Category: Disease

Kate Muessig, PhD, Talks About Tech in Public Health

Kate Muessig, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. Muessig has done a plethora of research, primarily focused on improving HIV/STI prevention and care in China among sex workers as well as in North Carolina among men who have sex with men. Much of her research focuses on developing eHealth and mHealth interventions for these populations.

Currently, Muessig is working with a research team developing a tablet-based virtual reality program for HIV-positive males that will help them develop effective communication and decision-making skills around disclosing their HIV status to others, particularly intimate partners. She is also working on creating an mHealth app for HIV-positive patients in China to assist in navigating the complex Chinese healthcare system for HIV, continuing regular care, adhering to prescribed treatments and medications, and providing an accurate resource for more information about the disease.

Muessig hopes that public health and technology can be more integrated in the future. In her experience, she describes one of the key challenges as developing common language and navigating different work styles and funding mechanisms in the collaborations between academia and technology development groups. Muessig stresses that technology has the potential to be an invaluable health tool, but researchers and health professions need to develop useful new health behavior theories that incorporate a technological component, establish best practices for eHealth and mHealth interventions, and learn how to create self-sustaining, desirable apps and websites all while making meaningful impacts on major health concerns.

Read more about Kate Muessig and her research.

How do you think technology is changing public health research and interventions? Is technology helping or hindering public health efforts? How can technology be used as an ‘invaluable health tool?’

Photo source: UNC

 

And the Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to…

This past Monday, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three scientists for their discoveries of treatments for two of the parasitic diseases which together constitute a major global health issue. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura were jointly recognized for their discoveries which led to a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites, and Youyou Tu was recognized for her discoveries of a novel therapy for Malaria parasite infections.

 

Campbell and Omura isolated the active compound that was used to create the drug, Avermectin, which is effective in treating people affected by a particular group of parasitic worms that affect approximately 1/3 of the world’s population, especially in the less developed regions of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America. These parasitic worms can cause a condition known as River Blindness and can also lead to chronic swelling and, in extreme cases, cause Elephantiasis which is both painful and stigmatizing. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.23 billion people are currently at risk for infection worldwide, making the discovery of an effective cure an invaluable tool for public health efforts in affected regions. In fact, the class of drugs that has been developed based on Campbell and Omura’s discovery has been so effective at treating parasitic diseases that these conditions are now thought to be on their way to complete eradication.

The other half of the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Youyou Tu for her discovery of the drug Artemisinin, which has been used to successfully reduce the mortality rates for people infected with the Malaria parasite.  The class of antimalarial agents developed based on Tu’s discovery are used in combination therapy with other drugs to kill Malaria parasites early in their development, and have reduced mortality by more than 20% overall, and more than 30% in children. With 3.4 billion people at risk of contracting Malaria worldwide, this is another vitally important advancement in the effort to improve global health.

For more information about the Nobel Prize winners or their work, check out the Nobel Prize website: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2015/press.html

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October has arrived, and with it came the changing of leaves, pumpkin flavors and a flood of pink ribbons in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual health campaign organized to increase awareness and raise funds for the disease. However, while you may be tempted to go buy Panera’s pink ribbon bagel or a pink NFL t-shirt, purchasing from the overflow of pink ribbon branded products in the marketplace may not the best way to support the cause.

Over the last few years, the commodification of breast cancer has been under increased scrutiny, especially because some of the companies partnering with non-profits to raise money have been found to manufacture products that are contradictory to the cause. For example, in 2010, the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s partnership with KFC received a lot of criticism due to the fact that KFC plays a large role in the obesity epidemic, a health issue that has been found to increase the risk of several cancers.

It can also be difficult to determine how much of the proceeds are actually going to the cause, as many companies are not required to disclose this information directly. So before you spend your money on that pink ribbon pack of gum at the grocery store, here are some more trustworthy and reliable ways to make a difference:

  • Donate directly to the non-profit organization. (some organizations will even let you choose where the money goes)
  • Participate in a nation-wide breast cancer fundraising event, like American Cancer Society’s Making Strides or Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure
  • Host or plan your own fundraising event
  • Volunteer with a local non-profit and spread the word about the importance of early detection
  • Schedule your annual mammogram appointment and encourage friends and family to do the same

 

It’s time to get vaccinated!

