The Bubonic Plague influenced evolution of the human immune system, new study suggests

Centuries after the Black Death ravaged the medieval world, the genetic legacy of the disease still affects people to this day, according to a new study. 

The genes that may have helped individuals survive the Bubonic Plague during the 14th century make some individuals more likely to acquire certain diseases in today’s modern world. 

The study, published Wednesday in the British weekly journal Nature, focuses on how germs from the past may continue to play a role in immune systems.

Centuries ago, the Black Death devastated the people of northern Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The plague is considered one of the deadliest events in recorded human history, as it killed between 30% to 50% of the population in those regions at the time. 

Researchers at the University of Chicago, McMaster University in Ontario and the Pasteur Institute in Paris analyzed the physical remains of 200 individuals in London and Denmark who died before, during and after the Bubonic Plague infected the area. 

The study indicates genes that protected individuals from the plague increased the presence of deadly mutations generations down the line and are linked to today’s autoimmune disorders. These disorders include Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. 

“A hyperactive immune system may have been great in the past, but in the environment today, it might not be as helpful,” said Hendrik Poinar, a researcher and author of the study, according to CBS News. 

One of the leading authors of this research, Luis Barreiro, stated this is the first scientific demonstration that proves the Black Death had a role to play in the modern evolution of the immune system. 

However, in today’s world, the once-deadly Bubonic Plague is a remnant of the past, with a couple of thousand cases popping up around the world every year. Between 2010 and 2015, 584 individuals died from the disease, many of them living in Peru, the Congo and Madagascar, according to the World Health Organization. 

The disease is able to spread through infected fleas and rats and first came to the United States at the start of the 20th century via steamboats. 

Bird flu has arrived to San Diego County

The first case of bird flu has made its way to San Diego County as the infectious disease spreads across the country. 

The carcass of a deceased black swan that was discovered last week at Lake San Marcos has tested positive for avian flu, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. 

An unknown party discovered the body and submitted it to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino, a spokesperson for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told local media outlets. After laboratory tests were conducted, samples from the body were confirmed positive for avian flu. 

The sample will be transferred to National Veterinary Services Laboratories overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, to determine the strain of the virus

The United States is currently undergoing one of the worst bird flu outbreaks in years. As previously reported, 47.6 million birds have been affected this year, with the disease spreading to 42 states, according to data provided by the USDA. 

More than five million birds in the U.S. have died from the disease between January to July of this year. Infections and deaths have led to export bans, turkey shortages, and lower production of eggs while adding to the increasing food prices. 

Avian influenza is a highly contagious pathogen that can spread from bird to bird, usually through bodily fluids, and affects their neurological and respiratory systems. Wild birds have spread the disease more than usual this year due to migration. 

However, it is extremely rare for a human to become infected by bird flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Health officials call for flu shots ahead of potentially severe season

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to get their flu shot ahead of a season that is predicted to be especially active. 

Levels of the flu had been historically low amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but Australia recently saw a particularly nasty flu season, sparking fears worldwide. 

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Tuesday urged Americans to get a shot before the end of the month.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen some worrisome drops in flu vaccination coverage, especially in some groups of people who are at the highest risk of developing serious flu illness,” she noted. 

Walensky said that people who were vaccinated were 35% less likely to get sick with influenza than those who were not. 

Notably, pregnant people and children – who are at higher risk of serious complications from the flu – experienced some of the greatest drops in coverage over the last two seasons.

In a release from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), which hosted the conference, Walensky said that nearly half of U.S. adults received their flu vaccine. 

Data from the NFID found only 49% of U.S. adults plan to get a vaccine during the 2022-2023 season. 

Health experts and the CDC are calling on everyone ages 6 months and older to get an updated quadrivalent flu shot, with some exceptions. 

Seniors should ask for a special extra-strength kind and there are three that are preferentially recommended for people ages 65 and older.

Those include the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine, Flublok Quadrivalent recombinant flu vaccine and Fluad Quadrivalent adjuvanted flu vaccine.

Fluad Adjuvanted, unlike the others, has a regular dosage but contains a special ingredient that helps boost people’s immune response.

Seniors can ask what kind their doctors carry, although most vaccinations are given in pharmacies. 

