Maimuna (Maia) Majumder is an engineering systems PhD student at MIT and computational epidemiology research fellow at HealthMap.
The 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak in the United States, which started in late December and spread to more than 100 people in just 6 weeks, has recently become the subject of substantial media scrutiny.
Measles is extremely infectious, exhibiting a basic reproductive number between 12 and 18—one of the highest recorded in history. This means that for every 1 case who gets sick in a totally susceptible population, 12 to 18 other folks get sick, too. Thankfully, when uptake of the measles vaccine is high enough in a given community, it’s almost impossible for the disease to spread—thus halting a potential outbreak in its tracks.
But what happens when vaccine rates aren’t high enough?
Millions of people worldwide suffer from co-infection with tuberculosis (TB) and HIV. While prompt antibiotic and antiretroviral treatment can be a recipe for survival, over the years, physicians have noticed something: two or three weeks after starting antiretrovirals, about 30 percent of co-infected patients get worse.
The reason: immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, or IRIS. Doctors think it represents a kind of immune rebound. As the antiretrovirals start to work, and the patient’s immune system begins to recover from HIV, it notices TB’s presence and overreacts.
“It’s as though the immune system was blanketed and then unleashed,” says Luke Jasenosky, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow with Anne Goldfeld, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “It then says, ‘I can start to see things again, and there are a lot of bacteria in here.'”
Though potentially severe, even fatal, IRIS may actually be a good sign: there is evidence that patients who develop it tend to fare better in the long run. But why does it arise only in some patients?
Since its causative gene was sequenced in the 1980s, cystic fibrosis (CF) has been the “textbook” genetic disease. Several thousand mutations have been identified in the CFTR protein, which regulates the flow of chloride in and out of cells. When CFTR is lost or abnormal, thick mucus builds up, impairing patients’ lungs, liver, pancreas, and digestive and reproductive systems, and making their lungs prone to opportunistic infections.
But new research could add a chapter to the textbook, pinpointing an unexpected environmental cause of CF-like illness. A study reported in the February 5 New England Journal of Medicine found that people with arsenic poisoning have high chloride levels in their sweat—the classic diagnostic sign of CF.
The sad experience of abandoned children in Romanian orphanages continues to provide stark lessons about the effects of neglect and deprivation of social and emotional interactions. The long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has been able to transfer some of these institutionalized children, selected at random, into quality foster care homes—and documented the benefits.
In a review article in the January 29 Lancet, BEIP investigator Charles A. Nelson, PhD, and medical student Anna Berens, MsC, both of Boston Children’s Hospital, make a strong case for global deinstitutionalization—as early in a child’s life as possible. Currently, it’s estimated that at least 8 million children worldwide are growing up in institutional settings.
The BEIP studies have documented a series of problems in institutionalized children, especially those who aren’t placed in foster care or are placed when they are older:
A virus transmitted by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, dengue is a flu-like illness characterized by a high fever and severe joint pain, sometimes with hemorrhagic manifestations. There are four distinct serotypes of the virus (DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3, DEN-4). Recovery from one infection provides lifelong protection from a homologous (same-strain) infection and partial temporary protection from the other strains. However, subsequent heterologous (different-strain) infection increases the risk of severe dengue manifestations.
What’s IBM’s Watson been up to since winning Jeopardy? Among other things, it’s been trying to help doctors make decisions. “We live in an age of information overload,” says Mike Rhodin, Senior Vice President of the IBM Watson Group. “The challenge is to now turn that information into knowledge.”
Interestingly, most of the inquiries Rhodin received post-Jeopardy were from doctors, who were interested in the way Watson sorted and ranked possible answers. Here, Rhodin and Dan Cerutti, VP of Watson Commercialization, outline IBM’s vision to improve global health care through a technology platform called CarePlex:
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Student leaders from MIT Hacking Medicine had invited me to join a weekend health care hackathon in Doha, Qatar. We had taken our show on the international road before, to Uganda and India, but this hack (November 20–22, 2014) would be our first in the Middle East and the first focused on sports medicine. In partnership with Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), a member of the Qatar Foundation, this hack brought together students, athletes and health care professionals to solve sports medicine’s most pressing challenges.
Paul Farmer, president and co-founder of Partners in Health, has dedicated his life to the idea that the problems of the world’s poorest people are humanity’s problems writ large. Having recently returned from West Africa, Farmer spoke at Harvard Medical School and appeared on the Colbert Report last week, calling for a stronger response to the Ebola outbreak.
“We want to have a radical inclusiveness,” Farmer told the Harvard Medical School audience. “We readily acknowledge that we are overwhelmed by this.”
The hackathon, produced by Boston Children’s Hospital in collaboration with MIT Hacking Medicine, brought out many common themes: Helping kids with chronic illnesses track their symptoms, take their meds and avoid lots of clinic visits. Helping parents coordinate their children’s care and locate resources. Helping pediatric clinicians make better decisions with the right information at the right time.
Hackathons have a simple formula: Pitch. Mix. Hack. Get Feedback. Iterate. Repeat—as many times as possible.