Public health

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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 An article in Snopes details how one discredited anti-vaccine study was recently published, then unpublished, by two academic journals, digging into the "suspect statistics and devil-may-care attitude toward methodological design" in the paper.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 applies knowledge and strategies acquired during his fights againt bioterrorism, pandemic influenza, Ebola and other public health emergencies. His 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 yesterday by Prof. Osterholm on the subject of the book here. He will be moderating 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; register to attend or view the webcast here

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Toy soldiers in salad

Registration Open for Annual Food Defense Conference

March 10, 2017

A safe food supply is a cornerstone of a secure society. The annual Food Defense Conference, sponsored by Consortium member center the Food Protection and Defense Institute, brings together experts from around the world to share strategies for the prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery of the food system from intentional acts and adulteration, including those resulting from terrorism and criminal activities. The 2-day event is being held held on May 3-4, 2017 on the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, and provides a unique and intimate opportunity for scholars, policymakers, regulators, and members of the food industry to network and learn from each other about the current state of food defense. Learn more and register here

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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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Drug capsule

A Brief History of TV Drug Ads

August 30, 2016

Direct-to-consumer drug ads have been legal in the US since 1985, but according to the World Health Organization, they really "took off in 1997 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eased up on a rule obliging companies to offer a detailed list of side-effects in their infomercials." A new, short video on Vox.com provides a history of these ads and the regulatory and legal decisions that allow them. Those include the landmark 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Virginia State Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, which for the first time held that "commercial speech" is protected by the First Amendment. The video shows some of the earliest TV drug ads and outlines empirical research about their effects. The upshot? As annoying and ubiquitous as they are, these ads aren't necessarily bad for us – and in some cases they actually help. View the video here

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Olympic logo made out of mosquito silhouettes

Despite Zika's Spread, Experts Caution Against Overreaction

August 5, 2016

The confluence of the Zika outbreak in Latin America and the Rio Olympic games has led some athletes to make a tough decision: forgoing competition to avoid the disease. This week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed homegrown transmissions of the virus in the US. These developments lead to questions about how significant Zika is as a public health hazard, and whether the Olympics will increase its spread into countries that don't currently have it. An article in FiveThirtyEight explains why the latter isn't a major concern: despite Brazil being the origin of the current Zika outbreak, there are a lot more tourists to the entire outbreak area than people traveling to the Olympics. In other words, "a 30-person Olympic delegation and 100 spectators don’t present much additional risk to a country that’s already seeing 50,000 visitors a year from areas with Zika." For countries like the US, which already have an active, mosquito-borne outbreak, experts like Michael Osterholm of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) emphasize the importance of basic public health measures. In an interview on the Diane Rehm Show, Osterholm recommended focusing on "eliminating the breeding sites – the water sources, the garbage. We now live in a plastic garbage world where one bottle cap sitting in a ditch is more than enough, is a great breeding site for this mosquito." CIDRAP maintains a Zika website that's a up-to-date, scientifically accurate, and global in scope; here's a link.

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Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika virus

Human Role in Proliferation of Zika Mosquito Examined

June 21, 2016

The implacable nature of evolution means attempts to eradicate Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – the species that carries Zika virus and other diseases – are doomed to fail, according to an opinion piece in the LA Times by Prof. Marlene Zuk, PhD, of the College of Biological Sciences. Zuk describes the complex interaction between mosquitoes, humans and ecological systems that have led to emergence of a bug that's been "domesticated" to thrive in urban environments. Michael Osterholm, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), is quoted in the article on past, failed efforts to eliminate Aedes aegypti, noting "'evolutionary biology is the gravity' – the force – that underpins the progress and control of Zika."

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White Tuskegee researcher drawing blood from Black man

Legacy of Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Revelations: Reduced Life Expectancy for Black Men

June 14, 2016

Since it was revealed in 1972, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male has been considered among the most egregious violations of research ethics during the 20th century. The study began in 1932; for 40 years, researchers passively monitored hundreds of adult black males with syphilis, despite the availability of effective treatment. The study was funded by the US Public Health Service (PHS), and only concluded when PHS employees alerted journalists, having been ignored or rebuffed by their employer. A newly published paper outlines the tragic legacy: "the historical disclosure of the study in 1972 is correlated with increases in medical mistrust and mortality and decreases in both outpatient and inpatient physician interactions for older black men." The authors of the study estimate "life expectancy at age 45 for black men fell by up to 1.4 years in response to the disclosure, accounting for approximately 35% of the 1980 life expectancy gap between black and white men." At last December's Consortium-sponsored Research with Human Participants conference, Prof. Vanessa Northington Gamble, MD, PhD (George Washington University) discussed her work as Chair of the federal committee that obtained an official apology for the study from President Bill Clinton in 1997 -- view her talk here

