Oscar G. Gómez-Duarte, M.D., is chief of the division of infectious diseases, department of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, and director of the PediUBatric Infectious Diseases Service at John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital. (University at Buffalo photo)
Tue, Nov 29th 2022 01:10 pm
Oscar G. Gómez-Duarte, Jacobs School’s pediatric infectious diseases division chief, discusses why physicians are so concerned – and how to keep kids healthy
Submitted by the University at Buffalo
The request by children’s hospitals nationwide this month that the federal government declare a formal state of emergency given the surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu cases was no surprise to Oscar G. Gómez-Duarte, M.D.
As chief of the division of infectious diseases, department of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, and director of the pediatric infectious diseases service at John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, Gómez has seen firsthand the jump in cases of both RSV and flu, and the resulting increase in hospitalizations of children.
By September, Oishei Children’s Hospital reported having seen more patients admitted to the hospital with RSV than it had seen during the entire 2019-20 respiratory season, along with higher rates of flu infections, some requiring hospitalization.
Gómez says the surge this early in the season is unusual and especially concerning since there are very low vaccination rates for COVID-19 and flu in children. Cases may rise this winter, especially among unvaccinated children in addition to the rise in RSV cases.
How would you characterize this season so far for RSV and flu in kids?
“What’s concerning to us are not only the number of infections, but the severity of these infections leading to a high number of emergency room visits and hospitalizations. The surge in cases is putting pressure on hospitals nationwide. This is a very dramatic increase over what we normally see, especially at this point in the season. This year, we have been seeing significant increases in cases and this is even before the winter season has begun. We saw RSV cases peak over the summer this year and then another peak was reported in October. This RSV infections pattern is quite different from what we normally saw pre-COVID-19 pandemic.”
How do you think COVID-19 has influenced this increase in other respiratory viruses?
“It’s very possible that this jump in respiratory viruses that we are seeing now is related to the dramatic changes in community behavior during the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Those behaviors significantly limited the normal exchange of viruses that people typically have through interactions with each other. That’s especially true of young children, who exchange different viruses with each other at day care, at school and public gatherings. That exposure allows children to develop a natural immunity to common respiratory viruses at a young age.
“During much of the pandemic, that exchange of viruses wasn’t happening, and there was a gap in natural protective immunity. Now that children are again attending day care and school and other gatherings, getting exposed to these viruses that they haven’t been exposed to in the past two years has resulted in a high peak of infections and an overwhelming number of ER visits and hospital admissions. We are seeing increases especially in RSV, and some of these cases are severe.”
What factors make children especially susceptible to developing RSV?
“RSV tends to affect the very young, those under 2 years of age. Infants at the highest risk are those who were born prematurely or who are immune-compromised.”
Is it mostly children with underlying conditions who are being hospitalized with RSV and/or flu?
“We are seeing hospital admissions for RSV and/or flu among previously healthy children with RSV who have no comorbidities; but we are also seeing it in children with underlying conditions, such as asthma, cardiac conditions, neurological disorders, among other chronic conditions.”
Are you seeing cases where a child gets infected with two viruses at once?
“Yes, some children are getting what we call coinfections, where they become infected with more than one virus at a time. In some instances, a child becomes initially infected with flu, begins to recover and subsequently comes down with rhinovirus (a common cold virus), RSV or any other respiratory virus. These coinfections tend to be more severe than when the child just has one infection. Different viruses can attack different receptors and use different mechanisms to damage respiratory cells, and this can worsen the disease and, in some cases, may require that the child be admitted to the intensive care unit for management.”
What kinds of treatments are available for children hospitalized with either RSV or the flu?
“While we do have specific treatments for flu and COVID-19, there is no specific treatment for RSV or other respiratory viruses. The mainstay management of respiratory infections is supportive care, such as hydration, control of fever and supplemental oxygen if needed. When the child’s breathing is very compromised, we will put the child on oxygen and, depending on the severity of the respiratory compromise, they may even require more intense measures such as mechanical ventilation.”
Can children be immunized against RSV?
“Passive immunity in the form of monoclonal antibodies is available for premature infants during RSV season. This FDA-approved monoclonal antibody named palivizumab has the ability to block RSV and decrease the severity of the RSV infections.
