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Conspiracy Theories and Ebola: How a US Federally Funded Research Facility in the Heart of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Outbreak Acerbated Local Misconceptions about Ebola

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By: Caroline Duncombe

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An inherent distrust follows what one does not understand; scientific endeavors if not explained properly are easily misunderstood. From climate skeptics to CERN’s 666 logo, the world is wrought with conspiracy theories surrounding science. The role of conspiracies should not be underestimated or neglected, especially since such theories are interspersed with layers of truth. Usually conspiracies reside harmlessly on the edge of the web, but during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone an unaddressed rumor resulted in fatal consequences. Rumors revolving around a Tulane University research facility located in Kenema Government Hospital prompted a breakdown in relations between the local populations and international health care workers. This mistrust led to the refusal to permit blood draws for diagnostic purposes during the critical initial stages of the Ebola outbreak. By underestimating the importance of cultural and religious symbolism surrounding scientific research U.S. federal funding agencies, laboratory researchers, and private companies made a crucial mistake. By analyzing this curious conspiracy theory, scientists, funding agencies, and health practitioners can learn from past mistakes and become more aware of the impact of research beyond pure scientific pursuit.

Background

            On May 24th, 2014,a young woman miscarried in Kenema Government Hospital. Given the recent outbreak in nearby Gueckedou, Guinea, Ebola was suspected. A day later, the same hospital reported the first confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Soon after, Kenema became a hot zone – the entry point for the Ebola virus to spread throughout Sierra Leone and eventually the world. The repercussions of the Ebola outbreak extend well beyond the 11,310 death count in West Africa to economic, social, medical, and cultural spheres.

The Kenema Government Hospital was not a typical Sierra Leonian public hospital. In fact, the hospital was well-equipped, with the only Lassa fever isolation ward anywhere in the world. The lab dated to 2005, when Tulane University received a $10 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to study “Diagnostics for Biodefense against Lassa fever”. Since previous investigations of sporadic Lassa fever outbreaks were based out of Kenema, the natural choice for the establishment of first-rate laboratory infrastructure was Kenema Government Hospital.

As the years passed, the Tulane research laboratory acquired more grants and partnerships. One of the principal collaborators was the private for-profit company, Metabiota, which received grants from two U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) agencies – Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Biological Engagement Program – to primarily study the pathogenesis of Lassa fever, a ‘US bioterror threat’. Due to stipulations in NIH grant funding, the substantial amount of money flowing into this “shiny new” research laboratory could not be applied to assisting patients in the “dilapidated, cramped, and poorly resourced Lassa ward only some 50m away” (Bausch). During the Ebola outbreak, the Lassa laboratory’s focus shifted to Ebola, continuing research until the NIH did not renew funding in 2014, primarily due to safety reasons.

The Conspiracy Theory

Following the 2014 outbreak, a conspiracy theory circulating throughout Sierra Leone, essentially claiming that the U.S. created Ebola, or a Lassa-Ebola hybrid, and either intentionally or accidentally released this bioterror weapon from the U.S. NIH and DoD-funded research facility at Kenema Government Hospital. While such a rumor lacked credible evidence, there were specific circumstances surrounding the policies of the research outpost that fed into the narrative – truths that should have been addressed through culturally sensitive policies.

Four main factors converged into a superstitious and suspicious narrative about the Lassa research laboratory. First, by branding the Lassa research facility with a bioterrorism component, the project assisted in drawing out a natural conclusion that bioterror weapons were also present in the laboratory. Tulane University’s initial grant application in 2005 framed Lassa virus as a US biosecurity threat through key words such as “Diagnostics for Biodefense” and “LASV as a biological weapon directed against civilian or military targets necessitates development of… diagnostics.” The framing of the diagnostic development laboratory in terms of a biodefense strategy against the NIAID Category A classification was not an accident, but rather a necessity to gain funding. As Annie Wilkins puts it “whether the prospect of weaponization is regarded as sensationalism or a real concern, all researchers are aware of the utility the bioweapons threat has in obtaining funding.” By emphasizing biodefense and collaborating with the U.S. DoD via Metabiota’s funding stream, a natural linkage between the work of the research outpost and bioweapons developed.

