Lauryn Schroeder

Enterprise Data Reporter

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Ritualistic use of mercury remains a mystery—but health effects aren't

Journalists from Medill Reports visited seven different botanicas in Pilsen, Humboldt Park and Logan Square looking for mercury. They were met with some resistance, and none of the botanica owners and employees said they had mercury for sale. Botanicas typically serve members of the close-knit Hispanic communities in those areas and are wary of outsiders. Samantha Andreacchi and Erica Tempesta contributed to this report. To see the full version click here Botanicas are Hispanic alternative medicine shops that sell religious and magical paraphernalia and folk medicine remedies, including herbs, perfumes, oils, and candles. There are over 20 botanicas in Chicago, typically located in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

CHICAGO — When Arnold Wendroff asked his special education ninth grade chemistry class in June 1989 in Brooklyn, N.Y.  “What is mercury used for?” he didn’t get the answer he was expecting.

“I asked…thinking someone would likely know a thermometer,” he said. “And a Puerto Rican boy named Jamie raised his hand, and instead of saying a thermometer he said, ‘My mother uses it in Santeria.’”

Santeria is a magico-religious practice that originated in Cuba. It combines the magical practices of the Yoruba people from Africa with some of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

The religion is particularly popular in Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and it has also spread into the U.S.

An exact number of Santeria practitioners in the U.S. is nearly impossible to calculate, said Migene Gonzalez-Whippler in his bookSanteria: The Religion.  People who practice Santeria often keep their faith hidden because of the stigma behind the religion, which is typically associated with animal sacrifice, black magic and spiritual possession, where a spirit physically takes over a person’s body.

The young boy said his mother sprinkled mercury on their floors to keep away “brujos,” or witches, and she bought the mercury at a botanica in Brooklyn, said Wendroff, who has since dedicated his life to educating the public, especially ethnic communities, on the real dangers of the ritualistic use of mercury.

To see if this was true, he asked Jaime to buy him some mercury the next time Jaime’s mother went to the botanica, and sure enough, he did.

“I paid him a dollar and he gave me a colorless gelatin capsule about half full of what was obviously mercury, a total gross weight of 7.2 grams,” Wendroff said.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil, but it is also a neurotoxin that can cause various health problems, including psychological and physical symptoms, for someone who is exposed to it.  (For more information on the health effects of mercury exposure, see the infographic to the right.)

There are three types of mercury: organic mercury that is typically found in fish, inorganic mercury, or mercury salt, and elemental mercury.

Elemental mercury is the most common form and is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature.  It is found in common items and products, such as certain batteries, antique clocks, mirrors and thermometers, and energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs and other fluorescent bulbs.

Mercury capsules, similar to the ones Wendroff described, were once available and may still be available right here in Chicago, said Esther Sciammarella, executive director of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition.

The Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, established in 1991, is an organization that promotes healthy living in Chicago’s Hispanic community to help prevent chronic disease and health disparities in the ethnic group.

Health effects of mercury.

“You can go to a Santeria shop and ask for a container of mercury,” Sciammarella said.  “Go to a botanica and ask for ‘azogue.’” Azogue is a Spanish word for quicksilver or mercury.

Botanicas are Hispanic alternative medicine shops, typically filled with herbs, perfumes, natural remedies, oils, sprays, religious candles and other magical paraphernalia. And there are over 20 botanicas in Chicago, most of which are in communities where the Hispanic population is prevalent, including Pilsen, Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

Sciammarella worked with the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Office of Hispanic Affairs in 2000 on a study that addressed the use of mercury in the city’s Hispanic community.

The study found that Hispanics in Chicago use mercury for religious purposes and as a form of folk medicine. The study also found that “the mercury was available through natural goods stores called botanicas, mystics and curanderos” which "claimed that mercury serves to cure ailments, provide spiritual benefits, and/or solve domestic issues.”

But Richard Gelb, who has been a santero — or Santeria priest — since 1990, has never heard of mercury being used in Santeria rituals. Gelb, 62, is the assistant principal and an English teacher at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.

Still, Dr. Daniel Hryhorczuk, director of environmental health at the center for global health at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, conducted a study on the topic in 2000 with the Illinois Department of Public Health, and his research yielded similar results as Sciammarella’s, showing the city’s Hispanic community used mercury.

“It is not limited to one Hispanic community; there are actually several different communities that use mercury in either cultural or religions practices and also several different religions—it’s not just one religion,” he said.

Hryhorczuk said mercury use in the study was primarily tied to Santeria, though he heard it is also used in voodoo. He found that outside of religious practices, members of certain communities were also using mercury to treat ‘empacho,' which is a Hispanic folk illness typically characterized by symptoms such as indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting or lack of appetite.

“It was also being used by some members of communities...who believed that injecting yourself with mercury would make you stronger,” he said. "And that was one of the most dangerous practices that we encountered in our clinical practice."

Dr. Estella Hernandez confirmed that some Hispanics in Pilsen, the largest Hispanic community in Chicago, buy mercury from local botanicas. She is a doctor of family and bariatric medicine at NutriMedicos, a physician-guided diet and weight management clinic in Pilsen.

Hernandez said she has seen a few patients who have told her they ingest mercury for medicinal purposes.

“One of the conditions they use it for is empacho,” she said, confirming what Hryhorczuk found during his Chicago study. “But it’s not something that’s scientifically and medically based.”

