All posts by neilmurthy

Zika Virus: The facts, the fears and the future

By Neil Murthy

A Medill Newsmakers Report

The current Zika Virus epidemic first began in Brazil last year, and has since spread to more than 25 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. With the World Health Organization declaring the virus to be a “public health emergency of international concern,” the CDC, along with state and local public health departments are bracing for potential cases of local transmission in the U.S. Illinois has already had 16 travel-associated cases of Zika, and now that the summer mosquito season is about to begin, what can we do to protect ourselves from Zika? Learn more about what we know about Zika—how the disease is spread, what the symptoms are, and how scientists have determined the link between the virus and a birth defect called microcephaly. This episode of Medill Newsmakers will also look toward the future—how public health officials and scientists are preventing further spread of the virus, and how the virus may impact the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

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The deal with diet pills—Weight loss supplements remain a ‘Wild West’

By Neil Murthy

Meet Whitney—a 42-year-old wife and a mother living on the North Shore.  Her favorite pastimes include performing in musical theater, actively participating in her child’s PTA, volunteering with various local charity organizations and mentoring her 7-year-old daughter’s busy round of school, homework and sports.

She is also on a decades-long quest to lose weight.

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EPA Calls for More Oversight On Lead Following Flint Water Crisis

By Neil Murthy

In the wake of the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is calling for increased oversight and collaboration with state and local water agencies to prevent additional problems with lead.

On Feb. 29, the EPA wrote a letter to all state governors and state environment and public health commissioners clarifying the procedures involved in testing and reporting water samples for lead. The agency also called on local water departments to publicly disclose certain information—such as the location of lead water lines (either through a map or a list) as well as information on the risks of lead exposure and how to decrease those risks.

The federal agency gave state and local departments 30 days to respond in writing, detailing how these departments are following the recommendations.

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FDA gives top priority to protecting the blood supply from Zika virus

By Neil Murthy

The Food and Drug Administration is turning to technology to protect the nation’s blood supply from Zika, as the virus continues to sweep across the Americas and Chicago reported the first case here last week.

Currently there have been no confirmed cases of Zika virus transmission through blood transfusions in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, multiple cases of Zika virus transmission associated with blood transfusions have occurred in Brazil—ground zero of the current Zika epidemic. As a result, the FDA considers finding a way to protect the nation’s blood supply a “top priority,” according to FDA public affairs specialist Tara Goodin.

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Children explore the universe of science at Family Science Day

By Neil Murthy

Children explored robotics and met a NASA astronaut as they delved into experiments  at the Family Science Day hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference in Washington, D.C.

AAAS is the world’s largest general science society and brings together leaders from multiple disciplines to share their research developments. Family Science Day gave junior scientists the opportunity to engage with the experts, ask questions, and help create a model of Mars.

Photo at top: Four-year-old Jack Doherty wears an astronaut mask at the AAAS Family Science Day in Washington, D.C. (Neil Murthy/MEDILL)

Inside Syria: Trapped on the frontlines of war

By Neil Murthy

What is life like for the thousands of Syrians who have not left their country but are displaced at camps on the fringes of their own borders?

As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, the devastation in the country continues to escalate a humanitarian crisis with the largest displacement of people since World War II,  according to researchers.

Nearly five million people have fled Syria, and another six million have been displaced within Syria since the conflict began, show figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of the country’s entire population of 22 million has been uprooted by the war.

The millions of refugees fleeing to Europe and other areas of the Middle East continue to receive intense media coverage, but little is known about the day to day living conditions of the displaced people staying in makeshift camps along the Syria-Turkey border. The war zone makes access difficult.

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From Ebola to Zika: How Lessons from Ebola Might Guide Zika Response

By Neil Murthy

Health officials are turning to strategies learned during the Ebola pandemic to combat the burgeoning Zika virus epidemic.

Dr. Ana Maria Henao-Restrepo, a medical epidemiologist from the World Health Organization, described her experience testing an experimental Ebola vaccine during the outbreak in Guinea in 2015.  A Zika vaccine is still in the “early stages of development” and “could take a few years” according to the World Health Organization. But Henao-Restrepo’s Ebola vaccine trial could offer valuable lessons to tackle Zika.

In the Guinea outbreak, Henao-Restrepo and her team first had to identify a “ring of contacts” for a patient with Ebola. Anyone who came in close contact with a patient would be included in this ring. Using the process of “cluster randomization,” Henao-Restrepo and her colleagues administered the experimental vaccine to a random sample of close contacts. For another group, they waited 21 days after contact to administer the vaccine.

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World Health Organization calls emergency meeting on global threat of Zika virus

By Neil Murthy

The World Health Organization will hold an emergency meeting Monday to consider whether Zika should be designated a global health crisis, in light of the spreading virus linked to birth defects.

