Friday, March 28, 2003

SARS: not all it's cracked up to be

I don't seem to be alone in thinking that the 'super bug' SARS is a bit of misnomer.

"Super-Pneumonia" or Super Scare?, by Michael Fumento

One good panic deserves another

Having noticed the success with which the paranoia about 'cot death' has entered the brains of the masses, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has suggested that a similar label be applied to adult deaths. The BHF press release states:

'It has long been recognised that there are occasions when an apparently previously healthy adult dies suddenly and unexpectedly and any abnormalities found at post-mortem are minimal or non-existent. In such cases it can be very difficult to identify a precise cause of death. This leads us to question whether these deaths are rare or represent the tip of a larger iceberg.'

'Our findings suggest to us that these deaths should be classed as the adult equivalent of the sudden infant death syndrome (S.I.D.S.). If the condition is more frequent that we suspect - particularly if across the country pathologists and coroners are using different words to describe the cause of death - we need to give the condition a “name” to help us gain a greater understanding of the scale of the problem.'

Which in principle sounds reasonable. But it is one thing to create a statistical category for monitoring purposes, it is another to turn the unknown into a new syndrome. But the suggestion at least gets the BHF back in the news.

In any event, the main reason that SIDS has become so familiar is the emotional tug of possibly doing something that could harm your child, even if the risk of 'cot death' is small. I can't see that happening with SADS.

Shoot the messenger

Meanwhile, in the blogosphere... Andrew Sullivan is really getting out of his pram about the BBC (aka Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation). Apparently, it is too pro-Saddam:

'I wonder if most listeners know that the BBC is the favorite station of the far left? How the Beeb ceased to become an objective news source and became a broadcast version of the Nation is one of the great tragedies of modern journalism,' says Sullivan. He goes on to explain his shrieking tone.

'My harping on this theme is not simply media criticism. It's war analysis. Remember one of the key elements, we're finding out, in this battle is the willingness of the Iraqi people to stand up to the Saddamite remnants. That willingness depends, in part, on their confidence that the allies are making progress. What the BBC is able to do, by broadcasting directly to these people, is to keep the Iraqi people's morale as far down as possible, thereby helping to make the war more bloody, thereby helping discredit it in retrospect. If you assume that almost all these reporters and editors are anti-war, this BBC strategy makes sense. They're a military player. And they are objectively pro-Saddam.'

But the BBC is as much a friend of the British establishment as ever. It's just that the establishment themselves are divided and unconvinced by their own war. So, the normal patriotic war reporting (the BBC was always a military player) is more reticent now.

And if he wants negative reporting, he should tune to Sky News. My boss has been regaling the office with stories of how reporters on the ground are shooting down the official version of events. Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, effectively the British equivalent of Fox. But while Fox has been banging the drum in the States (as has Murdoch's newspaper, the Sun), Sky has been even more critical than the Beeb.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Genes and society

This is an event happening in Battersea at the end of April.

April 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Crick and Watson's famous paper on the structure of DNA in the scientific journal Nature. The Institute of Ideas' weekend-long Genes and Society Festival, in association with Pfizer, brings together a host of scientists, writers, social commentators, regulators, philosophers, artists and campaigners to reflect on and debate the many implications of genetic discoveries and advances.

Institute of Ideas

Honduras wants its moon rock back

In Britain, there has been an increasingly fraught discussion about the return of the Parthenon Marbles (aka the Elgin Marbles). Why it is appropriate to break up a fine collection of antiquities in the British Museum to satisfy populist politics in Greece is anybody's guess.

But now, a court case in Florida has opened up a more bizarre discussion. BBC News reports that a Florida businessman has been refused the right to keep a moonrock he bought from a Honduran general for $50 000 in the early 1990s. It had been given to the Honduran government in 1973 by President Nixon but was subsequently stolen.

Now, Honduras has demanded the return of the rock. The US government is still deciding what to do with it.

