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Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Measuring how military service affects women’s longevity and overall health

Measuring how military service affects women's longevity and overall health

16044566446_77b89745de_zDespite the large numbers of women who serve in the military, there is a dearth of information about their postmenopausal health risks and how military service might impact their longevity. Now comes a study of more than 3,700 female veterans, led by a Stanford-affiliated psychologist, which is the first to examine the postmenopausal health of women veterans who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) and who, given their ages, likely served in World War II or the Korean War.

The study, which appears online in the journal Women’s Health Issues, shows these women have higher all-cause mortality rates than non-veterans, even though their risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hip fractures were found to be the same.

“The findings underscore the salience of previous military service as a critical factor in understanding women’s postmenopausal health and mortality risk, and the value of comparing women veterans to appropriately selected groups of non-veteran women, rather than benchmarking their health against that of the general public. It also reminds us of the importance of including women veterans in research,” said Julie Weitlauf, PhD, the study’s lead author and a clinical associate professor (affiliated) of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine.

The Women’s Health Initiative is one of the most comprehensive research initiatives undertaken on the post-menopausal health of women, involving more than 160,000 women, including nearly 4,000 veterans.

Women can only serve in the military if they are deemed to be in good health, and military service stresses physical activity and many other elements of a healthy lifestyle, thus contributing to the concept of a “healthy soldier effect,” Weitlauf said. That explains why research typically shows that veterans, including women, have better health and lower mortality risk than non-veterans from the general public, she said. While the women in the study, most of whom who were likely military nurses, were probably very fit and healthy during their time of service, this effect may not be sustained throughout their lifetimes.

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Global Health, Health Costs, Health Policy, Stanford News

Exploring the cost-effectiveness of treating parasitic-worm diseases

Exploring the cost-effectiveness of treating parasitic-worm diseases

A group of tiny worms are the source of great distress – and sometimes death – for a staggering 1.5 billion people in the developing world. Yet a small percent of affected people are treated for these ailments, which include helminth infections, such as hookworm, roundworm and whipworm, and schistosomiasis.

The offending worms, found in soil and water, can latch onto people while they walk barefoot in contaminated soil or bathe in infested lakes and streams. The parasitic worms then slither their way into the intestine or into the blood vessels around the intestines or bladder, where they cause great discomfort and disease.

Children commonly develop anemia and stunted growth and cognitive problems. Adults may also have abdominal discomfort and pain, wasting and sometimes more serious complications, such as a bowel or bladder obstruction or renal failure, which can be deadly.

WHO guidelines mostly target school-aged children for treatment, which costs pennies to administer, because children are heavily affected and are easily treated as they congregate in schools, says Stanford’s Nathan Lo, author of a new study on treatment of these parasitic worm diseases. The study, which appears online in Lancet Global Health, shows that treating an entire community, including adults, reaches many more people and is highly cost-effective.

Lo, a third-year Stanford medical student and research associate, said he decided to do the study after he realized the WHO guidelines hadn’t changed for decades and had never been rigorously analyzed. He and his colleagues modelled patterns of these diseases in four different communities in the Ivory Coast to see whether it was worthwhile and cost-effective to expand drug treatment, which is cheap and readily available. The drug albendazole costs about 3 cents and a pill and significantly reduces the number of worm eggs from the soil-transmitted helminths, while praziquantel costs 21 cents a pill and effectively reduces egg production in cases of schistosomiasis, he said.

“Most of the money spent on treating these diseases is focused on helping kids,” Lo told me. “But there are a lot of symptoms of disability in adults as well, and our results support the expansion of treatment to this adult population.”

Moreover, he noted, “If you only treat children, it might help them, but they often come home to neighbors, parents and teachers who may be infected, and the children can once again become infected. It’s more effective for children if you treat them and the people around them.”

In fact, the researchers’ findings show that community-wide treatment is highly cost-effective, even if it’s assumed that costs are 10 times what the researchers assumed. They also found that it’s worth the investment to treat people more frequently – at six-month intervals – and to do the drug treatments together, rather than as separate programs.

Given the findings, the scientists strongly urge the WHO to re-evaluate its guidelines to expand treatment to communities as a whole.

Photo of hookworms from Wikipedia

Global Health, Health Policy, HIV/AIDS, Infectious Disease

From Bollywood actress to social activist

From Bollywood actress to social activist

TeachAIDS classDuring a recent trip to India, I had the great fortune to spend the day with Amala Akkineni, a beloved south Indian actress who is using her celebrity to advance the greater public good.

