Sunday, August 2, 2020

Sunscreens: are they harmful?

Ah, summer. Beaches, swimming, sailing, outdoor parties, skin cancer.

Wonderful as it is to be outdoors in the sun, there is a potential price to pay. In addition to the visible sunshine and heat we get from the sun, we also get ultraviolet (UV) rays, that are damaging to our skin. There are at least three forms of UV light: A, B and C. All the UVC rays, with the shortest wavelength and which are the most damaging, are absorbed by earth’s ozone layer, as are many of the UVB rays, but most of the UVA and some of the UVB rays reach us. UVB rays on our skin have the valuable function of producing Vitamin D from precursors, so people who avoid all sun may need to take supplements to avoid becoming deficient in D.

UVA and B cause sunburns and are a major risk factor for melanoma and other skin cancers in fair-skinned populations. Some 60,000 people world-wide die of melanoma every year. Not surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand (with large majority Caucasian residents and a lot of outdoor activities) lead the world in melanoma cases per 100,000 people. Next in line are the Nordic countries – presumably because they are the fairest of the fair-skinned peoples. People of African and South Asian descent are much less susceptible to this risk. Melanin is the body’s protection against UV rays, and dark-skinned individuals have more melanin in their skin.

“Suntan lotions” with little UV protection may allow one to get a tan without as much risk of burning, but they offer almost no protection against skin cancer (nor the cosmetic effects of prolonged sun exposure: wrinkles and leathery skin years later).

Enter sunscreens. These come labelled with SPFs (skin protection factors). This number is an estimate of how much longer you can be in the sun without burning; if you would get a burn after 30 minutes in the sun, then a lotion with an SPF of 6 would let you be in the sun for 3 hours before you burned. Most dermatologists recommend using a lotion with an SPF of at least 30 to prevent skin cancer down the road.

One concern is whether habitual use of sunscreens might lead to Vitamin D deficiency, but this does not appear to happen based on recent research.

There has been a lot of press recently about another potential risk. Sunscreens may include organic and inorganic filters. Inorganic filters such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide physically reflect UV rays away from the skin and are clearly safe. Organic filters, too many to list, absorb UV radiation and are the most widely used because they are colorless. Two trials conducted by the FDA found that “normal” application of sunscreens led to measurable levels of these compounds in the blood of people who used them. The FDA was careful to point out that this was not a reason to stop using them, but simply a call for more research.

If the news stories have you worried, what should you do? I would strongly recommend you not stop protecting your skin. There is no current evidence that the compounds have any harmful effects and any theoretical worries must be balanced against the known carcinogenic effects of the sun’s UV rays.

One obvious step is to use physical barriers: dark umbrellas block most of the UV rays, as does most clothing: denim, nylon and polyester (but less so cotton). If media reports have you worried about sunblock, use zinc or titanium-based products, which the FDA considers totally safe. If you consider those unsightly, use the organic-based products; their “hazards” are conjecture and their benefits proven.

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Monday, July 27, 2020

Sick while black: an unhealthy combination

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted many of the failings of the U.S. healthcare system, including the racial disparities that have always been present. If you have followed the news, you are aware that African Americans and Hispanic Americans have suffered more from Covid-19 than their white fellow citizens. In Chicago, where blacks make up 30% of the population, they make up 50% of Covid-19 cases and nearly 70% of the deaths. Similar statistics are found throughout the country. Part of the reason that blacks have suffered disproportionately is due to social and economic factors: blacks are more likely to live in crowded housing, which increases disease spread; they are more likely to depend on crowded public transportation, where “social distancing” is difficult or impossible; they are more likely to work in low-paid occupations considered essential which cannot be done from home. African Americans also suffer more from the diseases that increase the odds of dying from Covid-19: hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

What you may not realize, however, is that the ravages of Covid-19 are just the icing on the cake of racial disparities. Pregnancy-related deaths, a marker of how well a country’s health care system works, is much higher in the United States than in comparable wealthy countries, even among white women, but is strikingly higher in black women. In countries such as Japan, Australia, France, Germany and Denmark, the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 births ranges from 5 to 8. In the U.S. it is 17 among all women, but in non-Hispanic black women it is 40.8!

Black Americans with cancer, lymphomas and leukemias die sooner than white Americans with the same diseases. Those with lower socioeconomic status, who are disproportionally black, have much more premature coronary disease and die younger of heart disease. Even when they receive “high tech” interventions such as coronary stents, black Americans had higher risk for major cardiovascular events in the years that followed. Black adolescents got fewer flu shots than did white and Hispanic teens.

Hispanic and black Americans are less likely to have a primary care physician, make fewer doctor visits and are less likely to get outpatient mental health care than white Americans. The Affordable Care Act (AKA “Obamacare”) increased access to health insurance for the overall population but benefitted white much more than black Americans. The largest number of Americans get their health insurance from their employers, but small employers are much less likely to offer insurance than large ones, and many blacks work in hazardous low-paying jobs with companies that do not offer many benefits.

What can we do? As the richest major country in the world, we cannot allow any of our citizens to starve or to not have a roof over their heads or die from treatable illnesses. Whether through adopting universal health care, expanding Medicaid or providing a public option for those without employer-based insurance, we must guarantee that everyone has access to basic healthcare.

Since much of an individual’s (and a nation’s) health depends on social factors rather than traditional healthcare, we should strive to see that everyone, white, Hispanic and black, has a living wage and affordable housing and access to healthy foods. New mothers would be less likely to have health issues if the U.S. joined most of the western democracies to mandate paid maternity leave.

We can do better and we must do better. Covid-19 will eventually be behind us, but the health disparities that have been made worse by this pandemic will remain unless we take this opportunity to create a better country for all.

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

It's only natural

It is hard these days to shop for anything, whether at the supermarket, the pharmacy or the beauty shop, without seeing products touted as being “natural.” The term is used even more often than its frequent companion, “organic.” Over the past decade, while total food sales have risen 2%, sales of “natural” food have risen 12% and “organic” foods 15%. Clearly these words sell products, but is it always a good idea to buy a natural product over others? What does “natural” really mean?

When a food is using the USDA-approved label of organic, this does have some specificity. By law, products labelled organic must be grown with no genetically modified ingredients, no irradiation, no antibiotics, no synthetic feeds or pesticides, no hormones and no chemical fertilizers. The contents of a package must be over 95% organic to carry the label. (Note that in many parts of the world, “night soil” is used as fertilizer, and while this is organic, I would prefer not to eat food fertilized with the contents of an outhouse.)

There is no legal definition of “natural.” One is reminded of the line from Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty says to Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Perhaps because of the lack of a defined meaning, you will see “natural” used on supplements, food products, cosmetics and just about anything else you can buy. Unfortunately, many clearly natural products are dangerous. After all, botulinum toxin is a natural substance, found in nature with no human intervention, but it will paralyze and kill you when ingested. (In micro-doses, botulinum toxin is safely used as Botox.) Many natural products found in marketed “supplements” have dangerous potential. These would include cesium chloride and aconite (heart rhythm problems), lobelia (seizures), kava kava and celandine (liver failure) and germanium (kidney damage). If you are taking a “supplement,” look for these ingredients and toss the tablets if any of these products are in them.

