Author Archives: Lisa Aliferis

5 Things You Should Know About This Year’s Flu

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

Update February 21, 2014: The California Department of Public Health says 278 people have died of flu so far this year, and an additional 29 deaths are under investigation. While cases have been declining for a few weeks, state health officials still recommend people get vaccinated, if they haven’t already.

State health officials have released the latest numbers on flu deaths — 202 people have died so far this year and that’s up from 147 last week. That’s the bad news, but for the first time since early January, health officials are also saying that cases appear to be declining. At least for now. Flu season generally runs three months and is “notoriously unpredictable,” said Dr. James Watt, with the California Department of Public Heatlh and recommended that everyone got vaccinated.

Here at State of Health, we’ve noticed that a lot of the same questions come up again and again. With that in mind, we’ve compiled some answers.

1. Is the flu shot really the best way I can avoid getting the flu? In a word, yes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says “the single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.” And you need to get it annually. While everyone over age 6 months should have it, CDC says, it’s especially important for people in high risk groups including:

  • People with certain underlying medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, chronic lung disease and obesity
  • Children under age 5 and adults over age 65
  • Pregnant women — yes, pregnant women, the vaccine is safe and effective for you, CDC says. Continue reading

The Cost of Mammograms: Is A Picture Worth $7 Billion?

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The issue of how often a woman should be screened for breast cancer has been a topic of hot debate for years. But of the many different issues that are closely examined, cost is rarely among them.

Even mentioning cost typically gets patients somewhat understandably up in arms — no one wants her life to be determined by mere dollars.

But what if those dollars are being spent poorly? The harms of mammograms are well-known — false positives and overtreatment among them. What if reconsidering what we’re doing and how we’re doing it could actually lead to more lives saved?

Into the fray comes an analysis from several researchers, including Dr. Laura Esserman, a breast cancer surgeon with UCSF. They calculated the costs for screening mammography in the U.S. under different scenarios. Continue reading

At-Home Test Good Alternative to Colonoscopy, Study Confirms

If you’re like most of my colleagues in the newsroom, you read that headline and thought, “GREAT! What is the alternative test?!”

Here’s the quick background: Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer killer in the U.S. A colonoscopy is an excellent screening tool. But more than one-third of people who are supposed to get it (that’s people ages 50-75) don’t.

Why? I think you can guess.

A colonoscopy is an invasive screening test that can involve missing one to two days of work, an inconvenient preparation process and then a “colonoscope is gently eased inside the colon and sends pictures to a TV screen,” the American Cancer Society says. Continue reading

What Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Tragic Death Teaches Us About Addiction

Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' in Los Angeles, California, last November. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ last November. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

As I think pretty much everyone must know by now, the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died Sunday, apparently of a heroin overdose. I was stunned when I found out, then deeply saddened when I read reports that he had told “60 Minutes” in 2006 that he had given up drugs and alcohol when he was 22 — “I got panicked for my life,” he told Steve Kroft. Hoffman relapsed last year.

But my sadness turned to a kind of cold fury when I saw too many comments on social media clucking disapproval for Hoffman’s “selfishness” and “poor choices.” (I’m not linking to them here; you can find them easily enough if you want to.) One friend on Facebook noted that another friend’s thread about Hoffman was the only one he’d seen acknowledging “the tragedy of his drug addiction.”

And, indeed, addiction is a disease. Dr. David Smith has treated thousands of addicts since he founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in 1967. He talked to me about “battling an uninformed public.” Continue reading

Voting Advocates Say Covered California Can Do More to Increase Voter Registration

(David McNew/Getty Images)

(David McNew/Getty Images)

By Sara Hossaini

Just two days after President Obama called for voting reforms, the National Commission on Voting Rights met in San Francisco to get an overview of elections and voting in the U.S.

The hearing is part of a national fact-finding effort that will inform a report to be presented to the U.S. congress in the spring addressing barriers to voter participation across the country.

So what’s a voting rights story doing on a health blog? Thursday’s panels and public testimony included voter rights advocates who say Covered California is falling down on its legal duty to give users an opportunity to register to vote. The 1993 “motor voter act” requires that any agency that provides public assistance, including the DMV — and now, Covered California — offer voter registration to the public. Continue reading

Health Insurers Extend Deadline for February Premiums, Too

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Covered California says that yesterday was the deadline to pay your February premiums. But some of California’s biggest insurers have extended their deadlines.

