MINNEAPOLIS — Children's Minnesota is confirming four cases of severe lung injury linked to vaping by teenagers, marking the first time cases have been identified in Minnesota.
Public health officials in Wisconsin issued alerts to the public in late July after identifying cases of Severe Lung Disease that they believed to be tied to vaping. Since then, Wisconsin's Department of Health Services has confirmed a total of 12 such cases and health officials in Illinois have confirmed three more.
"It's not good. It's been startling," said Dr. Anne Griffiths, Pediatric Pulmonologist for Children's Minnesota. "The injuries have been severe and I'm hoping that this will help to get the word out."
Dr. Griffiths says she's treated all four of Children's confirmed cases of severe lung injury linked to vaping. She says the patients ranged from 16 to 18 years old. Some reported vaping for months, others for years. All reported vaping both nicotine and THC on different occasions.
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Dr. Griffiths: "They're having symptoms that look like typical infectious symptoms, cough, fever, shortness of breath, that sort of thing. The patients have stopped vaping, gone home with typical treatment for pneumonia or bronchitis and continued to get worse. Then presented back to the hospital to figure out why they are becoming sicker."
Kent Erdahl: "You're not talking about just a cough or something that's not going away?"
Dr. Griffiths: "No, the patients that we've seen this summer at Children's Minnesota have been critically ill. They've required help with their breathing, they've required oxygen, they've required machines to help them breathe in some instances... really ill."
Erdahl: "Is there reason to believe that (the injuries) are going to go away?"
Dr. Griffiths: "There's a real worry for long-term damage. Right now we're seeing severe injury and we know that anyone who has a severe lung injury can have lasting damage."
Erdahl: "So is this something that you believe might be more prevalent, even than you're seeing."
Dr. Griffiths: "Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes."
Erdahl: "Do you have other suspected cases that you're working on?"
Dr. Griffiths: "Yes."
Erdahl: "How many?"
Dr. Griffiths: "I can't give specifics to it yet. Part of that is we're looking at the infectious causes first."
Kent: "So you have to go through test after test after test to rule everything else out, before you diagnose this?"
Dr. Griffiths: "Yes. It's been a very extensive process so far."
Erdahl: "Have you spoken to any others in your field that have shared concerns with you as well?"
Dr. Griffiths: "Yes. We've reached out to experts in Milwaukee, we've spoken to world renowned pathologists, looking at lung biopsies, and we are reviewing the literature on vaping and inhalational injury and chemical injury. What's been published thus far."
Children's Hospital Minnesota is now working with the Minnesota Department of Health to provide more information to the public and help bring the cases to the attention of healthcare providers across the state.
According to the last survey of Minnesota high school students, one in five reported using e-cigarettes. MDH has previously issued warnings about the danger of nicotine addiction and the impact on the developing brain, but a new kind of advisory is now in the works.
"If, indeed, it ends up being lung damage, lung injury, that takes it to a whole new level," said Laura Oliven, Minnesota's Tobacco Control Manager. "We need to spread the word quickly and thoroughly. Parents need to be involved, healthcare providers, schools and the community because we need to protect our youth from this very damaging consequence."
MDH anticipates sharing more information with the public, and federal investigators, in the coming days.
"We are in contact with the CDC," Oliven said.
In the meantime, Dr. Griffiths says parents should be aware of what is happening.
"Typically we find that teenagers don't really want to talk about risky behaviors with their parents present," she said. "Parents need to know that we're hearing from these teenagers that, 'We thought it was safe.' A lot of the marketing around vaping products speaks to having very few ingredients, or having food grade products, and just because something is safe in your stomach doesn't mean it's safe in your lungs.
"I don't think there's a safe does and I don't think I can tell these families that there is a safe amount right now and that's very worrisome," Dr. Griffiths said.