End of the cholera pandemic?

Cholera is one of the most ancient scourges of Humankind with periodic appearances in regions of extreme poverty and/or devastated by war or natural disasters. Transmitted by the faeco-oral route, the Koch bacillus spreads when the disadvantaged populations lack good water and proper sanitation services; it disproportionately affects children and their mothers.

An editorial in “The Lancet” stated that “the global annual cholera burden is estimated at around 2.9 million cases per year, resulting in 95000 death. In 2017, these estimates could be far exceeded due to a number of devastating outbreaks, including those in Yemen and northern Nigeria. So far this year, 750000 possible cases, causing over 2000 deaths, have occurred in Yemen.”

This deadly disease is endemic in more than 40 countries where the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure is completely inadequate. At present the biggest incidence occurs in endemic areas of Africa, which has been worsened by the accelerated urbanisation that created slums in cities.

The design of an oral cholera vaccine (OCV) and the scientific study of the acquired immunity in humans have fostered the implementation of better and safer vaccination campaigns to control the epidemics; the WHO has stockpiled a good supply of vaccines in strategic depots in the affected areas.

Since 2013, 13 million vaccines have been used on an emergency basis. The Global Task Force on Cholera Control (GTFCC) has pooled the resources and know-how of contaminated countries, private donors and academicians in order to develop a multi-faceted strategy to eradicate the disease for good.

The GTFCC designed a three-pronged approach to combat the disease:

a) Rapid response to outbreaks with good community surveillance and delivery of control kits, oral vaccines and WASH supplies in depots.

b) Create a sustainable WASH infrastructure and health care systems.

c) Coordination of the regional and international systems of support

We have the scientific know-how and technical capacity to end the cholera pandemics with the proper sanitary measures, as long as we protect the “equality” of the access of vulnerable communities to the right services and therapies. Why aren’t we doing more to eradicate this scourge from the face of our planet?

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Stop this vile abuse of the poor in the BRSF

“Un élu, c’est un homme que le doigt de Dieu coince contre un mur.” Jean-Paul Sartre

-“Doctor…This woman with the asthmatic child… Is she on food stamps?”

The seemingly innocent question made by the assistant in Rick Scott’s office exuded deep disdain and discrimination against, let’s talk clear, the poor in the modern USA.

There is a silent, yet relentless war to displace the poor to the outer fringes of urban areas like Miami-Dade in order to make way for an out-of-bounds gentrification.

That question awakened the wild tiger that I have been carrying inside me since birth.

-“WHAT?!!! What are you saying? This is an American, A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N child that is being badly abused by a greedy landlord and might die as a result…You can’t be this insensitive…Besides, I don’t think that Governor Scott would approve of this language…What’s the matter with you?”

After the Socialist Revolution started in Cuba in 1960, scores of its middle and upper classes citizens fled to the safety and comfort of the USA, initially settling heavily in what then was another undeveloped resort town: Miami. Toiling hard, they set up new businesses and raised beautiful families. Sadly this success story has a dark undertone as a stowaway hid in their luggage.  As in all Latin American countries, they had inherited the authoritarian streak and lack of civic virtues that the Spanish Empire imposed on them. Eventually most of them evolved to appreciate and accept the precious defense of basic individual rights that an Anglo-Saxon society grants. But a few of them remained reactionary holdouts that did not accept individual, let alone women’ rights; they do not understand that in our complex society single working women are the norm, and not the exception, as I have already explained in my blog “The single Mom.” Sadly many of these recalcitrant individuals have bought residential complexes along the Calle 8 axis.