And when patients tell her they’ve taken the metal for health purposes, Hernandez said she warns them about the dangerous health effects of mercury, as she does with any other treatment or practice that may cause them harm.

Sherrie Elzinga, assistant to the director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said that the Illinois EPA is also aware that people use mercury for religious purposes, particularly in the Hispanic population.

She noted it’s not illegal to possess the toxic metal, “but we don’t suggest that you possess it, and we suggest you dispose of it properly.”

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission allows the sale of mercury as long as the product is properly labeled as “Not Recommended for Household Use.”

Elzinga said the Illinois EPA does not have an initiative at this time to address the ritualistic use of mercury in Chicago’s Hispanic communities.

Even though mercury use has been known to be prevalent within certain communities in Chicago, both Sciammarella and Hryhorczuk experienced community resistance during their respective studies.

The study done by Sciammarella and the Chicago Department of Public Health ended up focusing on education and resulted in the creation of informational brochures. These brochures were printed in Spanish and handed out within the community.

And the study that Hryhorczuk and the Illinois Department of Public Health intended to do was never completed.

“We started to get some pushback from the community,” he said. “They felt that this was intrusive because mercury was being used in some of their religious practices, and they felt that this was an intrusion on their religious freedom.”

Hryhorczuk said to successfully complete an in-depth survey about mercury use in the Hispanic community, “you would need to be either an anthropologist or ethnographer who builds trust with the community, who can speak the language and who can go in there and actually work with members of the community.

“To have outside researchers, like university scientists, come in and do this is very difficult”.

Even a little bit of mercury exposure can be dangerous, and most people are not always aware that they have been exposed. This is typically because mercury is not just used in traditional and religious practices—it’s still found in common items and products.

When mercury is exposed to air it, immediately starts giving off fumes that can be inhaled, and it will continue to evaporate as long as the little metal balls are in the atmosphere, environment, or room, said Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

According to Melaney Arnold, communications director at the Illinois Department of Public Health, the main way people are exposed to the toxic metal is by inhaling invisible fumes, allowing it to be absorbed by the lungs.

However, there are other ways people can be exposed.

“Mercury can enter the body through the skin, especially if it contacts a cut or wound,” Arnold said. “If you swallow mercury, very little is absorbed. Most of the mercury is eliminated through the digestive tract.”

Buchanan described dramatic symptoms associated with severe poisonings including upset stomach, mental confusion, irritability, memory loss, tremors, numbness, tingling and skin peeling.

But mercury exposure and poisoning severely affects children, Buchanan said.

“We are concerned about mercury exposure in children because the brains are still developing at least through age 6 and probably longer,” she said.

If children have been exposed to elemental mercury, they will typically have a combination of a toxic reaction with an allergic reaction, Hryhorczuk said.

“We can see this illness called acrodynia, or pink disease, and that manifests itself as rashes over the body which looks like an allergic reaction,” he said.

For adults, mercury exposure is more detrimental to the central nervous system, Hryhorczuk said.

According to Buchanan, you should never throw away or vacuum mercury because it can disperse the particles throughout a large area. She suggested using two pieces of paper to roll the metal balls off the floor and into an envelope.

But she said the best option is to call a local health department to take care of it. In addition to the health departments, there are free programs that help to safely dispose of mercury-containing items, including the Illinois EPA’s Household Hazardous Waste Collection Program.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Buchanan said. “So as long as it’s around, it is going to give off those mercury fumes.”

The highest concentration of botanicas are in Pilsen, Logan Square, Humboldt Park and South Lawndale. Pilsen is the largest Hispanic community in Chicago.

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CDC reports flu no longer widespread in Illinois

Illinois Department of Public Health CHICAGO — The worst may be over for the flu season that hit earlier than expected this season. Influenza levels in Illinois are no longer “widespread,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data.

Illinois has experienced a high level of influenza activity for the last six weeks, but the CDC reported Friday that numbers have been gradually decreasing over the last month. The decrease has moved Illinois out of the widespread category.

The CDC reported that depending on the severity of the season, between 3,000 and 50,000 people die in the United States each year from influenza-related illnesses. Melaney Arnold from the Illinois Department of Public Health said that there have been 98 flu-related deaths in Illinois this year, with 651 total hospitalizations.

According to the department’s most recent data released last week, outpatient visits for influenza-like illness is now 2.6 percent, which is a huge decrease from the 3.3 percent the previous week. In addition, Illinois’ influenza activity is now being monitored and reported on a regional scale, instead of a widespread basis.

This flu season started in early December, which is earlier than previous years, according to the CDC. Despite the early start, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC's director, said in a congressional hearing that this season did not reach "pandemic proportions."

Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the CDC, said 22 states are still reporting a widespread influenza activity level — a decrease from 31 states in the previous week and 38 states the week before.

“Overall it’s been a moderate-to-severe season,” Allen said. “Currently the influenza activity still persists but it’s going down at a steady pace.”

He said the number of deaths and hospitalizations are similar to the results of previous years that had a H3N2 strain circulating. The H3N2 strain, which is also known as influenza A, tends to be more severe. The CDC reported that as of Tuesday, there have been 78 pediatric deaths this season. Typically this number averages about 100 each year and Allen said unfortunately this was not a surprising result. He added that there was one thing the CDC did not expect this season: The vaccine’s effectiveness in different age groups.

