healthcare

In the news: A possible HIV cure, the Nobel Prize for medicine and China's clinical trial fraud

Headlines in the world of health.

A breakthrough in HIV research?

Scientists in the United Kingdom testing a combination of anti-HIV drugs have reported that a test patient showed no sign of the virus after treatment, making it a possible breakthrough in the hunt for a cure for HIV and AIDS.

The treatment being tested is a combination of standard antiretroviral drugs with a drug that reactivates dormant HIV and a vaccine that triggers immune system activity to destroy cells infected with HIV. The combination tricks the virus, that is resilient because it hides in the body, to emerge and then attack it – a process called “kick and kill”.

Antiretroviral drugs have in recent years transformed HIV from a progressive and mostly fatal infection to a chronic condition that can be managed for decades with continuous treatment. While antiretroviral drugs can stop the virus, they cannot eradicate the infection. The new drug treatment could the first serious attempt at a full cure for HIV.

The treatment will still have to cross many tests and trials. In previous cases of treatments thought eradicate HIV, the virus has re-emerged. If this treatment proves to be a successful cure it would change the fate of 37 million people in the world living with HIV.

Nobel Prize for autophagy research

Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of mechanisms of autophagy – processes by which cells in the human body detoxify and repair themselves.

Autophagy is how the body identifying old and dying cells and recycles them to extract energy or to build new cells necessary for the continuous process of growth and metabolism. Little has been known about how the the body performs this essential function. In a series of experiments in the early 1990s, Ohsumi identified genes essential for autophagy using baker's yeast. he then fund similarities between the mechanisms in yeast and in human cells.

As The Guardian reports Ohsumi chose to study autophagy even though it was not a fashionable subject “I am not very competitive, so I always look for a new subject to study, even if it is not so popular,” he said in a 2012 interview. “If you start from some sort of basic, new observation, you will have plenty to work on.”

New universal flu vaccines

A new generation of influenza vaccines, one of which can protect against 88% of known viral strains, could be the solution to global influenza pandemics. Researchers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom have devised two universal vaccines that can can prevent up to half a million deaths annually around the world.

While one vaccine can provide immunity to 88% of known flu strains in a single shot, the second fights of 95% of known US flu strains, the researchers said.

The vaccines are based on short flu virus fragments called epitopes that are known to be recognized by the immune system and trigger an immune response. The epitopes are selected not to target a specific flu strain but the widest possible population and so to generate antibodies that can fight off a wide range of viruses upon infection.

Odisha’s encephalitis outbreak

With at least 21 people having died of Japanese encephalitis in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, the government has ordered health officials to keep a watch of the spread of the disease and is preparing to send more doctors to the affected area.

Twenty-seven people, mostly children, are reported to have contracted Japanese encephalitis in the district. The Japanese encephalitis virus spreads from pigs to humans through mosquitos. The state government’s animal husbandry department is working to identify infected pigs and health officials are considering relocating pig farms away from villages as well as mosquito control measures, according to news reports.

China’s massive clinical trial scam

More than 80% of data used clinical trials of new pharmaceutical drugs in China have been fabricated, according to a Chinese government investigation report. The report uncovered fraud at almost every level of clinical trials including pharmaceutical companies hiding or deleting records, tampering with data and suppressing of potentially adverse effects of the drugs being tested.

The report has resulted in 80% of drug applications pending approval in China for mass production to be cancelled.

The investigation, conducted by the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration analysed data from 1,622 clinical trials for new pharmaceutical drugs. The investigation revealed that many of the 'new' drugs awaiting approval were actually combinations of existing drugs. Blatant manipulation was also evident hen records showed that many clinical trial outcomes were written before the trials had been conducted.

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Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

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SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.