Tag Archives: epidemic

What Caused an HIV Outbreak in Rural Indiana?

By Kim Smiley

A public health emergency has been declared after 79 cases of HIV were confirmed in rural Indiana, the worst outbreak of HIV the state has ever seen.  Individuals potentially at risk have been encouraged to get tested and the number of cases is expected to rise as more cases are identified. The epidemic has been tied to intravenous drug use, although other risky behaviors may also have spread the disease.

In order to effectively fight this HIV epidemic and hopefully reduce the risk of outbreaks in the future, the factors that have led to these HIV cases needs to be understood. This region has been struggling with the use of Opana, a powerful opioid painkiller, for years.  Opana is commonly injected and health officials believe that the use of dirty needles has been the primary driver of HIV infections although unprotected sex was also a potential pathway for infection for some.  Needle exchange programs are illegal in Indiana and access to clean needles is limited so needles are being shared.  In an environment where needle sharing is common, it takes only one individual infected with HIV to rapidly spread the virus to many other drug users.

HIV is also more likely to be spread if infected individuals are unaware that they are infected and are not being treated.   Identifying an individual who has contracted HIV as early as possible and providing treatment helps prevent the disease from spreading because an HIV-positive person who receives sustained treatment is drastically less infectious, even if they continue to engage in high risk behaviors. Access to healthcare and HIV testing is limited in this region where many residents are uninsured and may lack transportation. Heroin use has long been tied to HIV, but users of Opana (a licensed pharmaceutical) may not have been fully aware of the potential risk from sharing needles.

Now that the HIV epidemic has been identified, healthcare officials are working to reduce the risk of more infections by providing testing and treatment.  One physician is even driving door to door, offering free HIV testing and trying to educate residents on drug addiction and HIV treatment.  Austin, Indiana has established its first ever HIV clinic to provide testing, counseling and treatment.  Targeted resources to help educate residents on drug use and to assist addicts seeking to get clean are also being provided.  The governor of Indiana has approved a short term needle exchange program.  Indiana has also created a public awareness campaign to help inform people about the risks of intravenous drug use.  Drug addiction is a notoriously difficult problem to battle, but the additional resources should help reduce the rate of future HIV cases.

To view a high level Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.

The Race to Develop an Ebola Vaccine

By Kim Smiley

Traditional public health methods have not been able to stop the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa and some experts are speculating that a vaccine may be necessary to quash the outbreak.  The only problem is an approved vaccine against Ebola doesn’t exist.

A Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be built to analyze this issue by intuitively laying out the causes that contribute to the problem.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and documenting the answers on the Cause Map to show the cause-and-effect relationships.

So why isn’t there an approved Ebola vaccine?  There are several promising vaccines in development, but some of them are newer efforts that haven’t had time to go through the lengthy approval process.  A few potential vaccines have been around for years, but development stalled prior to the necessary human trials.  Prior to this year, there was limited potential revenue from an Ebola vaccine because of the limited demand so it has never been a high-priority product. Demand for, and interest in, producing an Ebola vaccine, has of course skyrocketed as a result of the ongoing epidemic in West Africa and Ebola cases popping up in other countries.

Now that companies are putting significant resources in the race to produce an Ebola vaccine there are still huge logistical obstacles that must be overcome.  At least two different vaccines should be ready for large-scale human trials early next year, but actually distributing the vaccine and tracking volunteers will require significant resources.  The vaccine must be kept at a constant temperature which can be difficult in regions of West Africa without reliability electricity.  Keeping track of thousands of volunteers is always a massive undertaking, but will be even more challenging in the middle of an epidemic in a region where the medical systems are overtaxed.  There is also a chance for significant political fallout if the vaccine created by Western countries and given to poor African nations turns out to have harmful side effects.

This topic raises some really difficult ethical issues.  How much do you fast-track a vaccine?  People are dying and an effective vaccine would save lives, but distributing a vaccine prior to the normally required testing could also result in significant human suffering if there is an unexpected side effect.  When has a vaccine been tested “enough” to justify giving it to people in a high-risk environment?  Even designing the human trials requires some hard decisions.  Do you conduct a blind study with a control group, knowing that some of that group is statistically likely to be infected with a deadly disease? There is a lot of gray area and it’s difficult to know what the right answer is.  Thousands of lives may hang in the balance and there isn’t a lot precedence in how best to respond to the challenge of this Ebola outbreak.

