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global connectedness concept illustration

Research partnerships and capacity building in the time of COVID-19

global connectedness concept illustration

“COVID infection anywhere in the world is COVID infection everywhere in the world,” said John Nkengasong, M.Sc., Ph.D., director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control (Africa CDC), during his remarks on the importance of shared science, innovation and diplomacy. Leading experts in global health met virtually on November 13, 2020, to discuss updates in the COVID-19 crisis and lessons learned in Africa. Children’s National Hospital, along with the George Washington University (GW) Institute for Africa Studies and the CNRS-EpiDaPo Lab, sponsored the half-day conference that captured the interest of international attendees committed to examining how best to expand strong and enduring partnerships between U.S. and African scientists, health professionals and research institutes to meet global challenges.

Trust, transparency and communication were common themes of expert panelists that included Elizabeth Bukusi, Ph.D., M.P.H., Kenya Medical Research Institute; Maryam DeLoffre, Ph.D., GW Humanitarian Action Initiative; Peter Kilmarx, M.D., National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fogarty International Center; Enock Motavu, Ph.D., Makerere University in Uganda; Jennifer Troyer, Ph.D., Human Health and Heredity in Africa Program (H3Africa) at NIH; Désiré Tshala-Katumbay, M.D., Ph.D., National Institute of Biomedical Research in Kinshasa; Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National, with Institute for African Studies Director Jennifer Cooke, and Jonathan LoTempio Jr and D’Andre Spencer of Children’s National as moderators and co-conveners. Read more about the panelists.

The keynote speaker, Nkengasong, updated the group on the massive efforts in bending the COVID-19 disease curve on the African continent which at present has two million cases and 46,000 deaths. This is fewer than many other regions, and Nkengasong attributes this in part to health systems strengthening and capacity building that already occurred with past pandemics like Ebola. He stressed the importance of focusing on the “4 Ps” — population, pathogen, politics and policy — in fighting the pandemic, and the need to ensure that citizens trust their leaders and the public health measures they advance. New endeavors by the Africa CDC include the Pathogen Genomic Initiative, which will help inform research and responses to COVID-19 and other emergent disease threats, and the African COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Access Strategy, which aims to ensure widespread access, delivery and uptake of effective vaccines across Africa. Africa CDC is surging to hotspots as lockdowns ease or shift, and is empowering universities to invest in proactive and, which has helped with the active response success. “Rising tides raise all boats in the sea,” said Nkengasong. He went on to say that there is great power in coordination and cooperation, and science diplomacy and technology are critical to winning the novel coronavirus war.

In a panel on research partnerships, speakers Motavu, Tshala-Katumbay, and Vilain emphasized the global benefits of scientific collaborations in Africa. Africa contains more human genetic variation than any other region of the world, and capturing that diversity in global understanding of the human genome — which is still heavily skewed toward individuals of European ancestry — will be a major factor in global medical advances of the future. And research into relatively localized diseases can lead to breakthroughs in broader understanding on connections between climate variation, environment, nutrition and child health. “The simplistic, localized, nationalist, way of doing science is over,” said Tshala-Katumbay, “and there is no way to go back.” The discipline of science diplomacy will take time for people to grasp, he added, “but it will be crucial for the future generation of scientists to go back.”

A recurring conference theme was that collaboration between countries is crucial for development of better care. Kilmarx told the event participants that in 2019, the National Institutes of Health supported some 1,668 collaborations with African research institutions. Investments in capacity building have yielded impressive results, and today some of Africa’s foremost leaders in science research and public health have received NIH training and support, stating: “If you plant acorns over the decades, you have some mighty oaks.” Bukusi, once such NIH trainee, now is engaged in training a new generation of African researchers and U.S. researchers based in Africa and expanding research partnerships at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Troyer showed the successes of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative, a large consortium that supports a pan-continental network of laboratories that aims to determine disease susceptibility and drug responses. Finally, DeLoffre underscored the need for long-term investments and the value of building local capacities to respond to current crises and anticipate future challenges.

Overall, there was optimism that innovative coalitions are a long-term strength in fighting pandemics and promoting reciprocal learning that will last after the crisis. Science can be a neutral platform that, combined with diplomacy and technology, builds bridges between peoples.

Breastfeeding Mom

Exclusive breastfeeding lowers odds of some schoolchildren having eczema

Breastfeeding Mom

Children exclusively breastfed for the first three months of life had significantly lower odds of having eczema at age 6 compared with peers who were not breastfed or were breastfed for less time, according to preliminary research presented during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting.

Eczema is a chronic condition characterized by extremely itchy skin that, when scratched, becomes inflamed and covered with blisters that crack easily. While genes and the environment are implicated in this inflammatory disease, many questions remain unanswered, such as how best to prevent it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfed infants have reduced risks for developing many chronic conditions, including asthma and obesity.

“The evidence that being exclusively breastfed protects children from developing eczema later in life remains mixed,” says Katherine M. Balas, BS, BA, a clinical research assistant at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “Our research team is trying to help fill that data gap.”

Balas and colleagues tapped data collected in Infant Feeding Practices Study II, a longitudinal study co-led by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2005 to 2007, as well as the agencies’ 2012 follow-up examination of that study cohort. This study first tracked the diets of about 2,000 pregnant women from their third trimester and examined feeding practices through their babies’ first year of life. Their follow-up inquiry looked at the health, development and dietary patterns for 1,520 of these children at 6 years of age.

About 300 of the children had been diagnosed with eczema at some point in their lives, and 58.5 percent of the 6-year-olds had eczema at the time of the CDC/FDA Year Six Follow-Up. Children with higher socioeconomic status or a family history of food allergies had higher odds of being diagnosed with eczema.

