Friday, August 29, 2014

Organ Donation after Cardiac death

Just a quick post before Shabbat begins.  I noticed an article in the Jerusalem Post that may have an effect on the way the Chareidi community views becoming an organ donor. Apparently, doctors in Israel were successful in transplanting a kidney from a donor that had been without a heartbeat for several hours.

This is an exceptional accomplishment, because it opens the possibility for those who believe in Cardiac death to donate their organs after what they consider to be halachic death.  (See my extensive posts from October 2010 for more on this topic). Whether or not it actually changes the practice of the Chareidi world remains to be seen of course.

Just FYI, there still is a long way to go before it can become regular practice to harvest donor organs after cardiac death.  The new techniques will need to be tested and attempted on other organs as well as the kidneys.  Furthermore,  harvesting the organ prior to cardiac death is still much more likely to be successful.  However, maybe it can open the path for a Chareidi living will that explicitly states that the individual is willing to donate his/her organs if cardiac death is established first.

This may turn out to be a real opportunity for the Chareidi world, once organs can be donated even after cardiac death, they can join the ranks of the potential organ donors! I certainly hope we see that happen!

Monday, August 25, 2014

MBP - Does a rinse with Schnapps help?

I must admit that I was somewhat caught by surprise by the overwhelming responses to my previous post about MBP.  In addition to the comments that are published, I received many emails as well, and tried my best to respond to all of them. Sitting up late at night in the hospital can sometimes be a useful time for emails!  I used to use that time for Nach Yomi, and catching up on medical articles, but now it seems to be email and blog time! BTW, Nach Yomi is an OU program that has changed my life, and I highly recommend it to the many Nach deficient people out there.  If even one of you takes up Nach Yomi as a result of my encouragement, then this blog may turn out to be something useful after all! But let's get back to MBP.

If at all possible, I beg you to comment publicly on the blog rather than send me an email.  I want everyone to benefit from your thoughts, whether you agree with me, or not.  If you want to remain anonymous, I have no problem with that at all.  The discussions generated by the comments can be very interesting and beneficial for everyone, and it allows me to respond publicly.  I will still read and respond to emails, but please let everyone benefit from your ideas, not just me.

One of the issues that has come up over and over again is the question of whether or not rinsing the mouth with wine or whiskey helps mitigate the risk of transmission of the HSV virus.  One person even wrote to me in an email, that apparently in Yemen, the custom was to perform the MBP with a mouthful of Arak, and even to rinse several times.  His source was Rav Kapach's Sefer Halichot Teiman.  Since there has been so much interest in this topic, I am dedicating this post to the question of alcohol rinses and HSV transmission.

There are many reasons why the alcohol rinse does not mitigate the concern for HSV transmission.  For starters, alcohol as a disinfectant loses most of its potency when it is less than 60-90% concentration.  Even the strongest whiskey's are rarely more than 40-45% alcohol.  See the CDC here for details on the concentration of alcohol necessary for it to have any useful potency for germicidal use. Furthermore, bear in mind, that the alcohol is further diluted as soon as it is placed in the mouth by natural saliva.  So the alcohol used is simply not strong enough to kill bacteria or viruses.

In addition, even if one were to use pure ethyl alcohol to rinse the mouth, it would still be impossible to kill all the viruses and bacteria present in the mouth.  The mouth is full of areas to which the alcohol will never reach, such as the gums, between the teeth, all the folds between the cheeks and lips and the teeth and so on. It is well known that it is impossible to actually disinfect the mouth.  So even if you could reduce the amount of virus present in the mouth, there is no way anyone can eliminate the possibility of transmission.  To make matters worse, the skin on the outside of the lips can transmit virus as well, and this area is never rinsed.

We also need to bear in mind, that the germicidal activity of alcohol, even when it is potent enough to kill bacteria, is measured when it is used on smooth surfaces, together with scrubbing the surface.  In order to effectively replicate this, one would have to scrub every surface within and around the mouth (which is absolutely impossible like I described before) with alcohol with at least a 70% concentration!

The bottom line is that the alcohol  in wine and schnapps is simply too weak to be effective, and even if it were an adequately strong germicide, the mouth cannot be disinfected.

I think it is worthwhile to bring another example that will hopefully drive home the point that the only way to eliminate the risk of HSV transmission is to eliminate the direct contact between the one who has the virus and the baby.

We all know that surgeons sterilize their hands and arms, or "scrub", before performing surgery and coming into contact with open wounds.  However, would anyone ever even think of allowing surgeons to operate bare-handed just because they washed their hands really well and scrubbed them with germicidal solutions?  Of course not! We mandate gloves and gowns and etc. because it is common sense to eliminate contact between the surface of the surgeon's hands and the open wounds.  That is the only way to guarantee that germs do not get passed back and forth.