“There is no approved active vaccine against RSV in the U.S. for children or adults. There is evidence, however, that pregnant mothers do transmit antibodies against RSV to their babies. It was recently reported that pregnant mothers who received an experimental vaccine against RSV did pass those antibodies onto their babies and these infants were at lower risk of developing RSV infections. These developments are very good news for the future, so that maybe pregnant women who are immunized can pass this protection to their babies.”
How concerned are you that along with RSV and the flu, children may begin to get sick from COVID-19 this winter?
“COVID-19 will stay among us in the same way as RSV, influenza and any other respiratory virus. Accordingly, we expect to continue to have COVID-19 infections in children, along with RSV and the flu. Current variants of the COVID-19 virus are becoming resistant to preventive measures such as monoclonal antibodies, although vaccines remain protective.
“It is concerning that the vaccine coverage for COVID-19 and flu vaccine among children in our community is low. Nationally, only 4% of children younger than 5 and fewer than a third of children ages 5 to 11 have had any COVID vaccine series. There is strong evidence that vaccines prevent infection, prevent hospitalizations, and prevent deaths due to COVID-19.
What should parents watch for?
“The first and most important way to protect children is to make sure they get vaccinated against the diseases where vaccines are available, among them the flu and COVID-19.
“If a child acquires a respiratory infection, the child will likely experience upper respiratory symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, cough and nasal congestion.
“Parents should be vigilant for more concerning symptoms, such as shortness of breath. If a parent notices that the child’s breathing is labored and difficult, this is an emergency situation that requires immediate attention, such as taking the child to the closest emergency room or calling 911.
“Most respiratory infections in children, though, are self-limited, and are not associated with shortness of breath. In most cases, a call to the pediatrician for advice is the best measure to take.”
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are based on the opinions and/or research of the faculty member(s) or researcher(s) quoted, and do not represent the official positions of the University at Buffalo or Niagara Frontier Publications.
Canada Facing Difficult Battle with Mental Health Struggles
Mental health is an important health issue that affects us all, and unfortunately, it’s an issue that is rarely discussed openly. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness.
This makes mental health one of the most pressing issues facing Canadians today. Let’s take a closer look at why mental health is such an important issue in Canada.
The Need for Better Mental Health Care
In Canada, access to quality mental health care can be costly and difficult to obtain. Many Canadians are unaware of what services are available or how to access them due to a lack of public education about mental health.
Additionally, there is still a stigma attached to seeking help for mental illness, which can make it difficult for those who need help to get it. As a result, many people cannot access the care they need in order to live happy and healthy lives.
This deficiency can have severe consequences; untreated mental illness can lead to increased risk for suicidal behavior, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and other serious problems.
Additionally, research shows that early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent long-term complications and reduce the overall costs associated with mental health treatment.
Mental health services are especially important for marginalized populations such as Black Canadians, Latinx individuals, LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants, and individuals with low incomes who have been underserved when it comes to healthcare access.
These communities often experience higher rates of poverty and discrimination which results in an even greater need for quality mental health services but also fewer resources available to them.
Given these facts, it is clear that there is a great urgency for better access to mental health services. To make meaningful progress towards addressing this issue we must first focus on breaking down barriers such as stigma against seeking help as well as lack of information about available services among vulnerable populations.
Furthermore, a greater investment must be made into training more providers so there are enough qualified professionals available who understand how to provide culturally competent care.
Particularly when working with traditionally underserved communities – while also ensuring accessibility through reduced cost or free options for those with limited insurance coverage or financial resources.
Mental Illness as an Invisible Disease
Unlike physical illnesses, mental illnesses are often invisible and difficult to diagnose. This makes it difficult for those living with a mental illness to get the help they need as well as understand what they are going through.
It also means that many people do not realize the severity of mental illnesses and the impact they have on the lives of those living with them until they experience it firsthand or hear stories from someone who has gone through similar struggles.
Mental illness affects more people than most realize. It can be difficult to comprehend the depth of mental health disorders, as they are often invisible and misunderstood. Mental illness is a disease, yet it can remain hidden while still having a profound effect on a person’s life.
The Impact on Society
Mental illness has far-reaching effects on society as a whole. Untreated mental illness can lead to substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and even suicide in some cases.
All of these have ripple effects throughout our communities, from increased crime rates and lower productivity at work to higher healthcare costs and fewer resources available for those in need, making this an issue that affects us all regardless of our personal situations.
