Pandemic Perspective #26   September 19, 2020

                This week’s perspective veers a little off the COVID issue but not by much. There is increasing concern regarding the rapid emergence of the so-called superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to all currently available antibiotics. Infectious disease specialists, of which I am one, worry that unless there are several – not just one – breakthroughs in the development of antibiotics, we are facing an antibiotic winter, meaning that humanity will be as susceptible to common but deadly infections as we were prior to the 1930s, when something as minor as a splinter could lead to death.

            This is already a common problem, especially for hospitalized persons. On the other hand, there are now strains of the agent of gonorrhea, the second leading cause of sexually transmitted diseases that have developed extreme resistance.

            What does this have to do with the current pandemic? Persons who are seriously ill from COVID-19 have several characteristics that make them extremely vulnerable to hospital-acquired infections. They are often obese and diabetic; both conditions lower immunity. They are burdened with multiple pathways to infection – intravenous lines, urinary catheters, breathing tubes, drains to remove accumulations of fluid and pus within the chest cavity, etc. They are hospitalized for weeks, sometimes months, allowing plenty of time to be exposed to infectious agents.

            A new form of treatment is emerging: bacteriophage. The term comes the Greek – bacteria eater. These are viruses that are present throughout the environment but especially in the foulest places such as sewage. They attack and destroy bacteria, a battle that has raged for millions of years. This form of treatment for bacterial infection originated several decades ago but research declined dramatically when penicillin arrived on the scene.

            Tens of thousands of persons succumb to these antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year. The best way to avoid them is to stay out of the hospital by following public health precautions and by maintaining a strong immune system, as described in multiple postings on this site.

            For an extremely informative narrative of this challenge I highly recommend The Perfect Predator by Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson. When Steffanie’s husband Tom developed a serious abdominal infection with a highly virulent bacterium, she initiated a hunt for a bacteriophage that would cure him when all known antibiotics failed. The book is extremely well written, the audio version * is superbly narrated and it takes place in San Diego, where the couple are on the faculty at UCSD. The medicalese is handled very well; non-physicians will not feel left behind. You can also find their story on YouTube and a Ted Talk.

* – You can download it free from the Libby app at via your local library membership.

In the news                  September 15, 2020

Vitamin D and friends – their role in COVID-19

            Early in the course of the pandemic several supplements, including vitamins, minerals and herbal products were touted to be preventative or even curative for the SARS-CoV-2 disease that is now labeled COVID-19. How well have they performed? Unfortunately there are very few valid studies, i.e., randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind with enough “power” or numbers of participants to raise hopes of a cure. However there is an emerging sense among the scientific community that some supplements, especially vitamin D, do make a difference in terms of susceptibility to severe disease.

            A low level of vitamin D may eventually be considered as a comorbidity along with obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease and immune suppression. An article in the journal Nutrients by reputable researchers from several countries makes the point with the intriguing title Evidence that vitamin D Supplementation Could Reduce Risk of Influenza and COVID-19 Infections and Deaths.

            Since vitamin D is produced in the body by the action of a specific wavelength of sunlight, we form less of it in the winter. This correlates with the peaks of influenza activity that are the opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, occurring in their winter seasons.

            There are several ways in which vitamin D is protective against severe influenza and coronavirus disease, but especially that it lowers pro-inflammatory cytokines and raises anti-inflammatory cytokines, the agents of the often-fatal cytokine storm.

            By now everyone is aware that older persons have a high fatality rate from COVID-19 and the reasons become clearer when we realize why they have low levels of vitamin D: blood levels of this vitamin decrease naturally with age; older persons tend to have limited exposure to sunlight; they are more likely to take several prescription medications, especially those such as antihypertensives, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs that lower vitamin D levels; they are more likely to have generous fat deposits in which vitamin D becomes sequestered and unavailable to bolster the immune system.

            The authors of the above article make a bold statement: “To reduce the risk of infection, it is recommended that people at risk of influenza and/or COVID-19 consider taking 10,000 IU/d of vitamin D3 for a few weeks to rapidly raise 25(OH)D concentrations, followed by 5.000 IU/d.” Even those of us who recommend at least 1,000 IU (International Units) per day are surprised by this but it could well be preventive for persons at risk and even that level of intake carries absolutely no risk of side effects.  