Overall the vaccine was 56 percent effective, Allen said. The CDC reported that it was less effective against the influenza A strain — protecting 47 percent — and it protected 67 percent of those who received the vaccine from influenza B.

“Those are the typical numbers we’re going to see when the vaccine is well-matched with the strains being circulated,” he said. “But we did experience the biggest change in those 65 and older.”

According to the CDC, only 9 percent of people 65 years or older were protected from influenza A after receiving the vaccine, and about 90 percent of flu-related deaths this year were those in this same age range.

Allen said there are two important factors that determine the vaccine’s effectiveness: One is whether or not the vaccination is a close enough match to the strains circulating. The second is the age of the person receiving the vaccine and any chronic health problems they may have. He said that studies have shown that both age and health can diminish the body’s response to the vaccine and make someone more vulnerable for infection or further complications.

Even though the benefits for the vaccine vary for different age groups, Allen said it does not mean the public should lose faith in its overall effectiveness. It can still help to prevent the illness from spreading to others.

“It’s the best we have at the moment,” he said. “And because it’s the best we have, the best thing you can do is get vaccinated if you’re living with someone that’s very young or over 65.

“Bottom line is we need to advance the research on influenza vaccinations but we’re just not there yet.”

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Typhoid fever case confirmed at Purdue University

The graph represents the most recent data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Purdue University and Indiana public health officials are reaching out to students, faculty and visitors who may have eaten in three locations on campus in West Lafayette, after a food handler tested positive for typhoid fever on Tuesday.

The unnamed employee was wearing gloves, but could have spread the illness while at work from Jan. 23 to Jan. 25, according to a press release issued by Richard Ghiselli, head of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue. Anyone who ate at the Boiler Bistro, John Purdue Room, or the coffee shop in Marriott Hall during this time may be at risk.

The illness can be treated with prescribed antibiotics and a vaccine is available for those who plan to travel abroad. If left untreated, the disease can last up to a month and serious complications may occur including tears or hemorrhaging in the intestinal track.

"We want all of our students and other patrons to know that we put their health first," Ghiselli said. "We are informing our students and patrons and are working together with the Indiana State Department of Health.”

The Purdue employee contracted the disease while traveling abroad and will not return to work until cleared by the state health department, Ghiselli said.

Lola Russell, a spokeswoman for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the disease is rare in the United States — about 400 cases each year — more than 22 million cases worldwide are reported annually and an estimated 200,000 people die due to the illness or complications. Most of the reported cases in the United States come from those who had recently traveled abroad.

In Illinois, 240 cases of typhoid fever have been reported since 2000, according to Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Russel said the bacteria that causes typhoid fever, which is a type of salmonella known as S. typhi, spreads through contaminated food, water or other beverages.

“The salmonella bacteria only lives in humans who are contaminated and it’s carried in their blood streams,” she said. “But people who have recovered from the disease can also be what we call carriers, and they can spread it to other people.”

According to the CDC, symptoms typically appear within eight to 14 days but can begin up to 30 days after exposure. Sometimes patients will have symptoms that gradually worsen each day, while others experience a continuous rise and fall during the day. The most common symptoms include a high fever — usually ranging between 103-104 degrees — weakness, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea, or loss of appetite. In some cases, a rash of rose-colored spots may appear on the torso.

The CDC says the risk of getting typhoid fever is highest for those who travel in southern Asia, in particular East and Southeast Asia. Other areas of heightened risk include Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. A longer stay in these areas can increase the risk of infection but some travelers have contracted the disease in less than a week where typhoid fever is endemic.

Russel said the vaccination will help prevent typhoid fever while abroad and should be administered about two weeks before a trip to developing nations where hand washing and sanitation aren’t as common. Purdue Student Health Center has announced that, under these circumstances, it will offer advice or health care without charge to anyone who is showing symptoms and ate at Marriott Hall locations during the potential contamination days.

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Stomach flu quarantines 700 inmates at Cook County Jail

Courtesy of Cook County Sheriff's Department: The Cook County Jail is now in quarantine after a stomach flu outbreak in one of its largest divisions. CHICAGO — An outbreak of the stomach flu in about 30 prisoners has prompted a quarantine of one of the largest divisions in the Cook County Jail, officials said Wednesday.

The quarantine of Division II will remain in effect until further notice, according to a press release issued by Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. Detainees in the affected unit will have limited movement and visitations will be prohibited during the quarantine.

To prevent further exposure, the division’s living, dining, shower, toilet areas as well as all high-touch surface areas are being disinfected. The inmates' linens have been changed and are being laundered separately, Dart said.

Sophia Ansari, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said as of Wednesday afternoon about 30 inmates have fallen ill. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

Ansari said the quarantine could possibly put pressure on the jail’s finances over the next few days.

“The inmates housed in Division II are more minimum-security prisoners and they’re the ones that help out in a lot of the programs within the jail,” she said.  Because of the quarantine, prisoners within this division will be unable to participate. As a result, medium-security inmates may be needed to cover the food transportation and cleaning responsibilities.

Ansari said medium-security inmates would require more supervision from officers and could drive up costs. Additional staff members might also be needed if the flu bug continues to spread.

Jail employees from the quarantined division are being closely monitored to prevent an outbreak within the staff, according to the release. Exposure to sick detainees is being limited and the sheriff’s office is closely monitoring the jail to ensure the virus does not spread to other divisions.

