Press-Republican

FYI...

March 15, 2014

How virus sleuths and public health officials track the cause of a mysterious illness

When a mysterious disease fells people - as happened in California recently, with as many as 20 children experiencing unexplained paralysis - teams of physicians and epidemiologists quickly mobilize. Perhaps you saw the movie "Contagion"? The idea is to find the culprit before it spreads but also to prevent public panic.

The investigation typically begins with a doctor reporting a sudden increase in patients with a particular disease or symptom to a state health department. It then falls to the government to determine whether the report is a false perception, a statistical quirk or a genuine surge.

The paralysis cases are a classic example: The symptoms are well known but their incidence appears to have spiked. Acute flaccid paralysis, the technical term for the symptoms observed in California, is something that many pediatricians have seen, and it has myriad causes. "I probably see one case like this every five years," says Keith Van Haren, the Stanford neurologist who is leading the hunt for an explanation for the paralysis reports. "Five cases in one year seems like an abnormality."

It's much harder to prove an abnormality than to perceive one, though. Surveys by the World Health Organization suggest that approximately one of every 100,000 children each year develops acute flaccid paralysis. It's not clear whether the rate is the same within the United States, but, since approximately 7.7 million kids younger than 15 live in California, 20 cases in a year might be within a normal range. A final determination on that question, however, will depend on whether the cases are related and whether they are clustered within a small geographic range. There is also a risk that clusters of cases can generate more such reports, especially once the media get involved.

"What you start looking for, you see," says Daniel Firkin, epidemiology branch chief in the division of viral diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physicians usually don't report childhood paralysis, he explains, because the CDC doesn't require it.Now that they're on notice, however, more cases are going to be reported. It can be difficult to distinguish a surge in cases from a mere surge in reports.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
FYI...
  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 28, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 27, 2014

  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 26, 2014

  • An oncologist uses scorpion venom to locate cancer cells

    Olson, a pediatric oncologist and research scientist in Seattle, has developed a compound he calls Tumor Paint. When injected into a cancer patient, it seems to light up all the malignant cells so surgeons can easily locate and excise them.

    July 25, 2014

  • An alternative diagnosis to ADHD: Schoolchildren need more time to move

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that in recent years, there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2011.

    July 24, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 23, 2014

  • Why it's basically impossible to delete those naked selfies you text

    If you're selling an old Android smartphone on an online auction site, you could be giving away rather more than you intend to, according to a recent investigation by anti-malware company Avast.

    July 21, 2014

  • Why does the Vatican need a bank?

    The Vatican Bank's history reads more like Dan Brown than the financial pages, but its worst -- and weirdest -- days may be behind it.

    July 18, 2014

  • Almost half of the world actually prefers instant coffee

    Americans' taste in coffee might be getting more high-end _with a growing fixation on perfectly roasted beans, pricier caffeinated concoctions, and artisan coffee brewers - but it turns out a surprisingly big part of the world is going in the opposite direction: toward instant coffee.

    July 17, 2014

  • ent_taylorswift.jpg There's less good music now — here's why

    Taylor Swift, the seven-time Grammy winner, is known for her articulate lyrics, so there was nothing surprising about her writing a long column for The Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. Yet there's reason to doubt the optimism of what she had to say.

    July 14, 2014 1 Photo