A trained dancer and once a major Bollywood star, Akkineni has turned her attentions in the last few decades to the nonprofit world, where she works on behalf of women and girls, people with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable members of society.

She is still a widely recognized movie idol, attracting gawkers and autograph seekers wherever we went in Hyderabad, a south Indian city of some 7 million people. Despite her fame, she is a modest woman, who dressed simply that day in a blue cotton sari, delicate necklace and no make-up as she took us on a tour of some of the many social projects that are dear to her heart.

I met Akkineni through a friend at Stanford, Piya Sorcar, PhD, who founded a remarkably successful project, TeachAIDS, which began as her graduate thesis in the School of Education. The nonprofit disseminates video materials around the globe, using animated figures of well-known celebrities to convey simple messages about transmission, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. The videos are now available in 81 countries and in 14 languages, including 7 dialects common in India, where AIDS is still a major public health problem.

Akkineni first took us to her nonprofit, Blue Cross of Hyderabad, an animal shelter that she founded in 1992 after her garage had filled up with disabled and abused creatures she had rescued from streets and homes in Hyderabad. Akkineni works regularly at the shelter and is not afraid to get her hands dirty as she comforts dogs with missing legs or feeds camels rescued from the slaughterhouse.

As she became known in Hyderabad for her work with animals in the 1990s, she was approached by Karl Sequeira, an activist in the world of AIDS and addiction, who wanted her help in starting a hospice for AIDS patients. “I was already known as this notorious ex-actress who was running this hospice for animals. So he thought I was a kindred soul,” she told me in an interview in her small office at the shelter. At the time, HIV/AIDS was such a stigmatized condition that people with full-blown disease were literally being tossed in the trash, she said. “AIDS was everywhere but nobody knew how to deal with it. It was spreading like wildfire,” she told me. She, Sequeira and other activists raised enough in one evening to open an AIDS hospice run by the Freedom Foundation, which offers a wide range of HIV services today (Sequeira died in 2004).

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Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Animal study hints at potential treatment for skin-picking disorder

Animal study hints at potential treatment for skin-picking disorder

A condition known as skin-picking disorder may sound obscure but it’s one of the more common mental health disorders and can have devastating effects on its sufferers. An estimated 4 percent of the population – or roughly 1 in 25 people – suffer from the condition, in which they repeatedly pick or scratch the skin, sometimes leading to scarring or disfigurement.

People suffer in complete silence. They think they are the only one who has it, despite the fact that it’s very common, and it kills people.

“Skin-picking disorder is a surprisingly common condition, yet many patients avoid seeking help because of the shame and embarrassment,” says Joseph Garner, PhD, associate professor of comparative medicine at Stanford. “People suffer in complete silence. They think they are the only one who has it, despite the fact that it’s very common, and it kills people.”

The condition may lead to serious infection, requiring oral or intravenous treatment with antibiotics, he says. Patients may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, but there are precious few practitioners in the United States who are equipped to do this form of therapy, he says.

In a new study, Garner and his colleagues tested two antioxidants in mice with a form of skin-picking and found both compounds to be effective in treating the condition. Laboratory mice commonly suffer from ulcerative dermatitis, in which they excessively groom themselves, often leading to serious infection. These mice serve as a good model for the disease in humans.

In the study, mice who were fed the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) all showed some improvement,   and some 40 percent were cured, though the results took up to eight weeks. Another group of mice given glutathione, the body’s naturally occurring antioxidant, got better much faster; about half who got this treatment were fully cured, the researchers found.

NAC has been used in humans in a number of experimental settings, and some case reports suggest it could be useful in people with skin-picking disorder. However, it can be hard to tolerate, as it causes gastrointestinal side-effects, Garner says. Intranasal glutathione, on the other hand, bypasses the gut and liver and goes directly to the brain. In doing so, it may avoid these potential side-effects.

“It’s clearly working differently, or at least more directly,” Garner says. “This different response profile gives us some hope that there may be some non-responders, or people who can’t tolerate NAC, who may be helped by glutathione.”

He says it represents the first potential new treatment for the condition in years. He now hopes to test intranasal glutathione in a clinical trial among human patients with skin-picking disorder.

The latest study appears online in the journal PLOS ONE. The experiments were conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

More on skin picking and related disorders can be found at

Pediatrics, Public Health, Public Safety, Sleep, Stanford News

Rolling through campus and talking sleep with famed researcher William Dement

Rolling through campus and talking sleep with famed researcher William Dement

Dement in shuttle2 (RS) - croppedRenowned sleep researcher William Dement, MD, PhD, is maneuvering his way in his “Sleep and Dreams Mobile” through the Stanford University campus, en route to the Jerry House, site of some of the early, landmark studies in sleep. The house, a sprawling Mediterranean-style dormitory, housed Stanford’s Summer Sleep Camp in the 70s and 80s, where Dement and his colleagues planted the seed for some of the most important findings in the field of sleep among adults and teens.

