Snakebite: Two years and 200 cases later

snakebite

We practice as independent doctors right after MBBS in Nepal. One of my professors used to say, “One day, you will sleep as a medical student and wake up as a doctor.” What that meant for me was, after I graduate from medical school, I’d pack my bags and head towards a rural village to “save lives.” Like any other life transitions, this one felt unchartered, unknown, and scary. I felt severely underprepared. As time passed by, I started appreciating my internship year. We have a year of internship after MBBS at the teaching hospital where we work as a junior doctor. At Beltar—my workplace, I’d remember how the patient with enteric fever was managed back home, brush up on the details with a quick read in UptoDate, and play doctor.

"One day, you will sleep as a medical student and wake up as a doctor." What that meant for me was, after I graduate from medical school, I'd pack my bags and head towards a rural village to "save lives." Like any other life transitions, this one felt unchartered, unknown, and scary. I felt severely underprepared.

The general structure of how I practiced medicine was; model what my professors used to do, read up on what is new/has changed, and treat patients. One day, some people carried a young child with droopy eyes, flappy tongue, and drowning in his saliva to the PHC. “He was bit by this snake!” The man with tearful eyes was holding on to a dead brown snake. Do you see a problem there? My go-to structure for practicing medicine crumbled. Underprepared would be an understatement. We were lucky that a team of trained armies helped set up the snake bite center in the PHC.

As some months passed by, I started feeling somewhat competent in managing snakebite cases. Any lesson you learn in medicine is a work in progress, but here are some I can recall:

The oversimplified version of snakebite treatment is–give antivenom and wait. In my experience, what we do while waiting, matters a lot. The neurotoxin that makes the patient paralyzed does not shut his brain down. He can listen and see, and we can use that to our advantage. Tell him what you are doing. Let him know what to expect. Talk to him. Open his eyes and make him see his loved ones are nearby. Make him believe that people are working hard to help him.

Amid scrutinized protocols, results of giant multi-center RCTs, and excellent well-formatted articles, it is easy to forget that what we do is taking care of a patient—the most basic of human skills. “LATERAL RECUMBENT!” I found myself shouting out of instinct. The patient was drowning in his saliva. My team tried hard to protect the patient’s airway as per protocol by extending his neck. But the patient was having a hard time breathing due to secretions. Sure we could not use the suction; unreliable electricity supply, broken suction machine, lack of funding, and whatnot, but we could still care. Use your mirror neurons; what would you want people to do if you were where the patient is?

Timely referral can be the difference between life and death. Understand the limitations of where you are working. Do you have a properly functioning suction? How reliable is your electricity? Do you have a ventilator? How far would you have to send the patient to get one? Manage your internal alarm accordingly. For us, the only respiratory support was a bag valve mask, and the transport to the nearest facility with a ventilator was at least 2 hours. Knowing that helps you be acceptably anxious and make informed decisions.

There is no substitution for empathetic yet informative communication with the patient and their loved ones. Clarify your assessment, plan, and signs that will prompt you to refer the patient. Talk to the anxious patient parties in a supportive tone but tell them that antivenom has ADRs, probably more than most drugs you use. When working in rural, especially in high-risk cases like snakebite, keeping the patient and their caretakers informed should be a priority.

Talk about ways to prevent snake bites. These beautiful creatures aren’t violent. Be interested in how the patient was bitten. After a while, you will start recognizing a pattern that you can use to educate the target population. Also, not everyone comes with the snake to the hospital. Have a poster of different types of snakes available. Identifying if the snake was venomous is one of the initial steps, after all. Print the local and national statistics about antivenom use and results and paste them in the waiting area. It will help patient parties calibrate their expectations accordingly.

A visual poster of common snakes found in Nepal placed at the entrance of Snakebite Treatment Center.

Summer and rainy seasons are when the unfortunate encounters between humans and snakes happen. It is easy to forget the snakebite management protocol, equipment necessary, what workarounds were used to help us, and what drugs we have in stock. A small refresher session can go a long way in boosting your team’s confidence in treating snakebites.

Snakebite Management Protocol posted in treatment center.
Logistics arranged for snakebite management.
Cite this article as: Carmina Shrestha, Nepal, "Snakebite: Two years and 200 cases later," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, February 1, 2021, https://iem-student.org/2021/02/01/snakebite/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

Recent blog posts by Carmina Shrestha

The toxic honey that destroyed several armies

The toxic honey that destroyed several armies

Ingestion of “mad honey” causes severe hypotension and bradycardia. Let us learn about the intoxication given by the grayanotoxin family.

In Italian, there is a literary expression known as: “losing the Trebizond,” which means losing control, feeling confused and disoriented. Trebizond was an important port on the southern coast of the Black Sea, where the maritime lighthouse was strategically located for sailors, especially the Venetians, whose colonial rule extended from the coasts of western Greece to the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. In the province of this seaside town, a type of honey produced disorientation, confusion, and fainting. We then explored why it is called “mad honey.”

