing interim guidelines now, with formal guidelines to follow:

CDC and other U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) agencies have begun to develop PHS guidelines on the use of PrEP for MSM at high risk for HIV acquisition in the United States as part of a comprehensive set of HIV prevention services…  [W]ithout early guidance, various unsafe and potentially less effective PrEP-related practices could develop among health-care providers and MSM … [including]

1) use of other antiretrovirals than those so far proven safe for uninfected persons;

2) use of dosing schedules of unproven efficacy;

3) not screening for acute infection before beginning PrEP or long intervals without retesting for HIV infection; and

4) providing prescriptions without other HIV prevention support (e.g., condom access and risk-reduction counseling).

Translation:  if  CDC or another USPHS agency doesn’t do something now, homosexual men might not buy  as much medication as they could.

What’s the impetus for this guidance?   Results of the iPrEx study, which was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in December.  The study purported to show a 44% reduction in HIV incidence among men who had sex with men who were taking Truvada prior to sexual exposure.  But the study was so deeply flawed, and the authors so cagey about their methods, that it’s  impossible to conclude that Truvada makes any difference to the chances of acquiring HIV.

As the iPrEx trial’s logo implies


it was multinational, involving almost 2500 HIV-negative people who were male (at birth) and adjudged to be at high risk of acquiring HIV because of their pattern of sexual activity.  It involved sites in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Thailand, and the U.S. The comparison was between subjects taking Truvada and subjects taking a placebo.

The famous 44% reduction, however, was clearly not obtained in each site — and the authors don’t state which sites showed more effect.  More importantly, the reduced HIV incidence among those taking Truvada occurred only for a small subset of subjects who stayed on the drug for more than a year without becoming infected.  And it only lasted for about one additional year.

In other words, in the iPrEx study, people who took Truvada and remained HIV-negative for a year were slightly less likely to acquire HIV in the following year than were those who took placebo and remained HIV-negative.

Finally, even the small, second-year-only effect of Truvada is of questionable use to men in the U.S.  Because the study was based on men living in places with extremely HIV prevalences — higher than those in much of the U.S. — and involved men having a large number of partners, it provided essentially no evidence for any utility in the U.S.

As other trials of pre-exposure chemoprophylaxis are going on now, other companies’ products are likely to be included in the final version of the CDC guidelines.  So more corporations can benefit from the largesse of the Public Health Service.

Condoms are very effective at interrupting HIV transmission.  Obviously, you have to use them (properly) in order to benefit from that effect.  Because people don’t like them very much, condom promotion is a poor public-health strategy.

But as a matter of guidance for men who have sex with men, in what way is it better for the USPHS to suggest Truvada, which has to be used consistently even when you’re not having sex, probably won’t take effect for a year or so, and even then will only give you a minor reduction in the chances of acquiring HIV — rather than condoms?

Answer:  it is if you’re trying to promote profits for the pharmaceutical industry.

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.