“Natural skin care” has become a multi-billion-dollar market, carving out 25% of the $5.6 billion spent in 2018 on skin care products. “Clean beauty” evangelists such as Gwyneth Paltrow have ignited fear in consumers about using many products such as sulfates, parabens and propylene glycol, not on the basis of facts but by using scary statements such as “do you want antifreeze in your moisturizer?” Dermatologists have pointed out that many of the “natural” products touted are more likely to cause allergic reactions than the products they are replacing. [See JAMA Dermatology, December 2019.] A widely used web site from the Environmental Working Group touts safe skin products, but in many cases gets a percentage of sales from products it deems safe, an obvious conflict of interest.

So, when shopping, remember that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, natural is in the claims of the seller, and don’t pay up for something unless there is a good reason to do so.

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Monday, June 22, 2020

Lowering cholesterol? How, why?

This post was suggested by a reader, who had read enough about the coronavirus, and it is a topic that merits attention. Cardiovascular disease remains by far the number one killer in the developed world and is rapidly rising to that spot in the developing world as well, and our ability to prevent heart attacks is in large part related to lowering cholesterol.

The first point to note is that cholesterol is not arsenic – cholesterol is part of normal cells, and no one dies of cholesterol. It has, however, been known for many decades that an elevated level of cholesterol, along with high blood pressure and smoking, increases the risk of developing coronary disease. Norwegian researchers in 1939 described families with abnormally high levels of blood cholesterol and premature heart attacks. This led, beginning in the 1950s, to attempts to lower cholesterol with diet and medication. Most of the medications which were then available, which included nicotinic acid, fibrates and cholestyramine, were not very effective and/or were difficult for people to take for any time, and their use did not reduce the risk of heart attack by a large amount.

A breakthrough in cardiology occurred with the development of the class of drugs technically known as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and widely known as “statins.” The first in this class, lovastatin, was discovered in 1978 and first tested in humans in 1980. Multiple similar drugs followed, and we now have seven on the American market. They vary in potency, but all work in a very similar way. The first major trial of using a statin to prevent CV death was conducted in the west of Scotland, among men at high risk of heart attack. Participants were enrolled between 1989 and 1991 and the results of the trial were published in 1995. Those taking the active drug, which in this trial was pravastatin, had about 31% fewer heart attacks, and there was about a 9% reduction in total mortality (from 38.6% to 34.7%) over an extended 20-year follow-up. Multiple later trials, done in lower risk patients, all showed similar results: fewer heart attacks and a trend to lower overall deaths in statin-treated groups.

I do not own stock in any healthcare companies, so have no conflict of interest in stating that the statins as a class are one of the best medicines in our armamentarium. Most are now available generically and are dirt-cheap in the big picture of pharmaceutical products; they are well-tolerated by most people; and have very few bad side effects. There was a flurry of concern a few years back about them contributing to dementia, but this has been disproven by many large studies. They do seem to slightly hasten the onset of diabetes in people prone to it, but the benefit far outweighs the risk.

There is one fly in the ointment: many people develop muscle aches from taking a statin. Only a tiny number have muscle damage (which can be measured with a blood test), and in my opinion if you fall in that tiny number you should never take any statin, but 5-10% complain of muscle aching that goes away when you stop the drug. In some cases, taking a different statin can be done without the problem recurring, but some get the same reaction to every statin they try. What options are available if you are in this group?

The first step is to decide with your doctor if you truly need to have your cholesterol lowered. While statins seem to have a similar relative reduction in heart attack risk in all groups, there is a difference between relative and absolute risk. Let’s say that taking a moderate dose of a statin reduces your risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years by 25%. If that risk is 40%, then reducing it by 25% means you have reduced your odds by 10%. If that risk is 4%, reducing it by 25% means your actual benefit is a 1% risk reduction – perhaps not worth it in your mind. There are on-line risk calculators that will help you calculate your personal risk.

If you feel that lowering your cholesterol is important and cannot take a statin, there are several choices available, but NONE of them has been studied for risk reduction when taken alone – all have been shown to lower your risk of heart attack when added to a maximally-tolerated dose of a statin.

Ezetimibe (Zetia) inhibits absorption of cholesterol from the intestine and reduces cholesterol by about 18% (compared to 25-60% reduction with a statin). There are two new injectable drugs, called PCSK9 inhibitors, that are very potent, but are extremely expensive and require self-injection every 2-4 weeks. Unless you have a very high risk, your health insurance company is likely to balk at paying for these. The newest entry is bempedoic acid (Nexletol), which also lowers cholesterol by about 18%, and it has also only been tested as an add-on.

Finally, do not forget lifestyle changes: a better diet, weight loss, moderate aerobic exercise. If you are a smoker, quitting will do more to reduce your heart attack risk than any pill.

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Saturday, June 6, 2020

Health care: black and white

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the failings of the U.S. health care system to give adequate priority to public health: our woeful performance in testing, contact tracing and availability of personal protective equipment. It has also highlighted the marked social disparities in how we deliver health care.

Across the United States, the death rate from Covid-19 per 100,000 among non-Hispanic whites is 22.7, among Asian-Americans 24.3, among Hispanics 24.9 and among African Americans 54.6. The strikingly higher death rate reflects many factors. Blacks are more likely to live in crowded housing, making “social distancing” more difficult; they are more likely to have to depend on crowded public transportation; they have a higher incidence of such medical conditions as hypertension and diabetes that increase mortality; and they are more likely to work in such “essential” jobs as meat packing, nursing homes and home health care and grocery stores, and less likely to be able to work from home.

The racial disparity in health care exposed by the pandemic is not new. Overall deaths per 100,000 in the U.S. in 2018 were 725 for non-Hispanic whites and 852 for African Americans. The maternal death rate in this country has been (or should have been) an embarrassment for a long time. While the death rate per 100,000 live births in most of the western world ranges from 5 to 8 and has been falling, in the U.S, during the decade 2007-2016, it rose from 15 to 17. Here too there was a marked racial disparity. The maternal death rate among white women averaged 12.7/100,000 in the most recent figures, while it was 40.8 among black women. Poverty alone is not the explanation; among women with at least a college degree, the maternal death rate of black mothers was 5.2 times that of whites.

Too often, minority populations live in the least safe housing, are less likely to have health insurance and have less access to health care.

As detailed in Prescription for Bankruptcy, some 80% of a nation’s health, as measured by factors such as our life expectancy at birth, is determined by social factors rather than the traditional health care delivery system. To lead healthy lives, people need safe housing, access to healthy food, green spaces, educational opportunity, social support and, most important of all, a living wage.

Whether through development of a vaccine or the gradual development of effective treatment and herd immunity, the pandemic will end. The racial disparity in health and health care will not unless we make a conscious decision to make societal change.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What do Covid-19 tests tell us?

To understand what various tests for Covid-19 mean, you must first accept one important fact: medical tests are not perfect. Even the most accurate tests we have at our disposal may say that someone has a disease when they do not (a “false positive”) or that they do not have the disease when they do (“false negative”). All tests must be interpreted together with the clinical findings and the likelihood of someone having the disease in question.

Let’s look at how Covid-19 is diagnosed. The “gold standard” is detection of the virus’ RNA in specimens from the respiratory tract of a sick person. These tests go by the highfalutin label of “reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction” or RT-PCR, and this describes a technique by which the presence of viral RNA is measured and quantified. This technique can be used on any specimen, but the earliest and still most common specimen has been a swab taken from the very back of the nasal passage. It has also been used on sputum (spit), throat culture, stool samples and even semen.

