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Dr. Deborah Birx leverages military, HIV background in COVID-19 fight

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March 19 (UPI) — Nearly every day for three weeks, Dr. Deborah Birx has stood next to next to Vice President Mike Pence as part of the White House’s efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100 Americans.

Though her name may have been largely unknown to most Americans before the COVID-19 outbreak, she’s been working to fight the spread of communicable diseases on behalf of the U.S. government for well over three decades.

Pence described Birx, a U.S. ambassador at large, as a “world-renowned global health official and physician” on Feb. 27 when he announced her addition to the coronavirus task force.

“Three different administrations across both political parties have relied on her knowledge and judgment,” he said at the time. “She has worked from the research bench to the clinic, but understands the primary focus must always be to reach the individuals most in need.”

Birx, 63, a Pennsylvania native, brings a long military career and medical background in immunology to her new role.

In addition to being the White House coronavirus response coordinator, she is the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, chosen to serve in the position by President Barack Obama in 2014.

In that role, Birx oversee’s the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as well as U.S. involvement in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

She began her career with the federal government in 1985 as a clinician in immunology, with a focus on HIV and AIDS vaccine research, at the Department of Defense. She was assistant chief of the Hospital Immunology Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before becoming director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research from 1996 to 2005.

From 2005 until 2014, Birx was the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS. During that time, she received a lifetime achievement award from the African Society for Laboratory Medicine for her work at building local capacity and strengthening laboratory health services on the continent.

The White House said she has “developed and patented vaccines, including leading one of the most influential HIV vaccine trials in history.”

She was also awarded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s William C. Watson Jr. Medal of Excellence in 2014.

Pence described her as his “right arm” in the fight to halt the coronavirus spread.

A mother to two women in their 30s, Birx has called on millennials to step up to help stop the spread of the virus, which health officials initially warned is more deadly for seniors. She said young people also are becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” she said during Wednesday’s task force briefing.

“We think part of this may be that people heeded the early data coming out of China and coming out of South Korea of the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions were a particular risk.

“It may have been that the millennial generation … there may be disproportional number of infections among that group, and so even if it’s a rare occurrence it may be seen more frequently in that group.”

Birx said that since people in this younger age group are more likely to be out in public during the epidemic, it’s important for them to avoid gathering in large groups.

“The millennials are incredibly good about getting information out in a clear way, but more importantly, they are incredibly good about understanding how to protect one another, how to protect their parents and how to protect their grandparents,” she told ABC’s Good Morning America.



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Study: Seizures after vaccination don’t affect child development

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Kids who have a fever-related seizure after getting a vaccine won’t have developmental and behavioral problems as a result, according to a new study.

These so-called febrile seizures do not affect children’s development whether they occur after a vaccination or not, the researchers said.

“A febrile seizure can occur following vaccination and understandably can be quite distressing to parents. It can also cause parents to lose confidence in future vaccinations,” said study author Dr. Lucy Deng. She is a pediatrician at the National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance in Sydney, Australia.

“Now, parents will be relieved to hear that having a febrile seizure following vaccination does not affect the child’s development,” Deng added.

For the study, Deng’s team compared 62 kids who had a fever-related seizure within two weeks of a shot with 70 who had a seizure from another cause and 90 who never had a seizure. All were about 2 years old.

The investigators found no differences in development, thinking skills or behavior among the three groups.

“At a time when there is a global resurgence of measles and new diseases are emerging, our findings are particularly important in reassuring parents and providers on the safety of vaccines,” Deng said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology.

The report was published online July 1 in the journal Neurology.

More information

To learn more about fever-related seizures, visit the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Most MS patients use alternative treatments like marijuana, vitamins or massage

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Despite the existence of conventional medications to manage multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms, a majority of patients also rely on alternative therapies, including vitamins, exercise and marijuana, a new survey suggests.

For the study, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland asked MS patients if they used “complementary and alternative therapies” — medicines and practices outside of standard medical care.

A majority of just over 1,000 respondents said they used some type of alternative therapy, including marijuana, vitamins, herbs and minerals, plus mind-body therapies like exercise, mindfulness, massage and various diets.

An earlier survey, conducted in 2001, found some people regularly used these therapies — and many found them helpful — but only 7 percent were talking to their doctors about them.

“It was a little bit of a wake-up call to physicians that they need to be more educated about complementary or alternative therapies, and then consider these therapies as part of the overall treatment plan for their patients,” said lead author Dr. Elizabeth Silbermann, a neurology fellow.

MS is a potentially disabling disease that results from the immune system attacking the nervous system and damaging nerves. Symptoms vary, and while some patients eventually lose their ability to walk, others may experience only mild symptoms. MS has no known cure, but treatments can slow the disease’s progression and help patients manage symptoms.

“We have a lot more treatment options for our patients, and we’re treating our patients earlier than we ever did before,” Silbermann said.

But now that there are so many more medications, the researchers wanted to know if people are still using complementary or alternative medicines.

