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CDC’s Rochelle Walensky Visits BU’s School of Public Health

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (right) reflected on her tenure at the federal agency during a Public Health Conversation at Boston University’s School of Public Health on Thursday, March 30. She was joined by Sandro Galea, SPH dean and Robert A. Knox Professor. “Our job is successful when nobody hears about public health,” Walensky said during the event. Photo by Michael Saunders

Coronavirus

CDC’s Rochelle Walensky Visits BU’s School of Public Health Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reflects on agency’s pandemic mistakes and successes

When President Biden selected Rochelle Walensky to take the reins of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the former infectious diseases division chief at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School asserted in her nomination speech that “leading with science is the only way to deliver breakthroughs, to deliver hope, and to bring our nation back to full strength.”

During a recent visit to Boston University’s School of Public Health, Walensky said she stands by that statement—with one caveat.

“I assumed, which was not appropriate, that the people who were listening understood that science would change,” she said during a wide-ranging Public Health Conversation moderated by Sandro Galea, SPH dean and Robert A. Knox Professor, on Thursday, March 30. “Scientists and academics understand that, but not everybody understands that. [I] should have said, ‘science—and it will change,’ or ‘science, for now, and we will update you and give you more information as we have it.’”

Walensky reflected on the agency’s oft-criticized COVID-19 communication missteps, as well as a number of other topics, in front of the more than 1,100 people who attended the hybrid event in person and via Zoom.

The discussion spanned the public health gamut, exploring the CDC’s mistakes, successes, and lessons learned during the first pandemic in the age of digital media, and identifying pathways for the 76-year-old agency—and broader health and science fields—to regain the trust of the American people, develop clear and effective messaging, and confront other urgent national crises, such as climate change, gun violence, and maternal mortality.

Confronting the rampant misinformation on social media is difficult, but necessary, Walensky said. “We like that kind of active discussion and disagreement, but at the same time it’s not always used for productive purposes,” she noted, adding, “It’s a really interesting, but really difficult space right now for social media.”

Over the course of the pandemic, the CDC has adjusted the way it develops certain recommendations, currently applying a more layered strategy that “can apply to Manhattan, and tribal country, and Guam, and rural Idaho,” she said. “We need to provide options for what you can do in your place when you have these resources, and this capacity, and this sort of political will.”

“Do you place value on your economy being open over your risk of health?” Galea asked.

“Those are values judgments, and we don’t get to decide how everybody else places those values—and at that intersection is politics,” Walensky replied.

“Do we have a role to play in shaping values?” Galea followed.

“I think we have a role to play in helping to understand risk [and provide] accurate science to help shape those values,” she answered.

Noting that she inherited a “frail public health infrastructure,” Walensky stressed that evaluating and improving the systems and processes within which the agency collects, analyzes, and disseminates public health data will be critical to the CDC’s future—a future that will continue to encounter numerous infectious diseases, she predicted.

These challenges necessitate faster production of data without compromising the accuracy and clarity of information, she said. Strengthening the agency’s laboratory infrastructure, modernizing data systems, and supporting data analytics training will improve monitoring capabilities, such as wastewater and genomic surveillance. And all of this work must be done through an equity lens, aiming to close racial and socioeconomic gaps in access to adequate healthcare and community resources.

Walensky also touted several public health accomplishments during her tenure, such as the agency’s successful efforts to publish the first technical briefs worldwide on the performance of the mpox (formerly known as monkeypox) vaccine, following the rapid and unexpected spread of the mpox virus across the US last year.

In other public health successes since she took the helm at the CDC, the agency formally named racism and firearm violence public health issues, established the agency’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, and administered more than 673 million vaccines in the last two and a half years.

Walensky noted that some of the successes were small and mostly unheralded, such as when US government officials dropped test kits from a helicopter to stranded passengers aboard the luxury Diamond Princess cruise ship during the first COVID wave.

And during last year’s Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government coordinated support to resettle vulnerable Afghans and welcomed 80,000 people into the US in August 2023, she said. Unknown to many outside of the agency, there were 44 active measles cases and 14 active mumps cases among the refugees, and neither disease spread to the broader community, thanks to the swift containment efforts by the CDC.

“Our job is successful when nobody hears about public health,” Walensky said.

During the event, Galea selected several questions that members of the audience submitted electronically. In responding to a question about the CDC’s role in developing policies to curb gun violence—as the nation reels from the latest mass school shooting, which took the lives of three children and three adults in Nashville, Tenn.—Walensky made an appeal for unity on an issue that continues to destroy families in every corner of the nation.