In most people who develop symptoms of Covid-19, viral RNA becomes detectable in the nasopharyngeal swab as early as day 1 of symptoms and in over 98% within the first week. Detection falls off after week 3, though positive tests have been reported as late as six weeks after symptoms begin. Tests for Covid-19 RNA in the stool and semen have also been found positive long after patients recover. It appears that late tests often do NOT indicate that the person is still contagious, and that they may simply be shedding decayed viral remnants.

The RT-PCR is highly accurate when positive. False negative tests do occur because of technical problems: the specimen may have not been taken properly or not transported properly to the lab, or there may have been a problem with the way the test was conducted.

The other type of test about which you will read is the antibody test. When we are exposed to an infectious agent (or a vaccine), our immune system gears up to fight it off by producing proteins called antibodies that both directly fight the infectious agent and call in various cells to do the same. It takes time for antibodies to be produced, so they are unlikely to be found very early in an illness. In the case of Covid-19, some antibodies have been found as early as 4 days into symptoms, but it is generally in week 2 or 3 that they are reliably found. First to appear are a group called IgM antibodies, that fall off by week 6, while IgG antibodies appear slightly later but persist, for months or years.

Antibodies are commonly measured in blood samples and provide proof of prior exposure to an infectious agent. In many, but not all, cases, presence of antibodies indicates at least some immunity to the agent against which they are targeted. The degree to which the presence of antibodies means immunity to the disease varies a lot. If you have measles antibodies, you are safe, but that is less true for whooping cough or for the coronaviruses that cause the common cold. We simply do not yet know if antibodies against Covid-19 will protect one from re-infection. It is clearly premature to use these tests to offer “immune passports.”

The other major problem with current Covid-19 antibody tests is that many of the tests now available are far from reliable. Many were rushed to market with limited testing and have a high number of both false positives and false negatives. Remember that Covid-19 is one of a group of coronaviruses, many of which cause the common cold, and a poorly designed antibody test may simply be detecting a prior exposure to one of these other viruses.

Bottom line: until we have more consistently reliable antibody tests, and until we know if the presence of antibodies is a reliable way to guarantee immunity to re-infection, I would not be in a hurry to get tested.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Musings on masks

Let me start with the punch line and then work backwards.

You do not wear a face mask to protect yourself, though it may offer some modest protection. You wear one to protect your fellow human beings. Refusing to wear a mask does not indicate bravery and toughness but rather a lack of concern for others.

How does the coronavirus spread? It spreads almost entirely when viral particles are expelled from the respiratory tract of an infected person and inhaled by another person. Huge numbers of viral particles are spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, large numbers when they sing or shout, and fewer but enough to spread with normal talking or even breathing.

Who can be a virus spreader? Alas, it is not only people who are obviously ill. There are still gaps in our knowledge, and it is hard to give exact numbers, but all experts agree, backed up by increasing data, that many people who harbor coronavirus and can spread it have minor or no symptoms. The most recent study I found, published in a British medical journal, found that 81% of passengers on a cruise ship who tested positive had no symptoms when they were tested. Moreover, even those who develop symptoms are most infectious just before symptoms develop. Lack of symptoms seems to be more common in women than men, and in younger adults. Roughly half the Covid-19 patients in China appeared to have been infected before the patient from whom they caught it knew they were sick.

How much do masks protect the wearer? Probably not a lot. Only N95 masks, which remain in short supply and are needed by healthcare workers, filter out most viral particles, which are very small and can pass through the fabric of cloth or disposable surgical masks. They do offer modest protection against moist droplets which carry viral particles from a sneeze or cough.

The masks do cut down on spread of the droplets generated by speaking, coughing or sneezing. The key point is not that masks do not block every virus particle, but that they filter out many. Every virus particle that does not escape into the air is a virus that will not be inhaled by others or fall on surfaces and perhaps be picked up on the hands of others.

Just as wearing a seat belt does not confer immortality if you get in a car accident, but does cut down on deaths, wearing a face mask will not prevent all spread of coronavirus but will reduce it. Wearing a mask is an easy, inexpensive and harmless way to show that you care about others.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Surrogate or real?

The dictionary defines surrogate as “a person appointed to act for another,” and to the general public probably the most common use is in terms such as surrogate parent

In medicine, it is common to have surrogate decision-makers, such as the parents of a minor child, or the spouse or child of a person who is incapable of making their own decisions. Such surrogate decision makers have all-too-often been put in the difficult position during the COVID-19 pandemic of making dread decisions such as whether to have a loved one put on a ventilator. It is very common for an elderly patient to undergo intensive care when they have asked this not be done, and researchers have also found that many surrogates’ wishes are not followed by the medical staff. It is always best, and Covid-19 has just underlined this, for a older person (or a person of any age with serious medical problems) to be sure their wishes regarding the trade-off between possibly life-sustaining care and comfort be explicit, in writing, and discussed with family.

I want to focus, however, on another form of surrogate – the use of “surrogate end points” to approve a new drug.

The gold standard for proving that a new treatment works, or works better than an existing one, is the controlled clinical trial. A large group of patients are randomly given Drug X or Drug Y, or, if there is no existing useful treatment, Drug X or a placebo. They are then followed until a pre-specified outcome occurs and the results of the two groups compared. As regular readers of these posts know, I am much more impressed with a trial that uses death as the outcome being measured. For many of the events reported, the definition is often fuzzy. The research group frequently establishes a committee to “adjudicate” whether an event occurs. You do not need a committee to decide if a patient is alive or dead.

From a researcher’s perspective, the problem with using death as the outcome is that to establish that one treatment is better than another may take a large sample followed over a long time unless the disease is rapidly lethal. Large trials over a long time are costly to perform.

Enter the “surrogate.” The trial of a cancer drug may use “shrinking of the tumor by 50% on CT scan” or “reduction of a biomarker (blood test)” as the outcome studied. While these MAY correlate well with outcomes of more value to the patient, such as lifespan or quality of life, they may not. More and more cancer drugs are now being approved by the FDA based on surrogate outcomes. A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found only a very weak correlation between these end points and overall survival. While a drug approved on this basis is supposed to have further tests done that do track overall survival, in a large percentage these studies are never done. Since these new drugs are often very expensive and have many major side-effects, it appears that patients are often exposed to potential harm with minimal potential meaningful benefit.

So, when the latest “wonder drug” is suggested, be sure to ask just HOW wonderful it really is. The reported results may be “statistically significant,” but are they clinically significant? Can anyone tell you this treatment will make you feel better or live longer, or will there just be a meaningless "surrogate" improvement?

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Thursday, April 30, 2020

A cure for COVID-19?

We are all desperate for a “cure” for the coronavirus illness, COVID-19. Since even the most optimistic accept that a vaccine is at least a year away (and that would be unprecedently fast), a drug that could offer a cure is the next great hope. On Wednesday, the press reported a statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci about the drug remdesivir from Gilead Science. The headlines touted “a cure,” a “game-changer,” and Gilead’s share price soared.

Do we really have an “effective treatment” against coronavirus? No, not really. Here is what Dr. Fauci said in a much-hyped White House announcement: “The data shows that remdesivir has a clear-cut significant positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery . . . The mortality rate trended towards being better in the sense of less deaths in the remdesivir group – 8 percent versus 11 percent in the placebo group. It has not reached statistical significance, but the data needs to be further analyzed.” When a result is described as not having reached statistical significance, this means that the differences could be due to chance alone. Flipping a coin three times, you will not be shocked to get heads three times, and it does not mean the coin is rigged. Similarly, small differences in response to different treatments will often show up without meaning there is a real difference, but simply by chance.