If a location is out of senior-targeted doses, the CDC says it’s better to get a standard flu shot than to skip vaccination,

Vaccine manufacturers have projected that they will supply the nation with as many as 173.5 million to 183.5 million doses of influenza vaccines for the 2022-2023 season. 

World Mental Health Day: ‘It’s OK to ask for support or help’

World Mental Health Day is Monday, Oct. 10, 2022 — an opportunity to take stock of our mental well-being especially in light of the mental health crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

People all over the world have been impacted by our mental health crisis,” saidDr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association. Based in Boston, she is an attorney as well a physician and is director of the master’s program in bioethics at Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics. 

“On this World Mental Health Day, it’s a great opportunity to check in with ourselves about our own mental wellness and to know that it’s OK to ask for support or help if we are struggling,” she told Fox News Digital.

She added, “We also need to encourage others in our life to do the same.”

What is mental health?

“Mental health may best be thought of as the alliance of emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and political states informed by euthenics toward the empowerment of human existence and well-being,” said Dr. Christopher L. Edwards, retired associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Before the pandemic started, the World Health Organization (WHO) said approximately one in eight people in the world were living with a mental health disorder. 

But COVID-19 worsened the mental health crisis. 

Anxiety and depression disorders increased more than 25% during the first year of the pandemic, while COVID-19 also made mental health services less accessible, according to the WHO.

Yet other world conflicts, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, violence, public health emergencies and continued social and economic disparities compounded the crisis with “a staggering 84 million people worldwide [who] were forcibly displaced during 2021,” per a recent WHO press release.  

“The mental health of Americans has been severely stressed by the pandemic, by social unrest and economic challenges over the past few years,” said Dr. Jürgen Unützer, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

“We are seeing increasing rates of suicides and drug overdoses, sometimes referred to as ‘deaths of despair,’ and our health care system is struggling to help people in crisis as well as families who have been struggling with disabling brain disorders and mental health disorders for a long time,” he also said.

How the pandemic motivated change 

The pandemic led to more conversation about people’s mental health struggles and inspired positive change to improve the mental health crisis, according to professionals. 

“There are silver linings: The pandemic has made many of us more comfortable talking about the fact that mental health is an important part of all health,” Unützer told Fox News Digital. 

Dr. Edwards said that people worldwide seem more willing to discuss and acknowledge the often stigmatized disorders such as depression and anxiety “and attribute these to the ubiquitous and omnipresent state of human existence known as ‘stressed.’”Depression and anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health disorders for both men and women and can impact our ability to work effectively, per a WHO report.

Specifically, more than 280 million people around the world are living with depression — it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to a 2021 WHO press release. 

But the pandemic highlighted the “disproportionate burden” of current mental health crises among people of color and also those without economic advantages and or political influence, Edwards told Fox News Digital.

Tips and help for managing stress

“A lot of stresses have to do with how we interact with others,” said Dr. Elie G. Aoun, addiction and forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York City and a member of the American Psychiatric Association Board of Trustees.

People should avoid engaging in stressful situations if they can, in order to help themselves.

“For example, if you are feeling overheated with work, hold off on engaging in a difficult conversation” if you believe it may make you feel more stressed, he indicated.  

Those with depression may lose interest in activities that they typically enjoy, such as running or working out.

“For example, if someone likes to run, when they’re depressed they may not want to run,” Aoun told Fox News Digital.

If this happens, first try to run one block, then two blocks — gradually running each time a little more. This may slowly undo the behavioral consequences of depression, he explained.

He also encourages an assessment of the stressors in our life. “Stressors can be put aside temporarily,” he noted.

He suggested a psychotherapeutic intervention called behavioral activation that requires people to make a list of the activities that they don’t want to do when they are depressed.

“First rank in order [those activities] that you are most likely to do and least likely to do — then try to do the ones that are easiest, then work on the ones that are hardest,” Aoun recommended.

How can this situation improve?

Edwards said our nation’s mental health will improve by increasing access to qualified mental health professionals and leading efforts to “de-stigmatize mental illness as we have done with cancer, HIV and many other diseases that we now embrace,” Edwards noted. 

Now there is a dedicated number to call when you have a mental health emergency in the United States.

