Earlier today we learned that the Canadian H5N1 case was not autopsied out of concerns about viral infection spreading. Helen Branswell, meanwhile, has been tweeting about the lost opportunity to learn more about the disease. And she's tweeted the link to a New York Times Magazine article from 2005 that deserves reading: Buried Answers. Excerpt:
This is the point that Schiller, a champion of the autopsy, means to make: even in today's high-tech medical world, the low-tech hospital autopsy -- not the crime-oriented forensic autopsy glorified in television, but the routine autopsy done on patients who die in hospitals -- provides a uniquely effective means of quality control and knowledge. It exposes mistakes and bad habits, evaluates diagnostic and treatment routines and detects new disease. It is, Schiller says, the most powerful tool in the history of medicine, responsible for most of our knowledge of anatomy and disease, and it remains vital. ''Neglecting the autopsy,'' he says, ''is anathema to the whole practice of medicine.''
And yet, as Branswell points out in a series of tweets today, few H5N1 cases have ever been autopsied (often for religious or other cultural reason), and in an article she wrote last September, Branswell noted that no MERS cases have been autopsied. (Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada's guidelines on handling deceased MERS patients include autopsy as "routine practice." Too bad we've never had a case, alive or dead.)