As to the “positive effect” cited by Dr. Fauci, he was describing a reduction in the mean duration of hospitalization from 15 days to 11 days. That is good, but hardly “an effective treatment against coronavirus” or a “drug that can block the virus” as the headlines blared.

Dr. Fauci’s announcement was unusual because it was made before the results of the trial have been published or subjected to peer review. To his credit, Dr. Fauci described the results as “preliminary.” He also tried to tamp down expectations arising from his announcement by saying that the data was a “proof of concept” rather than an effective treatment, similar to early results of drugs against AIDS. That important qualification was missing from many headlines. We later heard from Dr. Fauci that he made the announcement because he “feared it would come out in leaks.” While perhaps understandable, hardly the best reason or way to present science.

Contrast the NIH-sponsored trial with the results of a trial done in China and published on-line on April 29 in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. These researchers randomly assigned 237 patients with severe COVID-19 (all with low oxygen levels and pneumonia seen on CT) to remdesivir or placebo, They found that remdesivir use was not associated with a difference in time to clinical improvement, though there was trend to faster improvement with the drug in patients who were started on treatment earlier. They also found that treated patients had more “serious” adverse effects. There was no difference in death rates between the two groups (and those who read these posts regularly know I focus on that - a number that is neither subjective nor able to be fudged).

Why the difference between these two studies? Probably because the effects were so small that it was similar to a coin flip, but perhaps because one or the other trial had flaws. Since the Chinese study was peer-reviewed, it has inherently more credibility. Whichever proves to be more correct, the drug may (or may not) be helpful but is hardly “a cure.”

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Saturday, April 18, 2020

The fox guarding the henhouse?

A tale of greed, bad science and poor decision-making by the FDA which is unfortunately not unique.

Pre-term birth, delivery before 37 weeks gestation, is a serious problem. It puts the baby at risk of disability or even death. Women who have had one “premie” are eager to do anything to avoid one in subsequent pregnancies, as are their doctors. The best estimates are that women who have had one premature delivery have a 30% risk of having one on a subsequent pregnancy.

Short of putting women on prolonged bedrest, there has been little available to reduce the rate of premature delivery. A “meta-analysis” of previously published studies done in 1990 suggested that while the hormone hydroxyprogesterone did not prevent miscarriage (for which it had been used), it appeared to protect against preterm birth. In 2003, a trial was conducted that claimed to show that injecting pregnant women weekly with hydroxyprogesterone in mid-pregnancy reduced the number of premature births. The treated group had 36% premature deliveries compared to 55% in the placebo group. There were many critics of the study, who pointed out that the placebo group had a much higher rate of premature birth than would have been expected, and those in the treated group had a similar but higher rate than expected if nothing were done. It was also pointed out that the pregnant uterus was “awash” in progesterone and so there was little biologic reason to expect the injections to do much.

Despite these reservations, many obstetricians began prescribing this treatment. Compounding pharmacies began making the injections and selling them for $15/shot. Enter stage right Adeza Biomedical, which used the 2003 trial to support their application for FDA approval of their branded hydroxyprogesterone for the prevention of premature birth. Many of the FDA’s own scientists pointed out the flaws of the trial, and when the branded product (Makena) was approved, it was with the stipulation that further trials be conducted. This trial, which enrolled over three times as many women, and reported results in March 2019, showed NO benefit from use of Makena.

The FDA convened another “expert panel” to decide if the drug should be kept on the market. The panel voted unanimously that the newer trial did not verify the benefit of Makena, and 13 to 3 that the combined evidence from the original and the newer trial did not provide evidence of any substantial benefit. When the vote came on whether to leave it on the market, the vote was much closer: 9 to 7 in favor of removing it from the market. The FDA decided to leave it on the market.

“Follow the money” has clarified many apparently confusing stories. While the product was sold for $15/shot by compounding pharmacies, Makena was marketed at an initial price of $1440/shot! As generics have entered the market, the list price has fallen, but is still $848/shot for a product that was profitable at $15. This obscene profit margin has allowed its current manufacturer, AMAG Pharmaceuticals, to generously support the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, which supplied many of the expert panelists. Neither society has yet reflected the negative trial in their guidelines.

My take home is that all FDA panelists should be truly disinterested. Societies accepting money from drug manufacturers and researchers getting support from manufacturers should be automatically excluded from advisory panels.

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

The coronavirus chaos: who is to blame?

“WE'RE NUMBER ONE 1!” I guess that is supposed to be something to make Americans proud. However, on April 11 that meant the United States had passed Italy in registering the greatest number of reported deaths from COVID-19. Worldwide, there are now over 1.7 million confirmed cases and over 104,000 deaths. The United States, with a bit over 4% of the world’s population, had some 501,700 cases and 18,860 deaths.

IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH, the vice president is suggesting that doctors "recycle gowns" because hospitals don't have enough; states are sending ventilators to other states when this disease seems to recede because the medical devices are scarce; a fund meant to rescue small business is running out of money and Congress can't figure out how to fix it; the president said "we have the best" system for testing people for the coronavirus, even though other nations have tested a far higher percentage of their population; and a debate is raging among politicians about opening the economy, even though medical professionals say the disease is not yet controlled.

Contrast the U.S. with South Korea, an advanced economy of some 51.5 million, not nearly as wealthy as the U.S., nor blessed with the wealth of scientific and medical resources. Both South Korea and the U.S. reported their first COVID-19 cases on January 20. From that point, things dramatically diverged. If South Korea had cases and deaths in the same proportion of their population, they would have registered 79,635 cases and 2994 deaths. The actual numbers? 10,480 cases and 211 deaths! You cannot explain this away by different counting methods. South Korea has been much more aggressive in testing than the U.S., so we are much more likely to be undercounting than are the Koreans.

Who is to blame for the fiasco that is the U.S. response to COVID-19? There is blame enough for many, but the federal government bears the lion’s share.

China must take some share. When the first cases of the novel pneumonia appeared in Wuhan, the Chinese desire to save face and avoid scrutiny from Beijing led the political leaders of Hubei Province to downplay it and try to silence the messenger: Dr. Li Wenliang issued a warning about a strange new virus. Then the authorities summoned him for questioning. He was told to be silent. Dr. Li died of COVID-19, a true martyr. Precious weeks of preparation were lost.

Our health care system has in places responded with speed and cooperation, but in others has not covered itself with glory. We are all aware of the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) that puts our doctors and nurses at risk. In several well-publicized cases, doctors and nurses who went public with their concerns or even started a GoFundMe campaign to obtain the needed gear were fired by their hospitals! Shades of Dr. Li. Not only does lack of PPE put front-line health care personnel at risk, it harms patients by making the physicians and nurses see them less often and/or transmit virus between patients. More and more physicians now work for venture capital firms. In NY, many of these responded to the COVID epidemic by cutting down the doctors’ shifts; after all, many of these patients are uninsured and not profitable. This epidemic has shown it is time to take direction of health care away from “the suits” and put it in the hands of those who understand patient care.

By far the biggest failure is the incompetence of the federal response. When word of the novel coronavirus spread, South Korea sprang into action with early mass testing, tracking and isolating all contacts of those infected. It started developing and stockpiling test kits in early January, as soon as Chinese scientists released the virus's genetic code and before a single Korean had been infected. The U.S. could have done the same. As far back as 2005, George Bush, having read a book about the 1918-1919 Spanish flu, tasked the CDC with gearing up to respond to pandemics. The Obama administration refined this during the Ebola crisis, and had a pandemic unit within the National Security Council. In 2018, as part of “reorganizing” the NSC, the pandemic unit was eliminated. While South Korea mobilized to prepare, and despite multiple warnings from within his administration, Trump insisted that “this is no worse than the flu,” and that “it will magically disappear by April.”

