Public health

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Mike Osterholm

Osterholm Appointed an International Science Envoy

June 12, 2018

Michael T. Osterholm has been honored with the position of Science Envoy by the US Department of State. Through the Science Envoy Program, eminent scientists and engineers leverage their expertise and networks to forge connections and identify opportunities for sustained international cooperation, championing innovation and demonstrating America’s scientific leadership and technical ingenuity. Osterholm is an international leader regarding preparedness for a global pandemic as well as the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. As a Science Envoy for Health Security, he will combat biological threats by working with priority countries on infectious disease preparedness and antimicrobial stewardship. Osterholm is Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a Consortium member, and currently serves on our Executive Committee. Read an interview with him about his appointment here

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Romaine lettuce

E. Coli Outbreak Illustrates the Limits of US Food Traceability

May 2, 2018

The recent cluster of E. coli contamination, which is linked to romaine lettuce and has sickened people in 22 states, has just caused its first fatality. We don't yet know the source of the infection. The outbreak demonstrates gaps in the systems used to track food pathways in the US. According to an article in ​Wired, compared to Europe and Japan, "the procedures that might make [the US] food supply more traceable have been caught in a tug of war between federal officials, who want to solve outbreaks more quickly, and growers and shippers, who are resistant to investing in technology they don’t think they need." Amy Kircher, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute​, a Consortium member, is interviewed for the piece. She notes that "when there are records, they aren’t necessarily granular enough to be useful." Referring to a typical four-pack of tomatoes, Kircher explains that "'we assume those tomatoes come from the same source.' But because tomatoes from many farms get commingled at packing houses and then sorted for similarity of ripeness, size and color, that four-pack could contain tomatoes from four different farms." The article notes it's possible that blockchain – a "distributed, encrypted ledger that supports cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin​ – could also be used to build a record of every transaction that affects a piece of produce."

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CDC bar graph of positive flu tests Feb 2018

Current Flu Season Sparks Discussion of Prevention, Vaccines

February 21, 2018

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) host Mike Mulcahy interviewed two experts yesterday about this year's unusually strong — and deadly — outbreak of influenza. Patsy Stinchfield of Children's Minnesota focused on steps to prevent the illness. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a Consortium member, outlined the challenges to developing effective vaccines. Osterholm co-authored a New York Times op ed in January, with Mark Olshaker, sounding the alarm on our lack of preparedness for a flu pandemic. They write: "A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come."

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Martin J. Blaser

Blaser Shares Groundbreaking Research on Antibiotics and Microbiome Health

February 7, 2018

Today, Martin J. Blaser of New York University's School of Medicine spoke to a standing-room-only crowd on "The Dark Side of Antibiotics." Prof. Blaser provided an overview of what we've learned about changes to the human microbiome over the past 70+ years. His talk focused on obesity, diabetes, asthma and other harms that appear to be linked to the aggressive use of antibiotics. Prof. Blaser also outlined research indicating that microbiome characteristics can be passed from mother to child, leading to ever more limited microbiotic diversity over generations. He looked at global differences in the human microbiome related to the number of antibiotics prescribed, and discussed the more judicious use of these drugs in countries like Sweden, where antibiotics are prescribed less frequently but health measures are still strong. Finally, he described some possible approaches to microbiome restoration. James R. Johnson, an infectious disease specialist, provided a commentary in which he discussed the various ways antibiotics have been viewed by medical professionals since coming into wide usage in the early 1940s. Prof. Johnson offered a clinical perspective on the challenges of limiting their use. A video of the entire talk can be viewed here.  

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MERS virus

NIH Lifts Ban on Making Lethal Viruses

December 21, 2017

The National Insitutes of Health (NIH) has ended "a moratorium imposed three years ago on funding research that alters germs to make them more lethal," according to the New York Times. The goal of such research is to better understand the mechanisms that drive pathogens to mutate and become deadly; the new guideline requires the germ pose a "serious health threat" and that the research be done in a highly secure lab. The Times article notes, "There has been a long, fierce debate about projects — known as 'gain of function' research — intended to make pathogens more deadly or more transmissible." The ban on such reseach was put in place after an incident in which lab workers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were accidentally exposed to anthrax. Michael T. Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a Consortium member, is quoted in the article. He believes this type of work could be done safely, but wanted restrictions on what would be published, noting "if someone finds a way to make the Ebola virus more dangerous, I don’t believe that should be available to anybody off the street who could use it for nefarious purposes. . . . We want to keep some of this stuff on a need-to-know basis."

