Brainstorm Health: Hurricane Maria Deaths, 23andMe Weed Study, Gilead’s U.K. Rebuke

August 28, 2018, 9:50 PM UTC

Hello, readers. This is Sy.

Hurricane Maria left a trail of devastation whose effects are still being felt to this day in Puerto Rico. On Tuesday, a new study from George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health—and commissioned by the governor Puerto Rico—concluded that there were an estimated 2,975 deaths on the island related to the storm. That’s a far bigger number than initially thought, and those affected tended to be the elderly and the poor.

But here’s something that may cause some confusion—why have the numbers on Maria’s death toll varied so widely?

Originally, a government figure pegged the death toll at 64. That simply didn’t pass the smell test for many observers—and for good reason. As Cliff explained in an excellent piece back in May, that official number only involved the number of deceased people who were specifically seen by a medical examiner. A region lacking in robust medical and transportation infrastructure in the midst of an historic storm isn’t the most amenable venue for those requirements.

In August, a new government report admitted that the figure was closer to 1,400. “Although the official death count from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety was initially 64, the toll appears to be much higher,” wrote the report authors. “On June 13, the Government of Puerto Rico revealed that there were 1,427 more deaths in the four months after the hurricanes than normal (based on the previous four years), and it will update the official count after a George Washington University study is completed.”

That George Washington University study is now complete and has more than doubled even the government’s revised death toll projection (another paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this summer actually goes even further and posits a death toll of 4,645.)

So what accounts for these wildly divergent numbers? To put it simply, it’s the methodology. Both the NEJM study and George Washington University paper attempt to incorporate the longer-term, and less easily measurable, potential effects of a devastating natural disaster—such as the downstream consequences for low-income residents and elderly people who didn’t have access to adequate food, water, and other resources to begin with.

“The official government estimate of 64 deaths from the hurricane is low primarily because the conventions used for causal attribution only allowed for classification of deaths attributable directly to the storm, e.g., those caused by structural collapse, flying debris, floods and drownings,” says the latest report in an attempt to explain the initial undercount. “During our broader study, we found that many physicians were not oriented in the appropriate certification protocol. This translated into an inadequate indicator for monitoring mortality in the hurricane’s aftermath.”

Read on for the day’s news.


23andMe research wades into the weed debate. Smoking marijuana may be associated with a higher risk of schizophrenia. Or maybe schizophrenia is associated with a higher probability of smoking marijuana. Well, at least that's the implication of a new study using genetic data gleaned from the increasingly popular 23andMe at-home DNA testing service. This is very early-stage stuff, but the researchers, at this point, seem to indicate that a higher chance of suffering from schizophrenia also leads to a higher chance of getting high. (Gizmodo)


U.K. rebukes Gilead's CAR-T therapy over cost concerns. U.K.'s oft-stringent drug pricing watchdog, NICE, has for the time being rejected Gilead's landmark CAR-T therapy Yescarta (the treatment that uses patients' re-engineered immune cells to combat blood cancer) over cost concerns. Just yesterday, the EU approved a competing product in the same class of drug from Novartis (Kymriah), which the U.K. has yet to consider; it's possible that the U.K. will eventually approve both these treatments following negotiations.


International pushback on vaping continues as India seeks an e-cig ban. Earlier this month, Israel passed a landmark bill that would bar the import and sale of the popular vaping product Juul due to public health concerns. Now, another major market is pushing back on the e-cigarette industry: India. The massive nation's health ministry is calling for a halt on sale of e-cigarettes and "heat not burn" tobacco products that major corporations like Philip Morris were hoping to launch in the country. (Reuters)


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