Category Archives: Infectious diseases

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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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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Poynter researcher offers tips for COVID-19 reporting and verifying  data

Caryn Baird

Like many of you, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years searching the internet and social media for COVID-19 experts for data and patient stories. After what felt like hours and hours of going down rabbit holes and getting nowhere, I thought, there must be more efficient ways to search for information.

That is why I highly recommend checking out this March 5 webinar sponsored by the Houston Chapter of the Society of Professional JournalistsCaryn Baird, a researcher for the Poynter Institute and PolitiFact, walks reporters through techniques to refine internet searches, organize website bookmarks, ferret out misinformation and verify the accuracy of information like photographs found during internet searches.

“It’s daunting how much is out there,” Baird said during the webinar. “So, practice [searches] beforehand. You don’t know what your next story might be, so it’s good to stay fresh …. You don’t want to be on deadline finding that one person who took that one film at that high school in Colorado.”

Here are some of Baird’s techniques that I found most useful:

  • How to find a COVID-19 expert’s email: Add an email finder to your browser. If you are reading a story and want to quickly find the professional email address of the author and experts quoted in the article, an email extension will help you find them quickly (i.e., you can use this for Google chrome, and this for Firefox)
  • Historical context for COVID-19 and previous infectious disease outbreaks: If you are looking for broadcast stories from the early pandemic, use the Wayback machineto see how the pandemic was reported in March 2020 or look at CNN’s early COVID-19 coverage. If you are searching for print coverage from 1878 to 2008, Google has archived nearly every newspaper article. These stories are available for free.

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