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Alcohol mixed with diet drinks may increase intoxication, researchers say

According to a new study, mixing alcohol with a diet or sugar-free soft drink may increase intoxication more than mixing alcohol with a regular sugared drink. CHICAGO — Cutting calories with diet drinks may not be a good idea anymore — at least not at the bar.

According to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, mixing alcohol with a diet or sugar-free soft drink could result in a higher breath alcohol concentration compared with mixing alcohol with a regular sugared drink.

Cecile Marczinski, an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University, was one of the lead researchers of the study. She specializes with energy drinks and their effects on the body when mixed with alcohol. Marczinski and her research team initiated the study when they noticed a higher level of breath alcohol content, or BrAC, in people – particularly women -- who had consumed diet drinks at a bar.

During the study, subjects were given one of three doses: vodka and diet soda, vodka and regular soda, and a placebo beverage that was made to smell like vodka. By using breath tests, which measure the alcohol exhaled from the lungs, Marczinski found that subjects who drank with a diet mixer had a BrAC that was 18 percent higher than those who consumed the same amount of alcohol with a sugar-sweetened drink. The cause starts with the digestive track and is the same reason health experts recommend eating a full meal before drinking alcohol.

“The stomach treated the sugary drink as food so it keeps it in the stomach longer to allow time for digestion,” she said. “Diet drinks contain no sugar, so it goes through the digestive track immediately, and the alcohol is then absorbed by the liver.”

Even though the study was small — eight males and eight females — the results reflected similar studies performed during field research. For the past decade, Dennis Thombs, a professor and chair of the department of behavioral and community health at University of North Texas Health Science Center, has been assessing and systematically sampling bar patrons on their way home.

“We found the same result,” Thombs said. “Those who drank diet drinks were more intoxicated than those who had consumed drinks with sugar-based soda.”

Thombs’ study also found a significant difference between the intoxication level of young men and women. He said this might be because women tend to be more weight conscious than men, and therefore women were more likely to specify that they wanted a diet soda.

“Women are probably wanting to consume healthier drinks that have less calories,” he said. “But they may not be aware that they’re getting more intoxicated than they intended to.”

Both Thombs and Marczinski agreed that the most frightening result of the study was that subjects were unaware of the difference in intoxication levels. Those who mixed diet drinks with alcohol had BrAC levels of .09, which is above the legal driving limit of .08, whereas those who mixed sugared sodas with alcohol averaged about .07.

“Both groups felt the same and both groups were willing to drive,” Marczinski said. “Choices to drink and drive often depend on how people feel rather than some objective measurement of impairment.”

Subjects were then asked to perform computer tests, which simulated situations that they might face behind the wheel while their reaction times and errors were measured. Those who drank with a diet mixer were more impaired and slower to react.

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 927 reported deaths in Illinois due to traffic accidents in 2010. Approximately 32 percent — 292 deaths— was related to drunken driving. This number didn’t improve in 2011 with 926 total deaths with 278 related to drunken driving.

“Alcohol impairs judgment,” Marczinski said. “It’s not surprising that people are bad at judging how drunk they actually are when they’re drunk.”

Marczinski said she will likely follow up with more research in this area to examine different dose levels of alcohol. She said she would also like to focus on the different types of drinks to replicate in the lab what people are doing in real life, specifically if there are certain drink combos that are more problematic than others.

Thombs said he would continue his research as well because the results are not conclusive yet. There are only a few studies that have closely examined the link between someone’s level of intoxication and the type of mixer they use.

“For those of us who are interested in increasing the safety of the bar atmosphere, we need to take a closer look at alcohol mixers,” Thombs said. “Not just soda and diet soda but energy drinks as well.”

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What to expect when Obamacare hits full swing in 2014

Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago Medical Center Dr. Elbert Huang is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. From 2010 to 2011 he worked in Washington, D.C., on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare.

As President Barack Obama was sworn into his second term at the White House, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — commonly known as Obamacare or ACA — was set in stone for the next four years with virtually no risk of repeal. Even though the legislation was initially approved in April 2010, many Americans still don’t know how this legislation will affect their health service providers and insurance cost over time.

Dr. Elbert Huang, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, worked on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Washington D.C., from 2010 to 2011. He said it was an opportunity he could not pass up. Huang helps to answer some common questions people have about the new health-care reform.

Q: When Obama first signed the legislation in 2010, what changes did we see to health care immediately?

A: In general the first portions of the law [to be implemented] dealt with insurance coverage regulation. One of the early changes was allowing parents to keep children under their insurance until the child turns 26, regardless of school enrollment status. The other changes were related to pre-existing conditions. Now insurance companies are not able to prevent people from getting insurance and they can’t make it difficult for someone to keep insurance if they get sick. There was also affordable preventative care [such as screening tests] for those on Medicare. Most of the procedures for these patients have no co-pay.

Q: What should we expect to see this year?

A: It’s difficult to say what regular people on the street will see this year. People probably won’t notice anything because 2012 and 2013 are preparation years for what we’re going to see in 2014. The states that have decided to participate and set up their own insurance exchanges for the following year are doing all of this outside of the public eye.

Q: It’s been estimated that in 2014, approximately 30 million new people will be able to purchase private insurance on these federal or state regulated exchanges, making it the largest spread of health coverage since the establishment of Medicare in 1965. What will this do to medical facilities? Will there be enough medical care to go around with that large of an influx?