If you’d like to learn more about this epidemic, you can read our previous blogs:

Patient With Ebola Sent Home From ER

Ebola Outbreak Claiming Lives of Medical Staff

Hundreds Affected in ‘Unprecedented’ Ebola Outbreak


Hundreds Affected in ‘Unprecedented’ Ebola Outbreak

By ThinkReliability Staff

The ongoing Ebola epidemic in Africa is “unprecedented” due to its high mortality rate (up to 90%), geographic spread (at least 5 countries have reported cases of the disease, which has spread to urban areas as well), and difficulty enforcing quarantines that would reduce the spread.  As with many outbreaks, the factors involved are complex and wide-ranging.

We can address the issues contributing to the outbreak by capturing them in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis. This intuitive method ties impacted goals to cause-and-effect relationships, allowing development of solutions to all aspects of an issue.

First we begin with the impacts to the goals.  The outbreak began in Guinea at some point in early 2014, but was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 23, 2014.  The outbreak is still ongoing and has impacted Guinea the most, but has also spread to neighboring countries.  The strain involved is the Zaire Ebola virus, which is spread by bodily fluids.

At the date of publication, the virus has killed at least 101 out of 157 infected in Guinea alone.  The infections and deaths, as well as the spread of the disease, can be considered impacts to the public safety goal.  This is the first outbreak to have impacted urban Guinea, though there have been dozens of outbreaks in Africa over the past 40 years.

“Why” questions are used to determine the cause-and-effect relationships that resulted in the impacted goals.  Death typically results from bleeding or shock, which occurs due to infection with the virus and insufficient treatment. Infection results from the initial transmission (caused by eating raw infected meat), and the spread of the disease.  The spread in this case has resulted from the unusual migratory pattern, both because of the easy and frequent travel between countries but also due to an as-yet-unknown factor.  Normal outbreaks involve a much smaller geographic area.) Victims are contagious for a long time, meaning the disease is easily spread, and it has been difficult to enforce quarantine, because of mistrust of local authorities and foreign aid workers.  According to Stéphane Hugonnet  of WHO, “The mortality rate is extremely important.  Nine out of ten patients will die.  If we look at this from the population’s perspective, why would you go to a hospital if you have almost zero chance of getting out of it.”  However, with effective care, there is a chance of surviving Ebola.

However, providing that care is another challenge.  There is no cure for Ebola, possibly because financial incentives to develop a cure for a rare disease that primarily strikes poor African villages isn’t there. Care essentially involves keeping a person alive long enough for their body to be able to fight back, difficult in a country that has 0.1 physicians for every 1,000 people fighting a disease that rapidly replicates and – through an unknown mechanism – disables the immune system.

So what’s being done to end this outbreak?  Medical teams from Doctors without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières) and WHO have been dispatched to the area.   These medical teams may include anthropologists, to better address local concerns regarding the disease.  WHO has also recommended limiting personal contact and a on raw bush meat.  Meanwhile, researchers are working on a vaccine to prevent  transmission of Ebola.  It is hoped that these steps together will end this outbreak – and prevent future outbreaks as well.

To view the Outline, Cause Map and Solutions, please click “Download PDF” above.

United Nations Sued for Role In Haitian Cholera Epidemic

By Kim Smiley

A class action law suit has been filed against the United Nations (U.N.) on behalf of Haitian families afflicted by the cholera epidemic that has been raging since 2010.  Many believe that cholera was inadvertently brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeeping forces.

Some of the basic facts are still debated, but one that is known is that Haiti is experiencing the worst cholera epidemic in modern history with thousands of new cases each month. Nearly 7 percent of the Haitian population has had cholera since 2010.  It’s estimated that around 8,400 people have died of cholera and more than 685,000 have been sickened by the disease.