The second factor was out of the control of Tulane University: A suspicious coincidence. Due to its proximity to Guinea, laboratory capacity, and fluidity in movement across the Sierra Leone-Guinea border, the first confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone occurred in Kenema Government Hospital. Although there potentially were other cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, none of the primary health care clinics in the area had the laboratory capacity to officially diagnose Ebola. A natural speculation ensued: what are the chances that the one Biodefense laboratory in Sierra Leone, where the hemorrhagic Lassa fever virus was located, was also the site of the first confirmed case of a “new” bioterror threat that also causes hemorrhagic fever, Ebola? Money draws attention, and the money flowing into this singular laboratory was substantial when compared with other public hospitals in Sierra Leone. For reference, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation allocated U.S. $20 million budget to run the entire national health system in 2009.

Third, a nurse from Kenema Government Hospital claimed to an audience at a fish market that “the deadly [Ebola] virus was invented to conceal “cannibalistic rituals”. The statement and an already distrustful community culminated into a riot at the hospital on July 25th, 2014. Such a case further cemented the people’s suspicions that the laboratory was “stealing” the blood of Sierra Leonians. Even though collecting blood is necessary for diagnostic tests, there are many deeply held cultural beliefs about blood in Sierra Leone, and many people are reluctant to participate in blood test as a result.

Fourth, the research facility suspiciously and suddenly shut down right at the beginning of the outbreak without much explanation to the community. Additionally, many of the Sierra Leonian staff who could have addressed the suspicions about the facility pre-outbreak have since died while bravely combatting Ebola. All of these factors accumulated into the conspiracy theory that actors involved with the bio-defense grant and the US government created a bioterror weapon and unleashed it on West Africa.

Policy Considerations

The accumulation of these factors demonstrate the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness when implementing scientific research policies. In 2018, Tulane University and a variety of partners received a new $15 million federally funded grant to study how Ebola and Lassa survivors fought off the diseases. Hopefully, the researchers are opening this facility with a new awareness and increased precautions on the spiritual and social baggage they bring to Kenema. This is especially important when considering the potential for further stigmatization of Ebola survivors if called to Kenema Government Hospital for research or treatment purposes.

There are several policy considerations that could alter the course of this conspiracy and help acclimate the community to both the presence of a well-equipped laboratory and blood draws for diagnostic purposes. Research institutions should refrain from using vocabulary such as “biodefense” and “bioweapon” to describe the purpose of research. A clinician in the Lassa ward pointed out that “The average Sierra Leonian won’t see Lassa Fever as a bioweapon threat. Only in the Western world do they see it like that.” Since the potential for contracting Lassa and Ebola is an everyday reality for Sierra Leonians, research initiatives on such diseases should be spoken about in terms of their potential for public health. Additionally, universities seeking to do medical research should consider the cultural significance of their location, and contemplate ways, including shifting location, that might reduce any negative connotations. Engaging influential spiritual leaders in productive information partnerships could also assist in assuaging local concerns.

Policy considerations should also be contemplated by grant funding institutions like the NIH and DoD. First, grant stipulations should integrate a layer of flexibility for distributing certain supplies and resources for patient care. Second, the NIH and DoD should be cognizant of their bias in funding grants that are written in terms of biodefense interests of the US, especially when related to countries where such a ‘bioweapon’ is an everyday reality. This is especially important because such bias incentivizes deleterious narratives that invokes cultural, social, and medical consequences.  Lack of funding for neglected infectious diseases that only burden developing countries by the US is a complex and important issue that will require deep structural changes – and would require another blog post to contemplate. Yet, a simple solution would be to require scientific grant applications to contain a section in which the applicant considers the cultural and social impact of the work within the community of interest. In addition, community outreach with intentional dialogue on assuaging concerns about sensitive research activities should made be mandatory.

The conspiracy theory exacerbated the already high level of mistrust in Western interventions during the outbreak. As the Washington Post emphasizes, the lesson from this case study is “that winning the trust of communities at risk is absolutely indispensable to limiting the impact of the inevitable next Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” Hopefully, the Tulane University research center in Kenema Government Hospital has learned from past mistakes, and seeks to engage the community and douse suspicions against their research upon re-opening the laboratory this year. Conspiracy theories usually integrate truth with speculation. The traditional method of ignoring such theories or flat out denying (as was the case with Tulane University) may have detrimental consequences as seen during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. The power in a conspiracy theory is not necessarily its truth, but it’s power to persuade people that it is true. And as scientists who are often focused on the facts, we often have a hard time understanding that concept. When doing research, it is crucial to be cognizant of the social perception of science and attempt to build bridges between gaps of understanding on cultural practices and scientific endeavors.

