Swimming with Seals riskier than Surfing with Sharks?

Seals  –  those cute, semi-aquatic marine mammals hunted for generations by humans may be about to wreak their revenge.  While we don’t want to get into the pros and cons of the cull, we would like to warn our readers of a new strain of flu found in New England harbor seals.

According to experts, seal flu could potentially threaten people as well as wildlife. In a report just published online in mBio, scientists from several organizations, including Columbia University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that seal flu could lead to another pandemic just as we saw with bird and swine flu.

There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven’t been exposed yet. It’s a combination we haven’t seen in disease before,” said Anne Moscona MD, professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

A dangerous virus infecting mammals increases the risk to us – not by direct infection – but by evolutionary development of even more riskier strains,” explained Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

Although transmission via direct contact between humans and harbor seals is unlikely, the virus could find other ways to get to people.  For example, the strain might pass from seals to birds, expand its presence in the environment.  And because seal flu is able to target a protein found in the human respiratory tract, it may have the potential to mutate in ways that make it easily passed to or between humans.

The researchers analyzed the DNA of a virus linked to the death of 162 harbor seals in 2011 off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Five autopsies revealed that the seals died from infection with a type of flu known as H3N8.

Because pandemic flu can originate in unexpected ways, preparation is essential. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) offers some excellent tips on its website.

And we suggest for this year at least you might be better off diving with dolphins than swimming with seals!




Asthma Drug Spending Soars in U.S.

According to new government figures U.S. spending on asthma drugs more than quadrupled in the 10 years from 1998 to 2008.  During that time, annual costs rose from $527 million to $2.5 billion.

Many of the reasons are clear.  Firstly, the the number of people diagnosed with asthma grew by 4.3 million between 2001 to 2009. Asthma rates rose 50% among black children during that time.  And the problem is still growing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 7 million kids and nearly 17.5 million adults suffer from asthma.

Secondly, the proportion of children who used a prescribed drug to treat their asthma doubled from 29% between 1997-1998 to 58% between 2007-2008.  Overall, spending on drugs to control asthma grew from $280 million in the late 1990s to $2.1 billion by 2008. In that same period, spending on drugs to relieve immediate symptoms grew from $222 million to $352 million.

Thirdly, annual spending on older, less expensive drugs such as oral corticosteroids has fallen, while newer more expensive medications have taken their place.  Examples of more expensive medications include,  inhaled corticosteroids which prevent inflammation and control asthma; reliever drugs such as short-acting beta-2 agonists (SABA’s) that make breathing easier and leukotriene receptor antagonists which help prevent asthma symptoms from occurring in the first place.

Over the past decade there has been a 25% rise in the number of patients using inhaled corticosteroids, a 10% rise in the use of beta agonists and a 31% rise in leukotriene receptor agonists such as Montelukast (sold as Singulair®) and Zafirlukast (sold as Accolate®).

Do these spiraling costs take your breath away or suggest that asthma is being better controlled?  Let us know your thoughts.

Roll Up Your Kids’ Sleeves, Before Going Back to School

There are only two things a child will share willingly,” renowned pediatrician Benjamin Spock once wrote, “communicable diseases and his mother’s age.”

While you can’t control what your little darling will say, you do have a little more control when it comes to his or her health. Whether your child is learning the alphabet or learning to drive, back to school check- ups are a great way for parents to make sure their kids are protected against disease and illness. Vaccination is one of the many important procedures performed during such check-ups. Not only does it  protect your child from acquiring potential serious diseases but also it can protect your community.

With that in mind, and the back-to-school season upon us, SRxA’s Word on Health is pleased to bring you the following information:

Vaccination requirements vary by state and school district. You can contact your local school board to find out exact requirements.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following immunizations for children 0-6 years:

  • Hepatits B Vaccine (HepB)
  • Rotavirus Vaccine (RV)
  • Diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTap)
  • Haemophilus influenzae tybe b conjugate vaccine (Hib)
  • Pneumococcal vaccine (PCV and/or PPSV)
  • Inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV)
  • Influenza vaccine (seasonal)
  • Measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR)
  • Hepatitis A vaccine (HepA)
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine, quadrivalent (MCV4)

For children aged 7-18 years, the CDC recommends the following immunizations:

  • Tetanus and diphtheria toxoids and acellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap)
  • Human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV)
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine, quadrivalent (MCV4)
  • Influenza vaccine (seasonal)
  • Pneumococal vaccines
  • Hepatitis A vaccine (HepA)
  • Hepatitis B vaccine (HepB)
  • Inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV)
  • Measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR)
  • Varicella vaccine

Maybe the thought of all those needles will keep your little one from revealing your age!

Mad Cows and English Women

Having spent many years living and travelling in Europe, and having worked in both the growth hormone and blood products industry, I’ve probably had more than my fair share of potential exposure to prions.  I’ve certainly attended enough scientific meetings, written enough position papers and sat through way too many chilling and tragic BBC news broadcasts on the subject. Here in the US, however, the subject has generated relatively little media or clinical attention. So I was interested to hear that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just published the results of its investigation into the risk of human exposure to prion disease. Specifically they looked at the risks associated with:

  • hunting
  • venison consumption
  • travel to areas in which prion diseases have been reported

in relation to three prion diseases: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “Mad Cow Disease”), variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), and chronic wasting disease (CWD) of deer and elk.

Although rare, human prion diseases such as vCJD, result in the brain developing sponge-like holes. This causes progressive memory and personality changes, dementia, and problems with eyesight, speech and movement. CDC investigators evaluated the results of a 2006-2007 survey conducted in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Tennessee, as well as five counties in the San Francisco Bay area, seven counties in the Greater Denver area, and 34 counties in western and northeastern New York. Survey participants were asked about behaviors that could be associated with exposure to the agents causing BSE and CWD, including travel to the nine countries considered to be BSE-endemic:

    • United Kingdom
    • Republic of Ireland
    • France
    • Portugal
    • Switzerland
    • Italy
    • The Netherlands
    • Germany
    • Spain

…and their cumulative length of stay in each of those countries. 29.5% of survey respondents reported travel to at least one of the nine BSE endemic countries since 1980. Travel to the UK was reported by 19.4%, and the median duration of travel was 14 days.

Respondents were asked if they ever had hunted for deer or elk, and if that hunting had taken place in northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming or southwestern Nebraska, areas considered to be CWD-endemic. They were also asked if they had ever consumed venison, the frequency of consumption, and whether the meat came from the wild. 18.5% of survey respondents reporting having hunted for deer or elk. Of these, 1.2% reported having hunted for deer or elk in CWD-endemic areas. Venison consumption was reported by 67.4% of respondents with 88.6% of those having obtained all of their meat from the wild.

The CDC advises hunters in CWD-endemic areas to take simple precautions such as avoiding consuming meat from sickly deer or elk, avoiding consuming brain or spinal cord tissues, minimizing the handling of brain and spinal cord tissues, and wearing gloves when field-dressing carcasses.

And while the Agency did not warn against travel to Europe they say that the prevalence and extent of travel to the UK indicate that prion health concerns may also become issues for US residents. “While prion diseases are rare, they are generally fatal for anyone who becomes infected. More than anything else, the results of this study support the need for continued surveillance of prion diseases,” commented lead investigator Joseph Y. Abrams, MPH, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.

As always, Word on Health will be the first to let you know if there are any developments, providing of course that we stay stateside and become vegetarians!