From the category archives:

Global health

Google logo with applesAlexandra Pelletier is the Digital Health Program Manager in the Innovation Acceleration Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. She manages the FastTrack Innovation in Technology Award, an initiative to accelerate, rapidly develop and deliver innovative clinical software solutions to improve patient experience and operational efficiency.

When the largest and most innovative technology companies in the world invest, radical disruption follows. Google and Apple, multibillion-dollar companies operating across the globe, are already deeply embedded into most of our lives. They now want to bring their network and reach to health care.

Their new investments could completely transform how patient data are captured and how information is shared. Through their big data capabilities, they’re well placed to rapidly evolve health care delivery processes. In the very near future, I expect we will see connected sensors or “smart” devices of all kinds begin to integrate into our lives, weaving a web of quantified data into actionable health information and changing how patient and care providers engage together.

Consider some recent events. First, there was Google’s buzz-generating meeting with the FDA. Full story »

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africa trio kidsBeginnings—whether a new year or a new century—offer an optimal time for evaluating goals. Quality improvement literature reminds us that goals should be specific, measurable and timely, and that progress checks are crucial. With one year left to achieve the ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), global child health stakeholders are assessing gains and gaps.

In 2000, the United Nations set the MDGs, and homed its sights on child mortality in MDG 4, aiming to cut mortality among children younger than age 5 by two-thirds by 2015, from the 1990 base figure of 12 million.

By 2012, the figure was nearly halved to 6.6 million.

“There’s a hopeful sense,” says Judith Palfrey, MD, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Global Pediatrics Program in the Department of Medicine. At the same time, the goal remains “seriously off target for many countries,” wrote Zulfiqar Bhutta, MB, BS, PhD, from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and Robert Black, MD, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in The New England Journal of Medicine in December.

Palfrey agrees, noting that while some countries are on track to meet the goal, some have stagnated and some have regressed. “It may be that there are some intractable issues,” she says. The countries that have failed to make progress are marked by corrupt governments, armed conflict or both. Full story »

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Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt 57357Geography can be cruel. An 8-year-old diagnosed with leukemia in Europe or North America can expect a challenging but curable course. Her care, provided by a team of pediatric specialists, includes state-of-the-art imaging, thorough infection prevention and, often, multiple options for treatment.

Her peers in the Middle East and North Africa face a dramatically different prospect. Laboratory and imaging infrastructure can be limited, so diagnoses are made at later, less curable stages. Some patients can’t access acute care because hospital beds are in short supply. Available beds may be occupied by outpatients who can’t return home or palliative patients without access to hospice care. At many hospitals, pediatric inpatients are cramped into 10- to 15-patient wards, raising the risk of infection and other complications for children with compromised immune systems.

The overall lack of medical infrastructure and dearth of providers contribute to a substantial disparity in childhood cancer survival rates between high-income countries and the developing world. While many countries in Europe and North America have achieved cure rates in the 80 percent range, survival rates hover near 20 percent in low- and moderate-income countries. Full story »

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Roulette_wheel2013 saw an accelerated crumbling of borders and boundaries in health care, fueled by technological and scientific advances. Boundaries between high-tech Western medicine and global health practices have begun blurring in interesting ways, as are those between home and hospital, patient and doctor and even a patient’s own body and the treatment used for her disease.

Last year also saw a fierce political fight over the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—aka Obamacare—ending in some six million people crossing the boundary from uninsured to insured, according to HMS, if you count Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program eligibles.

What does all this portend for 2014? This year, Vector asked leaders from all walks of life at Boston Children’s Hospital to weigh in with their predictions. Full story »

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asthmatic airway

Obesity may set off innate immune factors that inflame the lungs.

Both asthma and obesity have surged in recent decades, and a growing body of literature is linking the two conditions. Various explanations have been proposed: One recent study suggests that hormonal factors in obesity may regulate airway diameter; another suggests that obesity activates asthma-related genes.

“Why obesity predisposes a person to asthma has been a real puzzle,” says Dale Umetsu, MD, PhD, who recently researched the problem with Hye Young Kim, PhD, and other colleagues in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Our goal was to find the connection between these two problems, which occur in both children and adults, and to explore possible new treatments.”

The team’s research indicates that obesity alters the innate immune system—the body’s first responder to infection—in several ways, resulting in lung inflammation. Published earlier this month in Nature Medicine, their work also suggests a completely new, “druggable” approach to treating patients with obesity-associated asthma, for whom standard asthma drugs often work poorly. Full story »

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Food insecurity is a major problem for diabetic patients at the Kay Mackensen clinic in Haiti where Julia Von Oettingen, MD (top center) serves as medical director.

