Public Health

Love is in the air and, for parasites, inside our bodies

Michael H. Hsieh

As featured in a PBS video, schistosome worms form lifelong bonds and females produce thousands of eggs daily only when they live inside human hosts, says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

“Love is in the air, the sea, the earth and all over and inside our bodies,” the PBS Valentine’s Day-themed video begins. As the public television station notes, what humans consider romance can look vastly different for creatures big and small, including serenading mice, spiders who wrap their gifts in silk and necking giraffes.

The “spooning” parasites segment of the video is where viewers see research conducted by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy at Children’s National Health System, and video filmed in his lab.

Schistosomiasis, a chronic infection with schistosome worms, is a distinctly one-sided love affair. As shown in Dr. Hsieh’s video clips, the male worm is shorter and fatter and equipped with a groove, a love canal where the longer, thinner female lodges, enabling the pair to mate for decades. This lifelong bond and the thousands of eggs it produces daily can only occur when the worms are inside the human host, Dr. Hsieh says.

While the video stresses Valentine’s Day romance, there are few rosy outcomes for humans who are the subject of the schistosome worms’ attention.

“Heavily and chronically infected individuals can have lots of problems,” Dr. Hsieh says. “This is a stunting and wasting health condition that prevents people from reaching their growth potential, impairs their academic performance and leaves them sapped of the energy needed to exercise or work. It truly perpetuates a cycle of poverty, particularly for affected children.”

Even the potential bright spot in this sobering story, the ability of the body’s immune system to fend off the parasitic worms, is only partly good news.

Schistosome worms have co-evolved with their human hosts, learning to take advantage of human vulnerabilities. Take the immune system. If it kicks too far into overdrive in trying to wall off the eggs from the rest of the body, it can interfere with organ function and trigger liver failure, kidney failure and early onset of bladder cancer, he says.

However, Dr. Hsieh and other schistosomiasis researchers are working on ways to positively harness the human immune response to schistosome worms, including developing diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. He says he and his colleagues would “love” to eliminate schistosomiasis as a global scourge.

Kavita Parikh

Discharge strategies to prevent asthma readmissions

“Improving how we care for children who are hospitalized with asthma includes preparing them for a successful return home with the best tools to manage their illness and prevent a future hospital visit,” says Kavita Parikh, M.D., M.S.H.S.

Readmission rates at three months for kids hospitalized for acute asthma dropped when families received comprehensive education prior to discharge, the only single component of discharge bundles that was strongly associated with lowered readmissions, finds a multicenter retrospective cohort study published online Feb. 1, 2018, in The Journal of Pediatrics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma is the most common chronic lung disease of childhood, affecting roughly 6 million U.S. children. Hospitalization for asthma accounts for $1.5 billion in annual hospital charges and represents almost one-third of childhood asthma costs.

Children who are hospitalized for asthma have a roughly 20 percent chance of returning to the hospital in the next year, and individual hospital readmission rates can range from 5.7 percent to 9.1 percent at three months, writes the study team. While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has published evidence-based guidelines for discharge planning, there is no single, standardized asthma discharge process used across all pediatric hospitals in the U.S. that impacts 30-day readmission rates.

“Improving how we care for children who are hospitalized with asthma includes preparing them for a successful return home with the best tools to manage their illness and prevent a future hospital visit,” says Kavita Parikh, M.D., M.S.H.S., an associate professor of pediatrics at Children’s National Health System and lead study author. “Our study underscores the importance of increasing the intensity of select discharge components. For example, ensuring that children hospitalized for asthma receive asthma medication at discharge along with comprehensive education and environmental mitigation may reduce asthma readmissions.”

The study team analyzed records from a national sample of tertiary care children’s hospitals, looking at hospitalizations of 5- to 17-year-olds for acute asthma exacerbation during the 2015 calendar year. They characterized how frequently hospitals used 13 separate asthma discharge components by distributing an electronic survey to quality leaders. Forty-five of 49 hospitals (92 percent) completed the survey.