Shortages of supplies for our hospitals and health-care providers continue to plague our response to the novel coronavirus. As late as March 2, the administration was urging American businesses to take advantage of the booming market to export such supplies to other countries. If Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act earlier, he could have kept masks, ventilators, and PPEs at home. In February 2020, the value of U.S. mask exports to China was 1094% higher than the 2019 monthly average.

Even more disturbing are investigations into what is happening to the supplies hospitals and states are ordering. In the absence of federal masks, PPEs, ventilators, and so on, the president urged states to get what they needed themselves. They have bought supplies on the open market, only to have the federal government confiscate them. Federal supplies are being disproportionally distributed to states that vote Republican rather than states which most need them. It seems likely that at least some of the confusion is simply poor management, but the suggestion that leading administration officials are trying to create political capital out of this crisis seems in keeping with their usual patterns.

Testing, despite Trump’s claims, remains far behind that done in Korea, Singapore and other countries. Unproven therapies with potential for harm are being pushed by non-medical administration figures, from the President down. The Trump administration seems fixated on his image and the economy, public health be damned. This goes back to Trump’s insistence that a cruise ship with coronavirus-infected passengers not be allowed to dock in California lest U.S. numbers look worse and continues as he fixates on his TV ratings rather than competent management.

When we come out of this, let us resolve to do better. Let us resolve to have a President who believes in science rather than “his gut.” Let us resolve to have a President who puts the safety and health of the American people above his political future. Let us insist that our medical care system focus on patients before profits.

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Friday, April 3, 2020

What's the latest on COVID-19?

As the evening newscasters are so fond of saying, “this is an evolving story, so stay tuned.” What you hear about the coronavirus seems to change almost daily, and if you are confused, that is because you should be! The traditional way medical research is reported is through publication in a “peer-reviewed” journal. The researchers submit their work and the editors send it to experts in the field for evaluation. These reviewers typically find minor (or major) flaws in the way the study was conducted or how the data are interpreted; their comments go to the researchers, who are expected to rewrite their paper in response. While this does generally result in better science, it is very time-consuming. In the current pandemic environment, many researchers are bypassing the established journal system to post their work on-line, and journal editors are often dramatically shortening the cycle. The good side is that research findings are communicated much more quickly; the bad is that much of what is spread reflects bad science that may not hold up.

That said, I wanted to share what we have learned in recent days, with the caveat that some of this is more conjecture than proof.

The first broad area is how the coronavirus is spread. The CDC believes that some 25% of people infected with the virus are asymptomatic, but still able to spread it to others. A short report published in the British Medical Journal on April 2 from China claims that as many as 78% of new infections detected by culture had no symptoms. Similar findings were reported from a small study in northern Italy. Another new piece of data says that while we are aware the virus is spread by coughing or sneezing, it may also be spread by normal breathing or talking. The bottom line: when you see new advice to wear a mask when out in public, realize that this is more to protect other people from you than to protect you from others.

How about the widely promulgated 6-foot rule? It is based on a Harvard study from the 1930’s. An MIT professor (not Trump’s uncle) claims this is not adequate, and that a vigorous sneeze may propel droplets over 20 feet. Dr. Fauci has no plans to change the CDC advise, but I think we can conclude that 6 feet is the minimum safe distance!

Prevention would be ideal. A vaccine would be best but is a long time away. A peer-reviewed study published this week in EBioMedicine reported on a candidate vaccine that induced an immune response in rodents within two weeks. While encouraging, you must remember that vaccines, which are given to huge numbers of healthy people, must pass stringent tests of both efficacy AND safety before they are approved. Optimistically, we are at least a year away, and probably longer.

A tantalizing study came out this week that showed that the COVID-19 seemed to have less impact in countries that routinely used BCG vaccine, a vaccine to prevent tuberculosis, that is universally given to newborns in Japan and China. It was previously used in France and Spain, but was discontinued years ago, and was never adopted in Italy or the U.S. Several vaccines, including BCG, have been shown to produce non-specific improved immune response against microbes in general. The BCG vaccine is proven safe, and so might be a candidate for use.

Treatment recommendations for established COVID-19 disease rest on tiny studies and are almost certainly going to mislead as much as help.

A study from China looked at the anti-viral agents lopinavir and ritonavir, used for AIDS, and found they had no benefit in a study involving 199 moderately severe patients given the drug combination for two weeks. They are being further studied in larger trials sponsored by the World Health Organization.

How about Vitamin C? If you are a devotee of Internet searches, Linus Pauling’s old miracle cure for colds and many other illnesses will cure COVID-19 as well. Well, Vitamin C does NOT cure the common cold, nor is it likely to cure COVID-19. A trial is being done in China, but do not hold your breath.

Finally, what about the “Trump cure:” hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) with or without azithromax. It makes sense to look at hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment, as it has been shown to have some anti-viral activity in the test tube, but to date the evidence for its benefit to patients is mixed at best. The early French study which I discussed in a prior post, which claimed 100% clearance of the virus in patients given HCQ and azithromax, was bad science and essentially useless to aid in medical decision-making. Two small clinical trials have shown conflicting results. A Chinese study looked at 62 patients, half given 5 days of 400 mg/day HCQ, and half supportive care, and found that treated patients recovered more quickly than those not given the medicine, and that four of those not given HCQ progressed to severe disease while none of the treated patients did. Sounds good? Unfortunately, another French group studied eleven patients using the HCQ/azithromax regimen and found no benefit, as did a second Chinese study of HCQ. Both drugs can cause serious heart rhythm disorders, and when given together may cause sudden death. The proper role for these drugs, singly or together, is in a proper clinical trial, with careful heart monitoring.

What you should do remains the same as it was last week. Stay away from others. Do not go out if you are sick. Cover your face when out. Wash your hands whenever you touch anything outside (or use hand sanitizer). Wash your hands after dealing with the mail or opening packages.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

"Cures" for COVID-19 - caveat emptor

Most of what I was taught about pharmacology in medical school many decades ago is long outmoded and useless, but one aphorism remains very relevant. “When the latest ‘miracle drug’ appears,” our professor said, “use it right away, because in a few months it will not work as well.” This sums up nicely the fallacy of using media accounts of “breakthroughs” as a guide to truth, or of listening to science-denying political figures as a source of medical advice.

I had an interesting experience many years ago when a long-time but infrequently seen patient was brought in by his wife because of failing memory. He was clearly in the beginning stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Aricept had just been brought to market as a treatment for this disease, so I prescribed it and saw him back a few weeks later and was astonished by his improvement. I was ready to pronounce this a “cure” for the disease. Unfortunately, this experience was never repeated in the dozens of subsequent patients to whom I gave the drug, and we now know that Aricept and similar medicines are not a cure but at best slow down the disease progression a bit. Why did my patient seem to benefit so much? His improvement may have been totally unrelated to the Aricept. Many things can worsen dementia, including infections and over-the-counter drugs such as Benadryl, and if I had prescribed green tea I would have seen the same improvement.

I tell this story because physicians now know that only carefully designed trials with adequate numbers of patients are reliable ways to find out if a medicine is truly effective and safe. Or, as I have heard said, the plural of anecdote is not data. The fact that my patient seemed to benefit did not prove that there was a cure for Alzheimer’s.

