Spring Blue(s)

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Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015

Why do spring and depression go together? The seasonality of illness is fascinating and is proof that our environment matters quite a lot to our individual and collective/public health. In temperate regions of the world, injuries and drownings go up in the warmer months, and deaths from influenza and carbon-monoxide poisoning go up in the colder months. These make sense. But when we think of depression and suicide risk, most of us would guess that these peak in the fall and winter months–what with decreased hours of sunlight and the stresses of some of the major holidays. In the U.S., September is National Suicide Prevention Month and October is National Depression Awareness Month, and many news reports continue to falsely link higher rates of depression and suicide with fall and early winter.

Yet studies worldwide find that depression and suicide rates peak in late spring and early summer. High pollen counts, increased hours of sunshine, higher temperatures, and even an increase in thunderstorms (ah–that Shakespearean pathetic fallacy!) have been linked to higher rates of depression and suicide. Within psychology and sociology circles, this seasonal link is theorized to be from the fact that people generally have increased social pressures and interactions in the spring, which can increase stress. (see “The Season of Renewal and Suicide” by Brian Palmer, Slate, 12-7-12).

The most current statistics from the CDC on the leading causes of death in the U.S. (for 2013), list suicide (intentional self-harm) as the tenth leading cause of death, with the total number of deaths by suicide as 41,149. (Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 years.) This continues the upward climb of suicide deaths in our country since the start of the Great Recession, with the largest increase being in people 45-64 years of age (peak wage-earning years.) With the possible exception of unintentional injuries, such as motor vehicle accidents, suicide is our most preventable form of mortality. And suicide deaths have serious impacts on the family members, friends, co-workers, and care providers who knew and loved the people who killed themselves. Note: they did not ‘commit’ suicide as is still too commonly used; suicide is not a crime or a sin–it is a preventable travesty. Using the term ‘commit suicide’ adds to the already debilitating stigma of mental illness.

So what are interventions that work to help prevent deaths by suicide?

1) Train healthcare providers to screen for depression, drug/alcohol use, bullying at school (for young people), history of adverse childhood events (especially sexual abuse), and suicidal ideation and attempts. In primary care screening for depression and suicide risk (as well as intimate-partner violence), a standard question is “Do you have access to a firearm?” This screening question seems so obvious, as access to a lethal weapon is an important part of the overall risk assessment. Over half of all deaths by suicide are by firearms. But now in Florida that healthcare screening question is illegal for physicians and nurses to ask their patients. (See James Hamblin’s 8-11-14 article in The Atlantic, “The Question Doctors Can’t Ask.” ) And other (mostly Southern, no surprise) states have similar legislative ‘healthcare gag orders’ pending.)

2) Educate the general public about the warning signs of severe depression, problematic drug/alcohol use, and suicide–and give them the proper tools to be able to intervene effectively. Reinforce the fact that talking about suicide in a supportive way does not encourage suicide (just as talking about sex or drug use with adolescents does not encourage them to have sex and use drugs.) An excellent (free and 24/7) resource is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They can connect people with local crisis centers and assistance.

3) Implement a community-wide public mental health promotion (and depression/suicide prevention) program. One such model program that is cost-effective and that could be replicated in the U.S., is New Zealand’s All Right? Wellbeing Campaign, a Healthy Christchurch project that is being led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. As they state, “All Right is a social marketing campaign designed to help us think about our mental health and wellbeing. It’s about helping people realise that they’re not alone, encouraging them to connect with others, and supporting them to boost their wellbeing.” Although targeted at earthquake recovery efforts in the Christchurch area, this public mental health campaign could be most effective at building community resilience before major disasters occur.

My students and I stumbled across the work of the All Right? Wellbeing Campaign while we were in Christchurch last year studying community health. I wrote about it in a series of blog posts, including “New Zealand Postcards: The Allrighties” 2-3-14. Some of our health-focused students ‘brought this home’ to Seattle and started the student-led “What’s Up UW?” community for promoting social and emotional wellbeing.

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From the All Right? Wellbeing Campaign, Christchurch, New Zealand.

 

 

 

Saying “Yes Thanks” to HIV Screening

English: The Red ribbon is a symbol for solida...
English: The Red ribbon is a symbol for solidarity with HIV-positive people and those living with AIDS. Français : Le Ruban rouge, symbole de la solidarité avec les personnes séro-positives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast to my rejection of (or questioning the real evidence in favor of) routine cancer screening practices in U.S. health care, I embrace the new HIV screening guidelines (due out later this month) from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Their previous HIV screening guidelines, issued in 2005, only recommended HIV screening for adolescents and adults deemed to be at increased risk for HIV infection. The about-to-be released updated guidelines recommend that clinicians routinely screen all adolescents and adults ages 15-65 years and all pregnant women for HIV infection (as well as younger and older patients who are at risk for HIV infection).

They base their new recommendations on compelling evidence that earlier identification and treatment of HIV infection (before a person begins to have symptoms of disease) improves clinical outcomes for the individual, as well as significantly reduces the chance of transmission of HIV to other people. “The USPSTF concludes with high certainty that early detection and treatment of HIV transmission would result in substantial public health benefits in the United States.”

Since 2006, the CDC has recommended routine voluntary ‘opt-out’ HIV testing of adolescents and adults in the U.S. (opt-out meaning all patients be informed of routine testing and tested unless they decline). The CDC also recommended eliminating the pre-test counseling and the signed patient consent requirement for HIV testing, pointing out (correctly in my experience) that these act as barriers to HIV screening. The USPSTF clinical guidelines carry more weight with the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act that has a provision requiring all health insurers to cover all preventive services endorsed by these federal guidelines.