Panoramic view of the city of Trabzon and its port on the Black Sea (from Wikipedia – Nezih Durmazlar – Flickr: Panoromik Trabzon – CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is meant when we talk about “mad honey?

“Mad honey” is toxic, and is from the nectar of various species of rhododendron, in particular Rhodendrum ponticum and Rhododendrum luteum. These plants are largely found in Turkey (in the Black Sea area near the city of Trebizond), but are also in Japan, Nepal (especially in the area where the Gurung people live), and Brazil. This honey, made by local bees, is called “mad,” because it contains several toxins of the grayanotoxin family (GTX). GTXs belong to liposoluble diterpenoids [1]; similar to veratridine, aconitine, and batrachotoxin, they are known for poisoning and killing livestock.

Rhododednrum luteum (from Wikipedia – Chrumps – CC BY 3.)
Rhododendron ponticum (from Wikipedia – Ragnhild&Neil Crawford – CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why did this honey undermine two armies?

In 401 BC, the Greek general Xenophon described one of the first intoxications with this honey, which affected over 10,000 men of his army:

“For the most part, there was nothing which they found strange; but there were numerous swarms of bees in the neighbourhood, and soldiers who ate it went out of their heads,suffering from vomiting and diarrhea: not one of them could stand up, but those who had eaten a little were like very drunk people, while those who had eaten a lot seemed like crazy, or in some cases, dying men.”

(Anabasis 4.8.20)

In 67 BC, another case of intoxication was described by the Roman general, Pompey the Great. His retreating troops were the protagonists of the first bioweapon case in history. Their adversary, King Mithridates, deliberately placed combs of mad honey in the path of the advancing Romans, staging a strategic withdrawal. The Roman troops were so weakened (from intoxication), that they were defeated by Mithridates’ army. In 946 AD, Queen Olga of Kiev massacred over 5,000 Drevians, who rushed to her husband’s funeral using mad honey as poison; in 1489 AC, about 10,000 Tatar soldiers were killed after drinking too many flasks of mead, who were purposely abandoned by the Russian soldiers. In the past, however, the mad honey was also used as a drug. Aristotle [2], Dioscorides [3], and Pliny the Elder [4] had described the therapeutic properties of this honey

The statue of Xenophon is located near the Greek Parliament. (from Wikipedia – Wienwiki / Walter Maderbacher – CC BY-SA 3.0)

Is mad honey still used today?

“Mad honey” is still sold today in an unprocessed form in rural markets, under the Turkish name “DELI BAL.” In fact, studies and clinical cases on GTX intoxication come from the Trabzon province (more widely, from Turkey [5] where the honey is used not only as a food, but in folk medicine as a sexual stimulant [6], antihypertensive [7], and hypoglycemic drug. Other uses of this honey in folk medicine were to treat peptic ulcer, abdominal pain, indigestion, flu, and arthritis.

How long does it take from ingestion to onset of symptoms?

On average, symptoms appear about one to two hours after ingestion. The average quantity for symptoms is varied (people report from 1 to 5 tablespoons, so it is estimated as 5 to 180 g). Given that the diffusion of grayanotoxins is not uniform in honey, we should think of this data as not highly predictive [8]: we note that the severity of symptoms also depends on other factors, such as the quantity of toxin ingested, the body’s sensitivity to it, and when the honey was produced.

What are the most common symptoms of intoxication with mad honey?

The symptoms would usually be:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • profuse sweating
  • blurred vision
  • hypersalivation
  • prostration
  • bradycardia
  • severe hypotension
  • syncope

For a more complete history for reaching the diagnosis of mad honey intoxication, it was helpful to ask a patient if he traveled to areas where it existed if he has ingested it, the reason for that (for pharmacological purposes, this question helps us understand if a patient is suffering from certain diseases, such as hypertension or diabetes), and where this mad honey was bought.

Are there any electrocardiographic changes?

Electrocardiographic changes such as sinus bradycardia and atrioventricular blocks [9] of varying degrees (I-III) are frequently found. It would appear that the GTXs act by dysregulating the voltage-dependent sodium channels in the nervous system, which are activated in a permanent state of depolarization [10]. Continued activation of these cells causes bradycardia, respiratory depression, hypotension, and loss of consciousness [11].

Voltage-gated sodium channel with group II receptor site domains highlighted in red. (from Wikipedia -Cthuljew – CC BY-SA 3.0)
The patient’s initial electrocardiography (ECG) findings upon arrival to the emergency department consistent with third-degree atrioventricular block. This finding prompted consultation of the cardiology service for treatment guidance and is a common manifestation of grayanotoxin ingestion. (from JACC: CASE REPORTS – https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaccas.2019.09.015 – CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

What therapeutic approach should be adopted?