The 45 hospitals recorded a median of 349 asthma discharges per year and had a median adjusted readmission rate of 2.6 percent at 30 days and a 6.6 percent median adjusted readmission rate at three months. The most commonly used discharge components employed for children with asthma were having a dedicated person providing education (76 percent), providing a spacer at discharge (67 percent) and communicating with a primary medical doctor (58 percent).

Discharge components that were trending toward reduced readmission rates at three months include:

  • Comprehensive asthma education, including having dedicated asthma educators
  • Medications and devices provided to patients at discharge, such as spacers, beta-agonists, controller medication and oral steroids
  • Communication and scheduled appointments with a primary medical doctor
  • Post-discharge activities, including home visits and referrals for environmental mitigation programs.

“In addition to being aligned with NIH asthma recommendations, connecting the family with a primary care provider after discharge helps to improve patients’ timely access to care if symptoms recur when they return home,” Dr. Parikh adds. “Bundling these discharge components may offer multiple opportunities to educate patients and families and to employ a range of communication styles such as didactic, visual and interactive.”

Study co-authors include Matt Hall, Ph.D., Children’s Hospital Association; Chén C. Kenyon, M.D., M.S.H.P., The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Ronald J. Teufel II, M.D., M.S.C.R., Medical University of South Carolina; Grant M. Mussman, M.D., M.H.S.A. and Samir S. Shah, M.D., M.S.C.E., Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; Amanda Montalbano, M.D., M.P.H., Children’s Mercy; Jessica Gold, M.D., M.S., Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford; James W. Antoon, M.D., Children’s Hospital; Anupama Subramony, M.D., Cohen Children’s Medical Center; Vineeta Mittal, M.D., M.B.A. and Rustin B. Morse, M.D., Children’s Health; and Karen M. Wilson, M.D., M.P.H., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, K08HS024554.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Leading conversations about what’s right for children

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

“Who speaks for children?” That’s a question Children’s National President and CEO Kurt Newman, M.D., often asks when he talks to groups around the country. As he sees it, children’s hospitals and their pediatric specialists should follow two main principles: Speak out to our nation’s policy leaders, local government officials and other business leaders about what’s right for the most vulnerable among us, namely our children; and listen to parents, helping them find their voices when it comes to health care decisions.

Pediatric specialists have a unique opportunity to serve as the voice for children and families who are so often lost in state and federal health care policy debates. As the children’s hospital located in the nation’s capital, Children’s National has leveraged both its expertise and close proximity to key decision makers to engage in a dialogue about issues vital to the health and well-being of kids.

Amplifying the CHIP call to action

In a perfect example of politics getting in the way of doing the right thing for children, it took almost four months for Congress to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), which provides health coverage for nearly 9 million children of working families in the United States. CHIP often supports the patients with the most medically complex needs – and is pivotal to their care at Children’s National and hospitals around the country.

During the agonizing wait for the extension, Dr. Newman, as well as countless Children’s National pediatricians and government affairs leaders, spent hours encouraging, asking and telling policymakers at every level of government about the importance of investing more in children, not less.

He stresses that it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a wise investment. Spending dollars on children for prevention, early detection and education means that we have a healthier workforce, military and national community. It’s less expensive to treat mental and behavioral health problems, asthma and diabetes early on, before they become chronic issues.

The steady drumbeat from Children’s National supported national advocacy urging Congress to protect health insurance for the millions of children who rely on CHIP for all their health care needs.

The restored measure makes a world of difference for working families, but additional advocacy is needed as Congress continues to seek agreement on a long-term budget and other important legislation, some of which could have tremendous impacts on children’s health.

Leading a conversation about the needs of military families with terminally ill children

Concurrent care for terminally ill children – where lifesaving treatments such as chemotherapy and physical rehabilitation can take place alongside comfort measures and palliative care like 24-hour nursing – is covered by most insurance programs, including CHIP and Medicaid. However, until recently, military families covered under Tricare with such desperately ill children were forced to choose coverage for one OR the other.

Children’s National brought this challenge to its coalition partners at Tricare for Kids after watching several military families forced to make an agonizing decision between comfort and treatment. The coalition, a collection of military advocacy groups, children’s hospitals and other advocates, then fought hard to add a landmark provision to the National Defense Authorization Act allowing military families concurrent care coverage for their children. Implementing Tricare adjustments that deviate from Medicare provisions has been extremely difficult and politically fraught in the past, but when advocates and lawmakers focused on doing what’s right for kids, there was little to no Capitol Hill opposition and the change was easily passed in both the House and Senate.

In addition to advocacy, every day, a children’s hospital should help parents find their voices as active, empowered and engaged team members when it comes to caring for a sick child.

“It is crucial for a child’s care team to include his or her parents – the people who know them best,” Dr. Newman recently wrote. “I want every parent to feel comfortable being a true champion for their children at the pediatrician’s office or the hospital in the same way they champion them on the playing field or in the classroom.”

“That’s why I wrote the book Healing Children,” he says during book talks and interviews. “If parents knew what I knew, they’d make sure the doctors and nurses caring for their kids were experts in treating children. These stories show the power of pediatric specialty medicine, illustrate why parents should think ahead about how best to demand the care they deserve when something bad happens and show why we should always listen to parents’ concerns.”

Children and their families are at the center of every decision made at Children’s National, from day-to-day care planning to large scale business initiatives. When focusing on doing what’s right for them, everyone – the children, their families, the community AND the healthcare organization – benefits.

Human Rhinovirus

Finding the root cause of bronchiolitis symptoms

Human Rhinovirus

A new study shows that steroids might work for rhinovirus but not for respiratory syncytial virus.

Every winter, doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms fill with children who have bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung. It’s responsible for about 130,000 admissions each year. Sometimes these young patients have symptoms reminiscent of a bad cold with a fever, cough and runny nose. Other times, bronchiolitis causes breathing troubles so severe that these children end up in the intensive care unit.

“The reality is that we don’t have anything to treat these patients aside from supportive care, such as intravenous fluids or respiratory support,” says Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National Health System. “That’s really unacceptable because some kids get very, very sick.”

Several years ago, Dr. Freishtat says a clinical trial tested using steroids as a potential treatment for bronchiolitis. The thinking was that these drugs might reduce the inflammation that’s a hallmark of this condition. However, he says, the results weren’t a slam-dunk for steroids: The drugs didn’t seem to improve outcomes any better than a placebo.

But the trial had a critical flaw, he explains. Rather than having one homogenous cause, bronchiolitis is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms that can be caused by a number of different viruses. The most common ones are respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rhinovirus, the latter itself being an assortment of more than 100 different but related viruses. By treating bronchiolitis as a single disease, Dr. Freishtat says researchers might be ignoring the subtleties of each virus that influence whether a particular medication is useful.

“By treating all bronchiolitis patients with a single agent, we could be comparing apples with oranges,” he says. “The treatment may be completely different depending on the underlying cause.”

To test this idea, Dr. Freishtat and colleagues examined nasal secretions from 32 infants who had been hospitalized with bronchiolitis from 2011 to 2014 at 17 medical centers across the country that participate in a consortium called the 35th Multicenter Airway Research Collaboration. In half of these patients, lab tests confirmed that their bronchiolitis was caused by RSV; in the other half, the cause was rhinovirus.

From these nasal secretions, the researchers extracted nucleic acids called microRNAs. These molecules regulate the effects of different genes through a variety of different mechanisms, usually resulting in the effects of target genes being silenced. A single microRNA typically targets multiple genes by affecting messenger RNA, a molecule that’s key for producing proteins.

Comparing results between patients with RSV or rhinovirus, the researchers found 386 microRNAs that differed in concentration. Using bioinformatic software, they traced these microRNAs to thousands of messenger RNAs, looking for any interesting clues to important mechanisms of illness that might vary between the two viruses.

Their findings eventually turned up important differences between the two viruses in the NF-kB (nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells) pathway, a protein cascade that’s intimately involved in the inflammatory response and is a target for many types of steroids. Rhinovirus appears to upregulate the expression of many members of this protein family, driving cells to make more of them, and downregulate inhibitors of this cascade. On the other hand, RSV didn’t seem to have much of an effect on this critical pathway.

To see if these effects translated into cells making more inflammatory molecules in this pathway, the researchers searched for various members of this protein cascade in the nasal secretions. They found an increase in two, known as RelA and NFkB2.

Based on these findings, published online Jan. 17, 2018, in Pediatric Research, steroids might work for rhinovirus but not for RSV, notes Dr. Freishtat the study’s senior author.

“We’re pretty close to saying that you’d need to conduct a clinical trial with respect to the virus, rather than the symptoms, to measure any effect from a given drug,” he says.

Future clinical trials might test the arsenal of currently available medicines to see if any has an effect on bronchiolitis caused by either of these two viruses. Further research into the mechanisms of each type of illness also might turn up new targets that researchers could develop new medicines to hit.

“Instead of determining the disease based on symptoms,” he says, “we can eventually treat the root cause.”

Study co-authors include Kohei Hasegawa, study lead author, and Carlos A. Camargo Jr., Massachusetts General Hospital; Marcos Pérez-Losada, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences; Claire E. Hoptay, Samuel Epstein and Stephen J. Teach, M.D., M.P.H., Children’s National; Jonathan M. Mansbach, Boston Children’s Hospital; and Pedro A. Piedra, Baylor College of Medicine.

little girl holding a stuffed bear

Population Strategies for Children’s Health Summit

little girl holding a stuffed bear

Children’s National, with sponsorship from Cerner Corporation, is excited to announce the first Population Strategies for Children’s Health Summit on February 19 – 20, 2018 at The Westin in Washington, D.C. This is the first summit focused exclusively on comprehensive population health management approaches that can help children reach their highest levels of health and potential.

Join us in developing new ideas and best practices that engage millennial healthcare consumers and address challenges pediatric providers face in transitioning to value-based care. You’ll learn how population health management strategies can improve care quality for an entire pediatric population in a way that supports your health system’s bottom line.

Speakers at the summit will focus on topics such as:

  • Health policy
  • Care coordination
  • Physician engagement
  • Registries and risk stratification
  • Telehealth
  • Health disparities
  • Taking on risk

Get a sneak peek of the featured Millennial Panel discussion on February 20:

The current and future state of health care from a consumer’s perspective

Health care is a dynamic, constantly evolving entity. This three-person panel plus moderator takes on the consumer point of view to discuss what is and isn’t working in health care today. The panel consists of a pediatrician and mom of a child with Type 1 diabetes and a 15-year-old Type 1 diabetes patient. They’ll share their experiences and thoughts about how they believe health care will progress in the future.

For more information about the 2018 Population Strategies for Children’s Health Summit, please visit our website.

At AAP: addressing the needs of children living in poverty

Lanre Omojokun Falusi, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician at Children’s National Health System and Associate Medical Director for Municipal and Regional Affairs at Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI), will tell attendees of the American Academy of Pediatrics 2016 National Conference that “poverty really is a public health issue.”

For any child, and particularly children living in poverty, adverse experiences during childhood are linked to health conditions that can linger for much of their adult lives.

While pediatricians are challenged by high case loads, Dr. Falusi believes that there is a place within the doctor visit for a discussion about such social determinants of health. Team-based care provides an opening for such conversations.

In some cases, pediatricians may feel out of their element. “It’s a very natural feeling: The best interventions to alleviate poverty are not the issues that doctors are used to working on,” she says. On the other side of the continuum are clinicians who try to take a lion’s share of the load.  “Many pediatricians trained in hospitals that are very work-focused, and even I still fight the urge of saying ‘I myself need to fix this. It’s my job to make their health better.’ ”

But social workers, who are trained in identifying such resources, and nurses are also integral members of the healthcare team. It would be equally natural for a referral to a food pantry or an application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to come from these team members.

It’s a shift in mentality, refocusing on the patient’s broader needs that may impact health, rather than the narrow symptoms caused by those health concerns.

AAP 2016 presentation:
Saturday, October 22, 2016

  • I1161- Place Matters: Addressing the Needs of Children in Poverty in Rural and Urban Settings4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.