Mariela X. is a single working mother of four beautiful children that I met a few months ago as I regularly ordered take-out food from the resto in Calle 8 where she works. She goes to work at 6 PM and slogs relentlessly in the kitchen and counter until the wee hours, always treating her customers well. Occasionally we informally discuss the care of her 8 years old daughter that has severe Bronchial Asthma and is being regularly treated by a pediatrician. Last week she told me that a tree had fallen on top of her roof and was slowly eroding the foundation with the real possibility of bringing it down.Her daughter recently had a worsening of her symptoms due to the lack of proper air conditioning. When I asked her why she hadn’t contacted her landlord to fix the problem, she replied:

-“I did many times…He told me that he wished the roof would collapse so he could make a bigger claim to FEMA and then rent it for a higher amount…He didn’t care if my children were hurt…He told me to go away.”

When we were hunkered down in a small closet with my son during the height of the Hurricane Irma’s strike on Miami a few days ago—amidst the clatter provoked by the maddeningly swirling winds outside the windows with frighteningly sudden lulls that heralded an even bigger onslaught by those demons to bring down the top floor apartment—we decided to pray to our Creator asking for forgiveness for our sins and acceptance into Heaven. When we finally made it out, both Gian Luca and I were different persons. My son decided to finish his first feature film and make it an artistic work to remember. Myself, I decided to fight for the poor and deprived of this city.

My street sources tell me that Mariela’s plight is common in that neighborhood as the unscrupulous landlords are taking advantage of the post-hurricane chaos and, abetted by the corrupt politicians and their lackeys in the City of Miami, are harassing the poor. Before Mariela had the chance to finish her story, I could already feel the finger of God Almighty pushing me against the wall to command me: you have to help her.NOW.

With all the details of her dire situation, I first contacted the 311 number staffed by members of the local office of the “Florida Division of Emergency Management”; befitting the long tradition of civic indifference and laziness of the bureaucrats from this “Banana Republic of South Florida” they said it was not their business (sic) and only provided me with a state help line. After doing the tiring phone rounds of public offices that were only jerking me around, I was almost ready to give up. Suddenly the memory of the departed Charlton Heston valiantly riding a horse in “El Cid” sprung to my mind.

Governor Rick Scott of Florida showed remarkable stewardship during the worst moments before, during and after Hurricane Irma that was a monster storm ready to level out all traces of civilization in the Florida peninsula. My son and I listened watched his conferences in CNN, which gave us hope.  Exhausted and disillusioned I called his office a few days ago. After the horrible first impression that you saw in the beginning of this posting, his aide understood the severity of the situation and gave me the right contact. Danilo Flores, a good-natured employee of the “Division of Agriculture and Consumer services” helped me file the necessary complaint. Thank you very much.

When I called Mariela to relay the good news that help is coming, she said:

-“Doctor…Do you know what that crooked landlord told me today? That he couldn’t discuss with me cause I’m a woman…That I should get a man!” Oh really, dude?

Cid Campeador-Rick Scott, come down with your gallant army to the  rescue of these poor, defenceless women and children in the BRSF. God will be riding on your side.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Global patient safety

Alphonse Chapanis wrote a seminal paper in 1960 where he exposed the unusually high rate of medication-related errors in a 1100-bed hospital. There were seven major causes of errors in the administration of drugs:

  1. Omission of medicine
  2. Administration to the wrong patient
  3. Use of the wrong dosage
  4. Use of an unintended extra dosage
  5. Use by the wrong route
  6. Use at the wrong timing
  7. Administration of the wrong drug

Almost 60 years later, this issue is still critically relevant, even in developed nations, which has prodded policymakers, administrators and physicians to take the necessary corrective steps. Chapanis had identified 4 major areas:

  1. Written communication
  2. Medication procedures
  3. Working environment
  4. Training and education

In 2004 the World Health Organization (WHO) designed two major initiatives to promote clean care and surgery under the umbrella of the “Global Patient safety challenges.” On March 29, 2017, its Director General announced the launching of a third one dubbed as “Medication without Harm” in front of the national health ministers meeting in Bonn, Germany. The goal is to reduce harm related to medications by 50% over 5 years.