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 17, 2019 at 6:34 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 21, 2017

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By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD

Obesity

Should We Treat Obesity Like a Contagious Disease?

Researchers are modeling obesity from a public health perspective as a contagious disease. There are many factors associated with obesity, including genetics, low levels of physical activity, and high caloric intake. An earlier study examined the effects of different social factors on an individual’s risk of being obese; it found that people with obese friends and family were at an increased risk for obesity, and this trend was influenced by how close the relationships were.

In this model of the prevalence of obesity, the researchers included a factor to represent obesity as a “social contagion”, reflecting those previous findings and indicating a potential increased risk and increased prevalence due to transmission from one person to another. This mechanism is assumed to be related to people adopting the behaviors of those close to them; notably, activity levels and type and quantity of food consumed. The model predicts obesity rates in populations with terms associated with the genetic contribution to obesity, the mother’s non-genetic contribution to her offspring, and the prevalence of obesity. Essentially, the more obese individuals there are in a society, the more likely it is for someone to know and interact with an obese person.

The models indicate that obesity prevalence plateaus around 35-40% without an intervention. The model is still fairly primitive, but the researchers hope that in future it could provide insight into the effects of potential interventions. For example, is it better to target an intervention to individuals who are already obese, or should the reach of the intervention be more broad and target the population as a whole? When the models reach a level of complexity comparable to the existing factors for obesity, they can be a powerful tool in preventing and addressing the epidemic. (Kelly Servick, Science Magazine)

Autism

Brain Scans Spot Early Signs of Autism in High-Risk Babies

A study recently published in Nature showed that alterations in brain development in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism precede behavioral symptoms. High-risk infants’ brains were scanned with MRI at 6, 12, and 24 months. It was determined that the infants who were subsequently diagnosed with autism had a faster rate of brain volume growth between 12 and 24 months. Additionally, between 6 and 12 months, these infants had a faster rate of growth in the surface area of folds on the brain, called the cortical surface.

Taking these findings, the research team used a machine learning approach called a deep-learning neural network to make a model to predict whether an infant would be diagnosed with autism based on their MRIs from 6 and 12 months. This model was tested in a larger set of infants, and the model correctly predicted 30 out of 37 infants who went on to be diagnosed (true positives), and it incorrectly predicted that 4 infants would be diagnosed with autism out of the 142 who were not later diagnosed (false positives). These results are much more robust than behavior-based predictions from this same age range.

More work needs to be done to replicate the results in a larger sample. Additionally, all of the participants were high-risk infants, meaning they had a sibling who was diagnosed with autism, so the results are not necessarily generalizable to the rest of the population. Further studies need to be done in the general population to determine if these same patterns are observable, but that would require an even larger sample due to the lower risk. However, the early detection of symptoms and prediction of diagnosis are potentially valuable tools, especially considering another recent publication showed that early intervention in children with autism affects the severity of symptoms years down the road. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Science Funding

Ebola Funding Surge Hides Falling Investment in Other Neglected Diseases

Funding totals from 2015 reveal a trending decrease in funding for neglected diseases, excluding Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. Neglected diseases are diseases that primarily affect developing companies, thus providing little incentive for private research and development by commercial entities; the other diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Given the recent surge of funding for Ebola research, the analysis firm, Policy Cures Research, decided to separate it from the other neglected diseases in its analysis to observe funding patterns independent from the epidemic that dominated the news and international concerns. Funding was tracked from private, public, and philanthropic sources.

The funding for Ebola research has primarily gone to development of a vaccine, and over a third of the funds were provided by industry. For the other diseases, the decline in overall funding is mostly represented by a decline in funding from public entities, primarily comprised of the governments of large, developed countries. Those countries accounted for 97% of the research funding for neglected diseases in 2015, so any significant change in that funding category would affect the overall funding amounts. However, there was also a slight decline in philanthropic funding. When including Ebola with the others, funding of neglected diseases was actually at its highest in the past ten years. It is not known whether money was funneled from the other diseases to Ebola research, or if this decline is indicative of less research spending in general. (Erin Ross, Nature News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 21, 2017 at 10:03 am