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Logo for Petrie Flom Center, Harvard Law School

Genomic Screening: What's Age Got to Do with It?

December 18, 2017

A new post on the Bill of Health blog discusses new research that looks at whether upper age limits should be established for population-based preventive genomic screening. These types of limits are used in other clinical screenings on the assumption that older individuals wouldn't see clinical benefits. The authors of the paper used data from the GeneScreen study to look at how age issues were perceived and valued by researchers and participants. Their findings? "While clinical benefits of preventive genomic screening for older adults are debatable, our respondents perceived a range of benefits of screening in both clinical and research settings. Researchers and clinicians should carefully consider decisions about whether to exclude older adults and whether to provide information about benefits and risks across age groups."

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World Health Org logo

WHO Recommends Against Antibiotic Use for Healthy Animals

November 8, 2017

New guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend farmers and the food industry stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals. According to the WHO, "Over-use and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance," a serious danger to global health that's the subject of the Consortium's 2018 lecture seriesDr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO, states "The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.” However, H. Morgan Scott, DVM, PhD (Texas A&M University), who will be delivering the second lecture in the Consortium series, emphasizes that veterinarians and producers must work to achieve reductions in the need for preventive use of antimicrobials. In his talk, he'll explore the social norms, moral imperatives (to both humans and animals), and ethical features that should frame future antimicrobial stewardship practices. To register for the lectures, which are free and open to the public, click here

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Andres Perez

Leadership Change at Center for Animal Health and Food Safety

October 11, 2017

Prof. Andres Perez, DVM, PhD, is the new director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS), an interdisciplinary team at the University of Minnesota. The Center is coordinated by the College of Veterinary Medicine, and is a Consortium member. Perez takes over for Dr. Scott Wells, who is stepping down after serving as director and co-director for the past six years. Prof. Perez joined the College in 2014 and is a veterinary epidemiologist specializing in the prevention and control of food animal diseases. He also holds the Global Animal Health and Food Safety endowed chair. Prof. Perez notes, “CAHFS has been an effective catalyst for lasting change in the animal health and food safety sectors, and I hope to continue that success. . . . The goal is to increase CAHFS’ portfolio in areas such as policy, online education and outreach, quantitative data analysis, aquatic health, and antimicrobial resistance.”

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Image of a computer motherboard in the shape of a padlock

Wake-up Call for Food Companies Focuses on Cyber Security

September 27, 2017

A new article in Food Safety Magazine by a Senior Fellow at the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI), a Consortium member, outlines a worrisome gap in protecting global food #supplychains. John T. Hoffman, a retired military officer, describes significant changes in the food and beverage industry, noting "the food industry has evolved from a manual, hands-on and labor-intensive manufacturing profile to a largely automated environment that exploits a variety of information technologies and industrial controls." However, Hoffman cautions that unlike the financial, insurance, and regulatory sectors, "food sector clients, in which there are substantial investment in terms of money, accountability and rules compliance, have not been required to implement similar [IT] standards." This raises the specter of bad actors using IT systems to attack the food supply, with potentially catastrophic consequences for public health and the economy. FPDI's research and education program is aimed at reducing the potential for contamination at any point along the food supply chain; they collaborate with the Department of Homeland Security to reduce the vulnerability of the nation's food system. To learn more, click here.

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Prof. J. Neil Henderson

$10 Million Gift Will be Used to Found Native American Health Center

September 13, 2017

An anonymous donor has given $10 million to the Medical School at University of Minnesota, Duluth, which will be used to build on the school's already strong foundation in Native American health. According to the Duluth News Tribune, "In any given year, Native Americans comprise about 10 percent of the university's medical school class. . . . Moreover, the six faculty members at the school's Duluth campus who are Native American comprise about a quarter of all Native Americans on medical school faculties in the entire country. Only about 1 percent of the nation's doctors are Native American." Among those UMD faculty members is Prof. J. Neil Henderson, PhD, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation. He notes that the private gift, which has very few stipulations attached to it, could fund portions of research not covered by federal grants. Prof. Henderson spoke at the Consortium-sponsored research ethics conference last March, on the inter-cultural aspects of working with American Indian institutional research boards when conducting research. You can see his talk here.