  • Monitor vital and cardiac parameters.
  • Support therapy with intravenous crystalloid fluid (normal saline solution).
  • Use atropine sulfate at a moderate dose from 0.5 to 2 mg intravenously to resolve marked hypotension and respiratory depression.
  • Vasopressors or pacemakers if/when the rhythm is not restored.

We should consider achieving a normal heart rate and normal blood pressure values as therapeutic goals. Once these goals are achieved, the patient should be kept for a short period of observation in the emergency department – and if no other problems arise, he can be safely discharged [12, 13]. Furthermore, I would like to emphasize that grayanotoxin metabolism and excretion take place within 24 hours, and thus the symptoms last no more than a day.

What is the take-home message?

In patients with bradycardia and hypotension of unexplained origin, this type of intoxication should be considered especially in middle-aged males who have probably taken mad honey as a sexual stimulant.

 

References and Further Reading

[1] Jansen SA, Kleerekooper I, Hofman ZLM et al (2012) Grayanotoxin Poisoning: ‘Mad Honey Disease’ and Beyond. Cardiovasc Toxicol 12:208–215. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12012-012-9162-2

[2] Aristotle (1936) De mirabilius auscultationibus. Aristotle Minor Works on Marvelous Things Heard. Loeb, Cambridge, p. 245.

[3] Dioscorides (2000) De materia medica. Ibidis Press, Johannesburg, p. 226.

[4] Mayer A (1995) Mad honey. Archaeology 46(6):32–40.

[5] Sibel Silici A, Timucin A (2015) Mad honey intoxication: A systematic review on the 1199 cases. Food Chem Toxicol 86:282-290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2015.10.018

[6] Demircan A, Keleş A, Bildik F, Aygencel G, Doğan NO, Gómez HF (2009) Mad honey sex: therapeutic misadventures from an ancient biological weapon. Ann Emerg Med 54(6):824-829. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2009.06.010

[7] Hanson JR (2016) From ‘mad honey’ to hypotensive agents, the grayanoid diterpenes. Sci Prog 99(3):327-334. doi: 10.3184/003685016X14720691270831

[8] Aygun A, Sahin A, Karaca Y, Turkmen S, Turedi S, Ahn SY, Kim S, Gunduz A (2017) Grayanotoxin levels in blood, urine and honey and their association with clinical status in patients with mad honey intoxication. Turk J Emerg Med 18(1):29-33. doi: 10.1016/j.tjem.2017.05.001

[9] Cagli KE, Tufekcioglu O, Sen N, Aras D, Topaloglu S, Basar N, Pehlivan S (2009). Atrioventricular block induced by mad-honey intoxication: confirmation of diagnosis by pollen analysis. Tex Heart Inst J 36(4):342-344.

[10] Gunduz A, Tatli O, Turedi S (2008). Mad honey poisoning from the past to the present. Turk J Emerg Med 8:46-49.

[11] Sana U, Tawfik AS, Shah F (2018) Mad honey: uses, intoxicating/poisoning effects, diagnosis, and treatment. RSC Adv 8:18635-18646.

[12] Gündüz A, Meriçé ES, Baydin A, Topbas M, Uzun H, Türedi S, Kalkan A (2009) Does mad honey poisoning require hospital admission? Am J Emerg Med 27:424-427.

[13] Yaylacı S, Ayyıldız O, Aydın E, Osken A, Karahalil F, Varım C, Demir MV, Genç AB, Sahinkus S, Can Y, Kocayigit İ, Bilir C (2015) Is there a difference in mad honey poisoning between geriatric and non-geriatric patient groups? Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci 19(23):4647-4653.

Cite this article as: Francesco Adami, Italy, "The toxic honey that destroyed several armies," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, January 25, 2021, https://iem-student.org/2021/01/25/the-toxic-honey/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

Developing Clinical Research Ethics in the Developing World

Developing Clinical Research Ethics in the Developing World

“You are a research fellow working on a clinical trial for cryptococcal meningitis (CM) in Ugandan AIDS patients. If a patient is diagnosed with CM and enrolled in this trial, they receive free care for treatment duration and reimbursement for non-medical expenses. Seventy-five percent of this population lives on less than two dollars per day and cannot afford these costs otherwise. A woman presents with CM symptoms, but after testing her cerebrospinal fluid, she is instead diagnosed with deadly bacterial meningitis. She cannot be enrolled in the trial and is too poor to buy antibiotics. ”

What do you do?

I recently presented this case at a classroom discussion about global health research ethics. When this dying woman’s mother pulled on my lab coat and pleaded for help one day at the government-run Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital (MRRH), where I worked as a clinical research fellow for nearly a year, I did not know what to do, and neither did my peers.