Here are new dates for three major carriers:

  • Blue Shield: deadline is Friday, Feb. 14 for people who signed up for coverage starting Feb. 1.
  • HealthNet: For people who signed up for coverage beginning Feb. 1, you have until Feb 15 to make your first premium payment. You can pay by phoneContinue reading

Covered California: The COBRA Glitch

Screenshot from, the website of Covered California.

Screenshot from, the website of Covered California.

“Forgive me for intruding upon your personal email,” Jill Bond wrote me earlier this month.

Bond emailed that she had heard me on KQED’s “Forum” discussing Covered California, and then when a post from me popped up on our neighborhood listserv, she put two and two together and reached out for help. In the months since the Covered California marketplace opened, I have fielded a lot of inquiries from friends and colleagues. I emailed Bond back right away.

Even if you have COBRA now, the only way to enroll in a plan with a subsidy is to say you don’t.

Bond told me she had enrolled in a Covered California plan but didn’t understand where her subsidy was. When she had reviewed her options for Covered California, the “shop and compare” calculator indicated that she qualified for a subsidy — close to $300 — but when she actually enrolled, the subsidy was not applied.

And Bond definitely needs the coverage. In 2010, Bond was treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While she’s cancer-free now, the aggressive chemotherapy damaged her immune system. She says she needs monthly infusions of antibodies to keep her healthy. The treatment is called IVIG, and it costs a small fortune — more than $8,000 a month, Bond said. Continue reading

Watch This Teenage Patient Rightfully ‘Demand to be Heard’

Morgan Gleason is one of 3 in a million. Just 15, she was diagnosed in 2010 with Juvenile Dermatomyositis, an inflammatory disease of the muscle, skin and blood vessels, according ton the American College of Rheumatology. There’s no cause, no cure and the treatment sounds positively awful — the treatment puts her at risk of contracting “the painful and serious condition of aseptic meningitis,” her mother writes.

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And so it was that Morgan found herself hospitalized to treat aseptic meningitis. But she became fed up by the constant early morning interruptions by the medical team charged with caring for her. Her mother recorded this video of Morgan demanding better treatment. “They come in at 6 in the morning and they don’t all come together.”  ”I need sleep … I’ve tried to tell them, I give better answers, I’ll participate more,” if I get enough sleep. “I am a patient, and I demand to be heard,” she says. Anyone who has been in the hospital can probably relate.

Continue reading

California Flu Deaths Double Since Last Week


The flu shot is the best way to protect yourself against the flu, health officials say. (GabrielSaldana/Flickr)

State health officials reported Friday that fatalities from influenza now stand at 95 statewide — with another 51 deaths reported from local jurisdictions under investigation.

That brings the total to 146 deaths — more than the 106 deaths California had during all of last year’s flu season.

“We so far have a much more severe season,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez with the California Department of Public Health. A child in Riverside County was among last week’s fatalities, bringing to three the number of fatalities in children statewide. All of them were under age 10.

Chavez noted that the H1N1 strain is the culprit and says the strain causes more severe disease and more deaths. In addition, it tends to hit younger people harder, in particular those with pre-existing health conditions. Continue reading

Another Health Problem with (Many) Sodas: Caramel Color

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

There’s caramel, and then there’s caramel color. It turns out the two don’t have much to do with each other. This matters to you if you drink soda.

Caramel color is the additive in many soft drinks and some foods that turns them brown. Some types of caramel color contain a chemical called 4-methylimidazole or 4-Mel, and 4-Mel is potentially carcinogenic. In 2011, the state of California added 4-mel to the so-called Prop. 65 list — a list of chemicals known by the state to cause cancer.

Consumer Reports published an analysis of various brands of soda on Thursday. They found that two brands exceeded a level of 29 micrograms per can or bottle: Pepsi One and Malta Goya. Consumer Reports cites state data showing daily consumption above that amount would cause one excess case of cancer in every 100,000 people. Continue reading