While you’re probably intentionally avoiding thoughts about the coming winter, it’s already time to start thinking about your annual flu shot. The CDC identifies flu season in the U.S. as occurring from October through March, with its peak in January. The CDC encourages people to get vaccinated as early as possible each year since it can take two weeks for your immune system to produce the antibodies that will ultimately serve as your protection against infection. Keep in mind, however, that as long as the flu virus is still circulating in the population, it’s worth getting vaccinated, even late in the flu season.

But what if you’re a relatively healthy person and don’t feel that you’re at high risk for contracting the flu, or experiencing serious complications if you do? While getting vaccinated does protect you from being infected by the flu, it has the additional benefit of reducing the spread of the virus throughout your community. This protects those who are at risk, especially the elderly who comprise 80-90% of flu related deaths in the U.S. The vaccine can be administered as either a shot or a nasal spray, both of which may have mild side effects but will not cause flu illness. It’s a simple way that you can protect your health and the health of your community.

So, have you gotten your flu shot yet?

 

To find a location administering vaccinations near you, check out: http://vaccine.healthmap.org/

More information about the flu and the flu vaccine can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm

Being Under a Watchful Eye Has Potential to Increase Independence

High-tech mHealth technology is not just for the trendy young population of today. In fact, senior citizens were one of the first groups to utilize an early form of mHealth in the 1980s and 1990s. Remember “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”? Despite the notoriously corny advertising, these remote alert systems were years ahead of their time and just the beginning of personal health monitoring devices.

care in the home

Currently research is being conducted at University of Texas at Arlington into more advanced technology that can monitor gait and balance through floor sensors to assess fall risk, skin color through bathroom mirror sensors to detect illness and disease, and heart rate through various sensors in mirrors and beds to identify a variety of health complications. To hear the whole story, listen to NPR’s report, Live-In Laboratory May Help Older Adults Live Independently Longer. Also learn about another research group at the University of Missouri that is testing a more cost-effective monitoring system.

Essentially this technology is aiming to detect small changes in health data to make important predictions about seniors’ health risks and then take precautionary or preventive measures to mitigate these risks. It has the potential to provide piece of mind for not just seniors, but their children and healthcare providers too. In addition, the massive amount of detailed data can help scientists and researchers better understand aging and the development of many diseases, illnesses, and causes for injury.

Would you find comfort in having a parent in such a “Live-In Lab?” Would you personally be comfortable being monitored 24 hours a day? Is there a balance or tradeoff between science, safety, and privacy?

Image Sources: Flickr & Flickr

Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s 2015 Call to Action

Last week I experienced my very first walking meeting. I was so excited about the concept that I decided to do a little research on other innovative ways that I could increase the amount of walking I do on a regular basis. Coincidentally, I discovered that the Surgeon General’s 2015 Call to Action is called “Step It Up!” and is focused on promoting walking and enhancing the walkability of communities across America.

Walking has increasingly become a pertinent topic in the media as the scientific community continues to discover the multitude of harmful health consequences that result from our modern sedentary lifestyle. The Call to Action reports that, “physical inactivity accounts for about 11% of premature deaths in the United States,” due to the chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes which are associated with insufficient levels of exercise.

However, simply being aware of the issue is not enough. Even when people are motivated to increase their amount of walking or physical activity they cannot always do so if their communities have insufficient spaces where people can be active, or when those spaces are unsafe.

That’s why the “Step It Up!” call to action focuses not just on the importance of walking, but also on the importance of improving the communities where people live and work so that walking becomes a feasible option.

Do barriers to walking exist in your community? What are some ways to improve walkability where you live or work?

Drug Shown to be Effective in Preventing HIV Infection

What if there was a pill that could protect against the HIV virus?

What many people don’t realize is that such a drug already exists and has proven to be incredibly effective at blocking the spread of the virus.

Last week, Kaiser Permanente published their findings for a 2.5 year study of Truvada, the pre-exposure prophylaxis drug for HIV. Truvada is actually a combination of two medicines, tenofovir and emtricitabine, that when taken daily can prevent HIV infection in an HIV-negative person if they are exposed to the virus.

Of the 657 people who began using PrEP over the 32-month observation period, none contracted HIV during the study. Previously conducted clinical trials had shown efficacy rates as high as 92% for preventing infection when the drug was taken properly, but the Kaiser Permanente study was the first to produce evidence supporting the drug’s efficacy in a real world setting.

It is important to note that Truvada is only recommended for people who are continually at high risk for contracting HIV (due to sexual practices or injection drug use)*. It is also a promising option for HIV discordant couples (in which one partner is HIV positive and the other is negative).