            They also suggest that magnesium, because it helps to activate vitamin D, should be taken with the supplement. Vitamin C and zinc participate in the immune process. Most of us get enough zinc. Immunologists find that the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C is too low. It’s enough to prevent scurvy but not enough for optimal immune function. The latter may require 200-500 milligrams per day of vitamin C.

            You can expect more studies on nutritional approaches to boosting immunity as humanity faces the increasing frequency of pandemics and the disturbing rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria.      


            Another annoyance of aging — it’s the C-word: constipation.

            One of the world’s most famous poopologists, Dr. Denis Burkitt, practiced for many years among the natives of Central Africa. I won’t go into detail about his findings but he noted that because of their diet that was high in plant foods, he never saw among them three conditions: constipation, appendicitis and diverticulitis. Of course, all of us have experienced the first, many the second and a few the third.

            As you can guess from the above paragraph, all three problems are obviously diet-related, since the American descendants of Africans are familiar with all of them. Hunter-gatherers take in approximately ten times as much plant fiber as we do, so no wonder. Most of our calories come in the form of refined grains and sugars, which makes the problem worse.

            The sedentary lifestyle contributes to constipation – ask any long-haul truck driver – so you should add regular exercise to your high-fiber diet. 

            There are two reasons why constipation should not be ignored or tolerated. When it becomes chronic it leads to diverticulosis, the formation of pockets that bulge out from the wall of the large intestine and when these become infected the result is diverticulitis, a condition that is always painful, sometimes requires hospitalization and occasionally causes death from peritonitis. Another reason is the increased risk of colon cancer, a risk that is small but real.

            As in so many of these “annoyances of aging” the presence of constipation may indicate disease, one of the most common of which is hypothyroidism, low thyroid activity. Some prescription drugs, especially opiates, are notorious for the bowel sluggishness that they cause.

            Laxatives are not the answer but if you can’t relieve constipation with diet, consider stool softeners like Miralax and Metamucil.

Pandemic Perspective #25     September 12, 2020

Upcoming presentations

Wednesday, September 16th, 1:00 p.m. Medical miracles since you were a kid. In the year 1940 the world stood on the threshold of many if not most of the astounding advances in the field of medicine. Since then three generations of physicians and scientists have performed surgery on infants still in the womb, restored vision and hearing to the blind and deaf, eliminated through drugs and vaccines diseases that killed tens of millions of children every year and made organ transplants routine. Join us as we describe these and many other medical marvels that were once in the realm of science fiction. Sponsored by OASIS. To register see their web site at (Don’t follow this link, but go via Google.)

Monday, September 21, 9:30 a.m. Medical miracles since you were a kid. In the year 1940 the world stood on the threshold of many if not most of the astounding advances in the field of medicine. Since then three generations of physicians and scientists have performed surgery on infants still in the womb, restored vision and hearing to the blind and deaf, eliminated through drugs and vaccines diseases that killed tens of millions of children every year and made organ transplants routine. Join us as we describe these and many other medical marvels that were once in the realm of science fiction. Sponsored by Osher Lifelong Learning Center. To register see their web site at or call 800-500-9377.

Wednesday, September 30th, 1:00 p.m. Being a kid in the Stone Age. A pregnant woman in the Stone Age was healthier than a modern woman and her child benefited as a result. In spite of the hazards of infections that have been under control in the Western world for many decades, children who were born tens of thousands of years ago would become strong, healthy adults. None would suffer from the chronic diseases of modern life. Learn about how they were born, raised and nurtured in a primitive world. Sponsored by OASIS. To register see their web site at (Don’t follow this link, but go via Google.)

A four-pronged vaccine strategy

            With more than 150 companies scrambling to market the first and the best COVID-19 vaccine, not enough attention is being paid to three other vaccines that are going to play a major role in the nation’s health in the next few months.

            In contrast with those who endured the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, we have less to fear from bacterial infections that were the actual causes of death a century ago. It wasn’t the virus that killed most of those who died during what has erroneously been called The Spanish Influenza. Although many did suffer from a rapid and devastating viral disease, there were four common bacteria that caused most deaths. One of these, Hemophilus influenzae, was recovered from about a third of autopsied victims and it was incorrectly thought to be the actual cause of the pandemic. Many were infected with the pneumococcus, one of the most common agents of simple pneumonia (as well as serious diseases such as meningitis and bloodstream infections in children).