First acknowledging the Nashville tragedy as a parent, she said the administration has expanded research on firearm violence prevention, but noted the additional need to collect data and address firearm injuries and other lasting effects of gun violence on shooting survivors.

“We do have to come to terms on what we agree on across the aisle because we have to get to ‘yes,’” Walensky said. “Can we agree for firearm owners and [non-firearm owners] that we do not want to have loved ones die unnecessarily of a firearm death? Let’s just agree on that. I’ve been to a firearm training facility where they were teaching eight-year-olds to shoot. What is it that you should also be teaching your eight-year-olds about safe storage—about how we engage in prevention of community-based violence? Let’s get everybody to the table so that we can agree.”

Watch the full conversation with Rochelle Walensky here.

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A Door Opens For Public Health Studies

A Door Opens for Public Health Studies SPH partnership gives researchers unprecedented data access

Dan Berlowitz

Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health (SPH) have unprecedented access to medical claims and clinical data, under a partnership forged with Optum Labs, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based research center.

Optum Labs reached agreements to collaborate with seven health care organizations including SPH—the only school of public health on a list that includes Pfizer, Tufts Medical Center, and the American Medical Group Association.

Partners have access to millions of medical claims and clinical records of insured patients, for research that could range from medication studies to health policy and outcomes analyses.

The de-identified records include information about tests, treatments and costs of care, as well as patients’ race, income level and geographical location.

“As a school of public health, we hope to bring to this partnership a whole new set of questions that large data sets are able to address—not just about the effectiveness of medication, as many studies may look at, but everything from understanding environmental health exposures, to basic epidemiology, to health policy questions,” says Dr. Dan Berlowitz, a professor of health policy and management at SPH who is leading the collaboration.

“These data represent a broad swath of the population—not just the elderly, as Medicare does, or veterans who are seen in the VA, but children and people of diverse ages and backgrounds,” he says. “This broadens the opportunities for our faculty and students throughout the institution to explore issues using detailed data representing millions of people.”

Traditionally, access to claims data has been relatively limited, with many studies relying on smaller databases, or on records of patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid, federally funded insurance programs. The partnership with Optum Labs will allow researchers to access a much larger pool of de-identified clinical and claims data, in collaboration with researchers and experts from other health care institutions.

“Data is sort of the life blood of what we do in research,” says Dr. Mark Prashker, SPH associate dean of institutional development and strategic planning and an associate professor of health policy and management. “This gives us big data in health care—it allows us to ask questions we couldn’t ordinarily ask…I think it has the potential to revolutionize how we think about solving health care–delivery questions.”

Researchers who want access to the data are asked to submit proposals to a SPH review committee, which will work with Optum Labs and other research partners to ensure collaboration.

Among the possible areas of research are cost-effectiveness studies related to health care delivery, and comparing the success of various clinical interventions, Berlowitz and Prashker say.

Dr. Paul Bleicher, chief executive officer of Optum Labs, said the partnerships will help Optum Labs “accelerate the pace of our innovation, paving the way for exciting new research initiatives that can be directly translated to improvements in patient care.”

Optum Labs—founded by health care company Optum and the Mayo Clinic in 2013—already has more than 20 major research initiatives underway, ranging from studies that compare the effectiveness of various medical devices, to research into how treatment patterns vary across geographic areas. Optum Labs encourages dissemination of research findings through publication in scientific journals and presentations at professional meetings. Several projects are slated for publication in mid-2014.

Optum is an arm of UnitedHealth Group, one of the country’s largest health care companies.

Dr. John Noseworthy, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, said the research collaborative is “excited to welcome the fresh insights and perspectives that new partners will bring.” In addition to having access to large sources of clinical and claims information, he said, “all partners will now benefit from the unique viewpoints that others bring, as we work to transform health care in the US.” and improve access and treatment.

Other new partners include: Lehigh Valley Health Network, of Allentown, Pennsylvania; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, of Troy, New York; and the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

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Bu’s Global Days Of Service Goes On, Virtually

BU’s Global Days of Service Goes On, Virtually

Helping out at the Greater Boston Food Bank during last year’s BU Global Days of Service. This year’s event will be a little different. Photo by Dana J. Quigley, courtesy BU Alumni Association

Public Health

BU’s Global Days of Service Goes On, Virtually Also in our Coronavirus Wednesday Roundup: no Boston Pride, SPH’s Sandro Galea gets props, and goodbye, Hotel Buckminster

Quote of the day: Stat of the day: BU News Join Global Days of Service at home or online SPH Dean Galea highlighted by LinkedIn

Sandro Galea, dean of BU School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor. Photo by Kelly Davidson

No surprise that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, LinkedIn has put out a list naming a dozen “Top Voices in health care that you should be following now.” No surprise either that number 11 on the list was Sandro Galea, dean of the BU School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor, named for what he shares on the platform about the pandemic’s impact on society and the health gaps it intensifies.