“The federal government has been working on rolling a new crisis response system across the country — starting with a new number, 988, that people all over the country can now call when they or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency,” Unützer added.

“But we have a long way to go to build a system of care that can address all of the behavioral health needs of Americans,” Unützer told Fox News Digital. 

“With investment, the mental health of the nation can be better than our COVID-19 premorbid status,” Edwards added.

Nurses and other health staff in UK leaving profession for better paying jobs

First there was Brexit. 

Then there was “Drexit” — an exodus of doctors walking away the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom.

And now nurses and other staff in the NHS are heading for the doors, too.

Staff are leaving the medical profession for better paying jobs, such as hospitality and retail, according to a recent NHS Providers survey.

“All respondents say they are concerned about the mental, physical and financial well-being of staff as a result of cost-of-living pressures — and the majority (61%) report a rise in mental health sickness absence,” the survey said.

NHS asked its chairs, chief executives, finance directors, medical directors and nursing directors for their perspectives on the impact on the cost of living, which has become a crisis within “trusts” and the health care sector during August 2022 and September 2022.

NHS Providers represent every NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance service in England, according to a press release. 

“Since its inception, the three core values of the NHS have been for it to: meet the needs of everyone; be free at the point of delivery; and be based on clinical need, not ability to pay,” a NHS report noted.

What is a NHS trust?

A NHS trust is a public entity “established by parliamentary order by the secretary of state for health to provide healthcare services to the NHS,” the report added.

“Trusts are vital hubs at the heart of their communities, ‘go-to’ institutions where people seek help in difficult times, and are doing everything they can to support staff, patients and the public,” said Miriam Deakin, interim deputy chief executive and director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, in a press release. 

“But the cost-of-living pressures are too big and wide-ranging to be left to local NHS trusts to solve on top of everything else they are grappling with,” the release also indicated.

COVID-19 was the ‘final straw’

An estimated 54% of trusts participated in the survey, which covered every region of England, according to the press release. 

“For some staff, this is the final straw psychologically after two years of COVID-19 and the national narrative swinging (as it was always going to) from ‘NHS angels’ to ‘NHS waste and bureaucracy,’” a mental health trust of North East and Yorkshire in the U.K. said, according to the survey.

Some 70% of trust leaders reported that many staff members struggle to afford to commute to work.

And 81% are “moderately or extremely” concerned about their staff’s physical health, while 72% noted an increase in the use of mental health services due to stress, debt and poverty.

Although there are 132,000 vacancies across trusts, two in three trust leaders noted a “significant or severe” impact from staff leaving to work for better paying jobs, such as pubs, restaurants and shops.

Cost of living is to blame 

Soaring prices have decreased morale and made recruiting efforts and retention more difficult, according to the survey.

The winter season will only place more pressure on a system that is almost at its breaking point by staff shortages due to stress, illness and workers leaving.

“[We are concerned about] elderly people in less affluent communities as we approach winter,” a South East community trust in the U.K. told the survey. 

Children and families of those in less affluent families, who may miss out on meals, heating and also may not get to health appointments due to transport costs.”

They noted this could worsen people’s depression and anxiety and increase risk of suicide. 

A problem for doctors, too

“I think something like ‘Drexit’ [the doctor exit] is not an acute problem, this is an acute on chronic problem that needs a long-term solution rather than a ‘band-aid’ or ‘plaster,’” Dr. Hannah Wilson, based in Boston, told Fox News Digital. 

She’s an academic physician, with a master’s degree in medical education at Harvard Medical School, who now works in the U.S. 

In her own research, “We found that doctors are searching for jobs in other industries and there has been an exponential increase in those leaving,” she said.

“Our survey reveals just what NHS staff are going through, on top of the psychological impact of the pandemic and high levels of work-related stress,” said Deakin of NHS Providers in a press release.

“We need realism from government and national leaders, and recognition of the scale of the challenge,” Deakin added.

WHO director-general says ‘the end is in sight’ for COVID pandemic

The world has never been in a better position to end the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday, urging nations to keep up their efforts against the virus that has killed over six million people.

“We are not there yet. But the end is in sight,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a virtual press conference.

The comment was the most optimistic from the UN agency since it declared COVID-19 an international emergency and started describing the virus as a pandemic in March 2020.