Three years ago, the house was immortalized with a plaque and a party in which Jeff Chimenti of Grateful Dead fame performed for a crowd of 60 celebrants (the building is named after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia). Dement, now 85, says he often passed the house on his way to his ever-popular Sleep and Dreams class and thought it was important to mark the spot.

“I’d go by this house and think, ‘What happened here is the biggest thing in sleep disorders.’ So I thought something should be done to create a memorial,” he says, leaning on the banister in the living room of the house.

I’ve asked him to give me a tour of the house as background for a story on teen sleep that I’m writing for the next issue of Stanford Medicine magazine. He points to the backyard of the house, now a barren Lake Lagunita, where young volunteers played volleyball, all the while carrying a nest of wires on their heads to monitor their brain waves. Inside, researchers would monitor the youngsters’ brain activity 24 hours a day to better understand their patterns of sleep.

“The electrodes would stay on their heads because it was too difficult to take them off,” Dement explains. When the volunteers would trudge off to Tresidder Union to go bowling or do other activities, he says, “People would say, ‘Here come the trodes.’”

Dement and his colleagues followed the youngsters for ten successive summers, observing patterns in how their sleep changed as they matured.

A major goal of the study was to confirm the popular belief that as teens get older, they need less sleep. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that as the youngsters aged, the number of hours they slept stayed the same – roughly 9 hours.

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Global Health, LGBT, Public Health, Public Safety, Women's Health

Advocating for the rights of women and LGBT individuals in the developing world

Advocating for the rights of women and LGBT individuals in the developing world

Randy Barry - smallLast spring, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for my first experience as a citizen-activist, lobbying in Congress for the rights and well-being of women and LGBT individuals in the developing world. I recently returned there to see some of the impact of that work – crucial new appointees, new legislators in support of key issues and new words of encouragement from both sides of the political aisle.

I visited Washington as part of a 170-person delegation from the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that promotes human rights and seeks to end poverty in developing countries. Our goal was to advance several initiatives, including passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, and changes to ensure that U.S. foreign contracts and foreign aid programs do not discriminate against LGBT individuals.

I was thrilled to hear a talk by Randy Berry, the State Department’s first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, who assumed the new post in February. Just a year ago, AJWS had made the appointment of a special envoy one of its priority issues, and many of us, myself included, had met with our Congressional representatives to push for the position. I had been motivated by my experiences as an AJWS Global Justice Fellow in Uganda in 2014, when we met with LGBT activists who were living in a climate of terror because of the country’s impending anti-gay law. We heard stories of people who had been raped, beaten, harassed, evicted from homes and jobs and subjected to summary arrest.

I realized it was important to make LGBT rights a priority issue for U.S. foreign policy. Berry, the new U.S. envoy, said AJWS had been a “prime mover” in the creation of his new office – gratifying news indeed. He said he views LGBT rights as a “core human rights issue.”

“We are talking about equality, and it should go hand-in-hand with what we are doing in gender equality and in the disabled community,” he told us. “One of the most disturbing elements of discrimination is that it’s the first step to denying one’s humanity.”

He acknowledged that he has a daunting job ahead; while the U.S. is making swift progress on gay rights, these rights are just as swiftly being eroded in other parts of the world. Nearly 80 countries now criminalize same-sex behavior, with penalties that include death or life in prison. Yet the fact that the U.S. has made so much progress in recent decades suggests it’s possible to change the climate elsewhere as well, he said.

“Who would have dreamed 20 years ago that we would be where we are today in the United States,” he said. “I am sitting here today with the support of the State Department, the president and members on both sides of the aisle.”

We also saw progress on the International Violence Against Women Act, which would make ending violence against women worldwide a top U.S. diplomatic and development priority. Violence against women and girls is alarmingly pervasive, with as many as one in three being beaten, coerced into sex or subjected to other abuse in her lifetime.

The legislation was reintroduced in the House of Representatives in March with a record 18 co-sponsors, including many more Republicans than in the past. On the morning of our lobbying visits, we heard from seven Members of Congress, including Chris Gibson (R-NY), Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY), all of whom expressed strong support for the bill. David Cicilline (D-RI) described a trip to Liberia in which he met a group of young girls who had been subjected to “hideous, indescribable sexual violence.”