            Hemophilus influenzae seldom causes disease in adults and the vaccine that children receive has virtually eliminated serious infections such as meningitis and throat infections that formerly were common causes of death and disability.

            An effective vaccine has been available for the pneumococcus for decades and it is recommended for anyone over the age of 65. The recommendations change from time to time so you need to check with your physician. It is also routinely given to children.

            If you were born prior to 1995 you probably had chickenpox – and maybe you thought that you had lifelong immunity. That’s only half right. You won’t get chickenpox again but that sneaky virus never left! It has taken up residence in your spinal cord and when conditions are right it will creep out, usually through nerves that emerge in the side of your chest or abdomen, sometimes in the face, to cause an intensely painful, blistering rash called shingles.

            One of those “conditions” is anything that temporarily lowers your resistance, and a viral infection is a good example. Influenza is one of those viruses, like measles and chickenpox itself that dampens the immune response. That’s why influenza victims so commonly are carried off by secondary bacterial invaders. And when you have the flu, which impairs the immune response, the chickenpox virus takes the opportunity to emerge and produce shingles. The good news is that the new shingles vaccine, called Shingrix, is much better than the older version and the protection lasts longer. The bad news is that it requires two injections, two to six months apart, and the side effects are a little worse: pain at the injection site and just feeling lousy for a couple of days. However, considering that common side effects of shingles include post herpetic neuralgia, pain that can last forever, and blindness if the shingles rash emerges on the face, the side effects of the vaccine are a small price to pay.

            Then there’s the influenza vaccine. As noted in prior blogs, it doesn’t always prevent the flu but it nearly always works well enough to keep you out of the hospital where dangerous bacteria, some of which are resistant to all available antibiotics, always lurk. Let that one settle in!!

            The fourth vaccine and the most problematic is the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. No one can predict how well it will work, what kind of side effects to expect and how long it will maintain its protective effect. Although the first release may happen before the end of the year it will take many months before we know the answers to those questions.

In the meantime:

            Get the flu, pneumonia and shingles vaccines.

            Stay well-nourished, especially to make sure to have an adequate intake of vitamins C and D, protein and omega-3 fats

Pandemic Perspective #24   September 5, 2020

            Wearing a plastic face shield instead of a cloth mask has its advantages. Others can see your smile, you won’t smudge your make-up, your glasses won’t fog up and breathing is sure a lot more comfortable. That’s the upside.

            The downside is that it won’t protect the folks you encounter from the virus that you might be carrying before symptoms show up, or if you are truly asymptomatic but still showering your environment with live virus. And they only do a fair job of protecting you. That was demonstrated in a Swiss study in which shield-wearers were not protected as well as persons who wore a properly fitted cloth mask.

            If you’re unknowingly carrying SARS-CoV-2 most, but not all, the droplets that you sneeze, cough or simply exhale while you’re talking, singing or shouting will be directed downward or sideways from the shield and sink to the floor harmlessly. Aerosols are another matter. Those tiny particles – really tiny — that escape from below or to the side can float around for hours.

            If you do use a shield be sure to wash it thoroughly every day. And just like a mask, if you touch the outside of the shield you’ll transfer any virus particles onto your fingers and then to your eyes.

            The CDC recommends that persons who wear a shield because it looks cool or to protect their eyes should also wear a mask! Now that’s a bummer!

            The bottom line: no face covering is perfect. Maintaining distance from others and frequent handwashing still matter.

In the news                  September 1, 2020

The flu vaccine – but wait! There’s more!

The flu season doesn’t officially begin until October 1st but the vaccine is already available. Becoming infected with the influenza virus is always risky, especially for older persons but children are also at risk. More than 150 youngsters died in the season that ended earlier this year.

The influenza vaccine is not all that great compared to the highly protective childhood vaccines like measles or the ones that are strongly recommended for adults, such as the pneumonia or shingles vaccines. You can still get the flu if you are vaccinated but that’s not the primary consideration. We’re facing a new complication this year, COVID-19.

Some viruses weaken the immune system. That effect lasts for two years or more in the case of measles. Some of the worst secondary infections due to bacteria in my experience as a pediatrician occurred in kids with chickenpox. Influenza fits this pattern. Pneumonia caused by bacteria commonly occurs in patients hit by influenza, especially seniors. During the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic many, possibly the majority of fatalities, were due to secondary bacterial pneumonia, leading physicians to attribute the disease to a bacterium called Hemophilus influenzae, even erroneously naming the germ as the causative agent.