Boston and Beyond News Boston Pride 2023 is canceled

Latest casualties of the coronavirus epidemic are Boston Pride events scheduled for June, which have been pushed to June 2023, the city and organizers said Tuesday. This year is the 50th anniversary of the event. “I know this was a very hard decision to make, and I know it’s very hard news to hear, but it’s the right decision,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “As we fight the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s safety and health is our top priority.”

Parking help for frontline healthcare workers

Walsh also announced new parking relief measures for healthcare workers. If a healthcare worker gets a parking ticket, the city will waive all fees if the worker appeals the ticket by emailing [email protected] and includes both the ticket and a photo of their medical identification. This new policy also applies retroactively for tickets issued over the past month. It applies to violations like an expired meter, but not to public safety violations, such as blocking a hydrant, sidewalk, or handicap ramp. The city is also working on securing parking garages and lots across the city to offer free parking for healthcare workers. Find maps of these and other parking areas here.

Governor Charlie Baker promises major financial relief for hospitals

Baker said Tuesday that the state will infuse $800 million into the state’s healthcare system from April through July to provide health providers relief for lost revenues from missed visits and procedures canceled due to the coronavirus. Funding for this package is coming from reductions in MassHealth and from federal revenues. Half the amount, $400 million, will support 28 safety-net and high-Medicaid hospitals. This funding will address lost revenue, stabilization, and increased costs for treating COVID-19. Some $80 million will go to nursing facilities, and $300 million to other providers, including community healthcare centers.

Hotel Buckminster won’t be coming back

The Universal Hub website recognized it before we did: Kenmore Square’s historic Hotel Buckminster is closed, and not just for the duration of the coronavirus quarantine. The hotel—where the 1919 Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal was hatched, and long a favorite of folks going to Fenway Park—closed March 20 with “no plans to reopen.” And in response to queries on its Facebook page, hotel staff confirm it’s not an open-ended response to COVID-19. Facebook visitors speculate that the hotel will be renovated and reopen as a more upscale establishment.

US & Global News Eyeing racial disparities among COVID-19 victims

In the coronavirus hotspot of Louisiana, about 70 percent of the people who have died are African American, although only a third of the state’s population is black, the New York Times reports. The data are limited, the Times says, but “the emerging statistics show black residents being infected at disturbing rates in some of the nation’s largest cities and states.” A variety of social and health disparities are being looked at as possible causes.

Latest count of coronavirus cases

United States, 383,256; Massachusetts, 15,202.

Distraction of the day: Music reccos

WGBH asked a bunch of Boston-area musicians what they’re listening to while holed up at home, away from the coronavirus. Answering were familiar names (Tanya Donelly, Kay Hanley, Bill Janovitz) and others not so much (Ballroom Thieves). The answers ranged from “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan to a Mahler symphony to “Ice Cream” by Cakeswagg.

Find BU Today’s latest coverage of the pandemic here. The University’s hotline for faculty, staff, students, and visiting scholars to call for referral of their virus-related medical concerns is 617-358-4990.

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What Are The Health Benefits Of Magnesium?

While everybody talks about the nutritional qualities of apples, magnesium has numerous health benefits too. The brain and body need magnesium. Heart and blood sugar, moods too, require magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral present in just every cell in the body. The most well-known is the magnesium content in bones. Food provides this essential mineral, and supplements can remedy the shortage. Men need about 400 mg daily, while women need about 300 mg daily to maintain overall good health and optimum physical performance.

Which one will be best?

The limitations of research evidence.

Although different research studies sometimes conflict, little doubt remains about super magnesium. Like the goodness of apples, the tried and tested experiments worldwide repeat the similar elevating functions of magnesium. Getting relief from Asthma and migraine, improving athletic performance, depression, blood sugar levels, bones, and biochemical reactions. Incredibly, these are some of the vast spectra of magnesium benefits. The question is not choice or quantity but whether humanity can survive without the goodness of magnesium or a synthetic version.