Consortium Faculty

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Aspostolos Georgeopoulous Photo

Georgopoulos Presented with American Legion's Top Award

August 30, 2017

Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos, MD, PhD, received the American Legion’s Distinguished Service Medal on Aug. 22 during the organization’s national convention in Reno, Nev. Georgopoulos is director of the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and holds the American Legion Family-University of Minnesota Brain Sciences Chair. He is also a faculty member at the Center for Cognitive Sciences, a Consortium member. For decades, Georgopolous has conducted research into the mechanisms behind PTSD, Gulf War Illness, alcohol abuse and other ailments among veterans. The Distinguished Service Medal recognizes outstanding service to the nation and programs of the American Legion, and is the organization's highest honor.

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1960s photo of public health workers examining little girl's smallpox vaccine scar

Smallpox Cousin Synthesized in Lab, Raising Bioterrorism Concerns

July 17, 2017

The Washington Post reports that scientists in Alberta have "used commercially available genetic material to piece together the extinct horsepox virus, a cousin of the smallpox virus that killed as many as a billion human beings before being eradicated." While the lead researcher's efforts are "aimed at developing vaccines and cancer treatments," his achievement led the former head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Tom Frieden, to assert "the need to monitor more closely 'dual-use' experiments — research that could be used either for protective purposes or, in theory, to create a deadly pathogen." Consortium collaborator Alta Charo, who currently serves on the National Working Group for the LawSeq project, says "we are still struggling with how to manage the dual-use dilemma. How do we get the benefit of the research without the risk of it being turned against us?" Meanwhile, other researchers emphasize the greater threat of naturally evolving pathogens such as Zika and Ebola. Michael Osterholm, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), notes another aspect of the horsepox synthesis: “How many other people have done it[?] We never thought or expected it to come from a place like Alberta. It's not one of the leading universities in the world for microbiology and synthetic biology. If it came out of there, how many other places like this are also doing the same work right now?” Osterholm continues, "This has been the storm coming for years. We’ve known about it, but unfortunately, we’re not ready."

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Ilhan Omar speaking at podium

Minnesota Measles Outbreak Result of Anti-vaccine Efforts

May 18, 2017

More than 60 Minnesota children, mostly from the state's large Somali-American community, are infected with measles. The outbreak is a direct result of efforts by anti-vaccine activists such as Andrew Wakefield, the discredited researcher behind the film Vaxxed, who has visited Minneapolis and met with Somali parents. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the rate of measles immunization among Somali-American children has plummeted from rates as high as 92% in 2004 to just 42% today. Alarms were sounded in 2008, when it was reported that a disproportionate number of Somali-American children were participating in a preschool program for those diagnosed with autism. Some members of the Somali-American community have been alarmed by claims that autism can result from the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, concerns shared by a significant portion of the general public despite efforts by public health workers to combat that perception. An article in Snopes details how one discredited anti-vaccine study was recently published, then unpublished, by two academic journals, digging into the "suspect statistics and devil-may-care attitude toward methodological design" in the paper. Meanwhile, Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American legislator in the US, is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to encourage vaccination and rebut myths about autism, an effort that is showing results.

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Julie Gerberding

All-star Panel Charts a New Course for Disaster Preparedness

April 17, 2017

Last week, the Consortium hosted the final of three lectures on Emerging Diseases in a Changing Environment, featuring Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, MD, MPH, FACP. Dr. Gerberding is Executive Vice President at Merck and the former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In her talk, she described what she's learned about emergency preparedness through responses to anthrax, SARS and other biothreats, and proposed steps that should be taken to improve such responses. Dr. Gerberding was joined by Prof. Amy KircherDrPH (Director, Food Protection and Defense Institute) and Prof. Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH (Director, Center for Infectious Disease and Policy). In a lively conversation, they discussed pandemic threats and responses and from the perspectives of their disciplines, ultimately arriving at the importance of advance planning by collaborations such as the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to contain crises before they balloon out of control. A video of the entire event can be viewed here. Videos of the first lecture in the series, "Finches, Dogs, Lions and Zika: An Ecologist Looks at Emerging Disease" by Prof. Andrew Dobson, DPhil, can be viewed here. The second, "Ending the Pandemic Era: Science at the Animal-Human-Environmental Interface" by Jonna Mazet, DVM, MPVM, PhD, can be viewed here

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Book cover -- Deadliest Enemy

New Book by Consortium Colleague Offers Strategies for Emerging Diseases

March 22, 2017

Renowned epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), has published a new book laying out how humanity can protect itself against catastrophic infectious disease and pandemic. In Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, Prof. Osterholm and co-author Mark Olshaker apply knowledge and strategies acquired during fights against bioterrorism, pandemic influenza, Ebola and other public health emergencies. The book's goal? To describe "the latest medical science, case studies, policy research, and hard-earned epidemiological lessons. . . we need to develop if we are to keep ourselves safe from infectious disease." You can view a lecture delivered by Prof. Osterholm on the subject of the book here. He moderated a lecture on a closely related topic, Combating Microbial Terrorists, by former head of the Centers for Disease Control Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, on April 13; view a video of that event. 