So why is the U.N. being blamed for this epidemic? A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be used to explain what many believe occurred.  All causes that contributed to an issue are captured on the Cause Map, which illustrates the cause-and-effect relationships between them.  In this case, people became infected with cholera after drinking contaminated river water.  Many believe that the river was contaminated when sewage leaked from a U.N. camp near the river with inadequate sanitation facilities.  U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were stationed at the camp and cholera, specifically a nearly identical strain of cholera, was present in Nepal at the time.  It’s assumed that at least one person in the camp had cholera and dangerous wastes managed to contaminate the river. The cholera epidemic seems to be a deadly case of unintended consequences that occurred when the U.N. attempted to aid Haiti following a devastating earthquake.

Once cholera got a foothold in Haiti, the epidemic exploded.  The population had little immunity to the disease because a case hadn’t been seen in Haiti in over a century prior to 2010.  Haiti lacked the sanitation and medical facilities to quickly contain a cholera epidemic.  People continued to drink water from the river because there weren’t many other options. The country had also suffered major damage from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit on January 12, 2010.  Medical facilities, transport facilities, communication systems and all the things a country needs to battle an epidemic had been significantly impacted by the earthquake.  Basically, it was a perfect recipe for a disaster.   A sick U.N. soldier may have brought cholera to Haiti, but the conditions in the country amplified the situation.

The world is still struggling to understand the cholera epidemic and determine what lessons learned should be applied going forward.  Clearly there is something to learn about the need for sufficient sanitation so that illness doesn’t spread unnecessarily.  The U.N. may potentially want to screen troops more closely before stationing them on foreign soil or implement other changes to help prevent anything like this from occurring in the future.  It’s also a powerful reminder to be aware and on the lookout for unintended consequences whenever a solution is implemented.  For example, the U.N has always had legal immunity, but some believe that may change as a result of the cholera lawsuit.   It’s impossible to predict if a verdict against the U.N. would impact future U.N. aid efforts, but it’s easy to imagine that it could have damping effect on their efforts, causing a whole other wave of unintended consequences to occur.

To view a high level Cause Map of the cholera epidemic in Haiti, click on “Download PDF” above.

DC Searches for Solutions to Slow the HIV Epidemic

By Kim Smiley

Washington DC is trying some new methods to help fight the AIDS epidemic.  DC has long had one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the United States, but there is hope that these new techniques might change that fact.

This issue can be built into a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map shows the relationship because the causes that contribute to an issue and can also show how potential solutions would impact those causes.  To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.

The focus of DC’s fight against HIV is treatment, which seems to be the key to controlling the HIV infection rate.  While researchers are still searching for a cure, simply treating people infected with HIV has the potential to dramatically slow down the epidemic.  HIV positive patients who consistently take their drugs lower their chances of infecting others by 96% because the amount of virus in their bloodstream is significantly lower.

The first step in treating infected people is to identify who is infected.  Testing is also important because the earlier patients can be identified; the more effective treatment is typically.  Washington DC has increased testing efforts in order to identify the estimated 5,000 people who live in the DC area and are unaware that they are infected.  People are now being paid to get tested and HIV tests are being offered in a number of new locations such as grocery stores, high schools, on corners where addicts gather, and at the DMV.  There are also efforts to focus testing on the highest risk populations by paying for referrals and social network tracing.

The next area of difficulty is getting patients consistent treatment.  Only 29% of people diagnosed in DC take their drugs every day, which is about average for an American city.  Washington DC is working to track HIV patients, who are typically more transient than the rest of the population and to help get treatment to as many people as possible.

Another cause of the AIDS epidemic that Washington DC is working to improve is to slow the spread of the virus itself.  Typical transmission routes for HIV are unprotected sex and use of dirty needles.  Last year, five million male and female condoms were given away in the DC area.  There were also more than 300,000 clean needles given away.

These innovative new programs seem to be having a positive impact on the epidemic. New cases have fallen to 835 from 1,103 in 2006.  The number of AIDS test administered has greatly increased.  Only time will tell how effective these solutions have been at slowing down the HIV epidemic in the nation’s capital.