The influenza vaccine lowers the risk of pneumonia by about 20 percent and decreases the likelihood that a flu victim will require hospitalization. The studies are impressive: the influenza vaccine reduces the risk of dying by 36 percent, decreases ICU admission by 19 percent and reduces the need for mechanical ventilation by a whopping 34 percent. Several studies show that there is a significant reduction in heart attacks and strokes in vaccinees compared with those who are unvaccinated. In contrast, there is an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in the 6 months following a bout of influenza.

Kidney failure is becoming increasingly common, largely due to the epidemic of type 2 diabetes and most patients are unaware of it until severe symptoms appear, including heart failure. Recent studies show that patients with chronic kidney failure are less likely to develop heart failure if they have received the influenza vaccine.

We don’t yet know how the coronavirus pandemic will interact with the inevitable influenza infections. However since influenza, as noted, weakens the immune system, it’s likely to make the coronavirus infection worse. As you are aware by now, 90 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 have occurred in persons with one or more underlying disease, including obesity and diabetes.

Consider this: 42 percent of Americans are obese and 12 percent have type 2 diabetes. Only about half of seniors have received the vaccine against one of the leading causes of pneumonia in persons with influenza.

In light of all the above, failure to get the influenza vaccine is sheer folly. The current vaccine is already available. Some people defer the vaccine until January or February because protection seems to wane after several months. In this year of the coronavirus that is not a sensible strategy.



California’s fitness centers are open! Great news but when you return to your pre-pandemic workout, take it slow. For the first week or two it makes sense to use only light weights. Hard workouts lead to DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – which can be very painful.

Make sure that you’re getting enough protein to rebuild muscle, especially since exercise breaks down muscle cells – which is why they get bigger and stronger when the body repairs them – and protein is the building block of muscle. The average daily requirement for dietary protein is about one-half gram per pound of body weight; heavy exercisers need twice as much.

Don’t let yourself get dehydrated, even a little. Dehydration will make you more fatigued during your workout and it is the single most important factor in the development of kidney stones. Gyms now limit access to water fountains. You’ll have to bring your own bottle but they’ll let you refill it.

What? You don’t exercise? Did you know that regular, moderately intense exercise strengthens the immune system? That’s something you need now more than ever.

Stay safe!





 Pandemic Perspective #23                         The coronavirus crystal ball

Making predictions can be dangerous, especially when they are in writing. That’s even more precarious when the virus and the pandemic that it has spawned have revealed so many surprises, overturned long-accepted medical principles, embarrassed politicians and their healthcare advisors, thrown political campaigns into knots, threatened the viability of whole industries, transformed the workplace, encouraged migration away from cities and forced the nation’s education facilities, especially colleges and universities to adjust to the still-uncertain online methods of delivering their content. Whew!

What will the world look like at the end of 2021? It’s certain that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, by then having spun off several mutated strains of unpredictable invasiveness, destructiveness and the response to a vaccine, will still be around. It’s unlikely that we will have arrived at herd immunity considering that as of late summer 2020 only about three-tenths of one percent of the global population has been infected.  Even in the United States the number is below two percent (assuming that the numbers are even close to being accurate). Herd immunity may require that at least thirty times as many of us need to experience the virus, even more if we rely on the measles model that requires nearly ninety percent to reach an effective level.

As noted in last week’s blog a vaccine is only part of the solution; vaccine effectiveness and distribution are significant challenges and cost is a major factor in developing countries. The pharmaceutical industry has not yet brought forth a single drug or combination that can stop COVID-19 in its tracks, at least to the satisfaction of medical professionals, pundits and politicians. Convalescent plasma is promising but such a complex biological material is likely to reveal allergic reactions and other problems when it enters wide use.

Are you working from home? Will you ever go back to an irritating daily commute, spend five days a week in a (currently empty) office building and have to wear something besides PJs or sweats? Public transportation and commercial office space have taken a hard hit and they have taken municipal tax revenue with them.

