Saturday, October 25, 2014

When the Music Goes Viral

 Musician, physician, and health-education comedian Dr. Zubin Damania, a.k.a. "ZDoggMD," recently released a parody music video set to the tune of The Kinks' "Lola" about the Ebola epidemic, the institutional confusion, and the media frenzy surrounding it:

Damania worked as a physician at Stanford Hospital for over 10 before launching his ZDoggMD brand, aimed at entertaining while education about health and science issues. He argues that it's time for his organization to dispel misconceptions about Ebola and ridicule the public response to it "before someone else does it even more tastelessly."

By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye

NIH Places Moratorium on "High Risk" Research

    On October 17th, the U.S. government announced that it would temporarily stop funding for gain-of-function viral research projects, amid fears that such research will increase the risk of a potential outbreak should the virus  escape the lab. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said Friday that as of now the National Institutes of Health will not fund any new research proposals that might make three particular viruses -- SARS, MERS, and influenza-- more virulent or contagious.

      Scientists, many of whom say they have received cease-and-desist letters from the NIH, contend that this halt on funding will impede critical public health research. In fact, the order has already affected several research projects in progress, including one promising study looking to create a version of MERS that can infect mice so as to use mice as models to study the disease further (at the moment, according to scientist Kanta Subbarao of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there is no small animal model to study the disease, which has the potential for an impending outbreak). Researchers have also complained that the moratorium is too broad and does not clearly outline what can and can't be done-- the wording is confusing because viruses are always mutating and therefore always becoming potentially more virulent. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, remarked that it is "difficult to determine how much mutation deliberately created by scientists might be 'reasonably anticipated' to make a virus more dangerous." In fact, he says, there is no hard evidence that gain-of-function pathogen research is higher risk than other pathogen research.

    Some scientists and policy makers, however, have expressed satisfaction with the moratorium-- they say that there needs to be more careful risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis of research that could potentially increase the virulence of a virus. This is an opportunity, they say, to reevaluate lab safety procedure and ways for preventing accidents that could lead to pandemics of new, more virulent, or newly transmissible pathological agents.

  A key question here is what is prompting this action by the federal government at this particular moment in time? According to Sara Reardon of, this sudden action "seems to be a response to renewed lobbying by gain-of-function critics who wanted such work suspended and others who sought to evaluate its risks and benefits without disrupting existing research."Officials estimate the deliberations over this question will take over a year. In the meantime, what effect could this have on the trajectory of research into basic pathogen science and its translation into options for prevention and therapy?

By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye


Friday, October 24, 2014

Link between Cold Sore Virus and Alzheimer’s disease

Scientists hypothesize that Herpes Simplex 1 spreads to the brain in elderly individuals with weakened immune systems, increases the risk for cognitive malfunctions, and thus affects the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Professor Hugo L√∂vheim, associate professor in the department of Geriatric Medicine at the Umea University in Sweden, and Fredrik Elgh, professor at the Department of Virology,  conducted an epidemiological study in which they followed 3432 participants for a course of 12 years to find that individuals with a reactivated herpes infection were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as individuals without. The study doesn’t prove causation only correlation.

 Dr. Jagan Pillai, neurologist at the Cleveland clinic, indicated that it might not be Herpes that exacerbates Alzheirmer’s but the other way around. Alzheimer’s disease could be inducing immune changes that exacerbate the effects of the Herpes virus infection.

This news is alarming because of the prevalence of Herpes simplex virus in the general population, with 90% of adults carrying herpes simplex type 1. Herpes Simplex Virus is interesting in that after it infects an individual, it remains in the body and occasionally causes mouth ulcers. Thus individuals might not be aware that they are carrying the virus.

The study is relevant clinically because if Herpes does play a role in causing or worsening the conditions of Alzheimer’s disease, then Alzhemer’s patients could be treated with antiviral drugs.

URGENT: Someone needs to tell Paris Hilton about this study!


Faithfully yours,
Herpes Simplex 1 Virophile

By Mariam Kyarunts

Will hugs be the next critical treatment for Ebola?

A recent article published on the NPR website today highlighted the fact that both President Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made a point of hugging recently recovered Ebola patient Nina Pham, whose highly-publicized bout of Ebola has fueled the rapidly accelerating media circus surrounding recent cases of Ebola in the U.S. Pham, who held a national press conference to announce her recovery, has sparked frantic, often wild speculation, even panic among the North American public about the potential for an Ebola epidemic arising the United States. The fact that Obama and Fauci both made a deliberate point to hug Pham speaks to the critical role that such actions will play in dispelling the stigma toward Ebola patients that has worked its way into the national dialogue about Ebola virus-control measures.

