Author Archives: Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico, The Washington Post and other outlets.

Fungal infections are next chapter in reporting on superbugs

A medical illustration of Candida sp. fungal organisms. (Photo courtesy of the CDC Public Health Image Library)

Reporters looking to write about the next chapter in antimicrobial resistance should get up to speed on fungal infections.

“The future is going to be a fungal problem,” said Tom Chiller, M.D., M.P.H.T.M., chief of CDC’s mycotic diseases branch, during the “Antimicrobial resistance during and after COVID-19” panel at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin.

Fungi are spore-producing organisms like yeast, molds and mushrooms. About 100 of them are known to cause disease in humans. Deadly antimicrobial resistant fungal infection cases,  already rising in nursing homes and hospitals before the pandemic,  accelerated during the past two years, according to the CDC.

Hospital overuse of antibiotics, especially during the first year of the pandemic when there were few options for treating patients, plus the use of steroids to treat lung inflammation caused by COVID-19, both contributed to increases in resistant fungal infections with high mortality rates.

“COVID … introduced a bit of an unfortunate perfect storm” that enabled more and broader transmission of fungal infections in hospitals, Chiller said.

In 2017, according to the most recent CDC data, 75,000 people were hospitalized in the U.S. for fungal infections, but that’s likely an underestimate. These infections often go undiagnosed and there is no national public health surveillance of common fungal infections, according to the CDC. Globally, about 13.5 million severe fungal infections — and 1.6 million deaths — are reported annually to public health officials, according to the non-profit Global Action for Fungal Infections.

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How to cover opioid lawsuits and settlement money

Taylor Knopf, a North Carolina health news reporter and moderator of the “Following the opioid settle money” panel session at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin.

Billions of dollars are soon to be rolling out in the states to settle thousands of lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

Journalists will play an essential role in shedding light on whether the dollars will actually go towards addressing the opioid crisis, which killed an estimated 80,816 Americans in 2021, and more than 500,000 since 1999, according to CDC data. Overall drug overdose deaths were 107,622 in 2021, up 15% from 2020.

To help reporters cover this topic, Taylor Knopf, a North Carolina health news reporter, Shelly Weizman, a lawyer at the Georgetown University O’Neill Institute for National and Global Law center and Albie Park, an addiction counselor, offered resources and tips during a May 1 session at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin.

“If we are going to get this right with these opioid settlements, it’s going to take a great deal of accountability and transparency and staying on top of this,” said Weizman, who is also associate director of addiction and public policy initiative at the O’Neill Institute.

Earlier this year, the nation’s three largest drug distributors and a drug manufacturer agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of state and local lawsuits, while Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, agreed to pay as much as $6 billion to settle lawsuits and emerge from bankruptcy protection. Other lawsuits are still pending, but money from the cases settled are expected to begin flowing in 2022.

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Resources for covering mysterious hepatitis in kids

Photo by cottonbro via pexels.

Hundreds of young children in the U.S. and the United Kingdom have developed hepatitis — inflammation of the liver — since October 2021— and public health officials cannot yet pinpoint the exact cause.

Between October 2021 and February 2022, hepatitis has been identified in 109 children in 24 U.S. states and one territory, Puerto Rico. Most of the children were hospitalized and recovered, but five died, CDC officials said during a May 6 media briefing. In the UK, 163 pediatric hepatitis cases were reported and 154 were identified in other countries.

In at least half the cases, scientists identified a strain of adenovirus (a kind of virus that usually only causes mild disease) in children, making it the leading theory of what is causing hepatitis. Hepatitis can spread through respiratory droplets and fecal and oral transmission.

Despite speculation, CDC officials are certain COVID-19 vaccines are not the cause of hepatitis in this population. None of the children had been vaccinated. Most were under the age of 5 and therefore not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“COVID-19 vaccination is not the cause of these illnesses, and we hope that this information helps clarify some of the speculation circulating online,” said Jay Butler, M.D., CDC deputy director for infectious diseases during the briefing.

Whether exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be the cause is uncertain, though Butler said none of the children had “a documented” case of COVID-19. However, public health officials haven’t ruled it out. There is also uncertainty about whether or not the adenovirus is the cause because typically, such viruses only cause severe illness in children with weakened immune systems; most of the children were healthy before getting hepatitis. Further, the virus wasn’t found in every case.

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Former CDC leaders say agency needs more funding and better communication to restore trust

Former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered for an online debate last week to discuss ways to retool the nation’s largest public health agency and regain the public’s trust.

Two years after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, only 44% of Americans say they trust the CDC for information about COVID-19, down significantly from April 2020 when 69% of Americans said they trusted the agency, according to this NBC News poll.  

There is a myriad of reasons why trust in the agency has eroded, including the botched rollout of COVID-19 testing at the very beginning of the pandemic, increased political polarization that has deepened distrust of federal institutions and scientists, lack of timely COVID-19 data and challenges within the agency in communicating public health guidance about the pandemic.

“Worldwide, people have lost faith in institutions,” William Roper, M.D., M.P.H., CDC director from 1990 to 1993, said during the April 5 webinar hosted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “CDC is unfortunately a part of that.”

He added that the ongoing challenge for CDC is to do a better job of explaining the uncertainty of the scientific process, which, if detailed more clearly, could help restore the public’s trust.

“I’m not criticizing any decisions recently made or done or whatever,” he said. “But I think it’s important that each time CDC or any other health official makes a pronouncement, to say with humility…. ‘This is what we know today. And this is our best advice given what we know today. We may know [something different] tomorrow, and if it is different from what we know today, we will change our advice tomorrow.’”

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Resources for reporting on COVID-19’s origins

The Qingping market in Guangzhou, China. (Photo by Tr1xx via Flickr.)

Since the early months of 2020, scientific debate has raged over the origin of COVID-19 and whether it emerged from the Wuhan seafood market (with a zoonotic transmission from animals to humans) or started as a breach from a Wuhan biosecurity lab or elsewhere. The debate over the origin spilled over to politics as China clamped down on the public release of scientific information about the pandemic’s origin since March 2020.

So, what is currently known about the origin of this virus?

For most of the past two years, China’s failure to cooperate with the Word Health Organization (WHO) and other countries on the pandemic’s origin hunt has seeded conspiracy theories — including that the Chinese government caused the pandemic or that the virus escaped from a biosecurity lab in the United States. 

In August 2021, the U.S. director of national intelligence published a declassified report with a clear summary of the debate about the virus’s origins. The report said there was broad agreement that the first cluster of cases emerged in Wuhan in December 2019; the virus wasn’t a biological weapon or genetically engineered and the government didn’t know about the virus before the pandemic emerged. 

However, the U.S. intelligence community was divided on whether the virus emerged from an animal or accidentally from a lab, with about half of analysts saying it was likely zoonotic and connected to the Wuhan market but had “low confidence” in this assessment. Others said they had confidence in the accidental lab leak theory, or there wasn’t enough evidence to have confidence in either theory.

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