Colleges and universities are in turmoil. They still have to maintain classrooms, administrative spaces and dormitories but students and their families are already balking at having to pay full tuition for online courses and the revenue from athletic events has vanished. To some parents of younger school-age children, home schooling has revealed clear benefits and there are now several permutations of this approach to education. Pooling of parental talent, choice of curriculum, fewer worries about safety from predators or bullies, lower transportation costs and a sense of control add to the appeal. Proponents of school choice have been energized by new opportunities and bolstered by the reluctance of teachers’ unions to reopen schools.

Then there’s the face mask issue. No civilian version is 100% effective. Simple cloth masks are minimally effective; those with valves actually increase the risk of spreading disease. Yet Dr. Fauci has told us that we’ll be wearing masks throughout 2021. Good luck with that! (On the other hand, maybe he will have changed his mind again.) More and more people refuse to wear them and many others wear them below the nose. Unless there is a sharp downturn in the rate of infection you can expect more states and cities to mandate their use for the remainder of this year, as several have already done.

Dr. Fauci has also told us that we must stop shaking hands – forever! Even fist bumps are suspect.

“Fine dining” has become an oxymoron. There is nothing charming about eating at a table in what was a parking space a few months ago. When indoor dining does return there will be at least one benefit: the restaurant will be quieter with only a quarter to half as many patrons. The wait staff will also be more eager to please, with only a fraction of the tips that they had become used to. I doubt that the restaurants that will still be open at the end of 2021 will be allowed to return to their prior capacity.

Flying had become an unpleasant experience even before TSA security lines. The airlines predict that it will take years for them to recover. Permanently furloughed crews and ground personnel never will. Perhaps TSA will implement a new express lane for passengers who can show a certificate of immunity or proof of vaccination. Like the pink dot on your driver’s license that identifies you as an organ donor we can apply for a “COVID-19 Free” sticker to help us zip through the line.

COVID-19 testing is evolving as technological advances make it more accurate, faster, easier, more comfortable and less expensive. Test kits will be as ubiquitous as pregnancy tests on the shelves of Wal-Mart sometime in 2021. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a COVID-19 test combined with a DNA test (to prevent fraud) in a national database. That will  give privacy advocates nightmares but there isn’t much about each of us that isn’t already in a database somewhere to which we have contributed willingly.

The national lockdown will have ended by December 2021 but the effects on our psyche will be as lasting as those that followed the stock market crash of 1929 or World War Two. Hugs and handshakes will be less common but wearing a face mask will become a habit for many persons. We’ll unconsciously keep social distancing when we’re among strangers. Zooming won’t just be for business; together with Instagram and other apps it will replace ordinary phone conversations. The benefits of working from home will have been solidified and welcomed both by employers and employees.

But then, these are only predictions. I can’t wait to see the reality!

And feel free to share any ideas that you might have regarding post-pandemic America. How do you think your life will change?








Pandemic Perspective #22   August 22, 2020

What do you think of a COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccines have been one of the major reasons for the dramatic change in life expectancy among children. Barely two centuries ago one child in four didn’t make it past the first birthday. That number is now about one in 1000. Better nutrition and improved sanitation had much to do with that progress but vaccines deserve most of the credit.

There is a wariness about the COVID-19 vaccine. Like prescription drugs, vaccines sometimes have severe, occasionally fatal, side effects. That will undoubtedly be true for the COVID-19 vaccine by the time the first million or so doses have been administered.

At no time in history has there been such an enormous, frantic effort to produce a vaccine. Among more than 200 candidate vaccines a handful are already in the human testing phase. Even if at least one is approved for use by the end of this year it will likely take most of 2021 to administer it to the globe’s seven billion inhabitants, and that may be an optimistic estimate.

There are several barriers to completion of a successful vaccine program. It may turn out to be like the influenza vaccine, only partially effective and requiring annual administration. Like the influenza virus, coronaviruses undergo frequent mutations, some of which may dictate periodic retooling of the vaccine. A worse scenario is that vaccine recipients, instead of being protected from a subsequent natural infection, may have a paradoxical, worse illness upon such exposure.

Perhaps the most serious challenge to universal coverage is vaccine refusal. Polls indicate that at least a third and perhaps half of adults will refuse to get immunized. Their reasons cover a wide spectrum that includes fear of injury, concern about effectiveness, the cost of the vaccine or even conspiracy theories that range from the plausible to the idiotic.