Like many global health-oriented physicians, my career began with short-term medical mission trips as a pre-medical student. However, I found these trips to be self-serving and unsustainable; indeed, the ethical shortcomings of these trips have long been argued because often participants’ benefits outweigh those receiving of their “help.“[1] Thinking research might be a way to develop an ethical global health career, I completed a summer clinical research project in India, which I found more productive and substantial than short-term mission trips. Galvanized by the belief I could change the world through ethical research, I applied for the clinical research fellowship in Uganda.

Ultimately, I found my experience as ethically fraught as the short-term missions I swore to avoid. I am not alone in these sentiments: others have noted that AIDS in Africa has paradoxically been both a source of significant tragedy and significant academic opportunity. Unfortunately, these opportunities are distributed unevenly, producing fresh inequalities. In their efforts to reduce suffering in Africa, some global health researchers have inadvertently capitalized on the intellectual opportunities provided by those same African sufferers.[2]

At MRRH, where the shortages of gloves, saline, and basic medications reflect the hospital’s poverty and its patients, research-based medical care is often the only care people receive. Academic collaborations between western and sub-Saharan African institutions enable African researchers to publish in journals viewed by western audiences. As of 2017, patients presenting to MRRH with tuberculous meningitis or CM were enrolled in American-run clinical trials and treated without charge by experts with effective medications. Western-based surgical teams have improved MRRH’s surgical capacity, where sophisticated procedures are now performed with modern equipment. In 2004, after multinational research programs dedicated to tackling AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria (ATM) worldwide were launched in the late 1990s, clinics started supplying HIV-positive Ugandans with free antiretrovirals and other services, causing a significant decline in HIV-related mortality.[3]

However, inequities in patient care are apparent in the areas of MRRH that have not yet benefitted from foreign research dollars, particularly the intensive care unit and the emergency department. The two working ventilators in the hospital are usually occupied by neurosurgical patients. Deaths due to trauma and road traffic accidents in Africa cause the loss of more life-years than AIDS and malaria combined [4], which is also true at MRRH. Like the woman in the case above, patients suffering from other non-ATM infectious diseases are sometimes victims of these inequalities at MRRH.
This unequal distribution of research wealth in a resource-limited setting such as MRRH troubles me. At MRRH, often, patient care follows research dollars; when the money runs out, so does the patient care. The Declaration of Helsinki requires control groups to receive the ‘best’ current treatment, not the local one – and while in developed countries the difference between ‘best’ and ‘local’ may be small, in settings like MRRH this difference is profound and may result in severe ethical consequences.[5]

In March of 2018, I watched a presentation by researchers who conducted a CM clinical trial in eastern Uganda, similar to ours at MRRH. A conference attendee voiced concern that the trial had violated the Helsinki Declaration, since many participants in the control group had not received any treatment. The presenter responded that the standard of care treatment for CM at this hospital was often no treatment, because the hospital had nothing to treat its patients. And, in late 2017 when the CM clinical trial at MRRH ended, CM patients there no longer received free treatment.

Uganda is often cited as the success story in sub-Saharan Africa in its efforts to reduce its HIV burden, largely due to funding from large international research programs.[6] But perhaps these trials reveal that acceptance of this ethical relativism in clinical research could result in the exploitation of underserved populations abroad for research programs that could not be performed in the sponsoring country.[5] Researchers must first be aware that conducting clinical research in resource-limited settings may create as many inequalities as it alleviates, particularly where the minimal standard of care for certain conditions is lacking. Secondly, research is often the conduit for medical care for impoverished people, which in turn creates unique ethical issues.

How can we global health researchers mitigate some of these ethical quandaries? I suggest that before embarking on clinical research (particularly in underserved areas), researchers assess their site’s health care needs and risk of patient exploitation, and that teams include medical anthropologists and epidemiologists well-versed in the local population’s health care needs and their receptiveness to clinical research. At MRRH, this was not a requirement of institutional review board approval for studies, so research teams must take this responsibility onto themselves.

Billions of people worldwide have benefitted from the discoveries that clinical research provides. Unfortunately, historically in our quest for valuable intellectual resources, those benefits have sometimes come at the cost of human exploitation. To maximize the benefit of clinical research for all involved, global health researchers must ensure this exciting and evolving field grows in an ethically sound manner.

References

  1. Roberts M. Duffle Bag Medicine. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 2006;295(13):1491-2.
  2. Crane JT. Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press; 2013.
  3. Wendler D, Krohmal B, Emanuel EJ, Grady C. Why patients continue to participate in clinical research. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(12):1294–9.
  4. Hulme P. Mechanisms of trauma at a rural hospital in Uganda. Pan Afr Med J. 2010;7:5.
  5. Angell M. The Ethics of Clinical Research in the Third World. N Engl J Med. 1997;337(12):847–9.
  6.  Epidemiological Fact Sheets on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections: Uganda [Internet]. 2004. Available from: http://data.unaids.org/publications/fact-sheets01/uganda_en.pdf
Cite this article as: Sarah Bridge, USA, "Developing Clinical Research Ethics in the Developing World," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, September 21, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/09/21/clinical-research-ethics/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

The Rural Paradox

rural paradox

While trying to refrain from a complainer’s mindset, we often ignore discussing problems and hence seeking solutions.