The virus, which emerged in China in late 2019, has killed nearly 6.5 million people and infected 606 million, roiling global economies and overwhelming healthcare systems.

The rollout of vaccines and therapies have helped to stem the severity of disease. Deaths from COVID-19 last week were the lowest since March 2020, the U.N. agency reported.

Still, countries need to take a hard look at their policies and strengthen them for COVID-19 and future viruses, Tedros said. He also urged nations to vaccinate 100% of their high-risk groups and keep testing for the virus.

The WHO warned of the possibility of future waves of the virus and said countries need to maintain adequate supplies of medical equipment and healthcare workers.

“We expect there to be future waves of infections, potentially at different time points throughout the world caused by different subvariants of Omicron or even different variants of concern,” said WHO’s senior epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

Monkeypox cases, too, were on a downtrend but Tedros urged countries to keep up the fight.

WHO officials said last month that it is possible to eliminate the monkeypox outbreak in Europe by stepping up vaccination and testing.

“As with COVID-19, this is not the time to relax or let down our guard.”

New study suggests steroids may change the structure of the brain

Steroids are able to change the structure of the brain and affect a person’s mood, according to a new study. 

Dutch researchers conducted the study by examining the brains of nearly 25,000 steroid users and non-users. The team found that those who inhaled or orally took glucocorticoids, a steroid that is prescribed to decrease inflammation, experienced changes to their brain’s white and grey matter. 

“This study shows that both systemic and inhaled glucocorticoids are associated with an apparently widespread reduction in white matter integrity,” said the study’s co-author Merel van der Meulen, who works at Leiden University Medical Center, in the paper published on Tuesday in the journal BMJ Open. Moreover, white matter is essential for the brain because it connects the cells with the body’s entire nervous system. An individual may have trouble processing information and remembering events if they have a lower than white matter. The study also linked white matter shortages to depression and anxiety. 

Patients have often been treated for diseases such as asthma, arthritis, and eczema with steroids, even though symptoms like depression and anxiety. However, more research is still needed to prove that steroids are to blame, the researchers note, but do “neuropsychiatric side effects observed in patients using glucocorticoid.”

The Dutch academics conducted the study by analyzing brain data of 24,885 people from UK Biobank, a population-based cohort study of adults recruited in the United Kingdom from 2006 until 2010. The database included only approximately 800 volunteers who used medicated steroids, while the vast majority of the database were non-steroid users. 

The most significant drop of white matter that affected the brain’s structure occurred through the usage of glucocorticoids by injection or tablets for long-term periods. Yet, even those who inhaled the steroids were still linked to lower processing speeds, and users had smaller amygdala grew matter volume. 

To the best of our knowledge, this is the largest study to date assessing the association between glucocorticoid use and brain structure, and the first to investigate these associations in inhaled glucocorticoid users,” the study concludes. “Since these medications are widely used, awareness of these associations is necessary across medical specialties and research into alternative treatment options is warranted.

New study suggests you should stop eating ultra-processed foods

Men living in the United States who regularly eat ultra-processed foods such as sodas, ice cream, sausage, and deep-fried chicken, are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer

A study published on Wednesday in The BMJ indicates that U.S. men are at 29% greater risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer if they consume large amounts of processed foods. Women, on the other hand, did not follow the same pattern, according to the study. 

One of the leading causes of cancer deaths worldwide is colorectal cancer. Moreover, over half of the daily calories that are consumed by U.S. adults originate in ultra-processed foods. 

“Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer,” said the study’s author Lu Wang explained lead study author Lu Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a statement. “Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer.”

Researchers analyzed data from three other studies that included 200,000 men and women in the U.S. Every four years, the participants filled out a questionnaire that asked how often they would eat certain foods. Approximately 46,341 men and 159,907 women were included in this study, with 1,294 cases of colorectal cancer occurring in the men compared to 1,922 in women between 24 and 28 years. 

After adjusting for body mass index, the researcher determined that men who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of being diagnosed with that particular cancer. The biggest risks for men were increased consumption of sugar-enriched drinks such as sweet tea and soda, along with meat, poultry, and seafood. 

The study could not determine the lack of association between cancer and consumption of highly processed foods in women. 