We need to create a friendly environment in which those with invisible diseases feel comfortable sharing their stories and seeking help without fear of judgment or rejection.
Mental illness should not be ignored; rather it should be treated with respect and understanding just like any other type of medical condition.
By recognizing the reality of invisible diseases such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and more we can begin to create a world where everyone gets the help they need regardless of whether or not their condition is visible on the surface.
With understanding comes empathy, and empathy leads us toward meaningful change for ourselves and our communities alike.
Five things to know about health-care talks Tuesday between Trudeau, premiers
OTTAWA — On Tuesday in Ottawa, Canada’s 13 premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will sit around the same table in person for the first time since COVID-19 hoping to find a path toward a new long-term health-care funding deal.
Both sides are optimistic a deal will emerge but there are some big divides to overcome, including how much more money Ottawa is willing to put on the table, and how much accountability the provinces are willing to put up in return.
The premiers have been asking for a new deal for more than two years. Trudeau kept punting until the COVID-19 crisis was largely over.
That time has come.
Trudeau has been clear a deal is not going to be finished this week. But here’s a snapshot of how we got to this point, and what they’re going to be talking about.
Money, Money, Money, Money
This year Canada expected to transfer almost $88 billion to the provinces and territories for health, education, social supports and equalization. The Canada Health Transfer, or CHT, is $45.2 billion, or 51 per cent of that.
In their 2022-23 budgets, the provinces collectively forecast to spend $203.7 billion on health care. Ottawa’s transfer accounts for 22 per cent of that. The provinces want that increased to 35 per cent, which would mean $26 billion more this year alone.
“There’s been continual demands for an increase in the CHT although I’ve never seen quite as large a demand for an increase as this one,” said Gregory Marchildon, a professor emeritus at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto.
Trudeau intends to put an offer on the table Tuesday. It will not be an immediate increase of $26 billion, but Ottawa has been silent on where it will land.
While it has existed in its current form only since 2004, some sort of federal health transfer dates from 1957, when Ottawa offered 50-50 funding for health care to provinces that agreed to provide public hospital services based on national standards.
It has evolved and changed at least five times since then, including splitting the federal share between cash and a transfer of tax points — when the federal government cut its income tax rates and the provinces could raise their own in exchange.
In 1995, then-finance minister Paul Martin, desperate to turn around Canada’s debt problems, slashed the health and social transfer by 20 per cent, followed by a 15 per cent cut in 1996. Some provinces have said their health systems have never recovered.
In 2004, a new deal was reached between the premiers and Martin, who by then was prime minister, to see the Canada Health Transfer increased six per cent a year for a decade.
The Conservatives under prime minister Stephen Harper kept that in place, but told the provinces that in 2017-18, the CHT increase would be based on a three-year average of economic growth, but with a minimum increase of at least three per cent.
Trudeau and the Liberals have maintained that.
With economic growth, the annual CHT increase has averaged five per cent since 2017-18.
Over the last 10 years, the CHT has increased 67 per cent, to $45 billion from about $27 billion in 2012-13.
An attempt in 2016 to negotiate a new CHT deal mostly failed, resulting in one-on-one agreements between Ottawa and the provinces and territories to share $11.5 billion over 10 years, beginning in 2017-18, to improve mental-health and home care.
Angling for Accountability
In the split jurisdictional world Canada’s governments live in, provinces are the ones who control health-care delivery. So for the most part, the federal government helps fund it and the provinces get to say how it’s spent.
The Canada Health Act, passed in 1984, sets out the guiding principles for recipients of the Canada Health Transfer, including that health-care systems must be universally accessible. Failing to abide by the principles can, and has, resulted in Ottawa clawing back some transfers.
Trudeau has made clear any increase to federal health transfers must be met with provincial accountability to show results. The federal government has been frustrated at the lack of accountability from provinces over transfers for health care made during COVID-19.
It is adamant that will not be the case with a new funding deal, and is looking at a combination of an annual increase to the CHT and separate deals to target specific problem areas, like health-care worker retention and training, access to family doctors, surgical backlogs, and data collection and sharing.
The 2017 deals on mental-health and home care will be a bit of a model. Those deals saw Ottawa promise $11.5 billion over 10 years for the two areas, but in exchange provinces had to agree to a common set of principles and goals, and to report results.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information was tapped to help collect and publish data. The most recent report in December is still laden with gaps and incomplete data. The reports note it will take time for the reporting to lead to change, and that provinces need to harmonize their data collection in order to better compare statistics across provincial lines.