“We need to take action now,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s Director-General, speaking at an informational session at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva Thursday. She said she is assembling a team of health experts to discuss the organization’s response to controlling the burgeoning spread of Zika virus.  Members of the team will be identified Monday.

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Public health experts urge World Health Organization to ramp up Zika response

By Neil Murthy

Public health experts are calling for the World Health Organization to step up efforts in the fight against the Zika virus outbreak.

In the Journal for the American Medical Association viewpoint article published Wednesday, a doctor and public health lawyer urge WHO to utilize lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic and formulate immediate steps to respond to the Zika outbreak. Dr. Daniel Lucey and attorney Lawrence Gostin of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University wrote the article in JAMA’s Viewpoints section.

Others, however, disagree that the epidemic should fundamentally change standard public health or medical practice. Despite the fact that two cases of Zika have now been diagnosed on Illinois soil, some local Chicago medical professionals have stated that the outbreak will not change the way they treat and counsel patients.

“Currently there is zero risk [of transmission] in Illinois but that may change over time,” said Dr. Emily Landon, assistant professor of Medicine, Hospital Epidemiologist, and medical director for Infection Control at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “Our preparedness is about educating faculty and health care staff on what it is,” she said.

“Zika is something to be aware of, but I don’t think we have to be afraid of it,” said Shirley Stephenson, a nurse practitioner who works at a travel clinic at the University of Chicago. “There are lots of mosquito-borne illnesses and Zika is just getting coverage right now.”

The recent Zika virus epidemic first began in early 2015, when clusters of the disease occurred in northeastern Brazil. Since then the mosquito borne illness spread rapidly throughout the Americas. Two cases have been diagnosed in Illinois, although both cases were imported to the state and were not acquired locally.

Zika Affected Areas – Countries and Territories Reporting Active Transmission

Courtesy of CDC
Courtesy of CDC

The Zika virus is carried by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, and does not spread by human-to-human contact.  The mosquito’s geographic range extends throughout the tropics but stretches into the southeastern United States. Although the illness only causes mild flu-like symptoms (such as fever, rash and joint pains), the impacts of the disease can be devastating. Preliminary reports show that pregnant mothers who contract the virus during any trimester of their pregnancy are at an increased risk of delivering babies with small shrunken heads and severe mental disabilities—a condition called “microcephaly.”  The virus is also associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome—a condition that paralyzes a stricken patient’s arms and legs.

The executive board of the World Health Organization is currently meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, and many are waiting to see what the world’s preeminent health organization is going to do from a policy standpoint about the burgeoning Zika virus epidemic. Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information to clinicians and the general public about Zika virus on their websites.

In response to the outbreak, the CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center on Friday, which rapidly increased the organization’s capacity to track and respond to the outbreak. Public health officials are wondering if the WHO will follow suit and activate a similar emergency response.

However, the preliminary agenda of the executive board meeting posted on the WHO website, does not list Zika virus as a topic at the meeting. With representatives from 34 nations, the WHO Executive Board has listed other—albeit equally pressing—issues on the agenda, including air pollution, antibiotic resistance, and HIV prevention.  The organization has scheduled a press conference and informational session Thursday at 3 p.m. Geneva time to discuss the ongoing outbreak.

“At the request of member states’ representatives present in Geneva for the Annual WHO Executive Board Meeting, the World Health Organization is organizing an information session for Member States on Zika virus,” WHO said in a statement.

In their article, Lucey and Gostin are calling for Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, to convene an emergency meeting to see if Zika virus should be declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or “PHEIC.”  WHO has only declared PHEICs three times since the organization implemented the International Health Regulations of 2005. The three previous PHEICs include  swine flu in 2009 and Ebola and the polio resurgence, both in 2014.

WHO defines a PHEIC as “an extraordinary event which constitutes a public health risk through the international spread of disease and which potentially requires a coordinated international response.”

Declaring a disease to be a PHEIC raises the bar on a number of levels. First, it establishes the disease as a matter of global health security. This would result in daily communication channels between the WHO and individual nation states, allowing for greater information transparency. Second, a PHEIC catapults WHO into “action mode,” where the organization provides specific recommendations to nation states, and encourages the mobilization of resources to engage in a more robust public health response in the field.

“It would be unconscionable if a lack of preparedness resulted in hundreds of unnecessary cases of Zika and potential congenital abnormalities in newborns,” said Gostin in a press release for the article.

“The international community cannot afford to wait for WHO to act,” wrote Lucey and Gostin in their article.

Photo at top: Aedes Aegypti mosquito, courtesy of Flickr