Friday, October 03, 2003

The Incredible Shrinking Epidemic

Tracking diseases, like wars, is a dangerous business. Reports in the heat of battle must be taken with a pinch of salt. So it is that Taiwan has reported that the actual death toll from SARS was only about half what was originally stated - 346 deaths, not 682.

World Health Organization lowers number of SARS cases in Taiwan

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Death beds

Do sunbeds cause 100 deaths a year in the UK? That's the charge put forward by Professor Brian Diffey of Newcastle General Hospital.

'Research has shown 8% of exposure to UV rays came from sunbeds, and the rest from the sun. The rays are the main cause of melanoma, which kills 1600 people every year.' No basis is given for how the figure of 100 is arrived at but considering there are probably millions of people using sunbeds in the UK, 100 seems a tiny number.

Moreover, the assertion that "the rays are the main cause of melanoma" is just not true. Research suggests that melanomas are more common on parts of the body not commonly exposed to the sun.

BBC NEWS | England | Tyne | Warning over sunbed deaths

Russia and Kyoto

Russia's wavering on the Kyoto Protocol may now prevent it coming into force. In order for the protocol to proceed, it needed to be ratified both by 55 different countries and by countries producing 55 percent of all greenhouse gases. With the largest producer, the USA, now out of the agreement, the protocol needed to be ratified by almost all the other industrialised countries. Already, Australia has decided not to ratify.

What is interesting is the way in which income played a part in Russia's decision. Russia was in a strong position to trade emissions since its industrial output collapsed after 1990. However, without the USA, there is less of a market for emissions trading. Presumably, Russia would ratify if someone threw some cash at the problem, but it suits the USA to let someone else take the flak for a change.

It would be nice to think that arguments like Bjorn Lomborg's, that the Kyoto Protocol is a diversion from much more useful projects, would be influencing the debate. But at the moment, outside of the USA, I doubt it.

BBC NEWS | World | Kyoto treaty in the balance

MMR vaccine cases halted

The Legal Services Commission decision not to provide legal aid to a class action against companies producing the MMR vaccine has been supported by the High Court. This means that the action is unlikely to go further without funding from some other means.

What is concerning is that the LSC apparently has spent 15million on researching the case in the first place.

BBC NEWS | Health | MMR legal bid blocked

Celebrities and cancer causation

Sarah Parkinson apparently floated the idea that her breast cancer was linked to IVF treatment. However, this article suggests that there is little basis for a connection.

I wish somebody, somewhere, would just make this point about Roy Castle and passive smoking. Just because he played in smoky clubs for much of his career doesn't mean smoking caused his cancer. Lung cancer among non-smokers is relatively rare, but some people still get it. But it's been a useful tool to beat those defending the right to smoke in public places.

Telegraph | Health | Are breast cancer and IVF linked?

Breast cancer anxiety month

Maria Margaronis, writing in the Guardian, complains about the bad reporting of breast cancer research which is unhelpful and often inaccurate. For example, women are told that they have a 1-in-9 chance of getting breast cancer. They are not told that this is an overall lifetime risk and that you may have to live until you're 110 for it to actually apply. However, the points I make in Shooting the messenger seem to apply here, too: cancer charities have been just as keen to talk up fears as newspapers in order to attract attention to their cause.

Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Age of anxiety

The end of GM-crop trials in the UK?

Bayer, the last remaining company conducting trials of GM crops in the UK has decided to end its research. The decision is a reaction to the decision by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that the location of all trials must be made public. That pretty much guarantees that the crops will be attacked by protestors.

One industry source is quoted as saying that this is a GM moratorium 'by the back door'.

The Observer | UK News | Top GM food company abandons British crop trials

The Canadian over-reaction to SARS

"[T]he reaction by authorities generated public fear, which then generated demand for drastic action, which authorities then felt compelled to answer with closures and quarantines. " - On SARS, hospital chief had it right

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

New EU smoking regulations

One thought that went through my mind as the US and UK invaded Iraq was, 'What will they do for a bogeyman now?'. Saddam was a nasty piece of work but not essential in any way to the smooth running of anything, so stories about him could be whipped up whenever necessary. From this point of view, it would be better for the various governments involved not to catch Saddam - or Osama bin Laden, for that matter.

In the same way, what will the health authorities do when they've finally banned smoking altogether? It's probably the one thing you can get everyone to agree is bad for your health, even if there are plenty of people who think that if adults want to smoke, they should be allowed to get on with it. The latest regulation involves increasing the size of health warnings, reducing the maximum tar content, and banning descriptions like 'light' or 'low-tar'.

The new health warnings have induced a new pastime in which smokers see whose packet has the most damning statement. Still, Europe hasn't gone quite as far as Canada with its graphic pictures of diseased lungs etc. I bet they swap used packets like football or baseball cards.

BBC News | End of the lights? (slideshow)

Monday, September 29, 2003

Negative attitudes to obesity

A new study complains that doctors erroneously assume that overweight people eat too much or take too little exercise.

'On both implicit and explicit measures, health professionals associated the stereotypes lazy, stupid and worthless with obese people,' said Dr Marlene Schwartz of Yale University. 'The stigma of obesity is so strong that even those most knowledgeable about the condition infer that obese people have blameworthy behavioural characteristics that contribute to their problem, i.e. being lazy,' she said.

Well, OK, so some people have genetic problems that lead them to accumulate weight more than most. And it is true that all too often, the normal variation in body weight is reinterpreted in a pejorative way today. However, for the vast majority of people, if they are overweight, it is because they consume too much food relative to the amount of exercise they take, and their body shape is something they can control should they choose to exercise their willpower.

Being 20 or 30 percent over some ideal weight is pretty much harmless. But saying to people who are vastly overweight, and who have major health issues because of their diet, that it isn't something they can control is a problem.

BBC NEWS | Health | Fat equals lazy, say doctors