Containing Emerging and Re-emerging Infections Through Vaccination Strategies

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By: Arielle Glatman Zaretsky, PhD

Source: CDC [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

           Throughout history, humans have sought to understand the human body and remedy ailments. Since the realization that disease can be caused by infection and the establishment of Koch’s postulates, designed to demonstrate that a specific microbe causes a disease, humans have sought to identify and “cure” diseases. However, while we have been successful as a species at developing treatments for numerous microbes, viruses, and even parasites, pure cures that prevent future reinfection have remained elusive. Indeed, the only human disease that has been eradicated in the modern era (smallpox) was eliminated through the successful development and application of preventative vaccines, not the implementation of any treatment strategy. Furthermore, the two next most likely candidates for eradication, dracunculiasis (guinea worm disease) and poliomyelitis (polio), are approaching this status through the use of preventative measures, via water filtration and vaccination, respectively. In fact, despite the recent pushback from a scientifically unfounded anti-vaxxers movement, the use of a standardized vaccination regimen has led to clear reductions in disease incidence of numerous childhood ailments in the Americas, including measles, mumps, rubella, and many others. Thus, although the development of antibiotics and other medical interventions have dramatically improved human health, vaccines remain the gold standard of preventative treatment for the potential of disease elimination. By Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, there have been numerous outbreaks of emerging or reemerging infectious diseases. From SARS to Ebola to Zika virus, these epidemics have led to significant morbidity and mortality, and have incited global panic. In the modern era of air travel and a global economy, disease can spread quickly across continents, making containment difficult. Additionally, the low incidence of these diseases means that few efforts are exerted to the development of treatments and interventions for them, and when these are attempted, the low incidence further complicates the implementation of clinical trials. For example, though Ebola has been a public health concern since the first outbreak in 1976, no successful Ebola treatment or vaccine existed until the most recent outbreak of 2014-2016. This outbreak resulted in the deaths of more than 11,000 people, spread across more than 4 countries, and motivated the development of several treatments and 2 vaccine candidates, which have now reached human trials. However, these treatments currently remain unlicensed and are still undergoing testing, and were not available at the start or even the height of the outbreak when they were most needed. Instead, diseases that occur primarily in low income populations in developing countries are understudied, for lack of financial incentive. Thus, these pathogens can persist at low levels in populations, particularly in developing countries, creating a high likelihood of eventual outbreak and potential for future epidemics.

This stream of newly emerging diseases and the re-emergence of previously untreatable diseases brings the question of how to address these outbreaks and prevent global pandemics to the forefront for public health policy makers and agencies tasked with controlling infectious disease spread. Indeed, many regulatory bodies have integrated accelerated approval policies that can be implemented in an outbreak to hasten the bench to bedside process. Although the tools to identify new pathogens rapidly during an outbreak have advanced tremendously, the pathway from identification to treatment or prevention remains complicated. Regulatory and bureaucratic delays compound the slow and complicated research processes, and the ability to conduct clinical trials can be hindered by rare exposures to these pathogens. Thus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has compiled a blueprint for the prevention of future epidemics, meant to inspire partnerships in the development of tools, techniques, medications and approaches to reduce the frequency and severity of these disease outbreaks. Through the documentation and public declaration of disease priorities and approaches to promote research and development in these disease areas, WHO has set up a new phase of epidemic prevention through proactive research and strategy.

Recently, this inspired the establishment of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) by a mixed group of public and private funding organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, inspired by the suggestion that an Ebola vaccine could have prevented the recent outbreak if not for the lack of funding slowing research and development, to begin to create a pipeline for developing solutions to control and contain outbreaks, thereby preventing epidemics. Instead of focusing on developing treatments to ongoing outbreaks, the mission at CEPI is to identify likely candidates for future outbreaks based on known epidemic threats and to lower the barriers for effective vaccine development through assisting with initial dose and safety trials, and providing support through both the research and clinical trials, and the regulatory and industry aspects. If successful, this approach could lead to a stockpile of ready-made vaccines, which could easily be deployed to sites of an outbreak and administered to aid workers to reduce their morality and improve containment. What makes this coalition both unique and exciting is the commitment to orphan vaccines, so called for their lack of financial appeal to the pharmaceutical industry that normally determines the research and development priorities, and the prioritization of vaccine development over treatment or other prophylactic approaches. The advantage of a vaccination strategy is that it prevents disease through one simple treatment, with numerous precedents for adaptation of the vaccine to a form that is permissive of the potential temperature fluctuations and shipping difficulties likely to arise in developing regions. Furthermore, it aids in containment, by preventing infection, and can be quickly administered to large at risk populations.

