Winter 2015 frontlines

Quick updates about the latest public health news from across the School and beyond.

First prize for flu forecasting

A new system for predicting seasonal peaks of influenza in cities across the U.S., developed by a team of scientists including Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, won first place in the “Predict the Influenza Season Challenge,” sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Participants in the contest were asked to forecast the timing, peak, and intensity of the 2013–14 flu season using digital data from various sources and innovative modeling approaches. Lipsitch and colleagues, including team leader Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, based their predictions on flu-related online search queries, reports of flulike illnesses, and weather conditions, such as humidity levels, known to drive flu transmission. The CDC awarded the winning team $75,000.

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‘Green’ buildings make healthy homes

Low-income housing built with eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient features seems to be as beneficial for residents as it is for the environment. A new study led by Meryl Colton of the Department of Environmental Health, in collaboration with the Boston Housing Authority, surveyed the health of people living in public housing units before and after they moved from conventional apartments into “green” ones. Colton and colleagues—including senior author Gary Adamkiewicz, assistant professor of environmental health and exposure disparities—also conducted environmental sampling and home inspections. They found that improved ventilation and pest management systems in the green apartments and the change from gas to electric stoves appeared to boost indoor air quality and also reduced “sick building syndrome” symptoms such as headaches and itchy or burning eyes. The study was published online last June in Environmental Science & Technology.

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Are vasectomies a prostate cancer risk?

Thousands of men each year choose vasectomies for the peace of mind of (near) permanent birth control. But a new study suggests that the procedure may increase their prostate cancer risk. In the largest and most comprehensive study to explore this potential connection, Harvard Chan researchers analyzed health data collected over 24 years from 49,405 U.S. men ages 40 to 75. One in four of these men reported having a vasectomy. Compared to men who did not have the surgery, vasectomies raised men’s risk of developing prostate cancer by 10 percent, and increased by 20 percent and 19 percent respectively their relative risk of developing advanced and lethal prostate cancer.

But that doesn’t mean that men need to cancel their appointments. As the researchers noted in the study, published last July in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the absolute risk of an individual developing deadly prostate cancer over 24 years was small: 16 of every 1,000 men. “I don’t think we should conclude from this that men shouldn’t get vasectomies,” co-author Kathy Wilson, a research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology, told Fox News. “But it does suggest that there is something going on, which could tell us more about the underlying biology of the disease.”

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Most –wanted polluters list

When it comes to air pollution, some particles are worse than others. A new Harvard Chan study finds that the effect of airborne particles on mortality rates was about 75 percent higher in cities with a high proportion of sulfates from coal-burning power plants than in cities with little sulfate pollution. It was about 50 percent higher in cities with a higher proportion of particles from road dust. For each 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air particles, city deaths from conditions linked to pollution— such as heart disease and lung disorders—increased by more than 1 percent. The effects were greatest when the temperatures were mild and windows most likely to be open, said lead author Lingzhen Dai, doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health. The authors hope the study, which was published online last May in Environmental Health Perspectives, will help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determine which sources of air pollution are most critical to control.

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Outstanding in Their Fields

Seventeen Harvard Chan faculty members—more than at any other school of public health—have been included on Thomson Reuters’s 2014 list of the most highly cited researchers in the sciences and social sciences.

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Sterilized without Consent

In Latin America, some health care providers are coercing and even forcing women living with HIV to be sterilized, according to recent research. A new survey of HIV-positive women in El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua found that roughly one in four had been pressured to undergo sterilization. Women who either were diagnosed with HIV during prenatal care or had a pregnancy after the diagnosis were almost eight times more likely to experience pressure to sterilize. And only slightly more than half of the women who participated in the study were told that taking antiretroviral drugs could virtually eliminate the chance that they would transmit the virus to their babies. Author Tamil Kendall, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research postdoctoral fellow with the Women and Health Initiative and a Takemi Fellow in the Department of Global Health and Population at the time of the analysis, said that reproduction among people with HIV continues to be stigmatized, even in the U.S. She called for more education for women living with HIV and for health care providers. She also called for professional associations, policymakers, and the courts to hold accountable providers who violate women’s reproductive rights.

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In memoriam

Amy Roeder