The problem of having less time has existed from the day time and consciousness intersected. There are 24 hours in a day despite most of us wishing for more. I have been many things for many of those 24 hours: a student, an intern, a daughter, a friend, and a doctor. Most of the time, I’d be playing some combination of those roles. While an avid supporter of the make-time mentality, I have struggled with what one might call “Rural doctors paradox”. Simply put, the paradox is: there are supposedly fewer cases, and less severe cases in the rural, so few doctors are posted there which dramatically decreases doctor to patient ratio and has its multi-facet consequences.

What do you imagine when I say a rural doctor? How many patients a day does she look after? When does she wake up? How does her day go by? What does she reflect on while lying on the bed at the end of the day?

Not falling victim to the narrative fallacy, I would like to break this complex story into digestible chunks. Today I present you with challenges I as a rural doctor running a 24-hour emergency and a PHC can recall.

Beans again!

At the surface, it would seem like my mom’s lifetime of an attempt at hard-wiring my brain with negotiation skills failed when I agreed to buy potatoes at the offered price. The reason wasn’t my inattentiveness during those joyous negotiation classes I received, rather a phone call I used to dread the moment I stepped out of the PHC premise. “An unconscious middle-aged male is brought to the ER…”, said my health assistant. I was out buying vegetables for the week. I had to rush to the ER; 15 minutes of a run, tempo, hitchhiking, or teleportation.

Do hell with potatoes; I’ll make beans for dinner today, again!

Good but far.

“The view is serene, climate adequately cold and it is just 35 minutes away from here”. The picnic spot pitched by an office staff really stood out. Everyone was excited before we proceeded to choose, by lottery, the unfortunate souls who’d be in duty on the day. I was lucky enough to not have to stay, but that meant we would have to comply with the 30 minutes rule. Being 30 minutes far from the PHC would provoke anxiety of not reaching the PHC on time if need be. The consensus was it was not worth the risk.

Not me! The USG doctor!

“Why would the doctor make us wait for so long?”, said a patient to no one in particular. She has been waiting for her obstetric USG for an hour or so. After taking a quick shower to get rid of the stench and bacteria I accumulated from doing an autopsy on the days-old body, I rushed down to the USG room. “I hope no serious case arrives at the ER today!”, I find myself thinking. That day, while going to my bed, I reflected that the patient wasn’t mad at me for being late. Not the whole of me anyways. The me that was in the autopsy, she is fine. The patient was angry at the USG doctor. It just so happens to be me too.

Just another rainy day

Brinjals, Potatoes, Rice, and some medication: that is a typical to-get list of a villager who walks for quite some time to get to the marketplace on Thursdays. “My child often gets feverish! It was a market-day so I could not bring him with me”, says the 116th patient on a typical Thursday.

There are days when we literally wait for patients while enjoying the bright sun and delicious peanuts too. Busy-ness has a predictable spectrum in Beltar.

Like any other predictable spectrum, there are curve-balls once in a while. Those are the days that I remember the most when I look back.

Cite this article as: Carmina Shrestha, Nepal, "The Rural Paradox," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, September 2, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/09/02/the-rural-paradox/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

COVID-19 Pandemic: Rural Preparations

Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst has been the theme of all medical institutes around the world, especially in counties that are yet to be hit by the dreaded tsunami of overwhelming COVID-19 cases. We have 191 positive cases 153 of which are in the hospital being treated and 33 have recovered. Fortunately, there have been no mortalities till date. [1] The current statistic may not look dreadful given the large numbers that we are exposed to daily these days. Before the cases reached 100, most Nepalese wondered, sometimes boastfully, why the cases are not spreading like wildfire. People went on record, crediting our culture of greeting with Namaste instead of a handshake, eating with hand instead of a spoon – which necessitates handwashing at least 4 times a day, the hygiene hypothesis, the fact that our country has only one international airport, and the universal coverage of BCG vaccination in Nepal. There are too many biases and heuristics at play here, but somewhere inside, I want to believe that at least some of them are true.

