In a week set aside to honor nurses, there were some small but important health news stories that could affect us all. Here are some of them:
All hail to Massachusetts: In its official (if perhaps somewhat thudding) state song, Massachusetts has long hailed itself both as "the home of the bean and cod" and "the land of opportunity in the good old USA, where men live long and prosper."
Yet it wasn't until last week that we could so confidently believe its latter claim. That's when a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine provided convincing evidence that fewer people were dying in Massachusetts.
Indeed, researchers reported a 2.9 percent drop in the state's overall death rate during the first four years of its mandatory health coverage law that was passed in 2006 under then-Gov. Mitt Romney.
And while longer life expectancies were documented for all racial subgroups, the drops in death rates were most dramatic in those counties with the highest proportions of poor and previously uninsured people.
These positive findings supplement other compelling evidence that links improved health outcomes with expanded insurance coverage. And they bolster hopes that we may see national-level reductions in health disparities and death rates following full implementation of the Affordable Care Act -- our nation's mandatory health coverage law.
Of course, critics caution that the entire country won't necessarily go the way of Massachusetts. And they may prove correct. But as we have recently witnessed, history seems to be catching up to the prescient lyrics of the state's official song.
Sick of money: While you may need money to buy a health insurance policy, it's generally agreed that money alone can't buy you health. But can money actually make you sick?
While the answer to that question remains unknown, new research does suggest that "passing the buck" could also mean passing around a microbe or two. Researchers at the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology at New York University claim to have detected an astounding amount and variety of DNA on the surfaces of the 80 $1 bills they analyzed. About half of the DNA was traceable to human sources, but multiple life-forms were represented -- including bacteria, viruses and fungi. And through an interview published in The Wall Street Journal, a lead researcher reportedly declared, "We actually found that microbes grow on money."
Bacteria associated with human illness -- like pneumonia, stomach ulcers, diphtheria, food poisoning, and staph infections -- were prevalent among the 3,000 types of bacteria that were collectively identified. The researchers therefore speculated that, at least in theory, money could transmit bacteria capable of spreading infection.
It's important to note that this "dirty money" research has not yet been published in any scientific journal where its methods and results can be rigorously debated. But, in the meantime, it makes cents to not put your money where your mouth is.
First U.S. MERS case reported: A health care worker who'd been working in Saudi Arabia was diagnosed in Indiana with the first case of MERS virus found in the U.S. Also known as "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome," MERS is a relatively new viral illness that was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Since then, at least 401 confirmed cases have been reported, all originating within the Arabian Peninsula. More than 100 people have died from the infection, making MERS a highly lethal infection of considerable public health interest.
According to several reports, the patient had traveled to the U.S. to visit family. He flew on April 24 from Riyadh to London and then Chicago, and subsequently boarded a bus to Indiana. Three days later he fell ill with cough, fever and shortness of breath. After seeking care at a local emergency room, he was hospitalized on April 28.
The case has prompted vigorous efforts by federal and local public health experts to minimize spread of the MERS virus. And given the patient's extensive global travel and a two-week long incubation period for the virus, they have been very busy trying to retrace the patient's many steps in tracking down his many potential contacts.
It's reassuring to hear that as of May 6, no family members or health care workers who had contact with the patient have tested positive for the virus. And it was heartening to witness the robust response of health officials in Indiana who so swiftly diagnosed and isolated the patient, based upon their knowledge of his symptoms and travel history.
Pointedly, this case firmly reminds us that we live in a highly interconnected world in which public health expertise and readiness are proving increasingly vital to 21st century health care.
As CDC Director Thomas Frieden remarked, "We are all connected by the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink."
That earthy interconnectedness implicitly suggests that each of us bears responsibilities for the health of one another. And it counsels us health care workers to remember that, while we generally "see" one patient at a time, it often helps to see our patientsmore broadly as inhabitants of a world that simultaneously inhabits them.
Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician who is celebrating National Nurses Week, May 6 through 12.