US wins custody of moon rock, BBC News, 26 March 2003

GM crop trials: the PR offensive

The UK government has been conducting farm-scale trials on GM crops for three years. They came into existence as a way of putting-off the issue of approving GM varieties and were marked by secrecy and attacks by activists.

The trials are now over and the reports are being prepared. But the PR offensive is under way. New Scientist reports that environmental groups are rubbishing the trials as being inadequate to properly test the effects of the crops on biodiversity. For example, the variation of some species between fields with current crops is such that it would be difficult to assess if differences between GM and non-GM fields were due to the crops or natural variation.

But, in reality, these are political matters. The environmental groups are opposed to GM per se. That there is room to open up a PR offensive against the trials is a direct consequence of the fact that they were set up as a PR stunt in the first place.

Key GM crop experiment 'lacks statistical power', New Scientist, 26 March 2003

More on SARS

According to the Washington Post, the mortality rate for the disease is about four percent, similar to West Nile virus. The cause of the disease is still unclear, with two different viruses, either individually or in combination, as the main suspects.

The similar cases in China are now pretty much confirmed as being the same disease found in Hong Kong, Vietnam and other areas. It seems that the disease will be become an acute but short-term health problem in a few specific areas of Asia.

Mystery Illness's Mortality Rate 4%, WHO Official Says, Washington Post, 27 March 2003

Uncertainty creates risk avoidance

There is a major vaccination program going on in the US among key workers in view of the threat of a terrorist attack using smallpox. However, it seems to me that people do not believe the government's assertion that this is even a remote possibility. Hence, the very minimal risks from the vaccine get blown out of all proportion. Here is a good example of how the obsession with risk makes the pursuit of policy very difficult.

The story, in the Washington Post, suggests the risk is low:

'Ten members of the armed services -- out of 350,000 immunized -- have been treated for inflammation in and around the heart, a condition known as pericarditis or myocarditis, said Col. John Grabenstein, who runs the military vaccination program. Every case was treated with pain relievers, and long-term damage is not expected, he said.'

One in 35,000 is a pretty low ratio. Surely some of these cases would have happened anyway? Nonetheless, people with existing heart conditions may be excluded, while others have called for the over-50s to be excluded, too. Meanwhile, there is discussion of a compensation scheme for those affected by the vaccine. 'On Capitol Hill, lawmakers squabbled over the compensation bill. Democrats have said the White House offer to pay $262,000 in death or disability benefits and up to $50,000 in lost wages is insufficient.'

Cardiac Cases Raise New Vaccination Questions, Washington Post, 27 March 2003

I hope it's a town...

This line is from the same Washington Post story:

'On Sunday, Andrea Deerhart Cornitcher, 56, became the first civilian death potentially tied to the immunization program. The nurse, who lived in Princess Anne, was inoculated five days before her death.'

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Smallpox vaccinations: complications

A classic example of a 'could' headline not supported by the text:

'Vaccinated doctors risky to patients

Hospital staff given smallpox shots could spread virus

More than half of all New York state hospital patients may face an increased risk of complications from contact with smallpox-vaccinated health care workers, a study suggests. '

This story was reported on MSNBC. But when you read on, you find that there have been no reported infections at all and that the risk is very small if proper precautions are followed.

Image from Iraq

BBC News have been presenting selections of images from the war. I thought this was a particularly good one, even if it is not especially reflective of what is going on.

Southern Africa and GM technology

After the appalling rejection of food aid by Zambia and others, a study has concluded that GM creates a greater risk to the environment than to humans. In turn, this threat is mainly that genes from GM plants may crossover to non-GM varieties. The report concludes that Southern African countries should consider using biotechnology to improve food production.