So today, on World AIDS Day, let’s remember the estimated 30 million people worldwide who have died of AIDS and the 60,000 people in the U.S. who have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. Let’s remember that HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately affect people living in African countries, as well as African-American, Hispanic people and people living in the ‘Black Belt’ of Southern poverty in the U.S. because of social determinants of health. Let’s stop thinking of HIV/AIDS as something shameful/stigmatizing and a death sentence. Let’s “Work together for an AIDS-free generation.” Know your HIV status and encourage others to know theirs. This is a case in which we can steal the Komen Foundation‘s slogan “Early detection saves lives” and be telling the truth.

For a unique health-related holiday gift for yourself or for your loved ones (tongue and cheek), you can order the newly-FDA approved home rapid HIV test (Oraquick/uses a swab of fluid at gum line/takes 20-40mins) directly from Oraquick. It is delivered to your doorstep in an ‘unmarked brown box.’ You can also buy it (assuming you are at least 17 years old) from your local pharmacy. List price is $39.99 (exact same test only costs ~$17 in clinics/manufacturer says the increased price goes to pay for their 24/7 information hotline with bilingual English/Spanish representatives). In contrast, I’ve read estimates of the more sensitive HIV ‘blood tests’ available in clinics as costing on average $1.50).

Additional resources: Check out the AIDS.gov website, and especially their link to CDC testing/treatment/supportive services (like mental health and substance abuse counseling, and housing). It has some cool downloadable apps for searching for HIV/AIDS related services in your area. If you don’t need to use it for yourself or your family, you can use it for patients you might work with. I’m glad to know I have 34 HIV testing sites within a 10 mile radius of my home.

Cocooning and Epidemics

Pertussis bacteria (Bordetella pertussis)
Pertussis bacteria (Bordetella pertussis) (Photo credit: Sanofi Pasteur)

On the red eye this week from Seattle to NYC I was reminded of Washington State’s Whooping Cough (pertussis) epidemic. It was a full flight and at least ten people seated near me had deep hacking coughs the entire flight. It’s likely that at least a few of them had untreated pertussis and have now spread it to susceptible people. There were a few small infants on the flight and they are the most vulnerable to getting severe pertussis and dying of it. Adults with pertussis can have a cough that is so forceful it can cause them to vomit. A milder form of the cough can last for months. And pertussis is highly preventable with appropriate vaccination.

In Washington State we are in the midst of a pertussis epidemic. Mary Selecky, the Secretary of Health at the Washington State Department of Health, officially declared an epidemic on April 3, 2012, even though epidemiologic data indicate that pertussis cases exceeded the epidemic or outbreak threshold in late December, 2011. Declaring an epidemic allowed Governor Christine Gregoire to mobilize state emergency funds to provide more pertussis vaccinations to uninsured people in Washington State. It also allowed her to call on assistance from the federal government in the form of CDC investigators to monitor and advise intervention strategies.

According to the Washington State Department of Health website,  through the week of May 19th, a total of 1,738 cases of pertussis have been reported in Washington State for 2012, compared to 146 cases for the same time period in 2011. Since January 114 infants less than 12 months have been hospitalized with pertussis; 23 of those were under three months of age and presumably were the sickest and probably required the longest hospitalizations. No deaths have been reported from this year’s pertussis epidemic in the state.

Current US recommendations for vaccination against pertussis include the usual combination childhood vaccination series starting at two months of age, then a booster shot for adolescents ages 11-12 years. A more recent recommendation is for an additional booster shot for adults who are parents or caregivers of infants less than 12 months of age—the idea being that if the adults are vaccinated they are less likely to get pertussis and pass it on to susceptible infants in their care. Health care providers, especially the front-line staff of nurses, are included in this recommendation. This approach of targeting pertussis vaccination to the main caregivers of infants is called cocooning.

I’ve been monitoring the news coverage of Washington State’s pertussis epidemic. The Seattle Times published an article, “Whooping cough epidemic declared in Wash. State” (Donna Gordon Blankenship, 5-10-12). In her article, Ms. Blankenship emphasized the need for adults to get vaccinated as a way to protect infants, and quoted a CDC official calling this a “cocoon of protection.” She also quoted this same CDC official as stating that Washington State’s current pertussis epidemic has nothing to do with the anti-vaccination movement, and instead attributed it to better disease surveillance, the cyclical nature of pertussis infections, and an aging population with waning immunity as the vaccine wears off. That all made sense to me—except for the matter of it not being related to the antivaccination movement. How could it not be at least partially responsible for the current epidemic?

A New York Times article “Cutbacks hurt a state’s response to whooping cough” (Kirk Johnson, 5-12-12) emphasized Washington State’s budget crisis and recent cuts to the public health infrastructure as contributing factors to our states’ current pertussis epidemic. He pointed out that changes in the vaccine to make it have less side effects have also made it less effective over—immunity tends to wane faster. He included quotes from a school nurse (yeah school nurses!) in Skagit County, north of Seattle, which is the hardest hit county so far. He referenced the fact that Washington State has the highest percentage of parents who voluntarily exempted their children from vaccines out of fear of side effects or for philosophical reasons. Studies have shown that vaccine refusers tend to cluster, are often middle-class, college educated white people with antigovernment, anti-establishment views. They like living in the Eco-topia of Puget Sound.

A related topic I find fascinating is the seemingly rising trend of antivaccination sentiments among nurses—and the fact that an astonishingly low percentage of pediatric nurses get the booster vaccine for pertussis, despite CDC recommendations for them being part of the ‘cocooning’. I’ll deal with that issue in a follow-up post next week—unless I come down with pertussis thanks to my airplane seatmates. (I have had the pertussis booster so am counting on it working.)