COVID-19, IVF, nutrition: here are some of our most read medicine stories of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic dominated headlines on the UNSW Newsroom this year, but readers also wanted to know more about research in other health areas.

Face masks became a ubiquitous reminder of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020, but readers of the UNSW Newsroom were also interested in other important health topics. Photo: Shutterstock

We can “shrink” the COVID-19 curve, rather than just flatten it

Back in March, medically-trained epidemiologist Dr Tim Churches and Professor Louisa Jorm, Foundation Director of the Centre for Big Data Research in Health, explained how their epidemiological modelling showed public health interventions could do more than just “flatten” the COVID-19 epidemic curve.

Dr Churches and Prof. Jorm said: “Leaders and officials who are currently making crucial decisions about responses to COVID-19 can take heart that ‘flattening’ the epidemic curve will not inevitably result in a need to apply drastic social distancing measures over a much longer period of time.

“These public health measures, in particular, intensive case-finding and strict enforcement of isolation and quarantine, can potentially ‘shrink’ the curve, resulting in many fewer cases and deaths overall, with minimal or no extension to the duration of the epidemic.

“Our work illustrates the complexity of predicting the potential impact of public health interventions on the course of the COVID-19 epidemic and it is important to note that our model has been developed very rapidly at a time when we don’t have good data to inform many of our assumptions.

“We shall continue to refine our model and it is freely available for others to use, test and further develop to ensure that policy actions are informed by the best possible evidence (we have described the model in detail on Tim’s website and have made the code available on Github).”

COVID-19-induced pneumonia can lead to serious and long-term consequences, says a UNSW respiratory expert

Professor Christine Jenkins, AM, Conjoint Professor of Respiratory Medicine at UNSW Sydney and Head of the Respiratory Group at The George Institute for Global Health, discussed the phenomenon of COVID-19 pneumonia.

Prof. Jenkins said COVID-19 patients developed pneumonia when the virus invades the lungs and causes an inflammatory reaction that compromises lung function. She estimated this occurred to up to 20 per cent of people with COVID-19, but noted more data was needed to firm up the numbers.

Prof. Jenkins said: “When you look at large groups of people with COVID-19, people over 50 are at higher risk. But once you get to 70 and 80, the hazard ratios for having a severe outcome that requires hospital admission go up fivefold.

“Then, there are underlying diseases that are additional risk factors, like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Now, we don’t normally say obesity is a disease, but sadly, it is associated with metabolic dysfunction in many people and has quite a profound effect on the way your lungs work.

“We know how long, on average, it takes for the virus to clear but that doesn’t mean recovery – it just means the virus is no longer detectable in your upper airway secretions. So, lung damage is not an overnight recovery and pneumonia can take up to several weeks or months of recovery, especially for those who required significant oxygen supplementation.”

Chances of having a second IVF baby after fertility treatment for the first child ‘favourable’: new report

For the first time, a study – led by UNSW Medicine – estimated a woman’s chances of having a second IVF baby.

The research showed women had a good chance of having a second child with the help of fertility treatment after their first child was born this way.

Researchers analysed data from more than 35,000 women and found that after a live birth using IVF, also known as assisted reproductive technology (ART), a woman’s chances of a second ART baby were between 51 per cent and 88 per cent after six cycles of treatment.

While the study presented population estimates and researchers noted every couple is different, they hoped their findings could be used to counsel patients.

Senior author Professor Georgina Chambers, Director of the National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Unit at UNSW Sydney, said: “We also found that the chances of a second ART baby decreased with increased maternal age.

“Factors that improved their chances of a successful second pregnancy included requiring only one cycle and a single embryo transfer to achieve a first live birth, and where infertility was caused by factors affecting the male partner.

“Our findings also underline the fact that ART treatment should be considered as a course of treatment, rather than just one single cycle of treatment: if couples don’t achieve a pregnancy in the first cycle, it could very well happen in the next. However, it would be best not to wait too long, especially if a new stimulation cycle is needed.”

Popular high blood pressure drug linked to increased skin cancer risk in older Australians

Hydrochlorothiazide use increases older people’s risk of developing skin cancer, a study by UNSW Sydney scientists showed – but the researchers warned against suddenly stopping the medicine.

The drug, one of the most prescribed high blood pressure drugs in Australia, contains photosensitising properties, which can make skin more sensitive to the sun.

The findings were based on a big data analysis of skin cancer rates in a case-control study among older Australians and supported similar findings from previous international studies.

Dr Benjamin Daniels, lead author of the study and research fellow at the Centre for Big Data Research in Health, said: “We found increased risk for developing malignant melanoma and squamous cell cancer of the lip (lip cancer) with hydrochlorothiazide use.

“For lip cancer, the risk also appears to be cumulative – that is, the longer that hydrochlorothiazide is used, the higher the risk of developing lip cancer.

“The skin cancer risk is something for prescribers to be aware of. Doctors may want to consider conducting more skin checks for their patients or reinforcing advice around sun-smart behaviours that everyone should be aware of, like adequate protection when UV is higher than three and avoiding sun exposure during peak UV times.”

Orthorexia nervosa: the sinister side of healthy eating

Adjunct lecturer and registered nutritionist Dr Rebecca Reynolds, of the School of Population Health, discussed what happens when healthy eating turns into an unhealthy obsession for some people.

Dr Reynolds, who has been researching orthorexia nervosa for three years, said the proposed mental health condition was an obsessive approach to healthy eating that could be harmful to a person’s mental and physical health. It is yet to be clinically recognised as a distinct eating disorder.

She said: “Orthorexia isn’t just looking after what you eat – it’s taking this to a level where it has significant negative impacts on your life. A person with orthorexia would be so consumed with eating healthily that it significantly impairs their normal functioning.

“Diet trends that demonise certain foods or nutrients have contributed to the problem. Cutting out entire food groups, foods or nutrients from your diet can result in malnutrition if you don’t know the true nutrient content of the foods and drinks that you are having compared to what your body actually needs.”

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