A hepatitis outbreak in kids
Plus, what's the deal with parabens?
Hey Health Deskers,
More than 130 children are victims of a recent and severe hepatitis outbreak. They’re primarily in Britain but experts are also tracing infections to the United States, Israel, Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, and Ireland. No children have died, but several required liver transplants from the inflammation the disease caused. Children are getting sicker than they might normally with this type of diagnosis.
To add further alarm, there also does not appear to be a link between the traditional hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, E, and E) and the new cases. Scientists are still trying to figure out why. Hypotheses range from a viral infection, a novel pathogen, exposure to a toxin, or even weakened immunity due to reduced socialization of children during the pandemic.
We expect doctors will continue to look out for symptoms, and for researchers to establish a specific cause or causes. Our team of scientists will unpack the latest on this for you as we get new information.
This week we’re checking out some more developments across the health and science world below. Don’t forget to visit health-desk.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for all your questions about health and science.
Exciting developments in cancer research
For the first time, in an analysis of thousands of tumors, researchers at the University of Cambridge detected mutational signatures in the DNA of cancers. These signatures are patterns that help give insight about whether a patient may have had previous exposures to environmental cancer causes, like smoking or UV light.
Clues from this research can allow doctors to look at individual cancer cases via tumor and match them to a specific treatment and medication. One caveat to this breakthrough is the need to identify the genetic makeup of cancer cells through genome sequencing, because it is the only way to establish these signatures.
In an analysis of 12,000 NHS cancer patients, 58 new mutational signatures were uncovered which implies that there are cancer causes that we do not totally understand at this point. We are hopeful these findings are able to establish more effective, safe, and specific treatment protocols for people with cancer diagnoses.
Lebanon faces dual health and economic crises
One country receiving increasing attention right now is Lebanon. The country is dealing with an 80% poverty rate in the midst of a health system crisis. Maternal mortality rates have tripled in recents years during the same time the country has been facing a three-year economic crisis.
Lebanon has also faced a mass exodus of doctors and midwives while welcoming 1.5 million Syrian refugees. It’s possible this contributed to an increase in refugee infant deaths. The 2020 Beirut explosions, low vaccination rates, emerging variants, supply chain crises, subsidy removals for fuel and medicine, and rising transportation and services costs have led the nation's health system in despair. Given that a UNICEF report determined that roughly half of families were unable to receive medicines they need, we hopefully expect more attention and financing to target the beleaguered nation in the next few months.
Now, here’s what our scientists are unpacking and for you:
What do we know about parabens?
Parabens are synthetic chemicals (made by humans using methods different from methods nature uses) that are used as preservatives in beverages, foods, drugs, and cosmetics.
There are many different types of parabens such as methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl- and isobutylparaben. There are "longer chain" parabens and "shorter chain" parabens. Animal studies have shown long chain parabens to be associated with more negative health outcomes than short chain parabens.
Parabens can enter the body by ingestion or absorption through the skin, and they have a half life of less than 24 hours, meaning they are out of the body quickly. However, regular application or ingestion of paraben-containing products could result in chronic, low levels of paraben in the body.
“On the one hand, they protect people from developing illnesses caused by harmful bacteria and mold in contaminated products. On the other hand, they have been found to be associated with endocrine disruption, carcinogenicity (being cancer-causing), and reproductive toxicity in cell and animal studies.
Based on current research, these negative outcomes are not high enough to result in banning or heavily regulating parabens. However, they do present legitimate concerns that justify ongoing research about the safety of parabens, and efforts have been made to regulate some parabens to some extent.”
What do we know about skin lightening cosmetics and skin cancer?
The use of skin lighteners through both topical (eg. creams) and intravenous (through a shot in the vein) applications have been documented on nearly every continent. Common skin lightening agents – such as glutathione, hydroquinone, mercury, retinoids, and steroids – inhibit the production of melanin, the group of natural pigments that gives color to eyes, hair, and skin. All of these skin lightening agents have been associated with negative effects. Most notably, products that contain hydroquinone have been found to be associated with squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer, through case reports.
Due to mixed evidence, hydroquinones are not currently classified as carcinogens. However, accumulating evidence connects it to possible DNA damage and immunosuppressive responses. At this time, more research is needed to clarify the relationship between hydroquinone and the risk of developing skin cancer.
“Paradoxically, the use of creams that contain hydroquinone may lead to exogenous ochronosis – a blue-black darkening of the skin in the area where it is applied that cannot be reversed. Other side effects of topical hydroquinone use are acne, contact dermatitis, conjunctival and nail hyperpigmentation, stretch marks, and skin infections.
Other skin lightening agents also cause side effects. For example, glutathione can cause abdominal cramps and trouble breathing in addition to other side effects, and skin-lightening retinoids can cause burning, itching, stinging, scaling, and redness of the skin in addition to other side effects.”