We are in a similar stage with the coronavirus and COVID-19. With no proven treatment available, we want to believe there is “cure” out there. The latest “cure” is the anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. The basis for these claims appears to be a single study done in France. Unfortunately for those who want a miracle, the study is a slim reed on which to base our hopes. The authors started with 36 patients, six with no symptoms but a positive swab, 22 with only upper respiratory symptoms and eight with probable pneumonia. Eight were admitted to the ICU and not followed, one left the hospital and was not followed, and they reported on only 20 patients. Moreover, they did not randomly split them into treated and untreated groups as is expected in clinical trials but used untreated patients from another center and patients who refused to be tested as their control group. The results showed that the 20 treated patients had less virus in their nasal secretions at the sixth day than the “controls.” While mildly encouraging, this is hardly a cure – and the patients studied were not the sickest, who really need effective medication.

A Chinese trial, done in a much more robust manner, tested a combination of two anti-viral drugs on more severely ill COVID-19 patients and found no benefit.

All drugs are potentially dangerous. Since Trump pronounced the anti-malarials a cure, at least three people have died from overdosing on chloroquine.

The World Health Organization is coordinating an international trial that will look at four different treatments for COVID-19: a new drug developed by Gilead for Ebola, the same anti-viral drugs found ineffective in the Chinese trial with and without interferon-Beta and chloroquine. These will be compared to each other and to “standard” care, which is support with IV fluids and respiratory support as needed. The same four treatments are also being studied by a European cooperative group headed by France.

Until the preliminary results of these trials are available, take any claims of “cure” with a grain of salt. Practice social distancing, keep up good general health habits and wash your hands.

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Flattening the curve

If you have been following the evolving COVID-19 story at all, you have come across the term “bending (or flattening) the curve.” What does that mean and why should you care?

Students of health economics have long heard that phrase used to mean that while we could not hope to cut the cost of U.S. health care, we could hope to slow the rate at which costs were rising by doing X or Y. Well, now it describes a much more important phenomenon, one which literally is a matter of life and death.

Let’s do a simple math exercise. Assume each person infected with the coronavirus spreads the disease to three others. While this number is not proven, it is a reasonable guess based on what we now know; the virus is very contagious and easily spread. Each of these people will infect three others and so on for quite a while.
How does this look?

3, each infect 3 more, leading to
9, each infect 3 more leading to
27 ->

So, after 12 cycles, you have over half a million people infected from one initial case. Presume that 10% are sick enough to need hospital care, since we know that many are only mildly ill and others, while sick, will recover at home. That still means 53,000 people needing hospital care. However, at any given time in Massachusetts, there are about 3000 to 4000 beds available. If we assume that the time between each cycle is, say 3 days, that means that in a little over a month, we will have 15 times as many people needing hospital care as there are beds available. The healthcare system will be overwhelmed and people will die for lack of care. This is what we are seeing right now in Italy, a country with an advanced medical care system.

Let’s instead say that by doing things proven to slow down the spread, we can increase the time between one contagious person spreading the disease to others from 3 days to 10 days. You will still see the same number of people needing care, but they will accumulate over 4 months instead of one, allowing hospitals to treat and discharge people, ramp up staff and supplies and take care of many more of those needing care.

How can we do this? Apply the lessons you have already heard:

stay home if you are sick;
do not gather in large groups;
do not shake hands or hug;
wash your hands well with soap and water after any possible exposure such as opening a door or holding a handrail in a common area;
use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available;
when in groups, keep at least 6 feet apart.

Doing these things may well cut the spread from 3:1 to 2:1, which would have a major impact, and even if it does not cut it below 2.5:1, it will “flatten the curve,” spreading out the numbers of infected people over a longer time, allowing more to live!

We are in this together. Let’s all do our part.

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Saturday, March 7, 2020

Where are we with Alzheimer's Disease? Of Mice and Men

Two recent items prompted this post. My sister, who works at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, sent me a news item trumpeting that McGill researchers had discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) using a special formulation of lithium. Another said that researchers at the University of California at San Francisco had discovered a simple blood test to diagnose the disease. Great! A simple test and a cure? What more could we ask? Yet at the same time, the US Public Health Service (USPHS) task force on prevention recently came out saying there was no basis to recommend screening patients for dementia. Who is right? What is the true state of affairs?

Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia world-wide, and it gets more common as we age. Almost 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s in 2020, 97% of whom are over 65. The incidence is 3% in those 65-74, 17% in people 75-84 and 32% in those 85 and older. We know that many factors influence whether one gets dementia, including age and genetics. One way to prevent it is to die young, but I do not recommend this. Another is to choose different parents; not a practical idea. Dementia is not inevitable with age. Dutch investigators recently reported on a group of cententarians who remained cognitively intact well beyond age 100.

Risk factors that we can control include making sure we exercise regularly and that we control our cardiovascular risk factors: diabetes, obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. What about vitamins? Careful analysis of many studies has found little or no evidence that any of the popular supplements (B vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) have any beneficial effect.

How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed? Traditionally, it has been a clinical diagnosis with no easy X-ray or blood test to confirm the diagnosis. Certain genetic markers, known as APOE genotypes, increase the likelihood but do not make a diagnosis. Certain abnormal proteins accumulate in the brain in patients with Alzheimer’s, and these can be measured in the spinal fluid, but this requires an invasive spinal tap for samples. They can also be imaged with a PET scan using special markers. Neither of these are practical for testing millions of people. The study reported by the UC-SF neurologists suggested that levels of a protein called pTau81 in the blood were much higher in Alzheimer’s patients than in healthy people of the same age. If this early research proves to be accurate, it will be a definite improvement in our ability to make a diagnosis with more confidence.

Diagnosis of a condition is the first step. While necessary to proceed, diagnosis is not the endpoint, which is treatment. There is the rub. All the medicines now available to treat AD are minor holding actions: they slow down the progression of the disease but are far from a cure. Many putative “breakthroughs” in treating Alzheimer’s have come to a dead end, with no benefit or even harm. This made the news out of McGill so potentially exciting. When I was able to find the paper reporting the study, it was a study conducted in genetically modified mice. Even if these results are repeated in other labs, it is a long way from changing the chemistry of a mouse brain to curing humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems the USPHS was right. If we have nothing in the way of a cure or even a major help to offer sufferers with AD, mass screening is not a high priority.

So, exercise regularly, keep your weight down, be socially engaged, treat your cardiovascular risk factors and hope that what works in mice may someday be shown to work in men (and women).

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Sunday, March 1, 2020

What is the latest on Coronavirus?

I don’t usually revisit topics this soon, and have tried to update my original post as new data was available, but feel it is time to re-look at the coronavirus story based on where we are now. The suggestion from the French government that people stop greeting each other with a kiss shows how profoundly this epidemic has affected the world.

As most people know, in December 2019, there was an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China. All the patients with pneumonia were linked to a seafood wholesale market in Wuhan. A previously unknown coronavirus was discovered in samples from the patients and named 2019-nCoV (now officially named SARS-CoV-2). Different from both MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, 2019-nCoV is the seventh member of the family of coronaviruses that infect humans. While most coronaviruses found in humans are associated with the common cold, the MERS and SARS variety were the cause of severe disease in humans, and both were transmitted from animals (camels and swine respectively) to humans and then human-to-human. The illness caused by this new virus is now officially called COVID-19, and is similar to influenza, with fever and cough and sometimes shortness of breath.

