Friday, October 31, 2003

GM and public debate

An open letter from a group of scientists to the UK government has attacked the way in which the government has handled the GM debate, and the way in which scientific research is being derailed:

'For those of us who have spent our lives 'doing research, publishing research and teaching research' in the UK, it is distressing to experience such a backward slide; for others of us, and our students just starting out, it is deeply discouraging. More importantly, for society as a whole, if the same framework is applied in future decision-making, we risk seeing other technologies lose out to prejudice and procrastination. '

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Scientists attack Blair over GM

Sense About Science

MMR sanity

'There is now unequivocal evidence that MMR is not a risk factor for autism - this statement is not spin or medical conspiracy, but reflects an unprecedented volume of medical study on a worldwide basis.'

Simon Murch

So says Dr Simon Murch, who, along with Dr Andrew Wakefield, was one of the authors of a 1998 study which claimed a connection between bowel problems and autism. Dr Wakefield went on to draw links with the MMR vaccine, forming the basis to today's widespread anti-MMR scare. Murch has always rejected the idea of a link with MMR and autism, and this week states: 'I and my colleagues have seen similar intestinal changes in children with no history of regression, in unvaccinated children, and in children whose first autistic symptoms clearly predated MMR administration.' Murch is also concerned that low vaccination rates may lead to major measles epidemics in Britain this winter.

It is good that figures like Dr Murch make public re-statements of the safety of the MMR vaccine, and provide further encouragement to parents to get their children vaccinated. But such statements - and counter-scares about measles outbreaks - have been made many times before by ministers, leading scientists, doctors and judges, without doing anything to halt the reaction against MMR. This suggests that there are quite different reasons for the depth of the MMR scare, which have nothing to do with the facts. Parental confusion continues, and children remain at risk from the consequences of an irrational panic.

MMR row expert urges jab take-up, BBC News, 31 October 2003

Thursday, October 30, 2003


Apparently, Britons are spending millions on self-diagnosis testing kits. However, the majority of the money is spent on pregnancy testing, ovulation testing and various tests for diabetics. However, cholesterol and blood pressure testing is on the rise.

BBC NEWS | Health | DIY doctoring costs Brits millions

What are the odds of dying?

Intriguing page from the National Safety Council in the USA. Apparently, the chance of dying at some point in life from an external cause is one-in-24.

National Safety Council What are the Odds of Dying? Statistics 2000

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

GM moratorium ends in NZ

It is interesting to see how the UK debate on GM is mirrored in other countries. In NZ, a moratorium on GM usage has ended. On the one hand, there is a lot of noisy opposition to the introduction of GM. On the other hand, governments can see that GM could be commercially useful.

Former Thompson Twins member Alannah Currie has set up an organisation called Mothers Against Genetic Engineering, producing tasteful adverts like this:

picture of woman being milked

Who says discussion about GM needs to be balanced and sensible?

BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | NZ split as GM freeze expires

Breast cancer and fat

Another story suggesting that eating too much fat causes breast cancer, based on another cobbled-together amalgamation of many other studies.

'The researchers found that women who ate high amounts of saturated fat were on average around 20 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer than women who ate low amounts. By comparison, women who ate large amounts of monounsaturated fats were around 10 per cent more likely to develop the disease. This figure is not deemed significant in scientific terms. Overall, women who ate large amounts of fats were 13 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer, a small but significant figure.'

No, it's not significant at all. There are so many potential errors in such a study, like matching subjects in different studies, different measurement methodologies etc., not to mention the usual problems of any single study, that only a very strong effect (at least a 100 per cent increase) could be safely regarded as meaningful.

BBC NEWS | Health | Fatty foods 'boost cancer risk'

Portion-size and obesity

This article pulls together research indicating that people will eat what is put in front of them, rather than what is needed to satisfy their hunger. The conclusion is that fast food companies should work with government to reduce portion sizes - we will still feel even with substantially smalled, less calorie-dense meals.

However, while it is easy to blame others, it should be pointed out that no-one needs any assistance to know that their belt is feeling tight. We are perfectly capable of moderating our eating as and when we need to. The obesity discussion is yet another in which our incapacity to cope with modern life is emphasised over autonomy.

Portions Exceed Calorie Needs, Weight Loss Resources

A what-is-the-world-coming-to moment

espresso cup

My partner overheard someone in Pret-a-Manger ordering a double de-caff espresso this morning. De-caff espresso? What's the point?

Still, I suppose a lot of people drink skimmed milk, which is basically white water.

Turning the heat on parents

'Overheating puts babies at risk', says BBC News, reporting a new survey by the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death (FSID). The survey suggests that 56 per cent of parents do not know the proper room temperature for their baby and only a third of families have a thermometer in the room where their baby sleeps. According to FSID director Joyce Epstein: 'Babies who get too hot are at an increased risk of cot death. Our message to parents is: look at and touch your baby to see if they are too warm, and keep an eye on the room temperature.'

baby sleeping

'Cot death' is defined by FSID as 'sudden and unexpected death of a baby for no obvious reason' and amounts to about one death in every 2000 live births, according to figures on the FSID website. Without knowing why an infant has died, it is impossible to know to what degree any particular factor, like temperature, was responsible. The most that can be said is that there seem to be slightly fewer deaths in relatively cool homes than in warmer homes. But correlation does not mean causation; and the results of the studies that have been done may turn out to be meaningless because they cover such a small number of cases.