Also, to be effective Truvada needs to be taken very consistently each day which raises questions of practicality and concerns about the regular access to healthcare services that successful management requires. Still, PrEP remains a very promising tool for the continued battle to control the spread of HIV worldwide.

You can find more information on PrEP from the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/prevention/research/prep/

 

*If a person is exposed to HIV in a single high-risk event, they could begin treatment with postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) within 72 hours of their exposure to the virus to mitigate the chance of infection.

Athletes May be at Risk for Overhydration

As a new season of school sports begins and another heat wave rolls through the country, many coaches and parents will be pushing student athletes to drink more water to stay hydrated. Although well meant, this advice could have dangerous consequences when taken to the extreme. This week, the New York Times published an article about the serious condition known as exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), or overhydration.

Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when a person has a lower than normal concentration of sodium in their blood stream. EAH occurs when an athlete drinks more fluid than their body can excrete through sweat and urine, causing excess water to circulate in the bloodstream and dilute the blood’s sodium levels so that the sodium concentration in their blood falls dramatically. In an attempt to equalize the system, water moves out of the blood and into the surrounding cells, causing them to swell. If cells in the brain begin to swell, the consequences can be severe, even lethal.

This condition had previously been observed almost exclusively as the result of extreme endurance events, such as marathons, but has now occurred during other athletic events, especially football.

The International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia (EAH) Consensus Development Panel, a group of 17 international scientific and medical experts, has recently created and published an updated set of recommendations for the treatment and prevention of the condition in athletes.

Their main conclusion was simple – use your body’s thirst mechanism to judge whether or not you need more water, and if you’re not thirsty, don’t drink.

Wellness Wednesdays: What is ‘Wellness’?

Exploring the Idea

‘Wellness’ – the word itself conjures positive feelings of energy and youth, self-efficacy and joy.  But wellness is more than simply the ‘absence of illness’ – to me, it revolves around the pursuit of a balanced physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual life. Beyond that, however, I believe everyone has their own definition of wellness, their own concept of what it looks like when applied to their lives.

 

Today’s Reality

The healthcare system in the United States was designed to diagnose and treat disease – in the early 20th century people were largely healthy, and relied on the healthcare system to cure them when they fell sick. Today, however, the needs of our population have shifted. A significant proportion of Americans are burdened with at least one medical condition, and our struggle is now focused more on how to maintain and improve our collective health.

 

More than Willpower

I think many of us try very hard to live ‘well’ – but as the saying goes, ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’. It is incredibly challenging to follow the lifestyle advice that we know is associated with good health, like ‘eating a plant-based diet’ or ‘getting two and a half hours of moderate physical activity every week’. Do we all just lack the willpower necessary to accomplish these deceptively simple goals? I don’t think so.

 

How ‘Free’ Are We?

Our environment constrains our individual behaviors – it can make these behaviors either easier or harder to achieve, depending on how the environment is structured. However, America was built on the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘personal responsibility’, which can often seem at odds with this idea that ‘context’ can have so much influence on our choices.

 

What does wellness mean to you? Where do you fall on the continuum of health? Do you feel you are closer to ‘healthy’ or ‘sick’? How ‘free’ do you consider yourself to be? Please help us continue this important conversation by sharing your responses to some of these questions in the comments section below.

Early treatment saves more lives

The benefits of early treatment are clear for both people living with HIV (PLWH) and the whole society. Last Wednesday, based on the findings of the largest clinical trial, federal health officials announced that the benefits of the early treatment are obvious. Besides, they also said that people with HIV should take antiretroviral drugs as soon as they are diagnosed.

This trial is a strong evidence to show that those who got treatment immediately were 53 percent less likely to be infected and develop AIDS or die during the trial. Therefore, the early treatment saves more lives. At present, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), 450,000 of the estimated 1.2 million with HIV are on treatment. Although the influence of early treatment is sound and profound, only 37 percent of infected Americans had the access to get the prescriptions of the drugs. This small percentage is partly due to the limited access to HIV testing, health insurance. Therefore, people infected by AIDS could not afford the drugs or did not see doctors.

In addition, though the substantial evidence of the benefits of early treatment is defining, the shortage of funding is the main cause of a small amount of people living with HIV have the access to the early treatment — antiretroviral medicines. For instance, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria constantly struggle to raise money.

It’s true that antiretroviral treatment (early treatment) is the best way to curb AIDS. The shortage of money is the mainly daunting challenge facing organizations targeting at HIV.

Photo credit from: http://www.bchdmi.org/cchs/hiv