Initially countries will be required to target three areas of priority; high risk situations, polypharmacy and transitions of care. Afterwards the national experts will design tailored programmes to make improvements in 4 areas: health care guidelines, administration of medications, patient education and public awareness. Finally the WHO will intervene with its great human and material capacities to implement effective monitoring programs, provide technical assistance, engage with regulatory agencies and pharmaceutical companies to improve the labelling of packages and ultimately to provide the patients themselves with tools to safely manage their own medications.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.





Need for community health workers

When I was a medical student I studied the novel Chinese experience of the “barefoot physicians”—community health workers in its vast countryside. With a basic training and a lot of enthusiasm they provided critically needed access to clinical and obstetrical services for its impoverished population. In the years that have passed by, the Chinese central government has made a big investment in economic and human resources for the medicalisation of maternal care, which now occurs usually in well-equipped care centers.

Community health workers now play a pivotal role in most health care initiatives around the globe as they provide preventive and curative care to underserved, poor communities in far away regions with difficult access. The scarcity of health care personnel has given new impetus to their training and deployment in order to complement and even spearhead care initiatives. They are responsible for the great strides in malaria control and eradication.

An editorial in “The Lancet Global Health” says, “a quick look at the CHW panorama shows great success as well as missed opportunities. Large-scale government-led programmes in countries like Brazil and Tanzania, where CHWs are part of the formal health system, trained, and remunerated, have led to increased health care coverage and improved health indicators. Conversely, man local smaller-scale programmes that lack the necessary support system—clear financial and administrative planning and coordination—have proven to be unsustainable or misaligned with local needs, and have fallen through attrition or lack of utilization.”

Even though they often shoulder the burden to provide access to basic health services to underserved communities, the CHWs dwell in a “grey area” of the formal care systems as their professional role is not properly formulated and they are not efficiently trained to obtain a final certificate or diploma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has promoted a labour strategy to streamline and rationalize their training to integrate them into the systems. These good Samaritans need resources, good pay and a clear career pathway.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.


A CDC for Africa

The pathogens do not carry passports and can cross all the frontiers at will.

Three years ago we were all scared that the Ebola virus outbreak that started in Western Africa would spread to the rest of the planet unhindered. There was a health system failure in the three countries involved as the Ebola virus data arrived to the Public Health functionaries in a hotch-potch of formats, which could not be analyzed fast and efficiently enough for a good response.

An editorial at “The Lancet Global Health” quoted Kevin De Cock, director at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who said: “there was a ‘chasm’ between laboratory and clinical practice. The turning point came with the institution of CDC-assisted incident management systems, which rapidly improved coordination and reporting structures, and set clear goals and expectations.”

In January the members of the African Society for Laboratory Medicine met in Cape Town where they decided to create an “African CDC” in order to count with the necessary facilities and trained personnel “in situ” for the next dangerous pandemia. The design and implementation of modern and reliable laboratory facilities coupled with the professional training of personnel is considered as the first step in the long process of modernization.

The African Union’s Agenda for 2016 showed the impact of these factors:

  1. Rapid population growth
  2. Increased movement of people across the frontiers
  3. Existing endemic and emerging infectious diseases
  4. Resistance to the first line antibiotics
  5. High infant and Maternal mortality rates
  6. Insufficient and inefficient Public Health assets

The embryonic African CDC and its partner organizations like the WHO and nation-states decided to strengthen the capacity in four priority areas:

  1. Modern information systems to reach critical decisions much faster
  2. Linked clinical laboratories in five regions of the continent
  3. Support of national Public Health preparedness and response plans
  4. Develop Public Health knowledge and practice at a local level.

Based in Addis Ababa, the African CDC will operate in a decentralized way with five Regional Collaborating centres in Egypt, Nigeria, Gabon, Zambia and Kenya with fully equipped laboratory and advanced diagnostics sites, which will be closer to the involved member states in case of an emergency. The new CDC will promote the establishment of National Public Health Institutes (NPHI) in each member state to obtain a legal mandate for action.