Thus, while the recent outbreaks have incited fear, there is reason for hope. Indeed, the realization of these vaccination approaches and improved fast tracking of planning and regulatory processes could have long reaching advantages for endemic countries, as well as global health and epidemic prevention.

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January 26, 2017 at 9:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 12, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

A representation of the surface of the Zika virus is shown. A team led by Purdue University researchers is the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines. (Purdue University image/courtesy of Kuhn and Rossmann research groups)

Funding the ongoing Zika pandemic

Shifting funds for Zika is a good start, but more money is still needed

Last week, the White House made the decision to redirect $589 million in unspent federal funds, previously allocated for an Ebola response, to cover costs associated with fighting and researching Zika. The White House is still advocating for additional funding for both the ongoing Zika pandemic and to replenish the money that was moved away from Ebola. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), informed ScienceInsider that ~$50 million of the reallocated funds will go to NIAID to fund Zika research. None of the redirected funds will come out of the money that NIAID had previously received for research on Ebola, as the vast majority of those funds have already been spent. Further, Fauci warns “That’s not enough to last me very long. We can start the work, but we can’t finish what we need to do.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a press conference on April 12, “Everything we know about this virus seems to be scarier than we initially thought.”

In February, the Obama administration had requested almost $2 billion to help thwart the Zika virus and its transmission. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to act on this emergency funding request. White house officials are nevertheless still trying to persuade Congress to pass the emergency Zika funding. Fauci bleakly predicts, “If we don’t get all of the Zika money, that is when things start getting hurt,” alluding to the possibility of having to further shift critical NIAID funds away from ongoing malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis research. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Solutions to mental health impairments require global collaboration

Globally, almost 1/3 of people will suffer from a mood, anxiety, or substance-use issue during their lifetime. In fact, these disorders are one of the leading causes of disability. The resources to assist people facing these problems are not only inadequate in the United States, but around the world as well. There are some countries in Africa, where people are extremely underserved leaving them particularly vulnerable because these countries have the fewest resources for mental-health care as they only one psychiatrist for the entire country. In fact, there are only 9 mental health providers per 100,000 people worldwide.

Importantly, support for mental health does not lack political backing. Both the World Health Organization and the World Bank will coorperate to broaden global efforts in mental health. This past September, mental health was included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Since 2011, new investments (estimated at ~$80 million US) have been made by the three largest funders of mental-health research in low- and middle-income countries: the US National Institute of Mental Health, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK Department for International Development. Recently, research has focused on efficacy, effectiveness and implementation in the low- and middle-income countries. These local research teams often work or consult with colleagues in rich countries. Researchers, clinicians, and caregivers must unite to all work together because “when it comes to mental health, all countries are developing.” (Pamela Y. Collins & Shekhar Saxena, Nature Comment)

Vaccine shortage and Global Health

Dangerous shortage of yellow fever vaccine

Four. There are only four facilities worldwide that produce yellow fever vaccines: the Pasteur Institute, two government facilities in Russia and Brazil, and a French vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur. Unfortunately, their combined efforts have been failing the world’s demands and the ongoing outbreak in Angola only further emphasizes the escalating shortage. Jack Woodall, formerly of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, warns “another major outbreak…could be impossible to control.” He admits that this potential is something that he’s deeply concerned about.

Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The ‘yellow’ in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients. Without treatment, up to half of severely affected people will die. Annually, there are an estimated 60,000-80,000 deaths attributed to yellow fever globally. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever, leaving vaccination the most important preventative measure.

When a yellow fever outbreak occurs in an urban setting, like the one in Angola, it is often relentless as the mosquitoes can easily transmit the virus person to person. William Perea, of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Control of Epidemic Diseases department, stated that Angola has confirmed 490 cases and almost 200 deaths, the actual numbers could be 10 fold higher. Since February, a large vaccine initiative has been underway, reaching 6 million of Luanda’s estimated 7.5 million residents. Currently, yellow fever has stretched into 6 of the 18 provinces in the country. The global emergency yellow fever vaccine stockpile has been left empty, unlikely to be replenished anytime soon. (Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceInsider)

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April 12, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 9, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Photo credit: Contains LEAD via photopin (license)

Health Policy

What the Science Says About Long-Term Damage From Lead

Almost two years since the city of Flint, MI switched from Detroit water to their local water supply, the citizens are finally being listened to in regards to their drinking water. Time and time again, citizens and researchers were ignored when they tried to alert local officials to their poor water quality conditions. Finally, Flint residents and researchers were able to get the message out: not only is their local water undrinkable, it is contaminated with lead.