“It made me realize we need to do everything we can to change the lives of these young girls,” he told us.

I couldn’t agree more.

Previously: Stanford study shows many LGBT med students stay in the closetChanging the prevailing attitude about AIDS, gender and reproductive health in southern AfricaLobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against womenPreventing domestic violence and HIV in Uganda and Sex work in Uganda: Risky business
Photo of Randy Berry by Ruthann Richter

AHCJ15, Ebola, Events, Global Health, Stanford News

Ebola: It’s not over

Ebola: It's not over

Ebola may have receded from the headlines, but the challenges and threat of the disease persist. The epidemic, which has killed more than 10,700 people in West Africa, exposed glaring weaknesses in the local health-care systems, including the critical shortage of workers, poor infrastructure, lack of agreement about best practices and poor coordination among caregivers, Stanford global health expert Michele Barry, MD, told a crowd of health writers Friday.

These are among the problems that still have to be tackled to limit vulnerability to Ebola – and other diseases – in West African communities, said Barry, director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health.

There is no consistent, united leadership on how to care for Ebola patients… That’s not an effective way for a workforce to tackle a major epidemic.Though the number of reported Ebola cases has fallen to 40, the epidemic “is really not almost over – we need to keep pushing that line,” Barry said. She spoke to some 60 medical at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference, which was co-hosted by Stanford Medicine.

She noted that Africa carries 25 percent of the global disease burden, yet it has only 3 percent of the world’s health workers. In Liberia, for instance, there are just 117 doctors for a population of 4.3 million. The country’s only trained internist, a colleague of hers, died of Ebola in the course of treating an infected patient.

“Some of us have been campaigning for a long time about this (extreme shortage of health care workers),” Barry said. “We need to take responsibility for workforce, not just within our borders.”

When the epidemic struck, she said many well-meaning, outside organizations rushed in to help fill the health care gap, but there was a tremendous lack of coordination, as well as some competition, among these groups. They didn’t even agree on some basic principles of care, such as whether patients should be rehydrated by intravenous lines or orally.

“To this day, there is no consistent, united leadership on how to care for Ebola patients. No one is really in charge,” she said. “That’s not an effective way for a workforce to tackle a major epidemic.”

She argued for the creation of a Global Health Workforce Reserve, a cadre of trained nurses and doctors who could be called upon to help during crises like Ebola. She has floated the idea with World Bank officials, who are supportive and are working on developing a way to fund the reserve, she said.

At the same time, West African countries need assistance rebuilding their fragile health care systems to manage not just Ebola but the many other noncommunicable diseases that afflict them today and that have largely been ignored during this crisis, she said.

Previously: The Ebola crisis: an ethical balancing actExperience from the trenches in the first Ebola outbreakDr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients and Should we worry? Stanford’s global health chief weighs in on Ebola

Global Health, Health Disparities, Health Policy, Patient Care, Public Health, Surgery

Billions lack surgical care; report calls for change

Billions lack surgical care; report calls for change

In this country, we take it for granted that we will have access to needed surgeries, whether it’s the repair of a broken leg or an operation to remove an infected appendix or a malignant tumor. But for as many as 5 billion people – or two-thirds of the world’s population – these basic procedures are out of reach.

A major new report by the Lancet Commission sheds light on this enormous surgery gap and argues that building surgical infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries is critical both from an economic, as well as a human, perspective.

“Surgery hasn’t been part of the dialogue with respect to health system strengthening. It’s been a hugely neglected item,” said Stanford trauma surgeon Thomas Weiser, MD, who contributed to the 58-page report. The commission includes 25 leading experts from the fields of surgery and anesthesia, with contributions from more than 110 countries.

In its report, the commission notes that in 2010, nearly one-third of all deaths (16.9 million) were attributable to conditions readily treated by surgery, such as appendicitis, hernia, fractures, obstructed labor, congenital abnormalities and breast and cervical cancer. That is more than the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. And although there have been many gains in global health in the last 25 years, the quality and availability of surgical services in many regions have stagnated or declined, while the demand for surgery continues to rise.

“The global community cannot continue to ignore this problem – millions of people are already dying unnecessarily, and the need for equitable and affordable access to surgical services is projected to increase in the coming decades, as many of the worst affected countries face rising rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and road accidents,” said Lars Hagander, MD, of Lund University in Sweden and one of the lead authors.