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Petrie dish with MCR-1 superbug

MCR-1 Superbug Found in US for the First Time

June 1, 2016

Health care providers have long been concerned about the overuse of antibiotics; each year, the CDC estimates more than 23,000 people die after being infected with bacteria that have developed resistance to currently-available drugs. These worries have been heightened by the discovery that a Pennsylvania woman is harboring a strain of E. coli that is resistant to colistin, the antibiotic of last resort. An article from Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) describes the discovery of the MCR-1 resistance gene by a team of Chinese researchers last November. In a Washington Post opinion piece, health policy scholar Ezekiel Emanuel proposes novel approaches to addressing antibiotic resistance, including the development of drug stewardship programs to reduce inappropriate prescriptions and the creation of financial prizes to motivate researchers and companies to develop new antiobiotics.  

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FDA logo

FDA Announces Final Rules for New Nutrition Labels

May 20, 2016

Today, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it has finalized the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. The changes include a refreshed design that will make it easier for consumers to spot key information such as number of calories and serving size. Reflecting advances in nutrition science, the label will include more information about added sugars, which have been linked to heart disease and currently make up at least 10% of the average American's diet. Serving sizes have been updated to better approximate the portions people actually eat. The new labels have been 2 years in the making, and represent the most significant changes to the label since it was introduced more than 20 years ago. It's hoped the new format will make it easier for consumers to make better, more informed food choices. 

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Boston University logo

Prof. Wolf Lectures on Genomics and Public Health

May 11, 2016

Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf, JD, lectured yesterday at Boston University's School of Public Health. Her topic was the current status of legal and ethical guidelines, as well as the development of best practices, related to translational genomics – issues given greater urgency in light of the federal Precision Medicine Initiative, which launched last year. For more than a decade, Prof. Wolf has led groundbreaking research on return of results (RoR) from genomic testing to research participants, patients, and their families. In her talk at Boston University, she delved into the public health implications of RoR and identified areas needing further study, including the blurring of boundaries between research and clinical applications of genomic scans; difficulties with properly interpreting gene variants; and the need to augment unrepresentative or inadequate data sets to insure they represent well vs. unwell populations and reflect gender and ethnic diversity. Video of the lecture and the following Q&A can be viewed here.  

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Narcan nasal spray

Overdose Drug Made Available to US High Schools for Free

May 2, 2016

A recent national survey found that nearly 500,000 adolescents, or about 2 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds, had abused painkillers. In response, the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) has teamed up with the manufacturer of Narcan, a nasal spray that quickly reverses the effects of drugs like heroin and oxycodone. Adapt Pharma and NASN have collaborated "to educate nurses and develop policies for schools that have the overdose antidote on hand," according to an article from Marketplace Education, and Adapt has agreed to provide the antidote for free to all U.S. high schools. The program is currently in place in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. 

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Journal of the American Medical Association logo

New Research Points to Need for Physician Vigilance on Alternative Medicine

March 30, 2016

New research by Judy Jou, PhD candidate in the School of Public Health and Pamela Jo Johnson, MPH, PhD, of Consortium member the Center for Spirituality and Healing, shows that 40% of patients using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) don't disclose it to their doctors. The article, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at reasons patients gave for not sharing this information with physicians. Research found patients were more likely to discuss participation in yoga and meditation, and much less so the use of herbs and/or supplements. “Not telling primary care providers about using CAM can be dangerous, especially if the type of CAM being used creates adverse interactions with any medical treatments that a patient might be undergoing concurrently,” said Jou. Jou and Johnson concluded, "Physicians should consider more actively inquiring about patients’ use of CAM, especially for modalities likely to be medically relevant." You can learn more about how probiotic supplements and other products, some of which are popular with users of CAM, are regulated at a lecture by Prof. Diane E. Hoffmann, JD, MS (University of Maryland), on April 21. Prof. Hoffmann is a leading expert on health law and policy and will discuss the issues presented by these therapies, their marketing, and advertising, as well as possible ways to address these issues. The event is free and open to the public – register here

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