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CDC Outlines The Steps For Investigating Disease Outbreaks

With the release of the movie Contagion, I thought it would be appropriate to post my cheat sheet on how to investigate a disease outbreak. Aspiring disease detectives take notes!

Scientist in biocontainment suit examining a dead ratWhat do you think of when you hear the word “outbreak”?  Maybe you envision a population decimated by a terrible, novel, and incurable disease like in the aformentioned movie Contagion or you think of Dustin Hoffman roaming around California in a blue biocontainment suit with Rene Russo trying to protect folks from a tiny monkey and narrowly preventing an airstrike by the US military?

Hollywood has done their best to capture what an outbreak is…but here are the facts. An outbreak, or epidemic, occurs when there are more cases of disease than would normally be expected in a specific time and place.  The disease may be something doctors have already seen before just in a new form or abnormally high numbers, such as foodborne or healthcare-associated infections, or it may be an emerging disease that we don’t know much about like SARS.  Either way, we need to investigate to determine why it is happening and how to prevent other people from getting sick or dying. Several people in biocontainment suits collecting samples outside a building

Outbreaks are usually noticed by an astute clinician, such as those who first noticed AIDS in New York City and San Francisco, but there are also many high tech disease detection systems available to help us spot any increase in illness. PulseNet is a laboratory network that uses PFGE (pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) to help identify foodborne outbreaks by monitoring the genetic make-up of the bacteria causing what may otherwise look like unrelated illnesses. In the recent events of the Salmonella outbreak in ground turkey, PulseNet and the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System helped identify the cause of the outbreak as well as determine how widely it had spread. Programs such as Biosense and First Watch monitor the chief complaint or reason that someone called 9-1-1 or went to the hospital (aka syndromic surveillance).  We also monitor news media for reports of outbreaks and websites such as Google Flu trends, which tracks circulating viruses and illnesses. With new technology ordinary citizens can also increasingly report outbreaks in their communities too.

The Magic Formula

So how do you figure out the who, what, when, and where of a disease outbreak? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Public Health Matters Blog*

What’s Causing The Increase In Autism Prevalence? A Critical Analysis

Two recent studies concerning the prevalence of autism in the US have been getting a lot of attention, because they indicate that autism prevalence may be higher than previously estimated. This, of course, fuels the debate over whether or not there are environmental triggers of autism.

One study was conducted by the CDC but has yet to be published. The results were announced ahead of publication by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the autism community. She reports that the new prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now estimated at 1% or 100 in 10,000 children. This is an increase over the last few years. In 2002 the prevalence was estimated to be 66 per 10,000.

The second study was published in the journal Pediatrics and is a phone survey of 78,037 parents. They asked if they had any children who had ever been diagnosed with an ASD. Here are the results: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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