Weiser and his colleagues provide new estimates of the global shortfall, calculating that some 143 million additional surgeries are needed to save lives and prevent disability, with the largest number of neglected patients living in South Asia (57.8 million), East Asia (27.9 million) and southern sub-Saharan Africa (18.9 million).

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Ebola, Ethics, Global Health, Stanford News

The Ebola crisis: an ethical balancing act

The Ebola crisis: an ethical balancing act

Ebola in GuineaShould Ebola patients in West Africa be given unproven treatments? How should clinicians decide which patients to treat, given the limited availability of some drugs? Should Ebola patients who are dying be given palliative care to relieve pain and suffering?

These are among the ethical questions addressed in a special issue of the American Journal of Bioethics, devoted to the many challenges involved in caring for patients with Ebola.

“Obviously, the Ebola crisis galvanized lots of different health care professionals and academics, but it was very important to the bioethics community,” David Magnus, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, told me. “From the very beginning, there were the usual public health ethics. But when the time came to give the scarce drug, ZMapp, to a small number of health care workers, there was a huge amount of controversy.”

“That also led to a major debate on the conduct of clinical trials and whether we should give unproven treatments to patients,” he said. “There’s a very big split in the biomedical ethics community.”

Magnus is editor-in-chief of the monthly journal, which is housed at Stanford. He said the special edition of the journal is particularly relevant now, given the recent launch by the NIH of a clinical trial involving ZMapp. The experimental drug, manufactured by a San Diego, Ca. company, was given to a very small number of clinicians in the United States who had been exposed to Ebola in West Africa.

In the journal, a group of ethicists led by New York University’s Arthur Caplan, PhD, argue that the gold standard in drug testing – the randomized, placebo-controlled trial – may not be the most practical and morally defensible approach in an emergency like the Ebola crisis.

A conventional trial is hard to justify, given that patients in the West were given the drug without any placebo controls; West Africans should be treated no differently. Nor can it be justified if the drug is compared against the usual standards of care in Africa, which may be ineffective and carry a high probability of death. That approach could just engender further mistrust in West African communities, they say. Rather, Caplan and his colleagues argue for an alternative approach – a side-by-side comparison of various experimental drugs to see which one is superior in helping rescue patients.

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Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Infectious Disease, Stanford News

Spread of drug-resistant HIV in Africa and Asia is limited, Stanford research finds

Spread of drug-resistant HIV in Africa and Asia is limited, Stanford research finds

In the last decade, millions more people in the developing world have gained access to anti-viral drugs to treat HIV, with nearly 12 million now on this life-giving treatment. But with more people on medication, there’s concern about the spread of drug-resistant strains of the virus, which can be transmitted from one individual to the next.

A new, multi-center study led by Stanford researchers offers some good news on this front: The transmission of drug-resistant strains thus far has been fairly limited in the hard-hit regions of Africa and Asia. The research involved more than 50,000 patients in 111 countries.

It is inevitable that transmitted drug resistance will increase further, so we need to continue ongoing monitoring to ensure successful, long-term treatment outcomes

“What we are showing is that the rates of transmitted drug-resistant HIV in the low- and middle-income countries most affected by HIV have increased modestly,” Stanford infectious disease expert Robert Shafer, MD, principal investigator on the study, told me. “The rate of increase in sub-Saharan Africa has been low, and an increase has not been detected in south Asia and Southeast Asia.”

Shafer is nonetheless cautious, as drug resistance remains a problem in these regions, where patients are prescribed drug regimens that are not as effective as those used in the West. And adhering to a daily regimen can be challenging for these patients, as transportation, drug supply and other issues may get in the way. Resistance can occur when there is a gap in treatment.

“It is inevitable that transmitted drug resistance will increase further, so we need to continue ongoing monitoring to ensure successful, long-term treatment outcomes for the millions of people on therapy worldwide,” Shafer said.

In the study, he and his colleagues identified four mutations that were linked to resistance to two HIV drugs, nevirapine and efavirenz. That result points to the possibility of creating a simple test that could be used to detect these mutations, he said. Clinicians then could tailor their treatment accordingly.

Another key finding was that the drug-resistant strains that did occur were not from a single line of resistant viruses, but were quite distinct. That means they developed independently, not as a result of a single transmission chain. That differs from some other microbes, such as malaria and tuberculosis, where resistant strains can move very quickly through the population.

“We are finding that the strains being detected in low-income countries are pretty much unrelated to one another,” Shafer said. “So that suggests these have not yet gained a foothold in the population and are less often being transmitted among people who have never received the drugs before.”

The study appears online today in PLoS Medicine.

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