Magnesium and Bone Health

Strong bones are fundamental to an active, vibrant lifestyle. The mineral called magnesium is instrumental to the healthy lives and bones of both men and women. As much as 60% of magnesium in the body belongs to the bones. Magnesium affects the osteoclast and osteoblast activities. These activities are responsible for bone density. Magnesium also balances Vitamin D. This vitamin controls homeostasis. Research strongly suggests that women can consume additional magnesium to minimize the risks of osteoporosis and reverse it.

Further, magnesium and Vitamin D are related. Magnesium shortage reduces the Vitamin D effects. Without magnesium, Vitamin D is hardly adequate. Not to forget that Vitamin D deficiency could lead to arthritis, cancers, mental problems, and osteoporosis. Magnesium is fundamental to metabolism, vitamin D functions, calcium, and Vitamin k2.

Magnesium and Bodily Biochemical Reactions

The hefty body consists of tiny cells, and magnesium is present in each cell for functioning! While bones contain the most magnesium, muscles and fluids like blood and soft tissues also contain magnesium. While Working in at least 600 bodily reactions, magnesium is the helper molecule in biochemical reactions. The enzymes carry out biochemical reactions. Crucial biochemical reactions −

Muscles expand and contract

Nervous systems use transmitters for sending messages

Conversion of food into energy

Creation of proteins from amino acids

Gene creation and repairs of DNA and RNA

Magnesium Boost for Physical Performance The Global Problem of Depression

Never before in human history has so much joy with digital technology led conversely to excessive depression. Social media, online games, and gambling are some of the dangers along with substance abuse. It seems quite possible that low magnesium levels lead to depression. Magnesium affects brain function and moods for sure. Magnesium supplements are pretty likely to reduce depression. Research on thousands of persons showed that low magnesium levels increase depression risk. A 500 mg daily supplement of magnesium improved symptoms of depression for those who had a deficiency in the mineral. Anxiety was reduced, too, with a boost to the mood and feeling. 

A Healthy Heart for Humanity

Among the mega magnesium gifts is a strong and energetic heart! Research believes that magnesium lowers blood pressure which could otherwise bring risks to the heart. Heart disease and stroke risks are thus minimized. For persons deficient in magnesium, the supplements bring many rewards. Improved triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol, and HDL (good) cholesterol, were the results. Since another research found no magnesium impact on triglycerides or cholesterol levels, more research could help.

Fighting Inflammation with Magnesium

Aging factors and serious diseases suffer more without adequate magnesium levels. An impact of magnesium supplements was a decrease in C-reactive protein which otherwise indicates inflammation. Other inflammation markers like interleukin-6 got significantly reduced with magnesium supplements. Less magnesium is also related to more significant oxidative stress, which indicates higher inflammation.

Choice of Magnesium Supplements

A naturally occurring food source of supplement is Magnesium Chelate which the body can absorb quickly.

The supplement that helps the most in terms of absorption is Magnesium Glycinate, a chelated form. It is the most bio-available form. It helps to get rid of the magnesium shortage quickly.

Though it is safe, magnesium citrate could have a laxative effect.

Conclusion

Just like no life without blood, magnesium is almost just as crucial to existence. Constipation and stress, migraine, and morning sickness need magnesium. Muscles and bones need magnesium just as well. Make sure the magnesium levels are sufficient since they play awesome roles concerning the brain, heart, and general well-being.

Bu’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains

Ants

BU’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains For nearly five decades, BU biologist James Traniello has worked with ants to untangle some of biology’s biggest questions about brain evolution

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BU’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains

Ants

BU’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains

Devin Hahn

Jessica Colarossi

Chris McIntosh

Ants are capable of extraordinary feats. Their individual and collective intelligence—coupled with their physical abilities—allow them to carry out complex tasks, communicate, and work efficiently as a colony. From leafcutter ants meticulously snipping and carrying pieces of foliage three times their size to bullet ants using their ferocious stings to ward off threats, these insects have fascinated scientists for centuries.

Among those studying their complex behavior is James Traniello, Boston University’s very own “ant man” and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology who has studied ants for nearly five decades. 

“It’s very hard to stop asking questions,” Traniello says. Over the years, he has looked at brain size and social complexity in ants, probing topics like how does collective intelligence impact the evolution of the brain and its structure? Are brain size and metabolism related? Compared to ants, we humans have brains that are unusually large for our body size, says Traniello, and they take up a large proportion of our total metabolism. This raises questions about how both insect and mammalian brain sizes evolved and about the relationship between the size of the brain and how much energy it requires. 