In all this there is a lesson to be learned from the influenza vaccine. Its ability to prevent illness is nothing to celebrate, ranging from about twenty to fifty percent. That is not the issue. What matters is that even when the vaccine is only partially protective it almost always does modify the disease and – and this is extremely important – it keeps victims from requiring hospitalization. Hospitals breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kill tens of thousands of Americans every year. A growing number of bacteria are resistant to all currently available antibiotics.

The next wave of influenza will be in full swing early in 2021 and there is already a consideration that we will see a combination influenza-coronavirus vaccine. I seriously doubt that such a dual vaccine will be available for at least a year. It will require even more testing, although combination vaccines for children have been in use for decades. Contrary to earlier fears, such mixtures are no less potent than individual vaccines and reducing the number of shots is something every parent and child can appreciate.

An intriguing question: how will social distancing, obligatory wearing of masks, closure of usually crowded entities such as schools, theaters, restaurants and other venues influence the spread of influenza? Unless the coming season’s version of the flu virus is unusually contagious there is a strong likelihood that we will see fewer cases of influenza and thus fewer deaths than in most years. That should not deter anyone from getting a flu shot, especially since there is a real risk of acquiring both viruses at the same time – a really scary scenario.

To my knowledge, none of the candidate vaccines consists of live coronavirus particles although a few utilize benign live viruses to transport the coronavirus material into cells for processing and ultimate protection.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has turned out to be full of surprises from which medical scientists have learned a great deal. I’m certain that the COVID-19 vaccines will provide even more.





Pandemic Perspective #21 Covidiocy August 15, 2020

More than six months into the coronavirus pandemic there are contradictory opinions about whether it is rising, leveling off or declining. That’s nothing compared to the idiocy – already named Covidiocy – that permeates society like an epidemic. (Sorry – couldn’t resist.) Scientists, journalists and politicians (especially politicians) are all part of the clown force.

Covidiocy is defined as the loss of the ability to think logically during a pandemic. It’s nothing new; bizarre ideas and practices have been rife during everything from the Black Death to the Spanish flu. The modern media, of course have put it in our faces like never before.

Speaking of faces, the covidiots that wear face masks are the most obvious.  It’s bipartisan; Anthony Fauci, Jerry Nadler and Gavin Newsom have been photographed with their masks under their noses or hanging on their chins. Democrats point to the times when Donald Trump went barefaced completely. Before our fitness center closed I actually counted 16 fellow exercisers right around me who thought that they were wearing mouth masks, not face masks.

It’s hard to open a web page these days that doesn’t include an ad for masks – including the ones with valves, which make breathing easier but also allow any germs in your exhalation to waft unimpeded through the air around you. Plain cloth masks such as bandanas are comfortable but just as worthless.

Perhaps the most idiotic are the politicians who have decreed that we should wear a mask even when home alone, alone in our cars, during a Zoom session, when walking in the park with a family member or even when having sex! How scientific!

Then there is statistical covidiocy – such as the numerous instances in which persons, listed as fatal cases and who died with the coronavirus were included among those who died of coronavirus – including one report of a person who died of a gunshot wound. (I’ll concede that some of those reports are made up but many, not just a handful, are valid.)

The just-announced democrat vice presidential candidate is recorded on video as saying that young people are stupid. Having at some point in the past being young and stupid myself, I totally agree. Seeing the many videos and photos of young people at parties, bars and other venues, crowded together, vocalizing, maskless and clearly not “distancing” reinforces that opinion.

By the way, how is your supply of toilet paper?


Pandemic Perspective #20 – August 8, 2020

Thinking zinc? Think again.

Zinc has come out of the shadows, thanks to SARS-CoV-19. It is an essential nutrient, participating in several hundred chemical reactions throughout the body. Zinc deficiency can have severe consequences that range from hair loss to severe mental retardation and dwarfism but it is uncommon in places like the United States. It’s also vital for a healthy immune system; elderly persons may have inadequate levels of zinc, making them more susceptible to infections, especially pneumonia.

Red meat, shellfish, whole grains, beans and nuts are good sources of zinc. Supplements are rarely necessary and most multivitamin/multimineral preparations provide the recommended intake of roughly ten milligrams daily.

Because zinc is important for optimal immune function it is being studied, especially in conjunction with hydroxychloroquine, for the treatment of COVID-19. As of this date (August 8, 2020) there is no conclusive evidence that taking a zinc supplement will influence the outcome of coronavirus infection although some studies do show some benefit.

