A severe and puzzling lung disease linked to electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices has doctors across the country scrambling to diagnose and care for patients struggling to breathe. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of vaping-related illnesses jumped to at least 450 cases in 33 states and cautioned people about using e-cigarettes, especially those bought off the street.
As of Friday, five deaths from vaping-related respiratory illness were reported.
“These are not just cases or data points,” said Jennifer Layden, chief medical officer of the Illinois Department of Health. “These are individuals who are suffering.”
Health officials in California, Indiana and Minnesota each announced one death on Friday. The Minnesota Department of Health said the patient who died in that state was over 65. An investigation revealed the cause of death was linked to vaping illicit products containing THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
In California, an unidentified patient older than 55 was felled by the mysterious disease after using a vaping device to consume THC, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's Dr. Muntu Davis told reporters Friday at an afternoon press conference.
Out of 12 cases of illness linked to vaping this summer in the nation's second largest county, only one did not involve a cannabis product, he said.
The announcements come amid new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people stay away from vaping devices while investigators work to pinpoint exactly what’s behind the illnesses.
“CDC has advised that individuals consider not using e-cigarettes because as of now, this is the primary means of preventing this severe lung disease,” Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman, with the CDC’s Lung Injury Response team, said on a call with reporters.
Los Angeles County health officials also called for a vaping moratorium.
"We join with the Centers for Disease Control to advise people to stop vaping now until further information about what is causing lung damage and death can be understood," Barbara Ferrer, director of the county's health department, told reporters Friday.
The Food and Drug Administration has tested 120 product samples, and so far has been unable to identify any one brand, ingredient or substance that could explain the illnesses.
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The FDA lab is scouring the products for a “broad range of chemicals,” officials said, which includes nicotine, THC, additives, pesticides, opioids, poisons and toxins.
While the investigation continues, officials urge consumers to steer clear of potentially counterfeit products.
“If you’re thinking of purchasing one of these products off the street, out of the back of a car, out of a truck, in an alley, or if you’re gonna then go home and make modifications to the product itself using something that you purchased from some third party or got from a friend, think twice,” Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said on the call with reporters.
The investigation has been hindered by the need to rely on patients’ disclosing exactly what they’d vaped, as many have reported using a variety of devices and e-liquids in the days, weeks and months before becoming ill. And some patients may be reluctant to admit using marijuana.
Now that doctors in multiple states and the Virgin Islands, which has reported one case, have had a chance to compare notes, they’re finding similarities.
Patients generally feel pretty lousy for a few days, and tend to be misdiagnosed with either bronchitis or a viral illness.
When treatments for those conditions fail, their symptoms worsen to the point where they’re having trouble breathing, forcing patients to seek help in an emergency department, said Dr. Daniel Fox, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina. North Carolina is investigating 23 cases.