The NPR article draws an interesting connection between Obama's actions toward Ebola survivors like Pham or Dr. Kent Bradley, the actions of past public figures like Princess Diana, who held HIV-positive children in Brazil in the '80s.

While the work that these public gestures does to defuse some of the stigma around touching and interacting with victims of high-profile diseases, it is certainly not enough to dispel the public fear of an Ebola epidemic in the U.S.-- much more wide reaching and explicit education efforts will also be needed. And while such steps are important in the States, they only serve to highlight the lack of such action being taken in places where Ebola epidemics actually exist and where measures such as combating disease stigma, in addition to effective care and adequate public health facilities and funding, continue to be woefully absent.

By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye
Birds roosting in larger groups found to have a lower chance of contracting West Nile Virus

The National Science Foundation had given funding to the Chicago area to conduct studies on the West Nile Research. To bring 10 years of research to a close, a group of field biologists, epidemiologists, mosquito specialists, and disease experts at the University of Illinois conducted a field study for three years examining whether mosquitoes were more attracted to roost than non-roost sites. They did this by trapping mosquitoes inside and outside roosts. A lab in Texas checked the number of mosquitoes from these groups that carried the West Nile virus. While the study points out that the birds who roost have a lower chance of contracting West Nile Virus, the study doesn’t explain why those who roost are less likely to get infected or why specific species of birds are more likely to roost. The fact that probability of infection is lower for vector born diseases for large groups occupying the same geographical space contrasts with the fact that probability of infection is higher for contact diseases such as influenza.

 If translated to the human population, the data implies that individuals who are isolated will have a  greater probability of being infected than those in groups. Whether this implication can be made however is unclear.   Either way, this can be a valid justification you can use for why you were socializing with friends and not studying for the Humans and Viruses exam! You are just decreasing your chances of getting West Nile Virus while having a great time:)

To read more, click here:

Your favorite West Nilophile

Chikunguya count rises in Canada

According to recent reports, there has been an outbreak of the chikungunya virus in Canada, where over 200 Canadians have fallen ill the fever and severe joint pain, as well as muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue and rash that characterize the mosquito-borne virus.

As of now, there has been no local transmission of the virus in Canada. A spokesman from Health Canada, the country's federal health department, stated that the majority of cases have been Canadian vacationers that recently traveled to areas like the Caribbean, where the disease is endemic. In Jamaica, for example, over 60% of the population has fallen ill with the virus, and government officials have declared a state of emergency. In fact, the Caribbean islands have been shaken by this surging epidemic since the first case arose in the northeastern Caribbean island of St. Martin-- the first documented case of Chikungunya in the Western Hemisphere. Almost 800,000 people have been infected in the Caribbean, the majority of them in the Dominican Republic.  This is also the first time there has been an instance of local transmission of chikunguya in the Americas. The country's health minister said last month that nearly 500,000 people there have battled chikungunya. Previously, chikungunya outbreaks have occurred in countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

 Although there is currently no medicine or vaccine to prevent chikungunya, the good news is that infection with chikungunya virus is rarely fatal. At the moment the CDC has only a Level 1 travel warning for areas in the Americas

The main health advisory given by the CDC and WHO currently is to either avoid in traveling in chikunguya-affected areas. Other than this, it is advised that measures be taken to prevent mosquito bites, but in areas where avoiding mosquito bites is nearly impossible, this guidance provides little comfort or direction for Caribbean health departments struggling in the wake of these recent outbreaks.

By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ethics of Creating Artificial “Super-viruses”

Research is the crux of new vaccine developments and treatments for viruses.  Indeed, the downstream effects of research have undoubtedly benefitted each one of our lives, from antibiotics to vaccines.  However, at the same time, research can sometimes have a negative impact on human lives (think atomic bombs). 

Thus, should there be a line drawn in research on viruses?  This is the point raised by a recent Forbes article in which the ethics of artificially creating “superviruses” – viruses that have been manipulated to have new (and sometimes dangerous) functions – was questioned.  In particular, the author brings up a research group who genetically manipulated an influenza virus into a more virulent strain – one that was capable of creating a human pandemic. 

While research on extremely virulent viruses may be needed to help us understand how to deal with pandemics, the danger they can pose to society may be just too great to risk conducting research.  In fact, the U.S. government announced a few days ago that they would assess the pros and cons of creating viral superbugs.  In the meantime, no funding will be given to new experiments proposing to create such viruses, and all current experiments on the subject have been asked to voluntarily cease.


--Andrew Duong