“Children who were exclusively breastfed for three months or longer were significantly less likely (adjusted odds ratio: 0.477) to have continued eczema at age 6, compared with peers who were never breastfed or who were breastfed for less than three months,” Balas adds. “While exclusive breastfeeding may not prevent kids from getting eczema, it may protect them from experiencing extended flare-ups.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Exclusive breastfeeding in infancy and eczema diagnosis at 6 years of age.”

Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, 9:45 a.m. (PST)

Katherine M. Balas BS, BA, lead author; Karen A. Robbins M.D., co-author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Daniel V. DiGiacomo, M.D., co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program and senior author.

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Children’s National experts contribute to new Zika guidelines

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M. S., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in a forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate new Zika recommendations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 19, 2017 updated guidelines for evaluation of women, fetuses and infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy. Although only women with symptoms will now be routinely tested, asymptomatic and symptomatic infants born to these women will still be tested for the Zika virus using blood and urine tests.

Infants who appear normal, whose mothers either had negative Zika results or who had not undergone testing, will not undergo Zika testing. These infants still will undergo a standard evaluation, including a detailed physical exam, hearing screen and routine developmental assessments. The revised Zika guidance includes input from practitioners on the front lines of the Zika epidemic, including Children’s National Health System clinicians.

“These changes in the recommendations for Zika testing should not be interpreted as Zika infection risks subsiding for pregnant women and their infants in the United States. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of current testing methods – which must occur within a narrow window after Zika exposure – and the poor predictive value of Zika testing right now,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of Children’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Dr. DeBiasi and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in the Zika forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate the recommendations.

While all infants will receive a standard evaluation, expanded evaluations that include an ophthalmologic assessment, more detailed hearing evaluation and ultrasound of the newborn’s head will be reserved for infants born to mothers confirmed to be Zika positive or Zika probable, or for infants born with abnormalities potentially consistent with congenital Zika syndrome, regardless of maternal status.

The majority of U.S. infants who have been exposed to Zika in the womb appeared normal at birth, according to CDC registries. Now, the next wave of these normal-appearing babies will receive standard evaluations when they are born, including a newborn hearing screening. At each well-child visit, these infants will receive:

  • A comprehensive physical examination
  • An age-appropriate vision screening
  • Developmental monitoring and screening using validated tools

“This is a natural evolution in the diagnosis and screening strategy now that the peak of the first wave of Zika transmission appears to be over,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “While we continue to evaluate new possible cases of Zika infection among pregnant women in our practice, a sizable proportion of Children’s cases are Zika-exposed infants whose physical exam and neuroimaging appeared normal at birth. Through ongoing monitoring, we hope to learn more about these children’s long-term neurodevelopment outcomes.”

What Children’s has learned about congenital Zika infection

Roberta DeBiasi

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

The Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System provides a range of advanced testing and services for exposed and infected fetuses and newborns. Data that the program has gathered in evaluating and managing Zika-affected pregnancies and births may offer instructive insights to other centers developing similar programs.

The program evaluated 36 pregnant women and their fetuses from January 2016 through May 2017. Another 14 women and their infants were referred to the Zika program for postnatal consultations during that time.

“As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, we continue to receive referrals to our Zika program, and this is a testament to the critical need it fulfills in the greater metropolitan D.C. region,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-leader of the program. “Our multidisciplinary team now has consulted on 90 dyads (mothers and their Zika-affected fetuses/infants). The lessons we learned about when and how these women were infected and how their offspring were affected by Zika may be instructive to institutions considering launching their own programs.”

Dr. DeBiasi outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

“The Zika virus continues to circulate in dozens of nations, from Angola to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clinicians considering a strategic approach to managing pregnancies complicated by Zika may consider enlisting an array of specialists to attend to infants’ complex care needs, including experts in fetal imaging, pediatric infectious disease, physical therapists, audiologists, ophthalmologists and radiologists skilled at reading serial magnetic resonance images as well as ultrasounds,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “At Children’s we have a devoted Zika hotline to triage patient and family concerns. We provide detailed instructions for referring institutions explaining protocols before and after childbirth, and we provide continuing education for health care professionals.”

Of the 36 pregnant women possibly exposed to Zika during pregnancy seen in the program’s first year, 32 lived in the United States and traveled to countries where Zika virus was circulating. Two women had partners who traveled to Zika hot zones. And two moved to the Washington region from places where Zika is endemic. Including the postnatal cases, 89 percent of patients had been bitten by Zika-tainted mosquitoes, while 48 percent of women could have been exposed to Zika via sex with an infected partner.

Twenty percent of the women were exposed before conception; 46 percent were exposed to Zika in the first trimester of pregnancy; 26 percent were exposed in the second trimester; and 8 percent were exposed in the final trimester. In only six of 50 cases (12 percent) did the Zika-infected individual experience symptoms.

Zika infection can be confirmed by detecting viral fragments but only if the test occurs shortly after infection. Twenty-four of the 50 women (nearly 50 percent) arrived for a Zika consultation outside that 12-week testing window. Eleven women (22 percent) had confirmed Zika infection and another 28 percent tested positive for the broader family of flavivirus infections that includes Zika. Another detection method picks up antibodies that the body produces to neutralize Zika virus. For seven women (14 percent), Zika infection was ruled out by either testing method.

“Tragically, four fetuses had severe Zika-related birth defects,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “Due to the gravity of those abnormalities, two pregnancies were not carried to term. The third pregnancy was carried to term, but the infant died immediately after birth. The fourth pregnancy was carried to term, but that infant survived less than one year.”