How worried should you be about Zika virus?

U-M virologist offers perspective on brain-affecting infection

Zika virus

Seen through a microscope, Zika virus particles (like the one at the tip of the arrow) don’t look too dangerous. But they’re suspected of causing lasting harm in a growing number of infants and others. Image courtesy of CDC

It seemed to burst onto the scene overnight, with tragic pictures of babies born with small heads and damaged brains. Now, the world’s health authorities have shifted into high gear to deal with Zika virus.

How does this virus compare to others, and what will it take to detect or defeat it? U-M virologist Katherine Spindler, Ph.D., offers some key information and a dose of perspective. She’s a member of a national team that hosts a weekly podcast on viruses, aimed at the general public, called This Week in Virology.

Dr. Spindler and her laboratory team in the U-M Medical School study how viruses cross a protective barrier to the brain and what viruses do once they’re there. They also look at how some viruses can cause mild illness in most people – but in immunocompromised individuals, cause serious damage. Working with scientists in Brazil, Spindler’s lab team studies other viruses that can cause brain problems.

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Stalking a wily foe

U-M scientists figure out how C. difficile bacteria wreak havoc in the gut

The C. difficile bacterium is a wily foe for hospital patients and nursing home residents

The C. difficile bacterium is a wily foe for hospital patients and nursing home residents

Sometimes, science means staying awake for two days straight.

But losing sleep is a small sacrifice to make, if you want to learn more about tiny bacteria that sicken half a million Americans each year, kill more than 14,000 of them, and rack up $4.8 billion in health care costs.

That’s what drove a team of University of Michigan scientists to work around the clock to study the bacterium called Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, the bane of hospitals and nursing homes. Most patients develop it after taking antibiotics.

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What can flu history teach us about this year’s outbreak?

A Q&A with U-M medical historian Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D.

New York policeman with flu mask - 1918

A New York City policeman wears a mask to avoid catching the 1918 flu.

The flu is back in force this year — especially a strain that attacks younger, healthier people and can cause serious, even life-threatening, illness.

Fortunately, this year’s vaccine can protect against it — unlike in 2009, when the same strain of the virus arrived after the vaccine was made.

And it’s a far better situation than back in 1918, when a slightly different strain killed 650,000 Americans.

Those two historic outbreaks can teach us a lot, says University of Michigan Medical historian and pediatrician Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D. His team has studied flu history for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Q: What does studying past flu outbreaks teach us about flu? Isn’t this a virus we know a lot about already?
A: What’s really interesting is that as much as we know, we still don’t know that much about flu. We know more than we did in 1918 – but we still don’t have a lot of good information. Continue reading

Managing Infections

Why are people with cancer more prone to infections?  Sometimes cancer treatment can cause low white blood cell counts. Cancer is caused by rapid cell growth.  Chemotherapy and radiation work by killing cells that grow rapidly. Unfortunately, these treatments don’t discriminate between the cancer cells and normal, healthy cells, which means healthy cells can be damaged too.

image of hand sanitizer in useWhite blood cells are part of your immune system, your body’s built-in defense against infection.  Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell.  A “low white blood cell count” usually means a low neutrophil count (also called neutropenia). Neutropenia means that your immune system can’t do its job of protecting you from infection as well as it normally does.  One measure of risk of infection is the absolute neutrophil count (ANC).  If your ANC is less than 100, you would be at an extremely high risk for infection.

You may not be able to prevent a low white blood count, but here are a few tips to reduce your risk of infection:

  • Frequent hand washing of both you and those coming in contact with you.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.  If someone in the home is sick limit contact and consult your doctor or nurse.
  • Do not have dental work done while your white blood cell count is low.
  • Avoid cuts.  Use an electric shaver, not a razor

Your doctor may prescribe a drug to speed up the growth of white blood cells.  These drugs are referred to as Colony Stimulating Factors.  Colony-stimulating factors (CSF) are substances that stimulate the production of blood cells and promote their ability to function.  One example of a CSF is Filgrastin.  Antimicrobial medications may be prescribed to prevent specific infections that are common when the immune system is suppressed by chemotherapy and/or other medications.

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse:

  1. What problems should I call you about?
  2. What other steps can I take to prevent an infection?
  3. How and when should I take my temperature?
  4. What problems should I go to the emergency room for?

Have you experienced a low white blood count due to side effects of cancer treatment? What worked for you?

Please visit the following websites to learn more about managing side effects:

American Cancer Society:  Infection in People With Cancer

National Comprehensive Cancer Network:  Myeloid Growth Factors

National Cancer Institute:  Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects, Infection