In the same way it makes no sense to allow contact between someone's open mouth and the open circumcision wound, no matter how much schnapps one may rinse his mouth with.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

MBP - Dispelling Some Common Misconceptions

The mere sight of the term MBP (Metzitza B'Peh - direct oral/genital suction of the circumcision wound) may set off fireworks in the minds of many of the medical halachic rationalist readers of this blog.  Some of you might have been waiting for me to say something about this subject. MBP has been in the news lately due to some high profile court rulings in New York, so it is once again a hot topic.  However, I must disappoint you by admitting that I don't have that much to add that hasn't already been said.  In fact, a close friend of mine, Shlomo Sprecher, has already written what I consider to be the most definitive rationalist medical halachic (even if he didn't use the term "RMH" to describe it!) article on this topic, and you can read it here.  I highly recommend that you read it if you haven't already done so.

However, I have come across an extreme amount of ignorance when it comes to understanding exactly what the medical concerns are regarding the transmission of HSV (Herpes simplex virus) and circumcisions.  The ignorance in the Orthodox Jewish world seems to reflect the ignorance of the general population about this virus, which I encounter on a regular basis in my medical practice. As such I feel like I need to counsel everyone regarding how this virus works, and then you can understand what the issues really are.

For starters, HSV is a virus.  That means that it cannot be treated with antibiotics.  This particular virus has the nasty habit of being incurable, which means that once you become exposed to it, it will be in your system forever.  It has figured out a way to hide deep inside your nerve roots ("ganglia") and hang out there for the rest of your life.  Every once in a while it may decide to leave its hiding place, travel up the nerves to your skin, and cause a lesion to pop out on your skin and annoy you.

When this happens, the sore is likely to shed more virus, so if someone else becomes exposed to it, he/she can catch it from you.  However, the virus is even sneakier than that.  Sometimes it travels out to your skin and sheds virus, but doesn't show any sores at all.  This is called asymptomatic shedding.  This means that you can be shedding and transmitting the virus and have no idea at all that it is going on. While an active lesion is much more likely to shed virus than when there are no symptoms, it is well known that asymptomatic shedding can and does occur.

So that's the bad news, what is the good news?  The most important good news is that HSV is generally not a very dangerous virus at all, in the overwhelming majority of cases.  The vast majority of people with this virus will go about their innocent lives and have virtually no consequences, except maybe an annoying sore every once in a while.  Most people don't even know that those annoying sores are HSV, they just think it is a pimple that came and went after a few days.  They usually don't even know that they have HSV, and they certainly don't know that they can transmit it to someone else!

But that good news can also be bad news. Why is that? Because if you don't know that you can transmit it, and it can be transmitted even if you have no symptoms at all, how are you supposed to prevent the transmission of HSV throughout the general population? Well, guess what! You now understand why close to 90% of the adult population of the US has been exposed to HSV 1 at some point in their lives.

When two moist surfaces of the body, such as the oral region, and/or the genital region come into contact, and one surface is shedding HSV, this is the most effective way to transmit the virus.  If one person has a cold sore (which is caused by HSV), or is shedding asymptomatically, and people share a cup, a kiss, share a food utensil, wipe their mouth or cough and then pass the kugel, or any other moist contact, the virus can be transmitted.  Of course the chances are very small each time this type of contact occurs, but if it happens over and over again, it only takes once ...

The vast majority of people will have been exposed to HSV in this manner.  By now you should understand that a person with HSV 1 is usually not infected because he/she is guilty of some type of sexual contact. Most of the time it was completely innocent, and most of the time the person him/herself is never even aware of having been exposed.

You probably noticed that I mentioned HSV 1, which means that there is another type called HSV 2.  This is a very closely related virus that tends to hang out more in the genital region.  This type is usually transmitted through genital or oral/genital contact.  However, there is much crossover between the two types, as HSV 1 is often found in the genitals, and HSV 2 is often found orally as well.

HSV 1 outbreaks are generally more mild than HSV 2 outbreaks, and especially with HSV 2 in the genitalia, the first outbreak can be quite severe.  But both types of the HSV virus have a very similar clinical course, and they are transmitted in basically the same way.  The reported cases of HSV transmission through MBP in New York were HSV 1 cases, not HSV 2. This is important because HSV 1 is much more common, and is still more associated with Oral infection than with genital infection.

So what's the big deal? If it is true that HSV is only a nuisance and rarely causes health problems, why is it such a concern? What is all the hoopla regarding MBP?

