The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced they are investigating a series of cases of an unknown lung disease affecting people across 14 US states. 94 cases have been reported so far. Experts do not know what is causing the disease, but every patient diagnosed so far uses e-cigarettes or vapes.
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Symptoms of the respiratory illness include difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, fatigue, chest pains, and weight loss. There have been no deaths reported, but several patients have been reported to be severely ill.
Dr. Emily Chapman from Children’s Minnesota advised that medical attention was “essential” if these symptoms occur after vaping:
We are deeply concerned by the severe cases of lung injury associated with vaping that we are currently seeing. These cases are extremely complex to diagnose, as symptoms can mimic a common infection yet can lead to severe complications and extended hospitalization.”
Dr. Emily Chapman, Chief Medical Officer, Children’s Minnesota
30 of the 94 cases reported from June 28th, 2019, to August 15th, 2019, have occurred in Wisconsin. There is currently no evidence as to whether the people affected by the illness will make full recoveries, or how long the illness is expected to last.
Dr. Michael Gutzeit, the chief medical officer of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, said:
“As the clinical team was trying to get a better understanding about what might be causing this, it became apparent that the one preceding factor was that the patients had been vaping.”
There is debate over whether vaping has any long-term effects on respiratory health, as has been well documented with normal cigarettes.
The medical community is divided
A study carried out by Harvard researchers found that 25 percent of the 75 US brands of vaping products contained traces of bacteria, with four out of five products showing evidence of fungal contamination.
The researchers looked for chemical markers such as bacterial endotoxins produced by E. coli and β-D-glucan (an important component in the cell walls of invasive fungi), which could lead to the development of asthma.
Senior author of the research published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Professor David Christiana, said that by-products of the bacteria and fungi have been found to result in “acute and chronic respiratory effects,” and that the findings add “to the growing concerns about the potential for adverse respiratory effects in users.”
In the UK, vaping is suggested as an effective way to quit smoking, with estimates produced by research from University College London and Cancer Research UK stating 18,000 people in England became “long-term ex-smokers” in 2015 with the help of e-cigarettes. The researchers place a greater chance of quitting on e-cigarettes compared to other quitting aids.
While vaping’s success as a quitting aid is regarded as a positive step towards restoring respiratory health, these new cases of a complex and severe lung disease are concerning.
Both animal and human studies have shown that additives and flavorings used to make the vapor may harbor long-term, detrimental effects, including impairments to the immune system’s ability to clean the lungs.
Additionally, with a growing rate of resistance to antibiotics and antifungal treatments, there is concern over the treatments for this respiratory illness.
Bacterial contamination was more likely to be found in tobacco and menthol-flavored vapors, and glucans were more likely to be found in fruit-flavored vapors and in cartridge refills.
‘We know that vaping is 20 times less harmful than smoking’
Dr. Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said the results were “interesting” but noted that they were preliminary, saying that the UK has “different, tighter e-cigarette regulations” than America.
We do need to keep adding to our knowledge on the long-term effects of e-cigarette… however we know that vaping is 20 times less harmful than smoking.”
Dr. Penny Woods, British Lung Foundation
The CDC continue to monitor the cases and provide consultation to the departments of health in Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Indiana, and Minnesota.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Press release: CDC, states investigating severe pulmonary disease among people who use e-cigarettes. Saturday, August 17, 2019. cdc.gov/media/releases.