To study a range of species (and brain sizes), Traniello’s lab has assembled an impressive collection of ants. His lab currently has over 30 different types, including local carpenter ants and others native to the tropics, like leafcutter ants and bullet ants. The goal is to have the best representation of sizes possible, from some of the smallest—like the little black ant, Monomorium, at only a few millimeters—to the largest known ant, Dinoponera, which can get up to 2.5 centimeters long. Sometimes, across just one species, there are huge differences in body size, relative brain size, and brain region sizes—such as leafcutter ants, which can vary in head width from less than a millimeter to around 7 millimeters. 

Traniello’s lab studies a part of the insect brain called the mushroom body, which is equivalent in function to the cortex in mammals and is responsible for learning, memory, and more. He is figuring out how these regions differ based on the cognitive demands on the ants, some of whom, like the workers, have very specialized roles to play in the colony.

“There’s no such thing as a solitary ant,” Traniello says. “Just like there’s really no such thing as a solitary human. You can find people that are reclusive or loners, but that’s not really how we live.”  

One key part of his team’s work is making sure colonies thrive in a lab setting. Most of the local ants—which have adapted to the New England climate—aren’t fussy. But those that have traveled from Peru, Panama, or Florida, for example, need environmental chambers that simulate the humidity and temperature of the tropics. Leafcutter ants have particular needs in the lab, Traniello says, because they cultivate a special type of fungus. “The leafcutter ants have this amazing mutualistic relationship with a specific fungus: they cultivate it to feed off of it. They evolved agriculture long before humans did,” Traniello says. 

Even after all this time, Traniello remains fascinated by the world of ants and plans to continue asking questions about the evolution, ecology, and neurobiology of their social lives.

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Georgetown Africa Scholar Named New Dean Of Pardee School Of Global Studies

Scott Taylor, Georgetown Scholar of African Politics and Foreign Service School Professor to Lead BU’s Pardee School of Global Studies Scott Taylor brings record of program-building, stellar scholarship, commitment to diversity

Scott Taylor, the new Pardee School of Global Studies dean, says global crises, from pandemics to climate change, and antidemocratic movements make international relations study vital. Photo courtesy of Georgetown University

New Appointment

Georgetown Africa Scholar Named New Dean of Pardee School of Global Studies Scott Taylor brings record of program-building, stellar scholarship, commitment to diversity

Scott Taylor, a scholar of African politics and vice dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, is the new dean of BU’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.

Taylor assumed his new role September 1, succeeding Pardee’s inaugural dean, Adil Najam. The school was founded in 2013 through a $25 million gift from the late Frederick S. Pardee (Questrom’54,’54, Hon.’06), who gave a second $25 million gift in 2023. 

“Pardee is a young school and part of one of the country’s top universities,” says Taylor, who is only Pardee’s second dean. “The school also has an outstanding faculty and student body, and this combination offers a tremendous opportunity for growth and innovation. As someone who is deeply committed to academic excellence, global affairs, inclusion, and institution-building, the opportunity to lead a school like Pardee is an extraordinary privilege.”

It’s also vital in an era of severe global challenges, he adds. “At no time in recent memory has robust and comprehensive international affairs education been more urgent and important. Everything from climate change to an attack on a nuclear plant in Ukraine or the spread of pathogens that originated in some far corner of the world to a shortage of microchips—you name it—affects all of us.

“Threats to democracy, ethnic violence, record numbers of refugees—the list goes on. These are not local problems, but global ones, requiring new ways of thinking. For future world leaders, dealing with these challenges also presents incredible opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and inclusive solutions. Pardee will continue to play a key role—it must play an expanded role—in educating and equipping the next generation of global leaders, across a wide array of fields.” 

On his to-do list, the new dean says, will be building on Pardee’s strategic plan. “Among my priorities,” he says, “are to enhance excellence in the undergraduate program and continue to strengthen our graduate programs, and to augment our already impressive foundations in area studies. The larger goal is to cement Pardee’s place among the leading schools of international affairs, not just nationally, but globally. This, of course, includes attracting diverse faculty and students, which is essential for a school of this stature.”

Taylor’s Africa scholarship focuses on politics and business in developing nations, private sector development, governance, and political and economic reform. He has written or cowritten four books: Politics in Southern Africa: Transition and Transformation; Culture and Customs of Zambia; Business and the State in Southern Africa: The Politics of Economic Reform; and Globalization and the Cultures of Business in Africa: From Patrimonialism to Profit. 

In addition, he has consulted for the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, the Carter Center, and the African Development Bank, among others. Widely traveled in Africa, he served as an election observer in Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and has lived in both Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

Taylor earned a bachelor’s degree as a government major at Dartmouth, and master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Emory University.

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