The major concern is the history of MERS and SARS. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome resulted in 2500 cases, of which 34% died. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which broke out in China in 2002-3 led to some 8000 cases, of which 10% died. Could this new virus behave similarly? As of February 27, there were some 82,500 confirmed cases and 2801 (3.3%) have died. The facts of modern travel have resulted in spread outside Wuhan, with cases now reported from 56 countries. While the vast majority of both cases and deaths have been in China, most of those in Hubei province around Wuhan, South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy have had major outbreaks. South Korea reported a sharp upsurge linked to a packed church service. Of 2801 deaths, 2745 have been in China. While you will see headlines proclaiming that the death toll exceeds that from SARS, note that from the beginning, the death rate from this virus has stayed at 2.3-3.3%. It should also be noted that the number of new cases in China appears to be falling. Reported cases took an apparent upward spike mid-February when Chinese doctors adopted a new definition of the disease but peaked around Feb 5-6 and are now falling rapidly, from almost 4000 new cases a day to about 500.

The Chinese authorities initially tried to keep the outbreak a secret, but in a “better late than never” response, they implemented a virtual quarantine of the entire city, to the consternation of its people, but which clearly helped to contain the epidemic. Chinese scientists were on the scene early, identified the virus DNA and shared this with the global scientific community, which has proven very helpful in understanding the epidemic. Unlike its response during the SARS epidemic, China allowed WHO experts to evaluate and offer advice. Returning travelers from central China are being identified at airports and checked for fever. Flights to and from China have been curtailed or stopped completely.

Given the relatively low fatality rate, which has been predominantly in frail elderly or those with other major diseases, there is clearly cause for worry but it does not appear there is a need to panic. An obvious concern is the belief that spread can occur before someone has symptoms, which seems to have been behind the outbreak in Italy. Unlike influenza, the illness seems to spare children. While this is good for them, it means they can spread the disease to others. Japan took the unprecedented step of closing schools to cut the risk of transmission. While the initial cases seen in the U.S. were all in recent arrivals from Wuhan or their immediate contacts, there have now been two reported cases with no obvious connection to China, raising fears of wider spread not easily stopped by quarantining travelers. The CDC found that there was transmission of the virus to 10% of household contacts but only 0.5% of other "close contacts."

The fear of a pandemic has been reflected in our behavior. The most obvious is the drop off in travel and cancellation of trade shows. The interdependence of economies around the world means that when China’s economy slows dramatically, economies around the world suffer. The coronavirus outbreak resulted in a huge slump in the stock market, with U.S. stocks losing $3.6 trillion last week.

What does this mean to you? First, I would call off trips to Asia in general (if you could even find a flight!). Avoid areas with known outbreaks: northern Italy at the moment; this is clearly going to change, so look at the State Department’s web site for up to date information: If any of your friends or colleagues have recently returned from central China, be extra careful to avoid them if they are at all ill. I would avoid cruise ships, which are notorious for disease spread due to close contact. Avoid crowds. Avoid cruise ships. Take airplanes only if critical.

Masks? Don't bother; they may do more harm (by frequent touching) than good. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Don't worry about packages - the virus will not survive over the trip from China. Recent arrivals from China, who may arrive via third countries, should self-quarantine for 14 days or be required to do so if they do not do so voluntarily. The incubation period is between 5 and 14 days, so anyone who is not ill after two weeks is very unlikely to carry the virus. If you are the sick one, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze - but NOT with your hand - use your elbow or a tissue that you then toss. If you are sick, please stay home – this is good advice for ALL respiratory illness. You bridge players – and I know you are out there – who are sneezing or coughing should stay home and play on-line. Do not share your virus with others.

Get your information from the CDC or the WHO, not from the myriad web sites that have sprung up to peddle conspiracy theories (no, this coronavirus was NOT developed as a bioweapon) or useless cures.

While you do NOT need to horde, it would be prudent to have an adequate supply of non-perishable food and enough of needed medication on hand should your community see cases and you would rather stay home. Ask your employer if they have plans to let you tele-commute in a pinch.

Most important, while the 2019 Novel Coronavirus has so far killed over 2800 people, there is a much worse virus circulating that has already killed some 16,000 Americans this season, and is estimated to kill 35,000 each year. That virus is the influenza virus. So, if you have not already done so, get your flu shot!

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For avideo update, see:

Monday, February 10, 2020

It's only natural

I cannot count the times a patient told me they were taking a supplement or over-the-counter medication that “must be safe” because it was “natural.” This is a widespread belief; a large majority of people surveyed believe that a “natural” product is superior to a man-made or synthetic one, even though arsenic and poisonous mushrooms are “natural,” as well as being deadly poisons. There is no formal definition of “natural,” so manufacturers and dealers can tout their products as being natural at whim.

When a remedy has been used for hundreds of years (or in the case of Chinese medicines for thousands), there presumably must be something to it. Many natural products, mostly plant-based have been used for such common ills as toothache, colds and upset stomachs. A study done ten years ago found that some 40% of Americans had used some form of alternative remedy in the preceding year. Because the FDA considers most of these to be food rather than medication, they are not required to do the efficacy and safety studies required of new drugs.

Do they work? It is hard to answer that without considering the placebo effect. The mind is a powerful force, and we produce many chemicals in our bodies that have measurable effects. Numerous studies of treatments for pain and psychiatric disorders find that when used in a “double blind” fashion (i.e., neither patient nor doctor know whether getting the active treatment or the sugar pill), placebos work almost as well as active medications. Moreover, about 20% of people getting a placebo report side-effects! So…if a remedy works, it may simply be the placebo effect in action.

Let us look at some specifics. Cranberry juice is widely touted to prevent or treat urinary tract infections, but large studies have found it of no benefit over simply drinking more water. Cinnamon has been touted to help control blood sugar, but careful studies have found no effect. Clove oil is often used for toothaches, but again has no consistent benefit and large amounts can be toxic when swallowed. Primrose oil is suggested for eczema, but its benefits over placebo cream are minimal, and better alternatives exist.

Perhaps most worrisome is when patients turn to “natural remedies” in place of proven treatments. A study looked at cancer patients who used “complementary medicine” and found that many of these patients refused conventional treatments and those who did had a higher death rate and shorter average survival.

Chinese and other imported herbal products have periodically been linked to serious outbreaks of illness and death, and the association is often hard to find until many people have been affected.

What does this mean for you? If you are treating a nuisance but not serious illness, and you have found an herbal product that works for you, it is probably harmless. Be sure to get any products from a legitimate source. Be wary of buying these products on-line from an uncertain source. If you have something more than a cold, please consult your doctor!

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Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Novel Coronavirus - should you worry?

The sky is falling, the sky is falling! We are all going to die of coronavirus! Or are we?

(Note that I will periodically update this post though the original posting date of 1/25 will not change. Last update 2/24.)

In December 2019, there was an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China. All the patients with pneumonia were linked to a seafood wholesale market in Wuhan. A previously unknown coronavirus was discovered in samples from the patients and named 2019-nCoV (now officially named SARS-CoV-2). Different from both MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, 2019-nCoV is the seventh member of the family of coronaviruses that infect humans. While most coronaviruses found in humans are associated with the common cold, the MERS and SARS variety were the cause of severe disease in humans, and both were transmitted from animals (camels and swine respectively) to humans and then human-to-human. The illness caused by this virus is now officially called COVID-19.

