Disease Control in the 21st Century

March 12, 2010

I recently viewed a TED lecture by  Larry Brilliant on stopping pandemics.


Larry Brilliant was a part of the smallpox eradication team that was  responsible for the global eradication of  smallpox (1967-1980).   This was one  of the greatest accomplishments in public health.  His message for disease control now as then is “early detection, early response.”

He advocates for  innovative surveillance systems for early detection such as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), an organization that monitors internet media sources in seven  languages to detect events  of public health significance .  Early detection is vital to  successful early response .


What does public health do?

May 16, 2009

I recently saw a great presentation from the American Public Health Association describing what public health does. generationpublichealth.org

An excellent  explanation of  the value  of public health in promoting healthy lifestyles.

Virginia Bans Smoking in Bars and Restaurants

February 21, 2009

The Virginia General Assembly has finally banned smoking in bars and restaurants and the bill goes  to  Governor Kaine who will almost certainly sign it with ” the quickest drying ink he can find.”  After weeks of debate the legislation passed despite the opposition of Phillip Morris, the nation’s largest cigarette producer, headquartered in Richmond.

There are a few exceptions to the ban such as:

1. Any outdoor area of a restaurant

2. Any portion of a restaurant that has a door and is separately vented to prevent the recirculation of air

3. Any portion of a restaurant that is used exclusively for private functions and those portions  of the restaurant are separately vented and have a door

4. private clubs

One of the more important sections of the bill says “No individual who is wait staff or bus staff in a restaurant shall be required by the proprietor to work in an area of the restaurant where smoking may be permitted without the consent of such individual.

Finally, the staff can avoid the health effects of second hand smoke.  In June 2006 the U.S.Surgeon General reported that there is no safe level of exposure to second hand smoke.

At last, health wins over big tobacco  in Virginia.

A New Source for Flu Data-Google Flu Trends

November 17, 2008

Google.org recently launched a new source for flu data called Google Flu Trends.  Flu activity is estimated by the number of Internet  searches  for flu information.  This may correlate with the number of people  having flu like illness.  CDC and states now  collect data from outpatient visits for  flu like illness, laboratory reports of specimens testing positive for influenza, as well as reported outbreaks of influenza.

According to Google.org, they were able to estimate the 2007-2008 flu activity 1-2 weeks faster than CDC published reports.  Some states monitor daily influenza like illness activity through  syndromic surveillance which may be more timely than the published CDC reports.  Also some state health departments  are  looking at  data on over the counter medication sales.

Early warning allows state and local health officials to put into effect prevention and control activities as well as help people take appropriate precautions if flu is in their area.

The unique aspect of the Google flu surveillance is that it looks at the both the population that is seen by a clinician and those that are not seen by a clinician  for their symptoms.

Google.org adds to the growing sources of  innovative sources of health data such as ProMED-mail and Healthmap and I applaud their efforts. It will be interesting to follow this  data through the coming flu season and determine how it can be used to benefit health.

Presidential Candidates’ Health Care Reform Proposals

June 11, 2008

Health care will be a top priority in the next presidential campaign. As the candidates consider affordable heath care for every American, I hope they do not lose sight of public health and the huge achievements that have improved the health and extended the life expectancy of persons in the United States.

According to Senator McCain in response to an set of ten questions posed by the AMA to the candidates about their health care reform proposals.

“The most important players in health care; however, are the patient and their health care provider-as everyone else merely plays a support role”

I would like to remind Senator McCain of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the U. S. -1900 to 1999 which include:

  • Vaccination
  • Motor-vehicle safety
  • Safer workplaces
  • Control of infectious diseases
  • Decline in deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Safer and healthier foods
  • Healthier mothers and babies
  • Family planning
  • Fluoridation of drinking water
  • Recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard

Public health is a major contributor to the health of Americans and not “merely a support role”. Public health at the federal, state, and local level plays a critical role in disease prevention and health promotion.

Flu Vaccine – Who gives the shot?

May 17, 2008

According to CIDRAP, the recent National Influenza Vaccine Summit led to some heated discussion over where patients receive their flu vaccine – public health clinics, personal physician, or alternative vaccination sites such as grocery stores, workplaces, pharmacies. Some physicians argue that alternative sites leads to fragmentation of health care and steers patients away from their “medical home”

One of the basic problems is who gets vaccine early and who has vaccine left when flu peaks late in the season. Primary care physicians argue that the alternative sites get vaccine first and their patients are tempted to go elsewhere for vaccination. In 15 of the past 25 flu seasons in the U.S. flu peaked in February or March and it is hard to locate providers with vaccine late in the season.

The summit was attended by many participants in the vaccination process such as manufacturers, clinicians, and public health. Hopefully this type of discussion can lead to innovative methods to improve vaccination rates.

Drugs – Country of Origin and Safety

April 26, 2008

Are the pills you take as safe as the food you eat? I can peel my imported fruit but I must swallow my pills without washing or peeling.

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the country of origin of pharmaceutical ingredients.

“Indeed, the FDA requires drug companies to disclose only the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer or distributor of prescription medications. Active and inactive ingredients must be listed on the label, but not the raw materials or their origins, which are considered “commercial confidential.”

Since the FDA does not have the resources to inspect all overseas facilities that manufacture ingredients, it is up to the pharmaceutical companies to ensure good manufacturing practices. The recent contamination found in the blood thinner heparin supplied by China shows that this system does not always work.

According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Trying Times at the FDA – The Challenge of Ensuring the Safety of Imported Pharmaceuticals by Stuart O Schweitezer, Ph.D

“This sort of problem should theoretically have been prevented by the FDA, which inspects foreign factories producing drugs and chemical components that are intended for export to the United States. Investigations are continuing, but preliminary information shows that the FDA did not inspect the plant, though it had intended to do so. The FDA’s program for inspecting foreign drug manufacturers has been swamped by a rapid increase in overseas manufacturing of both finished drugs and chemical components. The FDA has a mandate to inspect producers of both drugs and chemicals used to manufacture drugs (active pharmaceutical ingredients, or APIs) in order to certify that plants meet the current Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards. Data on the number of foreign drug and API manufacturers are difficult to obtain. The FDA uses two databases listing foreign plants that are subject to inspection. According to a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), one database lists approximately 3200 establishments, whereas the other lists 6800.3 Even if the smaller number is accurate, the agency inspects only approximately 7% of foreign establishments in a given year, meaning that it could take at least 13 years to inspect them all — once. The FDA cannot say how many foreign plants have never been inspected.”

The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly using foreign plants and ingredients. The burden on the FDA to ensure that the drugs we take are are safe and pure is daunting. So what is the solution to this problem?

In a recent NEJM article Allastair J.J.Wood M.D. has a very reasonable suggestion.

“We need to acknowledge that ensuring the safety and integrity of our food, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices is primarily the responsibility of manufacturers, with the FDA providing a regulatory framework and oversight. It is also critical that legislators recognize their responsibility to provide the agency with funding that is adequate for it to perform its important functions.”

“No longer should manufacturers be able to imply that inadequate FDA inspection is an excuse for adulteration of their product during manufacture. We must stop allowing the game of “kick the FDA” to be risk-free to participants. The public’s health is at stake, and the time for adequate federal funding of the FDA is now.”