However, parents reading about studies like this would not get the impression that the advice given is based on such limited results. Instead, the report implies that a particular temperature range is always best and variation beyond that range is always dangerous. The fact is that 1,999 children out of every 2000 do not suffer cot death despite the stated ignorance of parents as to the 'correct' temperature for baby's room. This tends to suggest that fine-tuning the thermostat will make very little difference to whether an infant dies or not.

In 1900, infant mortality was 138 deaths per 1000 live births, falling to 36 in 1950 and 5.3 in 2002. The volume of advice that parents receive about their children seems to be rising at a time when infant death has become extremely rare. FSID, for example, makes recommendations on sleeping position, smoking, temperature, and sleeping with parents (in the same room is good, but not in the same bed) - all to avoid cot death, and all on the same feeble scientific basis. The effect of such advice is negligible as regards children's health, but it is does increase the anxiety of parents and can lead to overwhelming but misplaced guilt for those who tragically suffer the loss of a child.

Over-heating puts babies at risk, BBC News, 27 October 2003

Foundation for the Study of Infant Death

Healthy eating at Junk Food Central

It seems all the big fast food chains in the US are now offering 'healthy options'. Some of them are good and nutritious. Many of them taste bad. And the traditional, non-healthy options often turn out to be lower in fat, calories and sodium than the so-called healthy alternatives. And a lot cheaper, too.

I'm all in favour of having the option to choose something that tastes different, but healthy food is often boring enough as it is without putting it through the mangle of fast food production methods. And it would seem the fast food companies are more concerned with covering their backs against potential lawsuits than offering choice. Apparently, in the eighties you could find salad bars in fast food outlets but these seem not to have been a commercial success.

In the Temples of Supersizing, Eating Light Draws Converts, NY Times, 29 October 2003

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Smoke-free London

The Greater London Authority (GLA) says it wants our views on banning smoking in public places.

It has set up an online survey to get our views. Londoners can log on to The Big Smoke Debate and complete a short questionnaire. And in case you don't get the hint, there are some 'Smoking FAQs' on the website too. 'Tobacco smoke is a major source of indoor air pollution.' 'Secondhand smoke contains 60 known or suspected carcinogens.' 'Secondhand smoke is now the only proven human carcinogen that is unregulated in the workplace.'

Do you notice a trend here? Reading on, we learn that passive smoking is linked to eye irritation, headache, cough, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, spontaneous abortion, cervical cancer, and adverse cognitive effects. Get the message yet? What about this: apparently, 78 per cent of those surveyed want people to be able to work in a smokefree environment - including waiting and bar staff.

Never mind the fact that the risk of suffering any health effect from passive smoking is low, or that the existing smoke-free areas in pubs are usually thinly populated. It sounds more like the GLA has a view and wants to be able to say that we share it.

The Big Smoke Debate, London Health Commission.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Cot death and temperature

BBC News reports a survey by the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death. The survey suggests that most parents don't know the correct temperature at which their babies should sleep. Moreover, most homes don't have a room thermometer where infants sleep.

However, cot death is rare, causing one death for every 2000 live births in the UK. Moreover, it is not know what the cause of cot death is - hence its proper name, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). So it is not clear why death rates are falling, either.

As this article by Brid Hehir points out, the evidence for this interventions is thin, but the effect is a massive guilt-trip for parents - especially those unfortunate enough to lose a child.

Over-heating puts babies at risk, BBC News, 27 October 2003

spiked-health | Article | Cot death: a guilt trip too far

Stephen Pollard on smoking bans

In the same issue of the Independent, Pollard argues that smoking bans may be offensive, but they work. He says he has misgivings about the way governments use such things to regulate personal behaviour, but he also hates eating while breathing smoke.

OK, so it is certainly more pleasant to be a non-smoker in a restaurant or bar in New York now that clothes don't reek of cigarette smoke. But let us have the debate on the sensible territory of personal taste and not on the misplaced basis of health risk.

Rickets makes a comeback?

'Vegan and macrobiotic diets have led to the return of rickets in Britain, according to experts. They say cases among children are rising, more than 50 years after the disease was virtually eradicated by better health and nutrition,' reports the Independent today. While I am always slightly suspicious of stories that sound like a counter-panic, it is certainly true that many of the health obsessions of today are so myopic that they lose sight of the many health gains made in recent years. As a result, an unproven risk of skin cancer might lead to excessive avoidance of UV light and the possibility of vitamin deficiency.

Dietary fads blamed as childhood rickets returns, Independent, 27 October 2003