Lead intoxication or lead poisoning does not necessarily lead to seizures, hospitalizations or medical events. However, health care professionals are still alarmed because lead levels in children reached 5 micrograms per deciliter (5 ug/dL). The percentage of children in Flint, MI under the age of 5 with lead levels that high have now since doubled (2.4 percent to 4.9 percent). Furthermore, in areas with the highest levels of lead, more than 10 percent of children have lead levels that are at least that high.

The most worrisome statistics are the long-term and lasting effects due to lead poisoning. A study published in Pediatrics examining more than 3,400 children in Rhode Island identified that children with blood lead levels between 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter (5-9 ug/dL) fell below reading readiness for kindergarten. Additional studies examining lead levels and child development also report increase likelihood to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking or drinking at an early age.

Now that attention is centered on Flint, MI and its trouble with lead in the water, focus needs to turn to mitigating any long-term damage children and adults may have as a result of lead poisoning. Historically, lead has been used ubiquitously in manufacturing. Not only used for pipes, lead has been an additive in gasoline, in paint and has also accumulated in soil. We should take a lesson from Flint and analyze the state of lead poisoning in our own communities. As Aaron E. Carrol comments, “Until we solve the lead problem for good, we may be condemning children to a lifetime of problems.” (Aaron E. Carroll, The New York Times)

Public Health and Infectious Disease

Governor, health officials sued over Ebola quarantines

During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, several people coming back to the United States from West Africa were quarantined: meaning they could not return back to their normal lives for at least 20 days. For several of these people, they felt the quarantine was akin to imprisonment and now have filed a lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by Yale Law School students against Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy and state health officials on behalf of ex-quarantined plaintiffs or those plaintiffs still in West Africa. The plaintiffs who were quarantined claim that they had no Ebola symptoms that warranted their isolation upon their return. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and an order preventing any future quarantines. Plantiffs say, “Being quarantined made me feel like a criminal.” “There was no scientific reason to confine me to my apartment, with no visitors and a police officer parked outside my door.”

Like other governors of New York or New Jersey who issued quarantines to health workers returning from areas in Africa endemic with Ebola, Governor Malloy adopted the same stringent policies. Not only did health care workers feel undue prejudice or discrimination as a result of traveling to West Africa, but so did Liberians living in Connecticut. It will be interesting to see what the court rules.   (Dave Collins, The Washington Post)

Drug Policy

Cancer drug’s usefulness against Alzheimer’s disputed

A study described in the top biomedical journal, Science, in 2012 observed that bexarotene, an FDA-approved cancer drug, was able to clear a protein, A-beta, from the brains of mice. This reduced plaque formation and smaller forms of the protein which in essence reduced the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease which is known to accumulate proteins that form plaques in the brain that reduce brain function. Excitingly, the mice treated with bexarotene showed signs of improved learning and memory—a reversal of Alzheimer’s symptoms. However, a year after their work appeared, four reports, also in, Science, disputed some of those findings.

In tests on rats, Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, found that bexarotene didn’t drop levels of plaques or smaller forms of the protein, A-beta. The author of the original Science paper, Dr. Landreth, argued that the present study did not use a formulation of the drug that would persist at high enough levels in the brain to be useful.