A: There is already a lot of experience from the Massachusetts [law] that tells us what will happen. It depends on where you live in the country. How many people are insured, how many will become insured in 2014 and how many medical facilities the area has. It will vary from place to place. We know that the system will work in terms of getting people insured because almost 98 percent of people are covered [in Massachusetts]. The reason it’s somewhat disturbing for other states is that [Massachusetts] has the highest density of primary-care doctors per population. Some of these newly insured patients might still end up in the emergency room instead of a primary-care office and there’s always a concern about discriminating against people who have certain types of insurance.

Q: So we’ve talked about how this will impact patients. What about the doctors? Is Obamacare going to be a positive or negative change for both public and private medical facilities?

A: Right now we pay doctors for every piece of work they do. That hasn’t changed. Most doctors can and will function just as they did before. But because of more pressure on insurers, hospitals and doctors are going to be under more scrutiny to maintain costs and be efficient when practicing medicine. But this has always been the case too.

The law is actually very friendly to primary care-doctors. There’s a financial incentive for primary-care doctors to stay in business. In general it will make it easier for private practices to run as efficiently as a public hospital. But it will definitely encourage doctors who are innovators. The law has set aside about $1 billion to fund pilot studies in health- care innovation. University of Chicago currently has two large-scale grants from the fund, to study more efficient medical practices.

Q: You mentioned the added pressure on insurance companies. Because of Obamacare, they are now required to spend 80 percent of a patient’s premium dollar on actual medical care. How do you think this will impact the health insurance business, and why was this an important factor in the legislation?

A: The insurance regulation definitely puts a squeeze on insurers, but this is a good thing. Premiums have continued to rise for years when the economy has continually gotten worse. Even doctors think that insurers spend too much money on administration and advertisements. This law has helped to shine a light on incredibly high health-care costs in the U.S. and hopefully bring about a better use of our health-care dollars.

Q: After personally working on the legislation, what are your final thoughts about Obamacare? Do you think we’re heading in the right direction with this legislation?

A: The Affordable Care Act is an incredibly complex and imperfect law, but this is landmark legislation for American health-care history, kind of the starting place for a lot of important changes. The country was already facing problems of rising health-care costs and this has sort of sparked the changes that needed to happen. More people are going to be able to afford coverage, which is really a moral step in the right direction for everyone. It will be a bumpy road but in about 10 years expect to see a much better health-care system.

Illinois flu death toll reaches 50, vaccines still available

By Lauryn Schroeder/MEDILL CHICAGO — The influenza virus is still at large in Illinois, but health officials are saying the worst may be over.

Sabrina Miller, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state’s death toll has reached 50 and approximately 476 people have been hospitalized in the intensive care unit for flu-related illnesses. The previous week, there were 27 reported deaths and 370 hospitalizations.

However, the department reported an encouraging steady two-week decline in hospitalizations. Nine patients in Illinois were hospitalized with flu-related symptoms as of Friday, a significant decrease from the 30 patients the previous week.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois is among the 30 states still experiencing a high flu activity level since the surge over the holidays.

These numbers are still discouraging for Illinois, considering there were no deaths due to the influenza virus in 2012.  Health officials continue to promote the flu vaccine and say it is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus and avoid falling ill.

CDC spokesman Curtis Allen, said approximately 129.2 million doses of the influenza vaccine has been distributed through the end of last week. Vaccine manufacturers anticipate 145 million doses total will be produced to cover the demand. He said most of the vaccinations are distributed to pharmacies and clinics in September, but the majority is given out from October to early January.

“It’s not unusual for some places to not have the vaccinations this late in the season because so many have already been distributed earlier in the year,” he said. “But it’s definitely not too late.”

Allen did say it may be necessary for some people to call their local pharmacies or clinics to make sure they have the vaccine in stock before heading outside.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director LaMar Hasbrouck spoke with Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday about the severity of this flu season. He said that some spot shortages of the vaccine is a good thing because it means more people are getting the message and taking action against the virus. While there may be some areas that are in short supply, Hasbrouck said statewide shortage will not be an issue in Illinois.

Allen said prices for the vaccine typically range anywhere from $9 to $16 but can reach $40 depending on the medical provider. Receiving the shot from a private physician or clinic may cost more, but some insurance policies cover the shot's fee. After the shot, it takes approximately two weeks for the body to build up antibodies against the influenza virus. The vaccine protects against four strains circulating this year, including the H3N2 virus, which has caused the majority of flu-related complications for patients this year.

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Bedbugs are biting but Chicago can still sleep tight

Chicago bed bug reports have gone up to 1,533 from 1,365 in one year, according to the City of Chicago Building Department. CHICAGO — The pest control company Orkin sent Chicagoans into an itchy panic Tuesday after awarding the city its worst ranking: most treatments for bedbug infestation. While being No. 1 is not the best news for Chicago, experts say it’s rash to correlate the number of treatments with the number of infestations in the city.

“Chicago may be the No. 1 for Orkin … but to say that bedbugs are the worst in Chicago is an overstatement,” said research entomologist for BedBug Central Jeff White.

The New Jersey-based company works as an information resource and website for bedbugs and bug-related issues, such as prevention and effective treatment methods.

White said bedbugs have always been around, but recently there has been a shortage of new pesticides introduced into the market. This has allowed them to spread quickly and easily following a surge on the East Coast in 2006.

“The introduction of DDT during WWII pretty much eliminated them,” he said.