Marchildon said one of the biggest problems for the federal government in demanding accountability is that measuring health outcomes is difficult, and hard targets are rare.
It’s all about the numbers
Of course, it’s difficult to measure progress if you’re not keeping track.
Data — or the lack of it — is a long-standing weakness of Canada’s federalized system, with 13 separate health-care systems working alongside one another but not necessarily in tandem.
In his first public overture to open negotiations with provinces on health funding in November, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told provincial health ministers the federal government would increase the Canada Health Transfer if provinces agree to work together on a “world-class health data system for Canada.”
“It is the foundation for understanding what we’re doing, who’s receiving services, whether we’re making improvements,” said Kim McGrail, a professor with the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health.
McGrail was one of several experts the federal government tasked with reporting on what a “world-class health data system” would look like in Canada.
Gaps in Canada’s data tripped up the national health responses in dozens of different ways during the pandemic, from tracking the number of COVID-19 cases to reporting adverse effects from vaccines.
The same is true of tracking surgical backlogs and other information about how well, or not, the health system is working.
“Data informs every part of the way we think about health,” McGrail said, which includes the health of individual patients.
Canadians who move from one province to another can’t easily access their records because the technology isn’t compatible.
It’s a problem that exists even within provinces, as incompatible technology makes records inaccessible between hospitals and clinics.
“We need those technology systems to be able to talk to one another, to be able to to move data back and forth or to send messages back and forth in some way,” she said.
It’s an expensive problem to fix. Just last week, Nova Scotia government signed a $365-million contract to bring new electronic health-care records to the province, which may or may not be compatible with other provincial systems.
McGrail said investments will pay off if important information about the health of Canadians stops falling through the cracks.
The expert panel delivered a report last year that will likely serve as a road map for improving data sharing in Canada. It includes 31 recommendations, starting with provinces, territories and the federal government agreeing on a shared national vision for health data.
Ontario and Quebec have indicated a willingness to work with Ottawa on data, though other provinces have been less firm about it.
Provincial leaders have been able to agree with Ottawa on the need to reform Canada’s long-term care homes, though exactly how to accomplish that is still up for debate.
Duclos has said helping Canadians “age with dignity” is one of Ottawa’s priorities for a new health-care deal, and long-term care plays a major role in that.
So does home care, and the 2017 bilateral deals already began to advance improvements on that front.
Long-term care is an entirely different story.
The pandemic cast a glaring light on the dismal conditions in care homes across the country, when COVID-19 outbreaks led to thousands of deaths and inhumane living conditions for seniors. The military and the Red Cross were summoned to help.
In the early months of the pandemic, Canada had the worst record for COVID-19-related deaths in long-term care of the world’s wealthy countries.
Meanwhile, residents were isolated from the outside world and workers struggled to provide basic care and ensure dignity.
Experts and advocates say the problems long predate the pandemic, and have gone largely ignored until now.
“Given the devastation that we’ve seen in the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts on our health-care system … we’re seeing this unprecedented moment where finally there’s some hope of collaboration,” said Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician and founder of Doctors for Justice in Long-Term Care, which advocates for an overhaul of Ontario’s long-term care system.
Governments are now scrambling to improve the conditions, as the number of people who need specialized care grows every year and the number of workers willing to provide that care dwindles.
Several provinces have already announced plans to increase the number of hours of care residents receive per day and build new spaces for the growing number of seniors who are living longer with more serious cognitive and physical impairments.
The federal government created a $1 billion “safe long-term care fund” during the pandemic to help pay for immediate infection prevention and control measures to stop the spread of the virus.
The government also set aside $3 billion to help provinces bring homes in line with national standards for the design and operation of long-term care, though specific agreements with provinces haven’t yet been signed to deliver that money.
Those standards were publicly released last week but are unlikely to factor into the health-care talks.
Still, there is plenty of work that needs to be done if provinces have a hope of meeting the standards, especially when it comes to the workforce.
“I think we’re stepping into a crisis,” said Dr. Joseph Wong, the founder of Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, the largest non-profit nursing home in the country.
He said Canada will need upwards of 100,000 new personal support workers to provide care over the next 10 to 15 years in order to provide adequate care to residents.
