A Bold Effort To Cure HIV—Using Crispr

Immune cells infected with HIV Photograph: BIOPHOTO ASSOCIATES/Science SourceImmune cells infected with HIVPhotograph: BIOPHOTO ASSOCIATES/Science Source

An experiment tests whether the gene-editing technology can stop the virus from replicating, which would ultimately wipe out the infection.

In July, an HIV-positive man became the first volunteer in a clinical trial aimed at using Crispr gene editing to snip the AIDS-causing virus out of his cells. For an hour, he was hooked up to an IV bag that pumped the experimental treatment directly into his bloodstream. The one-time infusion is designed to carry the gene-editing tools to the man’s infected cells to clear the virus.

Later this month, the volunteer will stop taking the antiretroviral drugs he’s been on to keep the virus at undetectable levels. Then, investigators will wait 12 weeks to see if the virus rebounds. If not, they’ll consider the experiment a success. “What we’re trying to do is return the cell to a near-normal state,” says Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision BioTherapeutics, the San Francisco-based biotech company that’s running the trial.

HIV attacks immune cells in the body called CD4 cells and hijacks their machinery to make copies of itself. But some HIV-infected cells can go dormant—sometimes for years—and not actively produce new virus copies. These so-called reservoirs are a major barrier to curing HIV.

“HIV is a tough foe to fight because it’s able to insert itself into our own DNA, and it’s also able to become silent and reactivate at different points in a person’s life,” says Jonathan Li, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and HIV researcher at Harvard University who’s not involved with the Crispr trial. Figuring out how to target these reservoirs—and doing it without harming vital CD4 cells—has proven challenging, Li says.

While antiretroviral drugs can halt viral replication and clear the virus from the blood, they can’t reach these reservoirs, so people have to take medication every day for the rest of their lives. But Excision BioTherapeutics is hoping that Crispr will remove HIV for good.

Crispr is being used in several other studies to treat a handful of conditions that arise from genetic mutations. In those cases, scientists are using Crispr to edit peoples’ own cells. But for the HIV trial, Excision researchers are turning the gene-editing tool against the virus. The Crispr infusion contains gene-editing molecules that target two regions in the HIV genome important for viral replication. The virus can only reproduce if it’s fully intact, so Crispr disrupts that process by cutting out chunks of the genome.

In 2019, researchers at Temple University and the University of Nebraska found that using Crispr to delete those regions eliminated HIV from the genomes of rats and mice. A year later, the Temple group also showed that the approach safely removed viral DNA from macaques with SIV, the monkey version of HIV.

That was an important step toward testing the treatment in people, says Kamel Khalili, a professor of microbiology at Temple University who led the work and is a cofounder of Excision Biotherapeutics. “You don’t want to eliminate the viral genome but at the same time cause any disruption in another part of the human genome and then create another set of problems for the patients,” he says. “We had to make sure that we identified a region within HIV that did not overlap with the human genome.”

Dornbusch thinks this strategy will spare patients from serious side effects and “off-target” edits—unintentional cuts elsewhere in the genome that could cause problems such as cancer.

The regions targeted by the company’s Crispr therapy are also in a part of the genome that tends to stay the same even when HIV evolves. That’s important because the virus mutates rapidly, and the researchers don’t want a moving target.

This isn’t the first time scientists have tried to use gene editing in the hope of curing people with HIV, but other efforts have focused on a protective mutation in a gene called CCR5. In the 1990s, scientists found that people with this naturally occurring mutation didn’t get HIV when exposed to it. The mutation—known as delta 32—thwarts the virus’s ability to get inside immune cells. In 2009, California-based Sangamo Therapeutics used an older editing technology called zinc finger nucleases to add that protective mutation into patients’ T cells—an important part of the immune system. Those trials have had limited success.

In 2017, Chinese scientists combined Crispr with a bone marrow transplant in an attempt to cure a patient with HIV and leukemia. In a typical transplant, donor stem cells are transferred to a recipient to replace their cancerous blood cells. These cells go on to form new, healthy blood cells. To also address the patient’s HIV, researchers edited the donor stem cells with Crispr to disable CCR5. But after the transplant, only a small percentage of the patient’s bone marrow cells ended up with the desired edit.

Then in 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui used Crispr to edit the CCR5 mutation into the genomes of twin baby girls to make them resistant to HIV. Fraught with ethical violations, the experiment was widely condemned by scientists. He’s research was suspended by the Chinese government, and he served a three-year prison sentence. While the twins were born healthy, only some of their cells were successfully edited, meaning the girls might in fact not be immune to HIV.

As of 2022, two people have now been cured of HIV after receiving bone marrow transplants from donors with the CCR5. Known as the Berlin patient and the London patient, both had cancer and received transplants to treat their disease. But these transplants aren’t a viable option for most people—they’re highly risky, and donors with the delta 32 mutation are scarce. But a third person was declared cured of HIV earlier this year after she received a new type of transplant involving umbilical cord blood.

The Excision trial will eventually enroll nine participants and test three dosage amounts to determine which is most effective. Investigators will measure each person’s viral load and CD4 count before receiving the therapy and after they stop taking antiretroviral drugs. The ultimate goal is to get viral loads down to an undetectable level—that is, less than 200 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood. At this level, HIV can’t be passed on through sex.

The challenge for Excision will be getting Crispr to enough cells to bring HIV down to undetectable levels. The company is using an engineered virus to shuttle the gene-editing components to patients’ HIV-infected CD4 cells. But so far, there’s little human data on how well Crispr works when it’s delivered directly to the body. “It’s possible that you get the virus to such low levels that if a person’s immune system were intact, they might be able to keep the virus at bay such that they don’t have to take antiretroviral therapy anymore,” says Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

And even though these drugs are very effective, Johnston says, many people would rather be completely free of the virus. A single Crispr infusion—if it works—would eliminate the need for daily pills. “People with HIV still live with a lot of stigma and internalized shame,” she says. “I think a cure is something that addresses that much better than lifelong therapy, regardless of how easy that therapy becomes.”

Emily Mullin is a staff writer at WIRED, covering biotechnology. Previously, she was an MIT Knight Science Journalism project fellow and a staff writer covering biotechnology at Medium’s OneZero. Before that, she served as an associate editor at MIT Technology Review, where she wrote about biomedicine. Her stories have also… Read more

Source: A Bold Effort to Cure HIV—Using Crispr | WIRED

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Critics:

Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is a spectrum of conditions caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a retrovirus. Following initial infection an individual may not notice any symptoms, or may experience a brief period of influenza-like illness .Typically, this is followed by a prolonged incubation period with no symptoms.

If the infection progresses, it interferes more with the immune system, increasing the risk of developing common infections such as tuberculosis, as well as other opportunistic infections, and tumors which are otherwise rare in people who have normal immune function. These late symptoms of infection are referred to as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).This stage is often also associated with unintended weight loss.

HIV is spread primarily by unprotected sex (including anal and vaginal sex), contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. Some bodily fluids, such as saliva, sweat and tears, do not transmit the virus. Oral sex has little to no risk of transmitting the virus.

Methods of prevention include safe sex, needle exchange programs, treating those who are infected, as well as both pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis.[4] Disease in a baby can often be prevented by giving both the mother and child antiretroviral medication. Known as the Berlin Patient and the London Patient, two individuals have been reported cured of AIDS and the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Gates Foundation have pledged $200 million focused on developing a global cure for AIDS.

While there is no broadly available cure or vaccine, antiretroviral treatment can slow the course of the disease and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy. Treatment is recommended as soon as the diagnosis is made.[17] Without treatment, the average survival time after infection is 11 years. In 2021, about 38 million people worldwide were living with HIV and 650,000 deaths had occurred in that year.

An estimated 20.6 million of these live in eastern and southern Africa. Between the time that AIDS was identified (in the early 1980s) and 2021, the disease has caused an estimated 40 million deaths worldwide. HIV/AIDS is considered a pandemic—a disease outbreak which is present over a large area and is actively spreading. HIV made the jump from other primates to humans in west-central Africa in the early-to-mid 20th century.

AIDS was first recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1981 and its cause—HIV infection—was identified in the early part of the decade. HIV/AIDS has had a large impact on society, both as an illness and as a source of discrimination. The disease also has large economic impacts. There are many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, such as the belief that it can be transmitted by casual non-sexual contact.The disease has become subject to many controversies involving religion, including the Catholic Church’s position not to support condom use as prevention. It has attracted international medical and political attention as well as large-scale funding since it was identified in the 1980s

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Doctors on TikTok: The Dark Side of Medical Influencers

A doctor examines a TikTok of an x-ray of ribs on a giant iPhone.

Medical data is supposed to be confidential. But social media is threatening the privacy and dignity of patients. For years, Martin Jugenburg—a Toronto-based plastic and reconstructive surgeon who goes by Dr. 6ix on social media—shared dozens of before-and-after photos and videos on Instagram of the altered bodies that had passed through his hands. There were tummy tucks, Brazilian butt lifts, and breast augmentations, all of them sorted into a kind of virtual assembly line for his thousands of followers to see.

But many of the women he featured in his posts—sometimes depicted post-op and sedated, their genitals and breasts blurred out—hadn’t consented to having their images circulated, according to an ongoing class action lawsuit, and some were only alerted of their presence online due to an investigation by CBC journalists. Unbeknownst to his patients and followers, investigators later found that Jugenburg was using a covert network of cameras in his clinic to perform a rigorous feat of surveillance, documenting thousands surgical procedures.

Women who realized he had posted images of them told investigators they felt violated; they were upset, embarrassed, and distressed. Dr. 6ix’s loose approach to respecting patient privacy on social media is hardly unusual in the world of “med Twitter” and “MedTok,” or medical TikTok. On Twitter, orthopedic surgeons complain about chronic pain “crazies,” nurses mock women who choose to give birth without an epidural, and doctors complain about “liars,” “Googlers,” and patients with conditions they are struggling to diagnose.

TikTok is worse. In a post by someone with the username Nurse Johnn, whose derogatory skits about dementia patients he claims are fiction, the nurse mockingly dances in blue-green scrubs on a hospital bed, imitating someone under his care. One nurse filmed themselves holding the hand of a patient they said was dying of COVID-19. There is a video of someone in what appears to be a psychiatric crisis and another of a patient having their toenails cut. A Miami-based doctor posted about how he “walks in the footsteps of giants” in reference to porn star Johnny Sins, who impersonates a doctor having sex with his patients.

To scroll through many medical social media accounts is to wade into a virtual subculture where patients have become fodder for derision, their privacy and dignity regularly violated. But since there isn’t really any oversight of this virtual world, patients must bear the repercussions.

Medical professionals spilling these traumatic, “hilarious” stories about their patients can lead to people not going to the doctor, says Shayna Hermann, a graduate student at the University of North Texas who studies criminology. This means the underlying health issue can “get worse and worse,” she adds—often with dire consequences.

The concealment of a patient’s medical information is an ancient custom, for such knowledge is a “holy secret,” according to the Hippocratic Oath. Medical students still refer to a doctrine of “doing no harm” that is based on the Hippocratic oath, and harm, to Hippocrates, included the dissemination of information shared between a patient and their doctor. Otherwise, trust in medicine could be undermined, disrupting treatment and diagnosis. Medicine is about acting but also about not acting.

The Enlightenment enshrined patient confidentiality as one of the formative values of the modern biomedical model. Ideals cherished under liberalism, like the individual’s right to autonomy over their body, would be impossible to respect without the guarantee that their medical records remained private. Those ideas would persist throughout the twentieth century. In 1948, the World Medical Association, an international body that now represents 115 medical associations worldwide, produced the Declaration of Geneva for the purposes of unifying an international standard for medical practice.

The document reads: “I will respect the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died.” Today, a patient’s right to privacy has been legally protected in both Canada and the United States. If it is violated, doctors can be sanctioned and even lose their medical licence, temporarily or permanently. Despite this basis for the preservation of confidentiality, the growing presence of practitioners on social media presents a risk for breaches.

Physicians, like many of us, have used platforms like Twitter and Instagram since their inception, with 90 percent reporting they used social media to find information related to their patients and practice in 2017, according to a report by market analyst Research2Guidance. Today, lists of the top twenty-five “medical influencers” include accounts of family physicians and doctors who have been endorsed by celebrities and have millions of followers. And, at times, their posts contain jokes involving patient information.

A 2020 study by Wasim Ahmed of Newcastle University, which analyzed 348 tweets about living patients, found that nearly 47 percent contained details that would likely make patients identifiable to themselves. In some ways, packaging patient information for public consumption is in line with lesser-known traditions of the medical world. The history of medicine is also a history of performance; health care workers have advanced their careers through the exhibition of less powerful people for hundreds of years.

Despite the progress made around patient confidentiality during the Enlightenment, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it wasn’t uncommon for both students and the public to pay an entry fee to witness dissections that took place as part of medical education in Europe. Many people viewed the practice as necessary for scientific advancement, but physicians used, almost universally, bodies of the poorest subjects, stealing cadavers from graves without consent and then displaying them for the public.

In the era before anesthetic was widely used, surgeons would operate on conscious patients before an audience of, at times, 700 to 800 onlookers. In an article for JSTOR Daily, Rebecca Rego Barry wrote that surgeons “seemed to revel in the showmanship aspect of their work,” receiving applause at the moment they entered what one medical college called the “pit.” It was this performative aspect of medicine—perpetrated by practitioners and revered by observers—that helped usher in the era of the celebrity doctor.

Of course, the conditions health care professionals train and work in have always encouraged physicians to establish public influence. Canadian hospitals and medical schools reward and publicly promote their most prestigious students, researchers, and clinicians; competition for esteem and funding from donors encourages already-high-achieving people to differentiate themselves and build lucrative research reputations. But television fundamentally changed the way we think about doctors, commodifying the act of giving medical care so that it could be sold as entertainment on a mass scale.

Just look at celebrities like Dr. Drew and Dr. Oz or shows like Dr. 90210 and Botched. Every week, viewers tune in to watch the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of patients, despite the criticisms these shows have received for exploitative practices. Reality shows like ABC’s NY Med used footage from actual emergency rooms and operating theatres, sometimes filming surgeries without consent from patients.

Joel M. Geiderman, an LA emergency physician, told Emergency Medicine News that he knows people who consented to being filmed while stressed and in the emergency department, then regretted the publicization of their medical treatment in the media. So, while the disclosure of medical secrets to the public is not particularly new, technology has made it much easier.

There is certainly a place for doctors online. Medical misinformation and vaccine hesitancy need to be confronted, especially in the era of COVID-19, and many clinicians have made invaluable contributions to online discussions about medical racism, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny. A number of physicians use social media to help patients with conditions underrepresented in medical literature self-advocate. Others advise oppressed patients on how to ensure they’re getting the best care possible and answer pressing questions about the pandemic.

But growing distrust in the medical establishment, which the violation of patient confidentiality encourages, must be reckoned with just as seriously. According to a recent survey by NORC at the University of Chicago, since the start of COVID, 32 percent of respondents decreased their trust in the health care system. This distrust is often particularly present in Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ communities, which have been subjected to medical exploitation, experimentation, and harm for centuries.

Research shows suspicion of pharmaceutical companies continues to drive vaccine hesitancy. “COVID put physicians in the forefront of the cultural mainstream,” says Stephanie Lee, a hematologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “Everyone was looking to physicians for guidance on what was happening.” She adds that, for many physicians, there was a feedback loop of wanting more attention and likes on social media.

While she believes health care practitioners generally have good intentions, “when the well runs dry of content on COVID, people wanted to mine their professional lives to maintain their status. COVID accelerated what was already an issue.” The targets of these posts are, overwhelmingly, the oppressed. Faithful to the history of medical theatre, women with mental illness and patients who are geriatric, disabled, fat, impoverished, or perceived as uneducated are subjected to the majority of ridicule.

And it’s not uncommon for patients in similar situations to see these posts. Reacting to discussions of trans healthcare by physicians on Twitter, one person tweeted, “My lived experience/identity has been distilled to a saccharine and self-serving Aesop[’s fable].” Another nurse, who posted that she knew when patients were faking symptoms, inspired a #PatientsAreNotFaking hashtag used by thousands of people.

“Whenever I see nurses and doctors on TikTok . . . disparaging their patients . . . it makes it hard, for not just me but a lot of people, to be vulnerable to their doctors,” says the University of North Texas’s Hermann. She adds that patients who grew up in poverty, like herself, already distrust health care professionals, and social media has the potential to make it worse. Patients have already expressed a variety of concerns in the comments sections of these platforms:

“TikTok singlehandedly made me not seek medical care recently,” wrote one user; another posted about their anxieties around having emergency surgery, writing, “I was literally fearful of my nurses having their phones on them and videoing me while I’m vulnerable.” With no real oversight in place to monitor online behaviour, it’s clear that the regulations around patient confidentiality must evolve to capture these new concerns.

The Canadian Medical Association does have a data-stewardship policy that covers patient privacy, but it only mentions the sharing of patient details over email—nothing about social media. The issue has been addressed in the College of the Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s new set of guidelines for the use of social media by physicians, which includes the recommendation that doctors “exercise caution when posting information online that relates to an actual patient” and asks them to “bear in mind that an unnamed patient may still be identified through a range of their information such as a description of their clinical condition.”

These are, however, just guidelines, and they are still violated constantly online. Both Hermann and Lee think that social media use should be addressed in medical curricula; hospitals and medical boards already have disciplinary mechanisms in place for violations of patient confidentiality, which should be implemented when health care practitioners post derogatory content online with the same consistency that they are when practitioners are careless with physical copies of patient data.

Directives, they added, should take into account that comments deriding or ridiculing sick people in general can be as harmful to the public’s relationship with the medical system as individual violations of patient confidentiality. Lee believes that, when done correctly, patient narratives shared on social media can have a constructive and positive function. “There’s an opportunity to do a lot of good,” she says. “

But physicians need to take stock of how this is really helping our patients. Is there really a net material benefit to patients by posting this? Is there an alternative way that preserves the patient’s dignity better, maintains their anonymity better?” Asking for consent to post about a patient online is complicated, however. The power differential between patients and doctors, in most cases, is enormous.

It is difficult to imagine conditions in which patients wouldn’t potentially feel coerced into agreeing to let their physician share their information on a public social media account. “Hospital fundraising campaigns share patient information all the time, but the big difference is the patients’ stories are shared after the acute issue has been resolved,” says Lee, adding that, often, those narratives are shared in the patient’s own words, sometimes written in partnership with their former health care providers. “You have to empower the patient to be part of the process, to be part of sharing their story,” she says.

In 2021, following his disciplinary hearing at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, Martin Jugenburg was suspended from his job for six months. At some point, he removed all the patient content predating November 2019 from his Instagram account. The committee wrote that there was a “troubling pattern of Dr. Jugenburg pursuing his own interests . . . in publicity and in cultivating a strong social media presence, at the expense of the privacy of his patients.” His “seeming indifference to these issues was appalling and is deserving of significant sanction,” the committee added.

Jugenburg has since resumed his career at the Toronto Cosmetic Surgery Institute and has publicly vowed to fight attempts made by patients to seek financial compensation for the damages done. His Instagram account is still public, and he has begun posting new post-op images of his patients—presumably with permission this time. It’s almost business as usual.

For patients, the situation remains unchanged. Questions about the function of social media in medicine have yet to be posed with seriousness, and solutions have not been identified or implemented. Meanwhile, influencer-doctors continue to practise the tradition of performance, prolonging a hidden history of sickness as spectacle.

“It’s really easy to detach empathy when you’re doing a TikTok. It’s really easy for those viewers to not see that person as a person,” says Hermann. “[But] I think, now, it’s coming to a head.”

Source: Doctors on TikTok: The Dark Side of Medical Influencers | The Walrus

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Related contents:

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More Than Half Of Ukraine’s Children Displaced By War

One month into a brutal war, Ukraine’s children are traumatized and in desperate need of assistance. UNICEF is on the ground in Ukraine and neighboring countries, working to provide lifesaving humanitarian aid to children and families.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine one month ago, 4.3 million children have been forced out of their homes. That’s over half the country’s estimated 7.5 million total child population.

More than 3.8 million people — including 1.8 million children — have crossed the border into Poland, Romania, Moldova and other neighboring countries to escape the ongoing violence since Feb. 24, according to UNHCR.

The rest of Ukraine’s children remain inside the country, trapped in a national nightmare.

“The war has caused one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since World War II.”

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell

“The war has caused one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since World War II,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “This is a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come. Children’s safety, well-being and access to essential services are all under threat from nonstop horrific violence.”

93 children have been killed and 120 injured since the war began

Heavily populated civilian areas are increasingly being targeted, with children’s homes, hospitals, schools and orphanages coming under assault. The World Health Organization has confirmed 52 attacks impacting health care facilities across the country in the past four weeks, while Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science has reported damage to more than 500 education facilities.

According to the United Nations human rights office, OHCHR, 93 children have been killed and 120 injured since the war began. These figures represent only those reports that the United Nations has been able to confirm: the actual toll is likely far higher.

UNICEF is rushing medical supplies to children’s hospitals and maternity wards

UNICEF has 140 staff members on the ground in Ukraine, working around the clock from five regional offices on both sides of the contact line to provide urgent assistance to children and families in need.

In close collaboration with the Government of Ukraine, UN agencies and key humanitarian partners, UNICEF is scaling up emergency operations, including the delivery of medical supplies and equipment to dozens of hospitals across the country, where pediatricians and obstetricians are caring for injured children and delivering babies in basement hallways.

To aid mothers and children who have fled the country in search of safety, UNICEF has set up a network of Blue Dot refugee support centers where they can access emergency services.

Urgent assistance for families forced to leave everything behind

Strategically located along key transit routes, the Blue Dot support hubs provide health screenings, information on available accommodations and transportation, a safe place for children to play, registration for psychosocial support, counseling and protection services, and other vital forms of assistance.

Child-Friendly Spaces where kids can just be kids for a while

Staffed by social workers and psychologists and stocked with toys and games, the Blue Dot centers provide a sense of normalcy for children whose lives have been turned upside-down. “Mostly we do game therapy, but it will depend on the child, how ready he or she will be to play with us,” says psychologist Tatiana Andriesh, who works with children at a Blue Dot site in Palanca, Moldova.

“Somehow, the emotional state of the parents is passed on to the children. If a parent is hugging them very tightly, the child gets afraid. There are situations where the mothers are so emotionally affected that we have to work with the parents somehow, and after than we can give attention to the children.”

The threat of child trafficking is real and growing

More than 500 unaccompanied children were identified crossing from Ukraine into Romania between Feb. 24 and March 17. “The war in Ukraine is leading to mass displacement and refugee flows — conditions that could lead to a significant spike in human trafficking and an acute child protection crisis,” Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, warned on March 19. “Displaced children are extremely vulnerable to being separated from their families, exploited and trafficked.”

To protect the vulnerable, staff at Blue Dot centers are trained to identify unaccompanied and separated children and implement family tracing services so children can be reunited with their caregivers.

“Displaced children are extremely vulnerable to being separated from their families, exploited and trafficked.”

Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia

UNICEF is urging the governments of neighboring countries and other countries of destination to strengthen child protection screenings at border crossings, especially those with Ukraine, to better identify at-risk children.

“In just a few weeks, the war has wrought such devastation for Ukraine’s children,” said Russell. “Children urgently need peace and protection. They need their rights. UNICEF continues to appeal for an immediate ceasefire and for the protection of children from harm.”

Sarah Ferguson is the Editorial Director for Content and Social Media at UNICEF USA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian,

Source: More Than Half Of Ukraine’s Children Displaced By War

.

Critics:

Highlighting that nine in 10 of those fleeing unrelenting violence in Ukraine are women and children, Mr. Elder warned that youngsters are prey to traffickers, as they arrive in unfamiliar new surroundings. “To give a sense of the border that I used to visit – the main border, Medyka,  Poland to Ukraine – it is scores of people standing around buses and minivans calling out names of capital cities – or at least it was a week ago – people getting onto those,” he said.

“The vast, vast majority of course are people with wonderful intentions and great generosity, but there is no doubt given what we understand of trafficking in Europe, that that remains a very, very grave issue.” The development follows a warning from the UN Secretary-General, who on Monday said that Russia’s military offensive against civilians was “reaching terrifying proportions”.

Ane Lemche, a psychologist and child counselor with Save the Children, said children around the world might not fully understand what is happening in Ukraine and may have questions about the images, stories and conversations they are exposed to.   

Previous Save the Children research in conflicts such as Iraq and Syria has revealed heartbreaking accounts of children terrified by the shelling and airstrikes, anxious about the future, and distraught at not being able to go to school. The majority of children showed signs of severe emotional distress.

More contents:

An Omicron Surges Spark Chain Reactions That Strain US Hospitals Everywhere

Registered nurse Nvard Termendzhyan, center, sets up a table for Linda Calderon, right, as her twin sister Natalie Balli, far left, rests in her bed in a Covid-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, on December 13. The sisters were admitted to the hospital on the same day, a few days after their Thanksgiving gathering.Jae C. Hong/AP 

America’s hospitals and their workforces have reached and exceeded their breaking points in the last two years — and another surge of Covid-19 is already underway.

Earlier this month, with a new wave of Covid-19 cases looking likely after the omicron variant was identified, Rhode Island emergency doctors wrote their state leaders to warn that any new surge of patients would “lead to collapse of the state health care system.” In Kansas, patients in rural hospitals have been stuck in the ER for days while they wait for a transfer to a larger hospital with the capacity and resources to care for them.

With the fast-spreading omicron variant now upon us, some of the rhetoric around the pandemic has changed. Government officials, starting with President Joe Biden, are pointedly differentiating between the risks for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. This could create the perception that some places face more of a risk than others: Perhaps omicron will threaten rural communities (where vaccination rates are lowest) and their health systems, but perhaps more vaccinated cities and their hospitals will be better off.

Such thinking would be misguided. As convoluted and sometimes siloed as the US health system may seem at times, it is still a system. Patients transfer between facilities based on capacity or clinical need. If rural hospitals are shipping seriously ill patients to their urban neighbors, which already tend to run close to capacity even in normal times, a rural Covid-19 crisis could quickly become a crisis for everybody.

One hospital being overwhelmed isn’t a one-hospital problem, it’s an every-hospital problem. Even if your community is not awash with Covid-19 or if most people are vaccinated, a major outbreak in your broader region, plus all the other patients hospitals are treating in normal times, could easily fill your hospital, too. That makes it harder for the health system to treat you if you come to the ER with heart attack symptoms or appendicitis or any acute medical emergency.

Already, because of existing staffing shortages, rural hospitals are finding it difficult to find room for their patients at larger hospital systems. With omicron spreading rapidly, increasing the number of patients seeking care while sidelining health workers who have to quarantine, systemic overload may not be far off.

“When you have a Covid patient who needs ICU care, those hospitals are turning away patients,” Carrie Saia, CEO of Holton Community Hospital, located in a town of 3,000 people about 90 minutes east of the Kansas City metropolitan area, told me earlier this month. “We’re sending our patients farther away. Not because they’re full, they’re just out of staff.”

At earlier points in the crisis, large hospitals would limit transfers from smaller facilities in order to preserve their capacity to treat the most seriously ill patients. As a new wave driven by the omicron variant takes off, that could happen again.

As Karen Joynt Maddox, a practicing cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, told me in August: “During Covid surges, we were told to limit transfers only to patients who had needs that could not be met at their current hospital (i.e. decline transfers because the family requested it, but equal services available at both places) because that was the only way we could make sure that we did have the ability to accept patients that only we (or another major referral center) could handle.”

The feedback loop works in reverse as well. Recently, the HCA hospital in Conroe, Texas, about 40 miles north of Houston, was dealing with such a staffing shortage in its emergency department that the facility temporarily asked ambulances to bypass it because the ED couldn’t handle any more patients, according to a spokesperson. Suddenly, hospitals in the heart of Houston were seeing an unexpected surge of patients who needed emergency care, causing long wait times at their facilities.

America’s hospitals are all in this together. So what can we do quickly to relieve the burden for all of our hospitals and prevent unnecessary deaths?

How we can all help hospitals handle a surge in omicron patients

Last week, the Biden White House detailed a new plan for helping hospitals handle the coming surge of Covid-19 patients. They are deploying emergency medical personnel to six states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Vermont. They are also planning to deploy another 1,000 military doctors and nurses in January and February, as well as ordering FEMA to work with states to add hospital beds. The White House also said it had 100,000 ventilators in the federal stockpile that could be deployed as needed.

Those policies could certainly help to alleviate the pressure on hospitals in places facing particularly acute crises. But the truth is, they can only do so much. US hospitals cannot suddenly grow the staff and physical capacity to handle another enormous surge of Covid-19 patients.

Infected medical workers add to the strain on hospitals. Hospitals have seen a spike in nurses and doctors testing positive; by late December, the El Centro Regional Medical Center, about two hours east of San Diego near the US-Mexico border, was seeing 5 to 10 percent of its staff either infected or being tested for exposure at any given time, according to CEO Adolphe Edward. Other hospitals have told me they are also seeing a growing number of workers test positive, which requires them to stop working and isolate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revised its isolation protocols for health care workers who test positive for Covid-19, shortening the standard isolation period from 10 days to 7 (if accompanied by a negative test). But that still takes doctors and nurses out of commission for several days if they contract the virus. (On Monday, the CDC released new guidelines for the general public stating that those who test positive can stop isolating after five days if they do not have symptoms.)

“You can send all the ventilators you want,” Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president at Houston Methodist Hospital, told me. “I have no one to staff them.”

Nearly 99 percent of rural hospitals said in a survey released in November they were experiencing a staffing shortage; 96 percent of them said they were having the most difficulty finding nurses. According to a September study commissioned by the American Hospital Association, the average cost of labor expenses for each discharged patient has grown by 14 percent in 2021 — even as the number of full-time employees has dropped by 4 percent.

“The only things I can think of could not be accomplished in two weeks,” Peter Viccellio, associate chief medical officer at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, said. “We have a severe staffing shortage everywhere, and it’s not going to go away. It existed before Covid, and Covid just exacerbated it.”

Some policy changes — smoothing schedules that better distribute surgeries (and therefore patient volume) throughout the day or week, earlier discharges or more weekend discharges — could help. “But this won’t happen without a mandate,” Viccellio said.

“We won’t prevent future catastrophes because of a very simple reason. It requires that we think of the future and plan for it,” he added. “You can see how that’s working out. We can’t frigging plan for one month from now.”

More money from the federal government could also allow hospitals to beef up their staffing, said Beth Feldpush, senior vice president of policy and advocacy at America’s Essential Hospitals, which represents critical access facilities. But all of these policies targeted directly to hospitals may only help at the margins. The American health system’s capacity is what it is — the time to act was long ago. Instead, the US health care system is behind many of its wealthy peers in the number of practicing medical staff in its hospitals.

So the quickest and surest action to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed is actually to prevent people from needing to go to the hospital with Covid-19 in the first place, hospital leaders said. Get vaccinated — with three doses. Wear masks indoors in public places. Test before you see people who don’t live in your house.

Following the pandemic playbook can make a difference for hospitals bracing for another grim winter in this pandemic.

“The more we can help keep the public protected, the more we can keep our workers here,” Schwartz said, “and lessen the burden of this.”

Dylan Scott

I grew up in Ohio, lived in Las Vegas for a year and moved to Washington in 2011. I cover health care and other domestic policy. You’ll probably see me tweeting about Cleveland sports or the last movie I watched.

Source: An omicron Covid-19 surge anywhere can strain US hospitals everywhere

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CDC Recommends Cutting Covid Isolation Time To 5 Days For Some Healthcare Workers

With hospitals in some areas struggling with staffing shortfalls amid a nationwide surge of Covid-19 cases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control revised its guidelines Thursday to recommend that healthcare workers who contract Covid-19 but display mild-to-moderate symptoms and are not moderately or severely immunocompromised can return to work five days after symptoms first appear, down from 10 days previously.

Key Facts

Healthcare workers who contract the virus should also wait until at least 24 hours after their last fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and must wait until symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath have improved, according to the guidelines.

Some hospitals have voluntarily adopted a seven-day isolation period for infected staff, the New York Times reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises someone who tests positive to go into isolation for 10 days. Critics say that the policy does not take into account how the pandemic has developed over the last two years.

Omicron is now the dominant strain in the U.S. Although more transmissible than prior variants and amid a spike in breakthrough infections among the fully vaccinated, the strain so far appears to be causing milder symptoms.

The CDC also recommended that hospitals cancel all non-essential procedures and visits if necessary to mitigate staffing shortages. Other new CDC guidelines also revised rules for workers who have higher-risk exposure to Covid-19, such as having their eyes, nose or mouth exposed to material possibly containing the virus, but who are not confirmed to have been infected.

In general, asymptomatic workers who have been exposed to the virus in this way do not require any restriction from work if they have received all recommended vaccine doses, including boosters, the CDC said.

Fauci told CNN reducing the 10-day isolation recommendation would help those without symptoms return to work or school, although added “no decisions” had been made yet.

Key Background

As the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant raises infection rates across the U.S., hospitals have struggled with worker burnout and understaffing. In Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, the National Guard has been deployed to reinforce overburdened hospital staff, Spectrum News reported. “When it comes to the workforce, it’s fair to say we’re facing a national emergency,” American Hospital Association President Rick Pollack told NPR.

Tangent

Airlines for America, a trade association representing most of the nation’s largest airlines, asked the CDC on Thursday to shorten its quarantine recommendation to five days for fully vaccinated people who have a breakthrough Covid-19 case. A4A CEO Nicholas Calio cited potential worker shortages and operation disruptions amid the omicron coronavirus surge if the quarantine time isn’t reduced.

However, flight attendant union chief Sara Nelson pushed back against the airlines’ call on Thursday, saying it would pose health risks. “Although breakthrough infections are mild, the 10-day isolation is extremely disruptive to people’s lives,” he told Newsweek. “It’s unnecessary if a person is contagious for a significantly shorter period of time,” Adalja noted.

Omicron is the most dominant COVID strain in the U.S., comprising of 73 per cent of new infections last week. But even if proven to have milder systems, there are fears the health care system could be overwhelmed if infections put medical workers out of action.

I cover breaking news for Forbes. Previously, I was editor for The Cordova Times newspaper in Cordova, Alaska. In 2018, I obtained a Master of Journalism

I am a Hawaii-based reporter covering breaking news for Forbes. I graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and

Source: CDC Recommends Cutting Covid Isolation Time To 5 Days For Some Healthcare Workers

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