Food insecurity is a major problem for diabetic patients at the Kay Mackensen clinic in Haiti where Julia Von Oettingen, MD (top center) serves as medical director.

In parts of the developing world, especially remote, rural areas, it’s not unusual for people with diabetes to ignore their symptoms until they’ve collapsed and need immediate care. By the time they see a doctor, their blood sugar levels might be so high as to cause diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), where the body starts breaking down fats and proteins, turning their blood acidic and leaving them extremely dehydrated.

For many, it won’t be the first such episode. But for some, it can be the last.

Stories like this are increasingly common across large swaths of the developing world—as Diane Stafford, MD, an endocrinologist from Boston Children’s Hospital, discovered when she traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, through the Human Resources for Health program. Full story »

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Single peanut unsalted-ShutterstockTripp Underwood contributed to this post.

Families with peanut-allergic children live in fear that their child will ingest peanuts—even minute amounts—accidentally. Now, a small pilot study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology offers hope.

In the year-long study, immunologist Dale Umetsu, MD, PhD, and colleagues in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Boston Children’s Hospital were able to get some children to tolerate as many as 20 peanuts at a time. Their protocol combines a powerful anti-allergy medication with a methodical desensitization process.

While it’s not a cure, the protocol may enable children to weather trace amounts of peanuts that might lurk in baked goods or foods “manufactured in a facility that processes peanuts.” Even a small amount of peanut tolerance could be lifesaving. Full story »

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heart_screening cropped ShutterstockDespite recent national pediatric guidelines recommending identification and treatment of children with familial hypercholesterolemia, the use of lipid-lowering treatment has been flat over the past decade in real-world pediatric practice, finds a large multicenter study.

Justin Zachariah, MD, MPH, a pediatric cardiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, presented the findings this week at the 2013 American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Sessions. He believes they dispel some critiques of the recent guidelines, particularly concerns that more screening would result in overmedicating the pediatric population.

Extending beyond 2008 recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the 2011 National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s pediatric guidelines call for universal lipid screening and medical treatment for children at highest risk for early cardiovascular disease. One such high-risk condition is familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder characterized by high blood cholesterol levels, specifically very high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and early coronary events. Full story »

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New research reinforces the idea that an inborn vulnerability can tip infants toward SIDS.

New research reinforces that inborn vulnerabilities can tip infants toward SIDS.

Epidemiologic studies have shown that infants who die suddenly, unexpectedly and without explanation—what’s referred to as sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS—are often found sleeping face down with their face in the pillow, or sleeping next to an adult. These are environments that have the potential to cause smothering and asphyxiation. By advising parents to have infants sleep on their backs, in a separate crib or bed, the government’s Safe to Sleep campaign (formerly known as Back to Sleep) has greatly reduced deaths from SIDS.

Hannah Kinney, MD, a neuropathologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, is clear that this campaign must go forward—it’s saved thousands of lives. But still, she receives calls from parents and grandparents haunted by their infants’ death, feeling at fault and wanting a second opinion.

And in many cases, she has been able to document abnormalities in brainstem circuits that help control breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature control during sleep.

What’s lacking is early detection and treatment. Full story »

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african villageMalaria presents a formidable global challenge. It affects more than 200 million people worldwide every year, and more than 1 million people die from it, primarily pregnant women and children under the age of 5 years. Resistance to existing anti-malarial medications is a constant, and vaccines have not proven effective. But the disease also presents a unique opportunity for researchers to uncover innovative solutions. As a result, even the cash-conscious National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investing in malaria research.

Boston Children’s Hospital physician Jeffrey Dvorin, MD, PhD, recently received a High-Risk, High-Reward New Innovator Award from the NIH. The award is reserved for early-stage investigators whose research has potential for significant impact, but who may lack enough data for a traditional NIH R01 grant. Dvorin will use the $1.5 million, five-year grant to pursue research that could lead to new tools to combat malaria.

The challenges of treating malaria begin at the molecular level. To develop new anti-malarial tools, the research community needs to understand how the parasite replicates. Determining which genes are essential to parasite replication could provide the data needed to develop new medications or an effective vaccine. But scientists have not yet determined functions for more than half of the 5,500 genes in Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the majority of malaria infections in Africa. Full story »

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