“It is a time bomb,” he said.
The same could be said of the health system at large.
None of the lofty goals of the federal or provincial politicians will be possible if they don’t find a way to persuade workers to stay in hospitals, clinics and long-term care centres across Canada, said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.
“They don’t have the staff to do the job,” she said.
Staff shortages have been the common theme among some of the most serious issues underlying the public-health crisis in Canada.
Dozens of emergency rooms have been forced to close temporarily or reduce hours because there weren’t enough staff to treat urgent injuries and illnesses. The Canadian Medical Association estimates nearly five million Canadians don’t have a family doctor. And hundreds of thousands of Canadians are sitting on wait-lists for backlogged surgeries and diagnostic tests.
Health unions and professional associations want a national strategy to keep doctors, nurses and personal support workers in their jobs as well as train new staff to bolster their ranks.
Silas said after years of burnout and moral distress over not being able to care for their patients properly, nurses in particular have said, “I’ve had enough.”
Nurses in Ontario have also balked at a law limiting pay increases to one per cent a year.
Data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that because of new graduates, the supply of nurses is still growing. However, many have chosen not to take full-time positions, and existing staff are increasingly eyeing early retirement, Silas said.
The heavier demands of the job since the pandemic, combined with fewer and fewer people to do the work, has created what even the federal health minister calls a crisis.
“We need to stop the bleed,” Silas said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.
Mia Rabson and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
Governments seek buyer as Quebec COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Medicago set to close
Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said Friday the province has had preliminary talks with potential buyers in the pharmaceutical sector to keep Medicago’s expertise and skilled workforce in Quebec. He said both the Quebec and federal governments would be willing to put in money to secure a deal.
“We can’t operate it ourselves; the government will not be the main shareholder,” Fitzgibbon said. “But if there is a pharmaceutical company that considers it’s worth continuing, we’re ready to help.”
Mitsubishi Chemical said Thursday it would stop marketing the Medicago-produced Covifenz vaccine, which is plant-based and was approved by Health Canada one year ago for adults aged 18 to 64.
The Japanese chemical company said it had been preparing to commercially produce the Covifenz vaccine but decided against doing so because of the “significant changes” in the COVID-19 vaccine environment. The company said it would dissolve Medicago because it is no longer “viable” to continue marketing its products.
“In light of significant changes to the COVID-19 vaccine landscape since the approval of Covifenz, and after a comprehensive review of the current global demand and market environment for COVID-19 vaccines and Medicago’s challenges in transitioning to commercial-scale production, the (company) has determined that it will not pursue the commercialization of Covifenz,” Mitsubishi Chemical said in a statement.
Following the announcement, Medicago issued a statement thanking its employees. “The Medicago team has pushed scientific boundaries and we know that they will continue to make incredible contributions to innovation and biopharmaceutical’s sector.”
Canada invested $173 million in Medicago in 2020 to support development of the Covifenz vaccine and help Medicago expand its production facility in Quebec City.
On Thursday, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters the federal government is in “solution mode.”
“Our first order of business is really to try to find a partner who can help us preserve the jobs, preserve the technology and the intellectual property,” Champagne said.
The minister acknowledged that mRNA vaccine technology for COVID-19 became dominant as it “seemed to be most effective.”
But Medicago’s plant-based vaccine was still “promising,” Champagne said.
“Everyone agreed that the plant-based vaccine could very well help in a future pandemic,” Champagne said.
Speaking to reporters on Montreal’s South Shore Friday, Fitzgibbon said the company informed the province at the end of December it intended to pull the plug on Medicago.
In May 2015, Quebec and Ottawa announced loans of $60 million and $8 million, respectively, for the construction of a complex in the Quebec City region to house Medicago’s activities.
“The challenge is not (getting the loan repaid), it’s how we can save the jobs, save this company,” Fitzgibbon said.
While Canada authorized Medicago’s vaccine in February 2022, it was rejected for emergency use by the World Health Organization in March because tobacco company Philip Morris was a minority shareholder in the company, contravening a policy adopted in 2005 by the United Nations agency.
Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand said on Twitter he was saddened by the closure of the company.
“My thoughts are with the families who learned some very sad news,” Marchand said Thursday evening. “We have to roll up our sleeves to keep all this expertise in the field of health innovation in Quebec City.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
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