The major concern is the history of MERS and SARS. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome resulted in 2500 cases, of which 34% died. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which broke out in China in 2002-3 led to some 8000 cases, of which 10% died. Could this new virus behave similarly? As of February 18, there have been some 72,500 confirmed cases in China, and 1870 (2.5%) have died. The facts of modern travel have resulted in spread outside Wuhan. Small numbers of cases have been reported from Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, France, Australia, Canada and the U.S, where 35 cases have been found as of Feb 24, all in returning travelers from Wuhan or their spouses or passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. As of February 24, the large majority of cases have been in China, most of those in Hubei province around Wuhan. There have been over 1000 cases world-wide outside of China, with South Korea reporting a sharp upsurge from 30 last week to 602, linked to a packed church service and few deaths outside China have been reported. Another hot spot is Japan, and Italy is also reporting an upsurge from 3 to 219 this week. While you will see headlines proclaiming that the death toll exceeds that from SARS, note that from the beginning, the death rate from this virus has stayed at 2-2.5%. It should also be noted that the number of new cases in China appears to be falling. Reported cases took an apparent upward spike mid-February when Chinese doctors adopted a new definition of the disease but are now falling.

The Chinese authorities have responded vigorously. After an unfortunate period in which they tried to keep the outbreak a secret, they have been open about the situation, which is very helpful to public health personnel in other countries. They have implemented a virtual quarantine of the entire city, to the consternation of its people, but which should help contain the epidemic. Chinese scientists were on the scene early, identified the virus DNA and shared this with the global scientific community, which has proven very helpful in understanding the epidemic. Unlike it's response during the SARS epidemic, China will finally allow WHO experts to evaluate and offer advice, Returning travelers from central China are being identified at airports and checked for fever. Flights to and from China have been curtailed or stopped completely.

Given the relatively low fatality rate, and the relatively low person-to-person spread (estimates are that every person infected could infect between 1.5 and 2.5 others), it does not appear there is a need to panic. The World Health Organization initially decided against declaring this a public health emergency, but did do so on January 30. An obvious concern is the belief that spread can occur before someone has symptoms.

What does this mean to you? First, I would call off that trip to Wuhan specifically and China in general (if you could even find a flight!). Second, if any of your friends or colleagues have recently returned from central China, be extra careful to avoid them if they are at all ill. Masks? Don't bother; they may do more harm (by frequent touching) than good. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Don't worry about packages - the virus will not survive over the trip from China. Recent arrivals from China, who may arrive via third countries, should self-quarantine for 14 days or be required to do so if they do not do so voluntarily. The incubation period is between 5 and 14 days, so anyone who is not ill after two weeks is very unlikely to carry the virus. If you are the sick one, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze - but NOT with your hand - use your elbow or a tissue that you then toss.

Most important, while the 2019 Novel Coronavirus has so far killed over 1000 people, there is a much worse virus circulating that has already killed some 14,000 Americans this season, and is estimated to kill 35,000 each year. That virus is the influenza virus. So, if you have not already done so, get your flu shot!

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Waste not, want not

The October 7, 2019, New York Times headlined “The Huge Waste in the U.S. Health System,” referencing a study published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article went on to say that the estimated waste is at least $760 billion per year. “That’s comparable to government spending on Medicare and exceeds national military spending, as well as total primary and secondary education spending.” None of this should have come as a surprise to readers of my book Prescription for Bankruptcy, nor was it really “news.” Back in 2012, both another paper in JAMA and a report from the National Research Council estimated waste in the system at 30-35% of total spending.

Why is waste so prevalent? There are many sources. The biggest one, and the one that should most concern patients, is “low value care:” care that offers little or no benefit or even harm but which costs patients and their insurers money. This ranges from antibiotics for viral illness that will not improve the infection but may cause side-effects to back surgery for non-specific low back pain that may leave patients worse.

Using branded medicine when generics are available is obvious waste. There is enormous waste in testing and medical services. Not only are U.S. prices for most services dramatically higher than those in other countries, but prices for the same service vary widely within the U.S. If the same imaging study can cost $1200 in one location and $4000 in another in the same geographic area, is not the $2800 pure waste?

Studies at major medical centers have shown that a very large percentage of the tests ordered are clearly unnecessary: tests repeated for no reason or tests done so soon after another that they are unlikely to be different. A study of eye surgery showed that huge volumes of medications were discarded because they came in amounts much greater than normally used. Surgical “kits” used by different surgeons for the same operation can vary 4-fold in cost with no obvious difference in performance. Patients having cataract surgery are routinely required to have “pre-op clearance” with a physical exam and ECG even though the national organization of ophthalmologists has said this is not needed.

Tests that were not needed in the first place often show some minor abnormality, which leads to a “cascade” of further tests and rarely benefit the patient subjected to this testing.

Probably the largest source of waste is the huge administrative overhead embedded in the U.S. healthcare system. Fully 25% of “healthcare” spending goes to the direct cost of private health insurers and to the cost to physicians and hospitals of billing and meeting various “mandates” that the insurers place on them. An argument for a single payer system is that it could cut payments to physicians by 10% and at the same time cut their costs by at least that amount by reducing the administrative burden, leaving them financially whole.

With a system that is so expensive, why has there not been some movement to cut waste? A large factor is the lack of interest by those who would have to move the needle. Why should a hospital cut the cost of their surgical kits when they can simply pass the cost on to the insurers?

Another, and perhaps the major factor, is that one person’s wasteful spending is another person’s income. Only under huge pressure from the public and the government are we going to see change. I am not holding my breath.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Dying to be beautiful

Personal care products (nail polish, polish removal, hair products, skin creams, etc.) are found in every American home, and most are perfectly safe if used as intended. There are, however, situations in which these can be dangerous and even deadly.

The most obvious concern is accidental use by small children. An article published on-line in Clinical Pediatrics estimated that between 2002 and 2016, almost 65,000 children under 5 were treated in US emergency departments for poisoning by cosmetics. Toddlers are naturally curious, and as soon as they begin to walk begin to investigate their world, often by putting what they find in their mouths. Products that are perfectly safe when applied to the hair or nails may be dangerous when swallowed. By far the most common cosmetic-associated injuries were poisonings, and this was particularly common in children under 2. About 20% were burns or other contact injuries, and often involved the eyes. It does not help that many of these products are brightly colored and attractively packaged. What entices adults to pick them out on crowded shelves also attracts the attention of exploring toddlers.

Another issue is endocrine-disrupting chemicals, particularly parabens and phthalates that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics (and other household products). Researchers found that when women used these extensively during pregnancy, their daughters had significantly earlier onset of puberty. This can be psychologically difficult for the girls and has also be linked to higher risk of breast cancer.

Least common but truly deadly is the finding that many skin-lightening creams bought from other countries or over the Internet are contaminated by mercury. Inorganic mercury IS effective at lightening skin and a widely used contaminant. A California woman was recently hospitalized with severe neurologic damage that was found to be due to mercury poisoning. A cream she bought from friends was imported from Mexico and found to contain high levels of organic mercury, even more dangerous than the inorganic kind.

My take-homes?
1. If you have toddlers or small children at home, treat cosmetics the way you should treat medicines: keep them out of sight and out of reach, preferably in locked cabinets.
2. If you are pregnant, try to avoid skin products containing parabens or phthalates; these should be easily identified by reading the label.
3. Do not use any skin-lightening product from any but a reputable local store. Clearly do not use any imported products, and I would not use any bought over the Internet based on recent revelations about how poorly Amazon vets some of its third-party sellers.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon