Wednesday, September 9, 2009

CDC Can Do More on Swine Flu

Looking up the CDC website on swine flu guidance reminded me of an old joke about a balloonist who was swept away by the winds and got lost.

He lowered himself next to a tall office building. He wrote "Where Am I?" on a placard and held it up for the people inside the building windows to see. Those people responded with their own placard that said "You Are in a Balloon 100 Feet Up in the Air." That answer was however enough for the balloonist to know that he was at the Microsoft headquarters in the Seattle suburb of Redmond. For going by its help feature in its products only Microsoft could provide an answer that was completely correct and yet so irrelevant and useless.

How's this related to swine flu? About two weeks ago I briefly came down with the sniffles and a mild fever that lasted less than a day. Then over this Labor Day weekend we drove to Pittsburgh where Anita's nephew had similar symptoms. We isolated the affected person (me and our nephew) and considered the obvious question of whether to seek testing, and if yes, where.

Testing would help the authorities to compile statistics and monitor the spread of the disease. Patients testing positive would know what to watch out for and be extra careful about exposing others. Recovered patients presumably acquire immunity, and needn't worry about subsequent exposure, or getting inoculated when the swine flu vaccine becomes available.

On the other hand, patients arriving in large numbers in medical facilities could put providers and other patients at risk, and strain scarce resources. Also, uninfected patients can acquire the H1N1 virus from others in the very clinic that they visit.

Weighing these pros and cons we looked at the CDC and other official websites for guidance. Despite all the other information crammed in there, we found nothing addressing these obvious questions. Countless other patients and American families may be similarly confused and frustrated.

The closest answer I got after clicking through links and menus was an indirect one, under "Home Care Guidance: Physician Directions to Patient / Parent." It said that you should see a doctor or seek medical help if you develop certain serious symptoms, presumably meaning that you shouldn't if these don't occur. It needs to be a lot more explicit and easy to find.

The new health care and CDC leadership under the Obama administration has been in place for quite some time, with Director Thomas Friedan confirmed in May 2009. They should have personally scrutinized their agency's website and confirmed there are no glaring omissions. They don't seem to have adequately done so, but this is fixable. Having worked in government these are the obvious added steps I would take in regard to swine flu were I directing CDC or the HHS in regard to the flu:

1) Prominently feature in the Frequently Questions (FAQs) and other parts of their website, as well as in briefs to the media
  • Advice to persons with typical symptoms and parents on whether and when to get tested for swine flu, and when not to
  • Similar advice on when to seek medical help or visit a doctor, and when to hold off out of concerns of spreading or contracting infection
  • Some information about the cost of testing, the best places to go to (doctor's office, clinic or hospital emergency room?) and the reliability of the tests. Add more "layman" information about the benefits - and the downside or risks - of anti-viral treatments like Tamiflu and Relenza.
2) Have an interactive feature on the website where users can enter their address or zip code. They then get a listing with addresses and contact information of nearby medical facilities that have special swine flu treatment arrangements and / or accept patient samples for testing. To keep pricing transparent and competitive, such facilities should disclose their prices for standard testing and treatment, and this information should also be displayed. If an interactive feature is beyond CDC's scope they can at least provide links to state and local government resources that provide this information. It will specially help the uninsured, and many insured patients as well.

3) Engage and coordinate efforts with large providers and test labs to expand capabilities to handle swine flu patients. The CDC can also issue standard guidelines and practices (e.g., separate windows and rapid turnover waiting areas for flu patients in emergency rooms with proper signage, to limit cross-infections) that help providers and patients alike. The CDC can even use its power to disseminate information to have "suggested prices" for testing and treatment. Coupled with inviting providers to include their prices in the links on the CDC website as at (2) above, this will encourage lower prices.

4) Orchestrate a system to enable healthy family members to get sterile vials or containers from labs, collect patients' samples like nasal swabs, and submit these for testing. This way patients being tested get to stay at home and again limits inconvenience and the spread of infection.

5) Encourage or help set up a system of home visits to patients by health workers. Such workers should have either already contracted and recovered from H1N1 infections, or have been vaccinated after this treatment becomes available, so that they are immune.

Similar steps can be taken to disseminate detailed information about the swine flu vaccine which is expected to be widely available very soon. The CDC and the HHS are large organization with multiple responsibilities. So ideas like these may not have been considered. I hope they are responsive once they see them. Since H1N1 flu has now spread worldwide, other countries can also adopt similar practices.


Anonymous said...

So Sandip, have you been vaccinated against the H1N1? If so, did you inject it or take it through nasal drops? What are your feelings about each method?

Sandip Madan said...

Sorry about the late response. Your question actually goaded me into following up with my doctor and getting the shot (injection) yesterday. No charge! ("Obama is taking care of it," my doctor joked.)

I am not in any priority category, except that in 2 weeks I will be going to Pune, India that is / was at the epicenter of the H1N1 epidemic (half of India's hospitalizations and deaths till August 2009.) And there I'll be exposing my in-laws aged 90 and 85 who are in frail health, another reason why my doctor obliged.

I read somewhere that the injection is slightly more effective than the nasal drops, though I didn't have a choice, and both are pretty good.

Anonymous said...

The difference between nasal mist and injection is that the former produces a cellular change in the body. The latter produces a hormonal change.

Not being in the medical field I wouldn't know the difference except that I suspect that hormonal changes seem to have more side effects.

I'm afraid to take these shots but please report to me if you have any hair growing in abnormal places, or suffer any other side effects. For now, I'm changing my religion to Jewish or Islamic hoping the swine flu is banned from these communities.


Sandip Madan said...

There's plenty on the internet (Google,,..) about H1N1 nasal spray vs shots. Your countermeasures are novel, Kenrod, but I'd advise taking the vaccine if available. :-)