The big deal is that in certain very rare cases, if HSV gets into certain body fluids it can cause very serious problems.  Those two places are the blood, where it can cause viremia (a viral blood infection) or in the brain where it can cause encephalitis or meningitis.  Viral infections such as these can be extremely dangerous, and are notoriously difficult to treat, especially because antibiotics do not work against viruses.  Furthermore, as you recall, there are no cures for HSV.

When would someone be at highest risk for such a horrible infection of the blood or the brain with this virus?  For starters, if it is introduced directly into the blood. That would be really bad.  Now if you take a person who does not have a very strong and mature immune system, that would be worse.  Then if it enters the brain of someone who is still developing neurologically, that would be tragic beyond words.

Now let's make it scarier.  Let us find a well meaning person.  This person seems perfectly healthy.  He himself has no idea that he has any infections of any type. Everyone around him knows that he is "very clean" and scrubs his hands really well.  He has lived a virtuous lifestyle and has never exposed himself to any situation which would make one concerned that he may have gotten any transmittable diseases.  Maybe when he was a child in cheder he shared a cup of juice and got a little cold sore, which went away after a few days because his Mom shmeared on some Vaseline.  He was a little "tzaddik'l" and went on to become a popular Mohel.  But he has this HSV 1 virus for life.  In his mouth.

Let us go further. This mohel never sees any lesions that he thinks could represent a major health risk, except occasionally he may get a cold sore which he thinks is just chapped lips.  The mohel is such a tzaddik and so well loved and well respected that he does a Bris Milah just about every day in his community.  Asymptomatic shedding is very rare, so it only happens a few days a year, but he does a bris milah every day ....

And one fine day, a happy young couple brings their beautiful little child to shul for his bris milah.  The well meaning, wonderful Mohel performs the ceremony.  He does MBP. This young child, with an immature immune system, and a developing nervous system, now has an open wound, giving the virus direct access to his bloodstream, and to his newly forming brain.  The Mohel happens to be shedding virus that day, and has no symptoms whatsoever. And the virus gets into the baby's bloodstream, and it replicates, and may God save us, a horrible, totally preventable, unspeakable tragedy occurs.

This is the problem.  Like I said before, the cases reported in New York were HSV 1, simple Oral HSV that 90% of the adult population has.  The only way to prevent it from happening is by avoiding the exposure in the first place and protecting our children from tragedy.  May common sense prevail.


In this post, I have tried to dispel the following extremely prevalent and extremely dangerous notions (I have heard ALL of these in murmurings at shul kiddushes, Shabbos tables, during leyning - bein gavra l'gavra only of course etc...)
  1. If the Mohel is a genuine tzaddik and ben Torah there is no risk of herpes transmission
  2. the Modern Orthodox are just trying to find ways to show that the Chareidim have Herpes infested Mohelim and they are all hypocrites
  3. If the Mohel has no history of disease and has no herpes sores there can't be a risk
  4. This Mohel has done thousands of Bris Milah ceremonies and "no one" has ever had a problem (this would be extremely difficult to prove, and even if it was true, it still doesn't protect you)
If any of you have heard other such comments, I would be interested to hear them.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Home Births and Halacha

The authors conclude their article with a discussion of the issue of planned homebirth vs. hospital birth. In their words:

"Similarly it is commonly believed that the twentieth-century transfer of births from the home to the hospital has aided the cause of piqquaḥ nefesh by lowering infant mortality. Statistics, however, do not support such a belief. Western countries with more home births than in the United States have lower maternal mortality rates and lower infant mortality rates than ours.26 Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all Western and Central European countries all have lower mortality rates than the U.S.’s, yet more than one-third of all of their births are planned home births attended by a midwife. ...
Within the United States, studies also show that for normal pregnancies, home births are at least as safe as hospital births and that births attended by midwives are safer than births attended by physicians. Certain procedures such as multiple vaginal examinations and routine premature rupture of membranes are commonly performed by obstetricians, but not by midwives. Rather than promoting piqquaḥ nefesh, these interventive procedures, which naturally necessitate viewing of and contact with female genitalia, have actually been shown to be dangerous to the birthing woman and to her child.  There is also growing concern—even among some obstetricians—that other interventions typical of doctors and not midwives, such as a high Cesarian section rate, diagnosis of “failure to progress” during labor, and prevalent use of drugs to hasten labor all have few health benefits and may indeed harm the baby."
The issue of planned homebirth has been the subject of significant discussion in recent decades, and there is no way that I can do it justice on this blog.  However, I will respond to the authors contentions with a few simple points that I believe are very important.  I will first refer the readers to the statement of ACOG on this topic here.  It is worthwhile reading, but as is often the case with medical literature, some important points still seem to be misunderstood by the public.

Before I explain anything, I need to remind the readers of this blog, that it is a blog for medical halacha and not meant to be a discussion of medicine.  So we need to establish the halachic issue here before we move on.  The halachic issue that the authors of the article are raising is that they contend that having a baby in a hospital may potentially be more risky then a home birth.  This would be a halachic problem, suggesting that a home birth may actually be safer and thus halachically preferable.  In their words, having a baby in a hospital exposes one to " ... interventive procedures ... [which] have actually been shown to be dangerous to the birthing woman and to her child..." Furthermore, according to the authors, " ... other interventions typical of doctors and not midwives, such as a high Cesarian section rate, diagnosis of “failure to progress” during labor, and prevalent use of drugs ... may indeed harm the baby."

Could it be that having a baby in a hospital is riskier than a home birth, and thus halachically prohibited?

The best and most comprehensive study evaluating this issue, is the one quoted in the ACOG statement that I linked to above.  This was a meta analysis evaluating all known scientific studies of home birth vs. hospital birth.  The bottom line is that even under the best of circumstances (and I will describe briefly those circumstances in just a moment) a home birth has a rate of neonatal death that is 2-3 times higher than hospital births.  Now it is extremely important to understand that the actual rates are so low, (1.5-2/1,000 vs. .4-.9/1,000) that the studies certainly confirm that a planned home birth can be considered safe if done properly.  But to claim that it is less dangerous than, and thus halachically preferable to a hospital birth is simply wrong.

Now here are the points that need to be understood.

  1. No studies can actually be ever done that will truly answer the question of which birth is safer.  That is because in order to do this study, we would need to randomize women to planned hospital vs. planned home borth.  This is impossible in today's society.
  2. In every study that did try to retrospectively compare (or prospectively without randomization)  the two birth locations; only women that were healthy, had uncomplicated pregnancies, and with normal and healthy babies were allowed as participants in the studies.  So the studies only established that in these types of cases (of course this represents the significant majority of pregnancies) that it is safe to have a home birth. No one disputes that this is true.
  3. In all of the countries mentioned by the authors, those countries have in place highly integrated health care systems that address which women are candidates for home delivery, which personnel are certified and qualified to attend and supervise home deliveries, and transportation systems and communications for emergent transfer to a hospital are in place.
So we can all agree, that if proper systems and safeguards are in place; that a home birth can be a viable, safe, and halachically sound option for people who want to choose that type of delivery.  However, to suggest that a home birth is somehow halachically more preferable than a hospital birth is misleading and wrong.

In the United States, (I am not intimately familiar with the system in Israel) our health care system is set up to take care of women in labor in hospitals.  The poskim have thus overwhelmingly permitted (and encouraged) women to travel to the hospital, even on Shabbat, when they are in labor.  Whether or not it is preferable to have a baby at home (assuming that all of the conditions we mentioned above are in place), is a decision a woman needs to make with her qualified health care provider, and depends on many factors which are well beyond the scope of this blog.

I think that should conclude my discussion of this topic, but if you have any questions, comments, criticisms, etc... please let me know as I would love to hear what you have to say.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Obstetric Drugs

In the final section of the article the authors decry the use of drugs during labor to treat pain.

They refer us to the early debate regarding whether or not it is appropriate to use pain relieving medications to treat women in labor.  It is well known, that many early religious (mostly Christian, but some Jewish as well) authorities felt that pain was a natural part of labor, and that women were supposed to have pain due to the curse associated with Eve's sin when she took a bite of the forbidden fruit.  They felt that it was therefore inappropriate to provide women with pain relief.

This philosophy would strike most modern readers as incredibly cruel, and indeed the overwhelming response of the Rabbinic authorities has been to support, and even encourage, the use of anesthetic and analgesic medications to relieve the pain of childbirth.  The authors quoted R' Moshe Feinstein in YD:2 p140 where he recommended that women be put to sleep for delivery so as not to feel pain.  This responsa was written in 1972, when it was common practice to give women heavy doses of sedatives during the final stages of labor to treat pain.  This usually required the physician to intervene and deliver the baby with forceps as the woman was not awake enough to push the baby out herself.

This practice fell out of favor well over 35 years ago when doctors realized the risks of forceps deliveries when done routinely, and the risks of the medications involved in heavy sedation.  I am not aware of any doctors or institutions that have practiced this way in almost two full generations.