The Sukraraj Infectious and Tropical Disease Hospital (STIDH) in Teku, Kathmandu has been designated by the Government of Nepal (GoN) as the primary hospital along with Patan Hospital and the Armed Police Forces Hospital in the Kathmandu Valley. The Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) has requested the 25 hubs and satellite hospital networks across the country – designated for managing mass casualty events – to be ready with infection prevention and control measures, and critical care beds where available. The Government is allocating spaces for quarantine purposes throughout the country and some sites have already been populated by migrants who recently returned from India. [2]

We have seen healthcare systems that are multi-fold advanced than that of our crumble when faced head-on with this illness. After working in the healthcare system of my country for 2 years, I am convinced that it will take a miracle for us to deal with this pandemic.

I have seen what preparations we are striving towards and what portion of it has been achieved. We are struggling to reach our preparation goals. That is not nearly as frustrating as the fact that many countries whose baseline was our goal have failed terribly. Today keeping the theme of workarounds rather than complaints about things outside of our circle of influence, I am presenting to you some preparatory works being done at Beltar PHC, a peripheral center located in one of the most affected districts, Udayapur, of Nepal. [1]

Credit, where credit is due: We have done 17878 RT-PCR, and 58546 RDT to find 191 positive cases till May 12, 2020. [1] We came up with a protocol and are also gradually updating it to meet the contemporary need. Funny word that contemporary is, especially now that no information gets to age before a new one replaces it. Speaking of temporary, a very recurring theme these days, there are temporary shelters made at every ward level in Beltar. People returning from abroad are kept in isolation for 14 days there. We run a temporary fever clinic at the PHC and refer suspected cases to higher centers for the COVID-19 test. We don’t have rapid diagnostic kits at the PHC yet. Our PHC with 26 staff has received 13 disposable PPEs that we have had the privilege of reusing. There is an Interim reporting form for suspected cases of COVID-19 (based on WHO Minimum Data Set Report Form) which can be downloaded and filled from the MOHP website. [3]

Available PPE at PHC level. Photo credit: Mr. Govinda Khadka
Fever clinic at Beltar PHC. Photo credit: Mr. Govinda Khadka
Quarantine setup at a ward in Chaudandigadi Municipality. Photo credit: Mr. Govinda Khadka

Lockdown was announced in Nepal on March 24, 2020. Excerpt from WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing [4] on COVID-19, 25 March 2020 says this: “Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems. But on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics. The point of these actions is to enable the more precise and targeted measures that are needed to stop transmission and save lives. We call on all countries who have introduced so-called “lockdown” measures to use this time to attack the virus. You have created a second window of opportunity. The question is, how will you use it? There are six key actions that we recommend:

  1. Expand, train and deploy your health care and public health workforce;
  2. Implement a system to find every suspected case at the community level;
  3. Ramp up the production, capacity, and availability of testing;
  4. Identify, adapt and equip facilities you will use to treat and isolate patients;
  5. Develop a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts;
  6. Refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling COVID-19.”

In Nepal, there has been documentation of protocol for various aspects of the pandemic; PPE for each level of care has been decided, need to scale up the testing recognized, and even the support for Solidarity trials discussed. The protocol designed to tackle COVID-19 recognizes that different strategies for the rural and urban areas are necessary. The response to outbreaks in remote and rural areas where containment may be easier though assistance more difficult vs. outbreak in urban locations where containment is likely more difficult, but treatment and assistance likely to be easier.

The mist of immediate threat followed by the rubble of destruction it causes keeps us blind to the problems lurking in the background. As big and dangerous, if not bigger. Especially when you know nothing even vaguely similar to CARES-Act is being prepared for dampening the direct and indirect economic impact of the epidemic. Add to the fact that the American government’s CARES-Act already faces various criticism—that gives birth to anxiety for even the most seasoned economists. That is looking at just one domain of the post epidemic future. Healthcare might be crippled, social structure tossed over, politics somersaulted and people stripped off their faith. That may give rise to a jigsaw too complicated to attempt. It is high time we start thinking about solving some of those puzzles now.

References

1. Corona Info. Ministry of Health and Population. Accessed May 12, 2020. https://covid19.mohp.gov.np/#/
2. COVID-19 Nepal preparedness and response plan (NPRP) draft. April 9. Accessed May 10, 2020. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/nepal-documents/novel-coronavirus/covid-19-nepal-preparedness-and-response-plan-(nprp)-draft-april-9.pdf?sfvrsn=808a970a_2
3. Reporting form for COVID. Accessed May 12, 2020. http://edcd.gov.np/resources/download/reporting-form-for-covid
4. Situation reports on COVID-19 outbreak, 25 March 2020. WHO | Regional Office for Africa. Accessed May 12, 2020. https://www.afro.who.int/publications/situation-reports-covid-19-outbreak-25-march-2020

Cite this article as: Carmina Shrestha, Nepal, "COVID-19 Pandemic: Rural Preparations," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, May 25, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/05/25/covid-19-pandemic-rural-preparations/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

What has COVID-19 taught us thus far.