First human death of West Nile virus in Illinois in 2022 confirmed

The first human death in Illinois in 2022 from the West Nile virus was confirmed on Tuesday.

An unnamed individual in their late 70s passed away from the illness in Cook County, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed on Tuesday that WNV played a contributing role in the death and confirmed the diagnosis via laboratory testing.

“This unfortunate first reported death of the year from West Nile virus in Illinois is a reminder that this disease poses a risk, especially to those who have weakened immune systems,” said Dr. Sameer Vohra, Illinois health director. “While the weather is warm and mosquitos are breeding, we should all take precautions to protect ourselves from mosquitoes and the viruses they carry by wearing insect repellent and eliminating standing water around our homes where mosquitos breed.”

The department is able to surveil WNV in the state by inspecting the dead cows and birds as well as testing mosquito batches. Last year, there were approximately 48 counties in the state that reported the virus presence in animals. Meanwhile, five people died from the disease in 65 confirmed cases.

The disease usually spreads through the bite of a common house mosquito, called the Culex pipiens, which usually spreads the virus after sucking the blood of an infected animal. The health department notes that common symptoms from WNV include fever, nausea, headache and muscle pains that last days or weeks. However, an estimated four out of five people who test positive for the virus show no symptoms.

Severe cases of the disease may lead to meningitis or encephalitis, or death. West Nile virus is especially risky for individuals over the age of 50, who may have a higher chance of experiencing severe symptoms.

The IDPH states the first mosquito to test positive for the disease occurred on May 17. Additionally, three men over the age of 50 tested positive for WNV and were all hospitalized in New Jersey last week.

British scientists behind crucial COVID trial pivot to monkeypox treatment research

The British scientists behind one of the major therapeutic COVID-19 trials have turned their focus to treatments for monkeypox, a viral disease that has been labeled a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The team from Oxford University behind the so-called RECOVERY trial – which honed in on four effective COVID treatments – on Tuesday unveiled a new trial, dubbed PLATINUM, to confirm whether SIGA Technologies’ tecovirimat is an effective treatment for monkeypox.

Although there are vaccines developed for the closely related smallpox that can reduce the risk of catching monkeypox, there are currently no treatments that have been proven to help hasten recovery in those who develop the disease.

More than 40,000 confirmed cases of monkeypox – including a handful of deaths – in over 80 countries where the virus is not endemic have been reported since early May. Over 35% of the current global case count is in the United States, while the UK has over 3,000 confirmed cases.

The virus is transmitted chiefly through close contact with an infected person. It typically causes mild symptoms including fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes and pus-filled skin lesions. Severe cases can occur, though people tend to recover within two to four weeks, according to the WHO.

Siga’s drug, branded Tpoxx, has been cleared to treat diseases caused by the family of orthopoxvirus that includes smallpox, monkeypox and cowpox by the European Union and United Kingdom, but due to limited trial data it is generally only used in severe cases in Britain.

In the United States and Canada, the drug is only approved to treat smallpox.

Since smallpox has been eradicated, and cases of monkeypox and cowpox typically occur sporadically, studies to assess the effectiveness of the drug in infected people have so far not been carried out.

Instead, its effectiveness is based on studies in animals infected with lethal doses of orthopoxviruses, as well tests of the medicine’s effects in healthy humans.

The PLATINUM trial, funded by a 3.7 million pound ($4.35 million) UK government grant, aims to recruit at least 500 participants. Participants will either be given a 14-day course of tecovirimat twice daily, or a placebo.

To assess the drug’s effectiveness, the rate at which lesions heal, the time taken until patients test negative for the virus, and the proportion of patients who require hospitalization due to complications will be tracked.

“I’m hoping that we can have a result before Christmas, but it depends on the rate of recruitment,” said Sir Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infections and Global Health at the University of Oxford and the director of the new Pandemic Sciences Institute.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials indicated they were planning a randomized clinical trial in the country to determine whether tecovirimat should secure U.S. approval for monkeypox.

Siga, which sells an oral and intravenous formulation of the drug, has already received $60 million worth of orders for oral tecovirimat this year.

Meanwhile, the only approved monkeypox vaccine – made by Danish company Bavarian Nordic – is in short supply, pushing countries to stretch existing supplies.