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Black mother holding a young baby on her shoulder

Racial Disparities in Infant Mortality Examined

February 16, 2017

An article in The Nation, "What’s Killing America’s Black Infants?" provides a sobering analysis of the disproportionately high death rate among African-American babies. Despite decades of interventions and public health initiatives, the racial infant mortality gap actually grew during the 1980s and 90s: during that time, "Black women who received prenatal care starting in the first trimester were still losing children at higher rates than white women who never saw a doctor during their pregnancies." This led to research into whether black women have a genetic predisposition to poor birth outcomes, which was largely disproven. However, more recently, "a growing body of evidence points to racial discrimination, rather than race itself, as the dominant factor in explaining why so many black babies are dying." The article profiles efforts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has one of the worst infant-mortality rates of all US cities, to reverse the trend.

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Gaetan Dugas

Vindication of "Patient Zero" Highlights Power of Disease Narratives

November 21, 2016

In the early 1980s, during the initial throes of the AIDS epidemic, a flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas came to be identified as "Patient Zero" because he was represented in popular culture as the person who brought HIV to North America. A recent study published in Nature used genomic data to map the spread of HIV during that time, demonstrating conclusively that Dugas was not the North American index case as previously depicted. An analysis of the case by Greg Clinton explores "the spectacle of disease narratives, not only what they emphasize, but what they tend to obscure." Drawing on the groundbreaking work of Priscilla Wald and others, Clinton describes how epidemiological narratives, most famously that of Typhoid Mary, are "typically bound up with literary concerns, such as the assignment of 'hero' and 'villain' status to a person or group." He argues for consumers to apply "critical consciousness" to such media-driven spectacles, resisting the all-too-human temptation to passively absorb narratives that assign meaning, "even if that meaning is false and only serves to perpetuate fear of the Other." Read the entire article here

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Flock of turkeys

UN Tackles Antibiotic Resistance

September 22, 2016

A new declaration by the UN General Assembly is intended to slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms. According to National Public Radio, the resolution "requires countries to come up with a two-year a plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work." While concerns about "superbugs" are widespread in public health circles, it took data showing the potentially catastrophic economic implications of antibiotic resistance to spur this action. One expert, Ramanan Laxminarayan, is optimistic about the outcomes of this campaign, comparing this effort to a similar one begun by the UN about the HIV pandemic; the article notes, "since 2004, there has been a 45 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths in countries supported by global HIV campaigns."

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Irene Bueno gathering sediment from a river in Chile

Consortium Scholar Sheds New Light on Fish Farms’ Role in Antibiotic Resistance

September 12, 2016

In 2015, Irene Bueno was awarded a Consortium Research Grant to study aquaculture in southern Chile. Dr. Bueno is a doctor of veterinary medicine who is now pursuing her PhD at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, focusing on ecosystem health and emerging problems within the human-wildlife interface. Aquaculture is a major economic activity in Chile, and has been increasingly criticized for the extensive use of antibiotics. Dr. Bueno’s Consortium-funded research illuminates the mechanisms by which antibiotic resistant bacteria (and associated genes) are released from freshwater fish farms into the aquatic ecosystem. An interdisciplinary team led by Dr. Bueno and her advisers, Drs. Randy Singer and Dominic Travis, collaborated with Chilean researchers and governmental officials to sample and analyze antibiotic resistant bacteria in river sediment, wastewater, and to understand the antibiotic use at the farms. Among the project’s outcomes is the development of a model that can be used to assess interventions that mitigate the dissemination of antibiotic resistance from the fish farms into the watershed. Regarding her research, Dr. Bueno notes, “Characterizing the way antibiotic resistant bacteria spreads through this watershed from sources such as fish farms, will help inform decisions related to waste management at the local level. On a broader scale, the data generated will contribute to advancing our knowledge of how antibiotic resistance is disseminated, bringing us a step closer to understanding the potential health consequences for humans, animals, and the ecosystem.” To learn more about our annual Consortium Research Awards, click here

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