Zinc supplements have been around for years for the prevention and treatment of simple colds. There again, studies are mixed, although there is evidence that such supplements shorten the duration of a cold by a couple of days. In developing countries, where zinc deficiency is common, the benefit of zinc in preventing respiratory infections is clearer.

High doses of zinc, especially when taken for more than a few weeks, can cause gastrointestinal irritation and in persons who use an intranasal preparation, loss of the sense of smell can be permanent.

Should you take a zinc supplement to prevent COVID-19? The answer is no. If you take it when you are starting to develop a cough, sore throat or runny nose, don’t take it for more than a few days and never more than 40 milligrams per day.

If you are in a group that might be at risk of zinc deficiency (older, diabetic, vegan) a multivitamin/multimineral that provides a full complement of nutrients is a better choice. Even better is a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, occasional red meat – and no junk food!




In the news                  August 1, 2020

The other diabetes – a new scenario

You may have read that the lethality of the current coronavirus increases dramatically in persons with diabetes. Several countries have reported that more than half of those who died had diabetes, overwhelmingly type 2, which had previously been known as adult onset diabetes.

As I have noted in past blogs, pediatricians have recognized for decades that when a disease such as mumps occurs in genetically susceptible persons they sometimes develop type 1 diabetes (juvenile onset). It appears that the virus not only destroys insulin-producing cells within the pancreas, it releases fragments of those cells that trigger an immune response that finishes off the cells that are left. When the production of insulin ceases, daily injections are necessary to sustain life.

The mumps virus is just one example but other viruses can also be the villains. In 2002 the SARS virus and in 2012 the MERS virus, both coronaviruses, were found to be capable of destroying insulin-producing cells. Italian physicians were among the first to report that some SARS-CoV-2 patients had type 1 diabetes (T1DM) and that in many cases the condition had not previously been diagnosed. This raises the disturbing possibility that SARS-CoV-2 actually causes T1DM and that because of the sheer numbers of infected persons throughout the globe we are going to see an epidemic of the disease.

The picture is far from clear and it is much more complicated than the simple explanation that I offer here. Besides genetics other factors come into play including the mechanism by which viruses attack those insulin-producing cells, the details of the patient’s immune response, the effect of antiviral drugs or other medications that might halt or slow down the process and how physicians can manage the complex biochemical abnormalities that result from the combination of a life-threatening viral infection and an equally lethal metabolic disorder.

The big question for those who have type 1 diabetes or have a family member who does: will COVID-19 increase the risk of dying? It appears not. In fact, physicians in Italy suggest that the risk of acquiring the infection and of having severe complications appears to be lower in persons with type 1 disease. However, the numbers observed so far are very small, the explanation may have nothing to do with the virus itself and systematic analyses are only now getting started.

Stay tuned as we experience one more surprising element of this unusual pandemic.


Annoyances of aging: that pesky intestinal tract.

This week we’ll start from the top with GERD (GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease) that can be as mild as heartburn or as severe as bringing up stomach acid that you can taste. This happens when the valve-like apparatus between the esophagus and the stomach becomes relaxed and incompetent as we get older. Sometimes the cause is a hiatal hernia, a defect in the diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen.

In most persons the symptoms of GERD are mild and can be relieved by taking a Tums or two. When the acid-induced irritation of the lower esophagus becomes frequent and severe it’s time to see your local gastroenterologist. He or she may determine that the cause is related to a prescription medication, to a hiatal hernia or simply obesity. It may be necessary to take a look or to do other tests in order to rule out specific conditions such as Barrett’s esophagus, which carries a low but real risk of cancer.

Medications that lower the production of stomach acid include PPIs (Proton Pump Inhibitors) and H2 blockers but both of these prescription drugs are associated with side effects that include a greater risk of cancer, dementia and fractures. One of these, ranitidine (Zantac), has been removed from the market by the FDA. Stomach acid is necessary for the proper processing of vitamin B12 and medications that reduce it can induce anemia as well as damage to the nervous system.

You can take some consolation from the fact that you have lots of company: about 20 percent of Americans have GERD and even more have simple heartburn. Most of us can handle it well with antacids but when the symptoms are severe it’s another one of those annoyances of aging that in reality are indicators of a more serious problem.