On a brighter note, more than 150 countries have less than 100 cases as of April 5, 2020. That being said, there probably isn’t an unaffected country on our planet. I am from Nepal, and we have identified 9 cases with one local transmission as of April 5, 2020. One recovered, and 8 in isolation with no death reported to date.[1] It may be hard to comprehend the effect 9 cases have on a country where the probability of dying between the age of 15 and 60 years is 171 per thousand, but total expenditure on health is only 5.8% of GDP. The effect is fairly straightforward but too subtle to get the spotlight amidst this crisis. I contemplated if this is the right time to document these subtleties, but reflections are most useful for future reference only if made accurate. And a major component of accurate reflection is the “time since the event.”

I will take you to the time during my USMLE step 3 preparation and try to tie that in with my point here. One typical day during my preparation, I was doing my 2nd Uworld block and stumbled upon a deceivingly simple question. The gist of the question was: why do patients ask for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide? I, in the hope of breezing through the question, answered physical pain. To my surprise, that was the most common wrong answer—the right answer: the anticipation of a lack of control and loss of autonomy.
If we are to understand the fear my country is going through, we need to let that information sink. The anticipation of a lack of control makes people ask for help in ending their life.

Nepal ranks 150 in terms of the overall health system in the world. I have been a doctor in one of the most academic tertiary care hospitals here, and I won’t hesitate a second to tell you that our health system will break the moment a fraction of the so-called tsunami of COVID-19 hits us. The country has been on lock-down for nearly two weeks now and plans to stay that way for some more days [Meetings is ongoing, and the final decision hasn’t been reached]. Of course, that will mean people will not have enough money to sustain. Patients of chronic illness will not have enough medicine. The country’s already crippled economy will be damaged beyond repair, and whatever first steps the country was attempting to make towards development will not only be held but legs fractured and eyes blinded. If God forbid, the pandemic hits us hard, no one in Nepal will have outrage that we did not increase the number of ventilators. That just isn’t a variable worth considering [to the general public], given our economy. We are talking about a country where when a village gets a USG machine; it is not used until inaugurated by someone at a position and the inauguration is celebrated like a festival. Everyone who understands the stake knows that we are praying to avoid a war we will invariably lose.

Having said that, I am impressed by the steps taken by the country. Lock-down was a gutsy move. Right when the director-general told people of WHO that lock-down is just a second window of opportunity for countries to prepare for what is to come, I was interested in what our preparedness looks like. Makeshift quarantine rooms are being constructed, test kits being brought in [Update: test kits were of too poor quality to use and hence were returned to China].[2] Patan Academy of Health Sciences, where I studied, has taken the initiative to make their own PPE. Some municipalities are mobilizing locals to make sanitizers, and the government is subsidizing some of the public expenditure. Of course, proportional to the country’s economy, but all this is happening when the country has 9 cases. Remember that actual physical pain was a wrong answer, and the anticipation of future suffering was the right one?

Number of ICU beds increased as preparation for COVID-19 at Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Nepal. Image by Saugat Sen Dhakal via https://www.healthaawaj.com/news/11928/
PPE being prepared at Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Nepal. Image by Saugat Sen Dhakal via https://www.healthaawaj.com/news/11928/

With people staying inside comes a myriad of difficulties. We have already seen it happen, “lucky” us! Everyone will start hoarding on essential supplies, which will increase the price because, apparently, the market still runs on supply and demand. Fear, loneliness, and abundance of time to ruminate on every minuscule of a problem on earth will start showing their effect. Depression, anxiety, and many other psychiatric morbidities will use the time as a breeding season. Household violence increases, and quality of life will take a big toll. Less affluent portions of the population will take a bigger hit in all aspects because inequalities in health are a double injustice; most affected are the people who are already suffering. The graph we hope to flatten will lend its height to the one plotting many other problems.

But we are willing to take that trade and probably everyone should. By no means am I saying that Nepal is doing a great preparation because I know it isn’t. There is much more we can do if we had the resources and global political influence.

We have seen countries with abundance kneeling before this virus. I pay my deepest sympathies to the lost lives around the world and even deeper respect to the frontline warriors. My message here, I guess: When prevention is better than cure is wrong not only because there is no cure but also because you know you will fail to provide care, you better prevent it as your life depends on it. Because it probably does.