So the authors agree that Judaism does support pain relief during labor and does not subscribe to the "curse of Eve" philosophy which would prohibit pain relief.  However, they then introduce us to another concern, which they feel should be a halachic basis for avoiding the use of drugs during childbirth:
"... Nevertheless, not all objections to obstetric analgesia and anesthesia can be dismissed as mistaken religious obscurantism based on the Genesis narrative.
As Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits outlines, Christian objection to the use of drugs during childbirth was two-pronged. While some cited the curse of Eve as their source, others objected for medical reasons. Rabbi Jakobovits writes that, “towards the end of the last century, a Catholic medical moralist still forbade the use of chloroform at normal births because it might endanger the mother and the child…” Jakobovits then praises Judaism for being above any such considerations."
The authors are suggesting, that halachically speaking, we need to reconsider our use of drugs in labor because they may be dangerous.  They make this suggestion as if it can be assumed that drugs in labor are inherently dangerous, but they do not have evidence to back up this claim.  In fact, every treatment used in labor is subjected to controlled clinical trials and years of experience that have attested to their safety and efficacy.  It is far far beyond the scope of this blog to review every pain treatment and its' specific risk/benefit profile. However, we have established that in Judaism, treating pain in labor is an honorable and appropriate goal. Every woman is not religiously obligated to suffer to atone for Eve's sin.

A fascinating exchange about this topic took place in Montreal Canada in 1849, shortly after the discovery of anesthesia.  An article about this debate was published in the Journal of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, also known as ACOG.  The Journal is called "Obstetrics and Gynecology", and in volume 88 No. 5, November 1996, pages 895-898, Dr Jack Cohen writes of the debate that took place in Montreal between Dr James Simpson and Rabbi Avraham De Sola.  Rabbi De Sola was the first rabbi in Canada, and he was the new young Rabbi of Montreal's oldest congregation, the Spanish Portugese synagogue - Shearith Israel.

Dr Simpson had argued against the use of anesthesia for women in labor based on Genesis 3:16, the verse declaring that "B'etsev Tayldi Banim".  By using his knowledge of Hebrew, and the Jewish commentators (primarily the Radak), Rabbi De Sola boldly took on the Christian interpretation of the verse and shows how the word "B'Etsev" refers to the uterine contractions of labor and not the pain experienced by the woman in labor.  Interestingly, Rabbi De Sola went on to become a Professor of Hebrew Language at McGill University in Montreal.

The poskim in the almost 175 years that have passed since Rabbi De Sola's debate have almost universally understood and acknowledged the importance of treating the pain of labor.  It is accepted that we must treat a woman's labor pain the same way we would treat all pain and suffering for every person.

This is true even though every treatment has some level of risk. When risk is balanced against benefit, halachah has determined that since these treatments are overwhelmingly safe and effective when administered by trained professionals, they are halachically desirable, not just permitted. Furthermore, every patient has the opportunity to choose whether or not to avail themselves of these treatments, and each person can evaluate the risks of benefits of each medication before deciding whether or not she desires to use it.

In their conclusion, the authors clarify their case, and they cite some "evidence" to back their claims:
"To begin with the third example, the dangers of drugs during pregnancy, including obstetric analgesia and anesthesia, are well documented today. In fact, they have been well documented since at least the 1980s. Both the mother and child can suffer side effects ranging from sluggishness to brain damage and death. The fact that no Jewish authority has restricted or discouraged the use of drugs during labor may not be an occasion for self-congratulation; it may call for some serious halakhic soul-searching."
As sources for their assertion that obstetric analgesia and anesthesia drugs are dangerous, they quote two articles from 1981 (see their footnote #24).  If one carefully examines the sources used to support this article's assertions, and the general tone of the article itself, one is struck by impression that the authors are reflecting a worldview that views modern medicine, and especially obstetric medicine, with an extreme amount of suspicion. I suspect that arguments like these will go on forever, as they are not amenable to resolution by providing evidence to support one point of view over the other. For example, one of the sources cited was titled "Malepractice: How Doctors Manipulate Women".  If someone believes that doctors are guilty of intentionally manipulating their patients, then it will be very difficult, in fact almost impossible, to convince him/her by quoting evidence from the medical literature.

I hope that I at least provided some information for those people who are open minded enough to look upon their physicians, midwives, nurses and other appropriate caregivers as their allies instead of their enemies.  I totally agree with the authors of the article that we should never engage in self congratulation.  However, the fact that "no Jewish authority has restricted or discouraged the use of drugs during labor..." does not reflect a lack of "serious halakhic soul-searching", as the authors declare.  Rather, it reflects centuries of serious halachic concern for the comfort and well-being of women in labor.

I do owe you one more brief post on this topic regarding the safety of home births, and then we can move on to our next topic.