“Larger trials would be more informative”, says Landreth, who stands by his group’s original findings. “When we published our Science paper, it took us five years and we did the best science we could,” Landreth says. “And I am convinced that we are right.” (Laura Sanders, Science News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 9, 2016 at 9:00 am

UPDATE: Science Policy Around the Web – January 15, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: Microbe World via photopin cc

West Africa Ebola epidemic

New Ebola case confirmed in Sierra Leone, one day after the outbreak was declared over

A 22-year-old woman in Sierra Leone who passed away earlier this month has been confirmed as testing positive for Ebola. Authorities in the area are now actively engaged in “investigating the origin of the case, identifying contacts and initiating control measures to prevent further transmission,” according to a statement today by the World Health Organization (WHO). This new case comes a day after the WHO officially declared the West Africa Ebola epidemic over. Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO’s Special Representative for the Ebola Response, said yesterday that “we still anticipate more flare-ups and must be prepared for them.” Francis Langoba Kelly, spokesman for the Office of National Security in Sierra Leone, told local radio Friday that country’s level of preparedness is high and there is no cause for concern over the current case. It it hopeful that the country’s preparedness for and (unfortunate) practice in this situation will quickly shut down any possible transmission routes from this case. (J. Freedom du Lac and Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post)

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January 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 15, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: Microbe World via photopin cc

West Africa Ebola epidemic

WHO declares Ebola outbreak over

On Thursday, January 14, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) marked the end of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, by declaring Liberia free of Ebola. This declaration means that at least 42 days (two 21-day incubation cycles of the virus) have passed since the last confirmed case of Ebola in Liberia tested negative for the virus twice. The other two countries most affected by the outbreak, Sierra Leone and Guinea, were declared Ebola-free in early November and late December 2015, respectively. This announcement marks the first time that all known chains of viral transmission in these three countries have been stopped. “Detecting and breaking every chain of transmission has been a monumental achievement,” said WHO director-general Margaret Chan in a news release. The final cost of this epidemic has been estimated at 11 300 people killed out of 28 500 infected, making it one of the worst international health disasters in history.

While Rick Brennan, directed of emergency risk management and humanitarian action at WHO stated that “today is a good day,” the risk of virus reemerging is a very real threat, and he stressed the need for continued vigilance. Liberia was first declared Ebola-free in May 2015 but has twice encountered new flare-ups of the virus, with the latest in November 2015. The risk of Ebola causing new flare-ups comes from the fact that Ebola can persist in some tissues and bodily fluids of survivors for months, such as in the eyeball fluid of one survivor, and in the semen of some survivors up to a year after infection.

With the outbreak now officially over, scientists and public health officials are looking at what lessons can and should be learned from it. The most important lesson, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and public face of the small US-based outbreak, is the need to strengthen health care systems in low- and middle-income countries. “If there was a system to have recognized and stopped the outbreak that began with the child in Guinea in December, 2013, we might have avoided the explosive outbreaks in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”(Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceMag.org, Erika Check Hayden, NatureNews)

Embryonic Research

U.K. researcher details proposal for CRISPR editing of human embryos

A researcher in the United Kingdom, Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, has proposed using CRISPR genetic editing on embryos to study genes involved in early human development. Dr. Niakan previously applied to the U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in September 2015 to renew her existing license to use human embryos in research, and to extend that license to include CRISPR editing. This proposal has just come up for review by HFEA, and Niakan met with journalists from the Science Media Centre on January 13th to talk about her research and proposal in advance of any decision. Her research currently uses human embryos that are left over from in vitro fertilization attempts and donated for research. After their use, these embryos are destroyed when they are 7 days old. Niakan hopes to use CRISPR to knock out genes known to play a role in human development when the embryos are single cells at only 1 day old, and study how that affects their development into blastocytes, a 5-day old embryonic structure. While Niakan speculated that research of this type might one day lead to improved treatments for infertility, for the near future her research involves one narrow goal – to determine what specific genes do in blastocytes. Whether or not she will be able to pursue these studies still depends on the near-future decision of the HFEA. (Erik Stokstad, ScienceInsider)

Public Heath Recommendations

Eggs are okay again

The final version of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans was announced on January 7, 2016 in a joint press release from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One of the more interesting points that many have jumped on was the fact that the 2015 guideline does not include a limit to cholesterol intake, and instead just states that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.” Previous guidelines had recommended that Americans restrict their daily cholesterol intake to no more than 300 mg. This new governmental stance on cholesterol is more in line with current research and the findings of other nations. This does not mean that high blood levels of cholesterol are no longer bad – high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol have been clearly linked to heart disease. However, the contribution of foods high in cholesterol (such as eggs) to overall blood cholesterol levels may be overshadowed by the amount of cholesterol produced by a person’s own liver. As such, the amount of cholesterol one consumes becomes an individual’s personal decision based on their own medical history and situation. As with many aspects of health care, personalized nutrition may become the future of nutrition science. (Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 15, 2016 at 9:00 am