Heroes Never Die: A Personal Tribute to DA Henderson

This is a post I never wanted to write.

Dr. DA Henderson, the man who eradicated smallpox from this planet, has died. There are no words that can do adequate justice to this benefactor of humankind whose genius and ingenuity will be known for millennia. I write as one of the extremely fortunate individuals who can call DA not just hero but mentor.

I first met DA about 8 years ago as an infectious disease fellow. I can still recall my sheepish uttering of "Dr. Henderson" when I met him in his office as he sat amongst innumerable awards commemorating  the incalculable debt humankind will owe him in perpetuity. DA, despite my naivety, thoroughly embraced me in a way reminiscent of  the manner of a grandfather -- if your grandfather was a man who slayed dragons for a living. I am sure I am not unique in this feeling about DA as there are scores of his mentees worldwide who likely have similar sentiments.

DA was a force. He was someone who would never, ever, balk from calling a spade a spade. However cliched the phrase "speaking truth to power" may be, DA exemplified it. One of my first glimpses of this unrivalled ability of his was during the 2009 influenza epidemic where, just upon hearing preliminary information regarding its trajectory, he had its number. Incidentally, during that pandemic he and I coauthored a piece inspired by his recollection of the concept of antigenic sin---which I believe will be the highlight of my career. During this pandemic, DA was wont to add insightful suggestions as well as pointed criticism when warranted.

During Ebola in 2014, again DA showed his prowess arguing that directing control measures against those who were most contagious made the most sense in quelling the outbreak (another paper I was lucky enough to coauthor with him). 

Time and again, DA was proven right and his insight steered infectious disease medicine in a unique manner in which no one else could. 

In DA's last days, another of my mentors--Dr. Tom Inglesby--called me and told me to visit with DA as he really wanted to talk about infectious disease. I am eternally grateful to Tom for that call as my last visit with DA is something that I will never forget. What did we talk about? Here are two statements of DA made during our last discussion:

"What virus do you want to talk about next?"

"What other puzzles are there?"

These two statements from DA exemplify all that I want to be in my life-- someone so passionate and dedicated to productive work in my field that nothing refrains me from engaging in discussion about it, despite any circumstances I find myself in. The devotion DA had to his work, his ideas, and his mind is something unfortunately all too rare in the world today.

There are many recollections I have of working in the same office as him. Gone are the days when I can walk down to his office and hear him dissect the latest outbreak offering glimmering pearls as to what he determined to be the trajectory and implications of this latest insult on the human species -- something that continued up to and including Zika. But this impact is even more profound as the entire world counted on DA's wisdom to set the course of its battles against myriad infectious diseases from polio to guinea worm.

I heard that DA's health took a final turn for the worse as I was about to give a lecture on biosecurity, a field he was basically the founder of and who conceived of and founded the center of which I am a member. His leadership during the anthrax attacks of 2001 made the nation, and the world, safer and more prepared for bioterrorism than it ever had been. The ripple effects of his leadership will echo for decades. As I spoke, I suppressed emotions I had about a man who indelibly affected me and whom I knew I could never repay. 

If there were a Valhalla, I would like to imagine Pasteur, Koch, Lister, Salk, Sabin, Theiler, Ross, Semmelweis, Jenner, DA's mentor Alex Langmuir and the pantheon of the infectious disease luminaries, to whom the human race owes so much, on their feet, clapping in unison to welcome the man who took their ideas to their logical conclusion and rid mankind of an infectious scourge rendering it incapable of harming a human again.

I will never forget all that DA taught me and will always try to live up to the example he set. I will never cease regaling people with the stories of his life and achievements as they serve as an inspiration for what one human can aspire to be. 

What would DA do (WWDAD)? If that were to become the reigning paradigm in our field, I would surmise the human race would do just fine.

He not only tracked the zebra, he conquered it.

Infectious disease has lost its commander-in-chief.


A Field Trip Fit Only For an Infectious Disease Nerd: A Flu Vaccine Plant

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking the ultimate nerd field trip. Where did I go?  To an influenza vaccine plant, naturally. This was no ordinary vaccine plant I got to see though, it belongs to Protein Sciences Corporation: the sole supplier of the only recombinant influenza vaccine, Flublok

I am someone who has been a critic of the ordinary flu vaccine for myriad reasons, chief among them are its poor efficacy and the cumbersome and snail-like manufacturing process. These two deficiencies will spell doom in the face of a flu pandemic when speed, adaptability, and high efficacy could crucially alter the trajectory of the viral spread. Recombinant vaccines, not reliant on chicken eggs, fulfill these criteria and, as such, they are the vaccines of the future (not just for flu, but possibly for many other infections). 

Currently, the FDA has approved a 3-strain version of Flublok for use in adults. Many people, however, believe Flublok to be the vaccine of choice for those with severe egg allergies -- which it is -- and fail to realize there are more reasons to possibly prefer this vaccine over other options.

There is a growing body of data, for example, showing that this vaccine, in a yet-to-be-approved 4-strain form, provides superior protection when compared to the ordinary vaccine. "So what?" you might think, "4 is better than 3 and there is no 4 strain Flublok yet." Indeed, that is what I thought until I studied this vaccine in more detail and realized that its superior perfomance was due to something that nullifies the above argument.

Its advantage is its ability to ward off the tricky-to-grow H3N2 A strain included in both 3 and 4 strain vaccines; not the extra B that is included in quadrivalent vaccines. Remember, since Flublok is a recombinant vaccine there's no growing in chicken eggs and, consequently, no mutations that occur during growth creating a difference between what strain was used to construct the vaccine and what ultimately hatches at the end (such differences are likely a cause of diminished protection seen with the routine vaccine). Additionally, Flublok contains 3 times the amount of antigen per strain than the ordinary vaccine which also may play a role in its potency as does its ability to stimulate antibodies that are more broadly protective (against the hemagglutinin stalk in addition to the globular head). Overall, this approach has very high biological plausibility and I anticipate clinical studies will soon be published that definitively confirm these findings.