“But all pests, not just bedbugs, can and will build up a resistance to pesticides being used against them.”

DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Resistance in this case, does not mean the chemical will fail to kill the bugs and their eggs. It means that to be effective, more of the chemical must be used and the bugs need to be exposed longer for the treatment to work, White said.

After eight years as an entomologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health, Curt Colwell is no stranger to Chicago’s bedbug issues. He has taken calls from all over the state regarding bedbug infestation, with a majority coming from the Chicago area. He started to notice a higher number of bedbug reports in 2007 and the number has steadily increased since then.

According to the City of Chicago Building Department, in 2011 1,365 calls were made to 311 reporting a bedbug infestation and in 2012 the number jumped to 1,533.

“It exploded around 2010,” Cowell said. “I’d say approximately 30 percent of my pest-related calls are about bedbugs each day.”

Collwell said bedbugs are particularly hard to get rid of because removing them requires locating them, and most people don’t want to stay in an infested house to hunt them down. Collwell said there’s no way to know for sure if Chicago is now the worst city in the country.“I don’t know if Chicago has any more bedbugs than Cincinnati does,” he said, referring to that city’s Orkin rank as No. 1 in 2011. “But I don’t think anyone really has those kinds of numbers to determine exactly how bad it is.”

Bedbugs are not capable of transmitting diseases. Some people experience itchy red marks after being bitten, while others don’t notice any bites at all. Both Collwell and White said the biggest problem for those with bedbugs is not removing them or being bitten— it’s the toll they take on people’s lives during and after removal.

“I would say for the average person the emotional and psychological toll is way greater than the physical one,” Colwell said.

Chicago resident Tim Gagarin knows first-hand how bad the bedbugs can be. He started to notice them in his apartment at the end of December. After several treatments Gagarin said he thought they were gone but found more on Jan. 2. He said his life was already stressful as a DePaul University student working part-time, and the bedbugs added even more.

“It’s felt like the home I’ve built for myself here in Chicago has been thrown away,” he said. “Precautionary and necessary measures left me with pretty much the clothing on my back and a few important pieces of sentiment.”

After getting rid of his furniture, sealing up all unneeded clothing, and spending approximately $600 on cleaning and pesticides, Gagarin hasn’t seen any more bugs. He said even though they’re gone, he still has trouble sleeping and looks for them all the time.

“I sit for hours at the edge of my bed before I work up the courage to get in,” he said. “I’m looking for bugs everywhere now. Even in my car and workplace.”

Gagarin said he hasn’t decided whether to move to another apartment when his lease ends in April. The building’s management company has credited some of Gagarin’s losses against his rent and it’s possible the problem could follow him to a new place.

“The best way to get rid of them is to treat them in the environment they came from,” he said. “All things considered I’m lucky my apartment management is willing to help the situation.”

Thankfully there are effective treatment options available. Those with bedbugs can use what White calls a “multidisciplinary approach,” which involves buying “do it yourself” pesticides, bed casings and interception devices that prevent the bugs from spreading. There is also the option of calling in a professional pest control company. These companies will treat the area with pesticides or perform a heating method for removal.

White said he would recommend using heat because he believes it to be the most effective. The treatment involves a professional company heating the infested area to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours.

“Bugs and their eggs will die rapidly under that kind of heat,” he said. “If done right, it can eliminate most, if not all the bugs in just one treatment.”

No matter what option is chosen, White said it is crucial that those with bedbugs do their homework and get reliable information. White also produces BedBug TV, a miniseries online where he goes through the different techniques for removal and answers common bedbug questions.

Even though Chicago would rather be first on another list, White said this may help the public become more aware and educated about bedbugs.

“The lack of public awareness is what increases the spread of bedbugs dramatically,” he said. “Now everyone’s becoming educated, it’s just taking us longer to get there.”

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Flu epidemic kills 27, hospitalizes 369 in Illinois so far

Illinois Department of Public Health UPDATE: Chicago pedestrians talk about the flu vaccine and this season's influenza virus.

CHICAGO — With the flu reaching epidemic levels around Christmas, health officials are estimating that the death toll has reached 27 in Illinois and nearly 370 people have been hospitalized with flu-related illnesses, state health officials are reporting.

The Illinois Department of Public Health is not expecting a decrease any time soon with more reported cases from previous weeks coming in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 47 states are now experiencing an elevated level of influenza activity. Officials said the season has started earlier and the cases are more severe than in recent years.

The number of flu cases declined last week in Chicago, but experts say conditions may continue for the next several weeks. Curtis Allen, a spokesperson for the CDC, said Chicago experienced an early outbreak of the influenza virus so the high activity level might decrease over the next 10-12 weeks. But he said the most accurate prediction the CDC could make about the flu season, is that it is unpredictable.

“Unfortunately, we really don’t know much about the type of flu season we’re having until after its over,” Allen said. “We’re learning a lot, but the most educational part is when the season is over.”

On Friday the CDC reported that 7.3 percent of deaths last week were caused by pneumonia and the flu, just above the epidemic status of 7.2 percent. While the numbers are high compared to previous years, some medical experts say there are misconceptions about the flu virus that are causing a great amount of unnecessary concern.

Dr. David Zich, internal medicine and emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said the flu season has been worse than normal, but preparing for the unexpected is part of emergency medicine.

The majority of flu cases reported to the CDC have been influenza A (H3N2), followed by influenza B viruses, and a small number of the 2009 H1N1 — more commonly known as the swine flu. Zich said when influenza A viruses circulated before, flu seasons were more severe, but the majority of the public has no reason to greatly fear the flu.

“This is not a super bug,” he said. “It may be a little bit more potent, but it’s not something to be very worried about. The majority of healthy people should be over it within five to seven days.”

As of last Wednesday, Northwestern Memorial Hospital was no longer on emergency-room bypass. Even though many hospitals have been swamped with flu patients, Zich said the hospital, not an urgent care center, is the best place to go if you get the flu and have other significant health problems. Hospitals will have the equipment to test for pneumonia and other respiratory complications, he said.

Dr. Paul Heidel, medical director for the Ottawa County Health Department in Michigan, previously worked on a national level with flu-related issues for the U.S. Air Force. He said the most common symptoms of the flu this year have been sore throat, headache, body aches, high fever and a cough from inflammation in the respiratory track. For those worried about getting ill, Heidel said it is not too late to get the vaccine, which is on average 62 percent effective.

“That doesn’t mean that you won’t get the flu though,” he said. “The body takes two weeks to build up antibodies so you’re not fully protected right away and there are other strains that it doesn’t cover.”

Heidel still recommended the shot despite these factors because it can prevent more severe cases and help the average person recover faster if they are infected. He also said getting the vaccine can reduce the risk of passing on the illness to someone more likely to have further complications.

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Chicago residents rush for - and resist - flu shots

See what Chicago pedestrians think about flu shots and this flu season. Click here to view the video on Chicago Medill reports.

The hard-hitting influenza virus has already sent a reported 370 Illinois residents to the hospital this season. These are the latest figures, updated through Friday, from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The threat of getting sick has some rushing to get the flu vaccine, while others are skeptical about its effectiveness.

See who has gotten sick, who received the flu shot and what people think about this season's outbreak.

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Lake View sees drop in total crime but robbery count doubles

Grace Street CHICAGO — Chicago Police officials from the 19th District reported Tuesday, Nov. 8, that three areas of Lake View have seen a significant drop in total crimes reported this month, but specific crimes are on the rise.

Beth Giltmier, Chicago Police and CAPS Sgt. for the 19th Police District, said the total number of crimes reported for the 1923 beat, which covers West Irving Park Road to West Addison Street, has decreased by 25 incidents.

“It’s a big deal,” Giltmier said. “That means we’re arresting the right people.”

Despite the decrease in total crime, reported robberies for the 1923 beat almost doubled from eight to 15. Giltmier said at this time there is nothing to indicate a pattern in the incidents, but police officials are using new strategies to track down the source of the thefts.

“They’re going in the alleyways instead of staying on the main streets, which will help them find anything suspicious near garages,” Giltmier said. “We can’t be everywhere but the most important thing is getting the word out to the community.”

Addison Street to Belmont Avenue, beat 1924, saw a decrease of 18 and beat 1925, North Halsted to North Lake Shore Drive, decreased by 19. Giltmier said the total decrease in all three beats could be due to a series of major arrests.

On Oct. 25, a suspected Lake View burglary team, Delia Fernandez and Joe Melendez, were arrested by police officials. Paris Embry, 33, was arrested after police officers stopped his vehicle on the 600 block of West Patterson Avenue. He was charged with possession of narcotics. Giltmier said she believes Embry is a middleman for the large amount of narcotic sales in the area, particularly on West Grace Street.

Nora Handler and her husband Bruce attended Tuesday’s beat meeting. The two have been living on the 3800 block of North Lake Shore Drive for nine years. She said throughout that time the neighborhood’s atmosphere has gone up and down regularly but about two months ago she noticed an increase in suspicious activity.

“In a big city like Chicago you won’t know all your neighbors but you have a feel for who belongs there and who doesn’t,” she said. “I started talking to neighbors who were seeing things in the alley that made them concerned too.”

Handler said over the last two weeks she has seen an improvement and is starting to feel more confident when walking at night. She said she is thankful to the police who have taken the community’s complaints seriously.

“I think we’re really lucky in this neighborhood,” she said. “(The police) are very involved and very responsive…they do the best they can.”

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UPDATE: Alderman speaks at Hotel Chateau hearing as owner plays hooky

The Hotel Chateau is located on North Broadway in Lake View. Hotel Chateau owner Jack Gore was a no show in Cook County Housing Court Tuesday but his lawyer was there, arriving late and claiming that his client never received official notice of the lawsuit brought on by several violations and failed inspections.

The hotel at 3838 N. Broadway is a single-room occupancy building that is typically used as housing for clients of social service providers. These clients can range from ex-convicts to mental health patients in need of affordable housing. According to records from the Chicago Buildings Department, the hotel has failed 27 city inspections since September 2001 — nine out of 11 were failed this year.

During the hearing, Alderman James Cappleman (46th) and North Halsted Business Alliance Executive Director Jay Lion, were able to speak on behalf of the community.

Several issues were brought up including its effect on Lake View residents, businesses and tourism industry.

“I took a tour of the North Broadway area and talked to as many businesses and residents as I could,” Cappleman said while addressing the court. “The number one complaint I heard was the issues going on at and around the Hotel Chateau.”

Gore could not be reached for comment and his legal representation, Victor Ciardelli, did not address the court. But in an email sent to Cappleman on Nov. 2, Ciardelli said the attacks against the Chateau are merely a way for the alderman to follow through with the threats he made prior to his election in 2011.

“At this point we feel that the Chateau Hotel is being singled out,” Ciardelli said. “If this harassment continues we will have no other alternative but to seek whatever remedies (Jack Gore) has available to him in the Federal District Courts.”

Associate Judge William G. Pileggi presided over the hearing and verbally recognized the community’s concerns about the Chateau, particularly its close proximity to a neighborhood park and the Horace Greeley Elementary School. But Pileggi said he wanted to make it clear that the jurisdiction of Tuesday’s hearing covers only the building’s violations, and that is what his ruling will be based on.

The Chateau faces a hefty list of violations, including damaged fire escapes, missing or broken fire alarms, bathroom mildew buildup on the ceilings and floors, plumbing backups and defective electrical outlets. In the email, Ciardelli said the hotel is a safe and well-run SRO, and that city inspectors found the Chateau in “excellent condition” on previous occasions.

Theodore Tellano, 57, said he has lived at the Hotel Chateau for 10 years. He said the poor maintenance is to blame for the buildings issues, not the tenants.

“They do the cosmetic parts,” Tellano said. “The housekeeping is fine, they paint it so it looks nice on the outside. It’s like they make it look good from far away.”

In addition to mildew, broken windows and leaky pipes in several areas of the building, Tellano said doors are kicked in regularly and the broken locks are either fixed poorly or not replaced at all.

“It happens a lot,” he said. “ They don’t fix stuff properly the first time so they have to keep coming back to do more crap work.”

Representatives from the Lake View Action Coalition attended the meeting wearing buttons that read, “Save Our Home.” Norman Groetzinger has been a member of the coalition for 20 years and also owns several buildings in the area. He said he agrees with the city and thinks Gore should be made to improve the conditions in the building, but he thinks the neighborhood is wrong to accuse the tenants for the area’s increased crime.

“It’s typical to make a building, like the Chateau, a scapegoat for bad things happening in the neighborhood,” Groetzinger said. “But closing it down is extreme and will only hurt the situation. You’ll be putting 138 of its residents out on the street.”

Outside of the courtroom, Cappleman said there is a lack of affordable housing in Chicago and it is not his primary goal to shut down the Chateau. He said it is up to Gore to save the building from closure.

“I believe SRO housing can have a good name in this city again but they have to be maintained well,” Cappleman said. “No building is perfect but Gore has to work with us to keep it safe.”

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Lake View hotel owner faces code violations in court

The Hotel Chateau is located on North Broadway in Lake View. CHICAGO — In 1993, the single-room occupancy Paxton Hotel was one of Chicago’s deadliest SRO fires, and on Tuesday its owner, Jack Gore, will appear in court once again after a series of failed building inspections at his Hotel Chateau.

Twenty residents were killed in the Paxton Hotel fire, a building packed with major code violations, and a variety of Lake View community activists and government officials will attend Gore’s hearing next week to express their concerns.

Alderman James Cappleman, 46th, will attend the hearing as well as other representatives from his office, according to the alderman’s chief of staff Tressa Feher. Feher said she could not name the specific details of Gore’s hearing but said there is a significant amount of issues involved with the building.

“With any of these housing court hearings they give (the owner) a time frame to get the building violations fixed,” Feher said. “The hotel has not held up its side of the bargain.”

Feher said since Cappleman’s appointment in 2011, his office has been organizing a task force with neighbors, local businesses and community activists to create a plan to move forward with the issue.

“We’re just trying to get the owner to comply with the law and be a good neighbor,” Feher said.

The Hotel Chateau, 3838 N. Broadway, is not Gore’s only low-income housing unit and it is not his first run-in with the law. He owns several SROs including the Irving, Diplomat and Abbott Hotels, all on the North Side.

According to the Chicago Buildings Department, the city has sued Gore and his management company, Sabra Management, numerous times for code violations in each. The Hotel Chateau failed nine of its 11 city inspections this year and has failed 27 inspections since September 2001. Some of its recent violations include damaged fire escapes, missing or broken fire alarms, bathroom mildew buildup on the ceilings and floors, plumbing backups and defective electrical outlets. Gore could not be reached to comment on the issue.

The North Broadway building has typically been used as housing for clients of social service providers. Clients range from prisoners to mental health patients in need of affordable housing. Chester Kropidlowski, chairman of the East Lake View Neighbors Association, said the hotel has been an issue in the community for almost two decades. He said the concerns are primarily fueled by the hotel’s close proximity to a neighborhood park and the Horace Greeley Elementary School.

Lake View resident Jori Mazza, said she frequently brings her daughter to the park next door to the Chateau.

“Only during the day around noon, though,” Mazza said. “After that there are drug deals and people screaming and shouting.”

Mazza has observed these activities outside the hotel. She said it tends to increase during the summer months.

“It’s unfortunate too because it’s a really great park and I love taking (my daughter) here,” she said. “But I just don’t feel safe.”

Kropidlowski said he plans to attend Tuesday’s hearing, which will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday at the Daley Center, 50 W. Washington St. He said he hopes it will help resolve some of the issues neighborhood issues, including those at the hotel.

“We don’t want to flood the courtroom and it’s not our intention to disrupt the hearing,” Kropidlowski said. “But we want the judge to know that this is a serious issue for us.”

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