Southern Africa ponders safety of gene-altered crops, Planet Ark

Queen and country

The following seem to be the reasons given for the war in Iraq:

1. To fight terrorism
2. To deal with weapons of mass destruction
3. To prevent human rights abuses
4. To impose democracy on Iraq
5. To prevent a humanitarian disaster

One reason that doesn't seem to be given for fighting there is 'Queen and country'. The first mention of patriotism comes from the widow of a Royal Marine killed in a helicopter crash at the weekend. 'I know he died a true hero. He died for his Queen and country and to make the world a safer, better place for us to live in, for his children to grow up in,' said Helen Guy, a quote that was splashed across the front of today's Daily Express.

What a change from the Falklands War, twenty years ago. Then, you could not move for Union flags. To criticise the war was practically treasonable. And the whole issue was discussed in a manner that promoted Britain's place in the world: making Britain Great again etc.

Now, the attitude of most people is the inverse of the politicians' view that the war is against Iraq, not the Iraqi people. British people are against the war and the government, but support the people on the ground, the troops.

'Philip was a true hero', says widow, Exeter Express, 26 March 2003

Depleted uranium: no cause for alarm

This is the opening of an article on BBC News today:

'Depleted uranium (DU) ammunition used by Nato in the mid-1990s in Bosnia-Herzegovina is still polluting air and water there, the UN reports. It says there is no cause for alarm, but urges precautions and regular monitoring.'

Confused? Well, the US and UK governments admit that breathing dust produced by DU weapons can be dangerous in the immediate aftermath of their use but that poisoning is more likely than irradiation, according to a Q&A elsewhere on the BBC site. However, it does fit the profile of many recent panics, as this quote demonstrates: 'There is no scientifically proven evidence that it is harmful. But the veterans point out that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence, and they believe their own experience means there is serious cause for concern.'

In other words, there are two factors at work here: a distrust of government, which means that reassurances are not believed; and a medical problem that is almost impossible to provide a definitive answer about by its very nature, which always leaves room for doubt.

While the jury is still out on DU weapons, one thing is crystal clear: the most dangerous thing is to be on the wrong end of one.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The strange case of the resentful soldier

On Sunday morning, BBC News reported an incident in Kuwait where an American soldier attacked his own side.

Since then, the UK press has gone rather quiet on the issue. The facts that have been reported are that the soldier, Sergeant Asan Akbar of the 101st Airborne Division, threw grenades into three tents while the occupants were sleeping. One man was killed, apparently shot as he tried to put on his gas mask, and another 15 were injured. As yet, Akbar has not been charged with any offence. The official explanation for his behaviour seems to be 'resentment'. He had recently been disciplined for insubordination and had expressed concern to his mother that, once out in the Middle East, he would be persecuted by NEWCOLUMN other soldiers for being a Muslim. The San Francisco Chronicle claims he shouted, 'You guys are coming into our countries and you're going to rape our women and kill our children'. Newsday claims that he had been acting erratically in the days before the attack, and had been told he would be left behind when the unit moved out, but other reports contradict this version. suggests that 'Akbar opposed the war on Iraq'. Which seems to suggest that, while the USA sends troops to fight the enemy abroad, it may be exporting some home-grown problems.

US Soldier Detained for Grenade Attack,, 24 March 2003

Grenade Attack 'Out of Character', Newsday, 25 March 2003

Grudge cited in grenade attack at U.S. camp, San Francisco Chronicle, 24 March 2003

Military language

Was this the launch pad for the War on Obesity?

'An Under Secretary who would stand here and say to you today, "Is it our problem? Should we be doing something about this? Can we turn it around?" As I said, you obviously agree with us because you are here representing industry, the health care profession, physicians, program managers, researchers, producer groups, dieticians, community people, scientists, and policy representatives.'

'I submit to you today this is a partnership about to happen. I will say it again. This is a partnership that is about to happen. If you did not plan to be a part of this partnership, I tell you, you have no business being here today because you just got drafted.'

Shirley Watkins, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services to a symposium on Childhood Obesity: Causes and Prevention on October 27, 1998

Monday, March 24, 2003

It's the dose that makes the poison

'A Florida baby sitter was charged with murdering a 3-year-old girl by forcing her to drink so much water that she died of "acute water intoxication," police said on Monday...the child, Rosita Gonzalez, died of hyponatremia, which occurs when the body contains so much water that sodium levels are dangerously diluted, causing cells to malfunction.'

From Reuters, quoted by Health Facts and Fears

Brazilian farmers demand end to GM ban

Brazil has a ban on GM crop sowing for but it is none to popular with some of its farmers, who have been planting smuggled GM seed. Now, farmers in the state of Rio Grande do Sul have protested about the ban. Meanwhile, there are other protests demanding state separation of GM and non-GM crops - because the growers of non-GM crops believe that they'll get a lower price for their crop if it is considered transgenic.

But who is making the fuss about transgenic v. traditional crops? Mostly, it seems to me, it is the European Union. Without the EU's crackdown on GM, there would be far less pressure on Third World farmers about what they grow.

Brazil farmers draw line in field over GMO soy, Planet Ark, 24 March 2003

GM research spending falls in Europe

A report in the UK Independent on 23 March notes that biotech companies in Europe are reducing their spending on GM technology.

'The European Commission has admitted that nearly two thirds of the EU's biotech companies have cancelled GM research projects over the past four years, mainly because of the controversy over the safety and labelling of GM crops, and continuing consumer resistance,' says the article. It goes on to quote EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin bemoaning this state of affairs. He apparently 'complained that "unjustified fears and prejudice" were severely damaging the EU's economic prospects. "The increasingly sceptical climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centres away," he claimed. "If we do not reverse the trend now, we will be dependent on technologies developed elsewhere."'

It's a little bit rich for the EU to complain about this when it has done nothing but encourage consumer fears about GM, of which labelling is the latest example. I hope that eventually, GM technology will be common-place. But if and when it is, it will not be European companies in a position to take advantage of it.

Epidemiology: what is it good for?

The question seems pertinent in the light of a recent report in the Lancet. It notes that the number of cases of vCJD declined last year. Cases per year peaked at 28 in 2000 and there were only 17 last year. While it may be that the number of cases might increase again somewhat, it is now abundantly clear that vCJD will not be the mass killer that was previously feared. At one point, half a million cases were predicted. Even in August 2000, researchers were suggesting as many as 136,000 cases. Even in the last few weeks, another study has predicted 7000 deaths. It is all very reminiscent of the exaggerated fears about AIDS in the UK in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the health pages are filled daily with spurious new causes for heart disease and cancer based on shaky evidence. I suggest an immediate cull of epidemiologists to prevent the spread of further panics.

Epidemiology uncovered, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Q&A: has vCJD peaked?

Latest on the killer bug

The cumulative number of cases of SARS now stands at 386 with 11 deaths, although the BBC is reporting 22 deaths. Most of the cases have been in Hong Kong with a smaller number in Vietnam and Singapore. Doctors believe they may soon have a test for the disease.

Meanwhile, the first suspected case in the UK has turned out to be flu, although there are other suspected cases since.

What's so bad about big?

The World Water Forum in Japan has ended with, apparently, an utterly anodyne declaration. "International conferences are often described as talking shops. Not this one. It was a giant talking hypermarket," says Tim Hirsch of the BBC. The problem is that they keep talking about dams and not about practical solutions to people's water needs.

Governments will often emphasise big projects for the wrong reasons: as status symbols, or as means of giving aid to the Third World which is actually a backhander to their own big construction companies. But there does seem to be a more general attack going against all things Big. People in the Third World want, and need, Western standards of living. That won't be achieved by 'appropriate' technology but by developing proper infrastructure. That means using water efficiently to irrigate land, supply individual needs and, where possible, generate electricity. The drive for 'practical' solutions tends only to leave the Third World pretty much as it is.

Water forum 'giant talking shop', BBC News, 23 March 2003