Cite this article as: Sajan Acharya, Nepal, "What has COVID-19 taught us thus far.," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, April 13, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/04/13/what-has-covid-19-taught-us-thus-far/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

References

  1. WHO. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report—76 [online], 06 apr 2020. [cited 2020 Apr 6]. Available from: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200405-sitrep-76-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=6ecf0977_2.
  2. Sapkota R. Nepal to test COVID-19 test kits from China. Nepali Times [Internet]. 2020 Apr 1 [cited 2020 Apr 6]. Available from: https://www.nepalitimes.com/latest/nepal-to-test-covid-19-test-kits-from-china/ 

A case of decreasing resistance in ER

a case decreasing resistance in er

I keep games on the 4th home screen of my cell phone. The third screen is blank. A minuscule of energy required to swipe my thumb has prevented me one too many times from mindlessly launching an RPG. Only to realize 2 hours later I had other plans for those 2 hours. An American comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg famously joked once,

Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005)
Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005)

I have always believed that the subtle truths kneaded so artfully in seemingly light, small-talk-worthy jokes are what makes a comedian a genius. How many times have you thought that you need to pick up that particular grocery or fill up that one conference form only to instead get consumed by what was easily available?

Our mind is built so that it follows the path of least resistance no matter how insignificant the resistance is. Although smudged all over the canvas of self-help, non-fiction genre, medicine somehow isn’t used frequently to exemplify the path of least resistance.

Today, I present to you a case that inspired us at Beltar, to remove one such small resistance from our workflow. The implications as you will see were no less than life-saving.

Rural Health System : Oversimplified

Before I present to you the case, a small preamble: Health care in rural Nepal is still run mostly by paramedics. No matter what spectrum you fall in terms of appreciating their work, the fact remains that they are the major workforce we have at the rural. It suffices to say that they are the portal of entry to the health system of our country for many. All emergency cases, once screened and declared complicated, the medical officer (usually a MBBS doctor) at the PHC sees the patient. Majority of cases are seen only by paramedics – considering 3 to 5 paramedics, usually and barely one medical officer in most PHCs.

A mobile game I wouldn't play

Now that the characters are in place, let’s dive right into the no less than a fairy tale land of the rural health system. Lamenting about the obvious lack of resources has been so old school that I don’t even make a typo while typing about it these days. We had one ECG machine at Beltar. The old ECG machine with its squeaky sound and myriad varieties of artifacts stood with all its mighty bulk inside a locked door of a room. The key protected from no one in particular by the office assistant who would open the door, drag the machine out, bring it to the bedside. The paramedic who decided to do the ECG would then untangle the wire glazed with what little of gel we had applied to the previous patient. He would then connect the limb leads and the pre-cordial leads with the trusty suction knobs which hopefully has some gel left from the previous use and then comes the biggest connection to be made: connecting the machine to the power grid. “Don’t you keep your machine charged!?”, you ask. We do. But the Li-ion battery probably has undergone autophagy, or whatever fancy name the process is given. That is a lot of steps and by extension, a lot of resistance. If this were a mobile game, I don’t think I would be addicted to it.

A Race Against Time

A patient with diabetes who had visited our ER a couple of times before was being monitored for chest pain at around 7 AM on a Saturday morning. I was washing my clothes on the first floor unaware that my Saturday is not going to be about laundry and daily chores. When I was called to check the patient, she was already deteriorating at a rate far greater than our PHC could ever catch up. We tried to borrow the speed of an ambulance and refer the patient to a higher center. An ST elevation in any two contiguous lead is an MI. Our paramedics knew that. To everybody’s surprise, ECG was not done! Given the fact that we did not have cardiac enzymes available at the PHC and Aspirin was all we could have prescribed before discharge anyway: we gave the patient 2 Aspirin tablets to chew and referred her as fast as we could. My paramedic colleagues have demonstrated utmost clinical competence and professionalism too many times to doubt any of that. The work environment was still error-prone and the circumstance demanded a change. Could we have changed the outcome given the same resources and clinical scenario? Maybe we need to decrease the resistance I thought. Changing how we store ECG (shown in the picture below), making it more accessible not only increased the frequency with which it was being used but also served as a reminder. A physical question hanging down the IV stand asking anyone who is attending a case, “Do you need to use me?”

ECG machine in plain sight with IV stand holding the limb and pre-cordial leads for accessibility

Workarounds: Because Solutions are Late to the Party.

If you have been following my writings, you’d have noticed this as another small tweak, a workaround, a nudge to the existing system so to speak that isn’t the substitute for the actual sustainable solution. Robust training that helps hard-working paramedics conceptualize and understand the protocols related to the use of basic yet life-saving diagnostics like ECG can be a start. We tried printing and pasting some protocols on the walls; another workaround we hope would help make patient care better until it actually sustainably improves. Another workaround that a friend suggested was: everyone who aches above the waist, gets an ECG. Such simplification works well to decrease the resistance in learning complex protocols. I am sure there are plenty of workarounds used worldwide, a necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. I leave you with a thought: What effect do you think will a systematic sharing of such workarounds among the rural healthcare workers will produce?

Guides to ECG electrode placement and protocols
Cite this article as: Carmina Shrestha, Nepal, "A case of decreasing resistance in ER," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, February 21, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/02/21/a-case-of-decreasing-resistance-in-er/, date accessed: October 2, 2022

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