Flu is the big beast, the infectious disease I fear most. This flu season I might try the vaccine of the future.


Pantoea of the Cotton: Cotton Fever

This week I was consulted to see a patient that was, for an infectious disease physician, fairly routine: an injection drug user with a fever. However, this injection drug user had some particular habits that were interesting and the key to her diagnosis.

She had the usual fever, chills, and muscle aches that are characteristic of a bloodstream infection. She also complained of back pain leading to the suspicion that the infection could have seeded her vertebral column. She had a markedly elevated white blood cell count suggesting a large immune response had been immobilized. An MRI, blood cultures, and echocardiography all ensued. The patient, however, rapidly improved from her initial state and all these studies turned up no answers.

The patient's peculiar behavior I referenced above (and it might not be all that peculiar) was that she, when out of heroin, would attempt to draw up any remaining heroin from cotton she had used in the past to draw up heroin. Cotton is used as a crude filter and her hope was that small remnants of heroin might remain in the cotton and be dislodged into her body if she injected through it. This reminds me of a David Sedaris short story in which he is scouring his carpet for crystal methamphetamine specks. Despite using clean needles, there are other risks that injection drug users often fail to appreciate.

She had cotton fever. Cotton fever is the result of a bacterial toxin produced by the bacteria Pantoea agglomerans which colonizes cotton plants. What occurs during cotton fever is that residuals of the endotoxin are injected along with the heroin remnants. The endotoxin stimulates a substantial immune response triggering intense symptoms but no bacteria is found as this is pure toxin-mediated. Of course, blood cultures and antibiotics should be administered initially as it is difficult to predict if viable bacteria were also injected along with the endotoxin.

Injection drug users present myriad challenges, cotton fever may be one of the more interesting.

The Panic Virus: A Book With No Expiry Date

Yesterday I finished Seth Mnookin's acclaimed book The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy.  I am not sure why I postponed reading this book that was published in 2012 and now wish I had it read it earlier when I was heavily engaged in defending vaccines during the Disneyland measles outbreak. 

However the lessons of the book are still highly relevant to me and to the discussions I often find myself in. For instance yesterday, coincidentally, I found myself back in the same position defending the power of vaccines (this time HPV) against an onslaught of murky anecdotes, hearsay, and outright falsehoods. On such battlefields, the weapons of logic and reason can sometimes have no effect on those impervious to rational discussion based on facts. The Panic Virus explains why such a phenomen occurs. 

The chief value of this book, to me, is not that it details the history of this spurious, erroneous, and damaging smear against one of the most important life-enhancing technologies discovered (which it does), but that it delves into how such a false notion took hold, was promoted, and enabled. Published 4 years ago, The Panic Virus is still probably the best book in its field for this very reason.

A person's receptiveness to and acceptance of ideas is not automatic and, ideally, requires careful thought as to if what is being proposed as fact integrates with the sum of one's whole knowledge. A process of rational deliberation is required for an idea to be accepted as true. As such, logical thinking -- in which contradictions cannot exist -- is essential.

What lies at the root of the irrational fear of vaccines is what I believe is pure emotionalism and a disdain for reason. As Mnookin writes:

“But when it comes to decisions around emotionally charged topics, logic often takes a back seat to what are called cognitive biases—essentially a set of unconscious mechanisms that convince us that it is our feelings about a situation and not the facts that represent the truth”

Without logic, any arbitrary assertion is given a cognitive status it does not merit and impossible discussions about proving a negative ensue. If causal scientific data is considered to be equivalent to contextless correlations, anecdotes, and Jenny McCarthy's "mommy instinct" it is clear which side gains and which loses. It is especially egregious when those arguing with such overt fallaciousness are left unchallenged and regard science as just another way of "knowing" no different from rank mysticism, to which emotionalism ultimately has to degrade to as evidence is eschewed and evaded in favor of "intuition".

The Panic Virus is a book that defends not just science, but rationality as such. In Mnookin's inspiring closing of the book he harkens for a world:

“where science is acknowledged not as an ideology but as the best tool we have for understanding the universe, and where striving for the truth is recognized as the most noble quest humankind will ever undertake.”

I do too.


Zika Owns 1 Square Mile of America

By now, everyone knows there are 14 cases of local mosquito-borne transmission of Zika in Florida, some symptomatic and some asymptomatic. What is interesting about this small, and completely expected, outbreak is that it is, thus far, seemingly confined to one specific neighborhood of the city of Miami (in Miami-Dade) called Wynwood. This conglomeration of cases has caused the CDC to issue a travel advisory for pregnant women traveling to just that neighborhood of Miami which spans about 1 square mile. 

That this first documented outbreak of Zika within the 50 states is hyper-localized comes as no surprise as the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes responsible for the spread of the virus are not big commuters, preferring to stay around 150 meters from where they hatched. Also, neighborhoods have differing capacities for supporting mosquitoes in terms of ready access to blood meals and ample standing water for breeding. 

This hyper-locality made me recall a conversation I had months ago with a top Mexican public health official who lamented his entire country getting slathered with Zika-colors and a travel advisory when it was truly a specific region that was conducive to Zika spread.

The CDC, by sticking to real-time date and the evidence, was able to issue -- for the time being -- a very specific travel advisory so as to delimit panic and derail an economy heavily reliant on tourism. This type of highly actionable and precise advisory should be the norm (when possible).