To find out, Silbermann’s team surveyed MS patients in Oregon and Washington between August 2018 and March 2019.

The investigators found that 80 percent of respondents used dietary supplements (such as vitamins, minerals, and herbs) compared to 65 percent in 2001.

Around 70 percent reported using conventional medications to manage their MS symptoms.

The percentage using mind-body therapies (such as mindfulness and massage) nearly tripled — 39 percent of current patients, up from 14 percent in the earlier survey. More than eight in 10 were exercising, an increase from 67 percent in 2001.

Good evidence for exercise

Exercise is one of the only alternative therapies in the survey that has strong evidence of success in curbing MS symptoms.

“This is a disease that does cause physical disability and weakness, so it’s very natural to refer patients to physical therapy and to encourage them to be physically active,” Silbermann explained. “There’s pretty good evidence that things like stretching can be helpful for MS-related muscle tightness, and that staying physically active and doing some aerobic exercise can be very helpful for our patients.”

In the current survey, about 30 percent of participants reported using marijuana in a variety of forms. Pot is legal in Oregon and Washington, where the study was conducted, potentially limiting generalization of the results.

There is some evidence that marijuana can help patients with muscle “spasticity” or tightness.

“When you ask patients to report how tight their muscles feel, they will report consistently that their muscles feel less tight when they are using cannabis, which is great,” said Silbermann.

Pot’s pros and cons

Sean Hennessy, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, said, “One of the few uses for cannabis-based products for which there’s reasonable evidence of effectiveness is muscle spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis.”

Hennessy was involved in a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that synthesized available information on cannabis products and their use in medicine.

But pot can potentially exacerbate existing MS symptoms, including muddled thinking and memory problems. Silbermann said that “it goes to show us that everything does have a side effect that we have to consider as part of an overall treatment strategy and plan.”

One of the most significant findings of the new survey was that over half of respondents said they spoke to their doctors about their use of alternative medicines, compared to the dismal 7 percent in 2001.

Silbermann said she hopes this is because patients feel that physicians are more accepting and knowledgeable about other treatment options. However, not enough is known about alternative therapies for physicians to decide which are safe and effective, she added.

Physicians need to know what supplements or drugs you might be taking for many reasons, but especially to ensure that the medications they prescribe don’t have any potentially negative interactions. But alternative medicines like supplements and cannabis are not well-regulated or well-studied, limiting the ability to assess their safety and efficacy.

“It’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting. So there’s always a concern about the purity of whatever you’re taking, and that’s especially true in cannabis,” Silbermann explained.

According to Hennessy, there are not enough referenced resources that physicians can rely on to know what medications interact poorly with cannabis.

“So, yes, it’s a good idea to tell your physician if you’re using cannabis, but they don’t really have anywhere to look to see whether cannabis interacts with whatever other drugs you’re taking,” Hennessy said.

Silbermann stressed that more research is needed to back up any recommendations about alternative therapies. “It’s an entire other field of medicine, and I think that we’re just learning how important it is to our patients,” she said.

The results were recently published online in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.

More information

There’s more about multiple sclerosis at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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90% of COVID-19 patients recover sense of smell, taste within 4 weeks, study finds

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July 2 (UPI) — Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 patients who lose their sense of smell or taste or both after becoming infected will see these symptoms begin to resolve within a few weeks, according to a study published Thursday by JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

Even in patients for whom the symptoms remain, or worsen, the lingering effects are not a sign that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, remains in their system, the researchers said.

“The loss of smell or taste is among the most common and persistent symptoms of COVID-19 in patients with mildly symptomatic disease,” the authors wrote.

“However, at four weeks from the onset, most patients reported a complete resolution or improvement of these symptoms,” they said.

An earlier analysis by the same team of researchers — from Treviso Regional Hospital in Italy and St. Thomas Hospital in London — found that roughly two-thirds of patients with mild COVID-19 lose their sense of smell and/or taste. That finding was based on an assessment of 202 patients treated at Treviso.

For this study, the researchers surveyed the same group of 202 patients in mid-April — roughly four weeks after they were first diagnosed with COVID-19 — and asked them about their symptoms and retested them for the virus.

Fifty-five patients — or nearly 49 percent — reported complete resolution of their smell and/or taste impairment, while 46 — or just under 41 percent — indicated that they had experienced an improvement in symptom severity, the researchers said.

Only 12 — or less than 11 percent — reported that their smell/taste deficiencies remained or had worsened, they said.

The duration of smell or taste impairment in recovered patients was approximately 11 days, the researchers said.

However, persistent loss of smell and taste was not necessarily an indicator of the continued presence of SARS-CoV-2, they said.

Of the 58 patients who still were experiencing smell and/or taste deficiencies four weeks after symptom onset, 31 — or roughly 54 percent — still tested positive for the virus, compared to 26 — or just over 46 percent — of fully recovered patients, the researchers said.

“A higher severity of smell and taste impairment at [onset of infection], reasonably due to a more severe injury … was associated with a lower likelihood of recovery at four weeks,” the authors wrote.



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