They are planning to develop a more efficient response system that does not rely solely in the dispatch of supplies and personnel from developed nations; they will design a surge capacity with stockpiles in the regional centers.

In the initial stage of a disease outbreak, a few days can make a difference. Considering all the public health implications for the rest of the planet, this novel African initiative must be supported by all the national governments.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.


Mass deworming in developing countries

In times of fiscal restraints in developed countries and private donor fatigue to contribute for massive Public Health initiatives in the developing world, many programs have come under intense scientific and political scrutiny. Mass deworming of people infected with soil-transmitted helminthiasis and schistosomiasis—affecting almost one billion people worldwide—has been implemented with drugs given to school-age children in national campaigns.

Mass deworming per se cannot eliminate helminthiasis if it is not coupled with complementary long-term strategies to improve people’s access to clean water, sanitation facilities, proper housing and labour opportunities. This holistic approach has been pushed by the “Global Health diplomacy.” Several national governments, private donors, aid agencies and big pharma companies signed the “London declaration” to commit to a sustained control and eradication of soil-transmitted helminthiasis in developing countries.

Vivian A. Welch et al. searched 11 databases up to January 2016, websites, trial registers and contacted experts to review reference lists together. They studied the results of massive deworming that involved more than one million children and follow-up of 160,000 children after those campaigns.

Mass deworming with albendazole twice per year compared to controls did not show any improvement in weight or height over a 12 months-period. There was little to no difference in weight-for-height, proportion stunted, performance on short-attention tasks, school attendance and mortality. Mass deworming for schistosomiasis improved children’s weight but not height.

Subgroup and sensitivity analyses are based on aggregate level data, which might conceal the differences in results at the individual level or interaction with other sociological factors like poor sanitation, housing and transport. Treating infected and non-infected children will dilute the resulting data.  Even though studies that used proper screening and targeted treatment for helminthiasis showed benefits in the meta-analyses of results, the massive campaigns are more inexpensive and easier to logistically deploy worldwide. Is economics enough of a reason to treat both the infected and non-infected?

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

The risks of drug trials

Clinical research trials have been the gold standard to study the safety and effectiveness of new drugs in the human beings for several decades. Even though the “Good Clinical Practice” protocols (GCP) have been refined by expert professionals with the supervision of competent, national authorities, there is still much to be done for the safety of the participants.

A November editorial in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine discusses the tragic consequences of a phase 1 clinical trial in France that left one patient dead and three others with severe neurological damage after they were given doses of an experimental drug dubbed as BIA 10-2474. It is a fatty acid hydrolase inhibitor that targets the endo-cannabinoid system.

The question of potential risks compared to benefits of any drug must be carefully evaluated, even in Phase I where the emphasis is on its safety as it involves healthy volunteers that do not have anything to gain from its use.  Other drug companies had tested that drug before and determined that there was insufficient evidence of its efficacy to warrant a costly clinical trial.

Its “first-in-human” phase I clinical trial started in January 2016 in France with eight volunteers, six of whom received 50 mg daily of BIA 10-2474 and two were given a placebo as control. Four of these volunteers were admitted to Rennes University Hospital for an acute neurological syndrome with headaches, cerebellar signs, memory loss and altered consciousness. One became brain dead, two others improved but one has residual deficits.

The clinical and radiological data suggested direct toxicity of the drug in an “off-target” location as increasing daily doses were used. On day five the volunteer that eventually died presented with blurred vision and gait problems; by day seven he was hypotensive and his heart rate dropped to 40/ minute. In spite of this development, the trial was not stopped immediately.

Even if they follow the protocol, investigators must have clinically-guided common sense to know when to stop a trial in spite of the potential financial losses. If this grave incident happened in a country like France, with its long civic tradition of protection of individual citizens’ rights, what can we expect in other countries with less patients’ safeguards?

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.