Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Infulenza Fears

The annual flu season has returned however this year it carries more of an alarmist name. Since July 2009, when the last large pandemic of swine flu gripped the country 1, the government tested its measured to see if it would be able to control and cope with a large scale pandemic. I think we can clearly say that it was fairly unsuccessful, leading to unnecessary fear and scaremongering of the public by the media. The only thing that was really determined during that summer was that the virus was targeting the young rather than typically attacking the elderly, however it was no more deadly than previous seasonal influenzas. During that year swine flu only killed 0.03% of those infected 2; the only difference was that a greater proportion than normal was children. It is because the media have thrust this virus in to the public eye and over stated the severity of its spread that we are now in a situation where many individuals are demanding medication and treatment and not taking the time to rest and recover. There is no instant cure for any type of flu, because it is a virus, and so notoriously difficult to treat with medication.

The main medication available to treat swine flu is Tamiflu, which is one of a few effective anti-viral drugs on the market. It is not 100% effective, but it can reduce the viral burden in infected individuals and allow a quicker recovery in most people.

Another misconception is that antibiotics are required; this will not help in the recovery from influenza because it is a virus and antibiotics only work on bacteria 3. Over prescription and not completing all of the doses lead to an increase in antibiotic resistance in the bacterial population, which causes situations like the recent MRSA infections, which are no longer susceptible to antibiotics and so no effective treatment options are left. So doctors are advised to only prescribe antibiotics to patients who have a preexisting medical condition, because the decrease in their immune system due to influenza would leave them susceptible to potentially deadly secondary infections, which most health people could fight off without the need for antibiotics.

Another point to raise is that many people have become unnecessarily wary of vaccinations, this was highlighted during the summer of 2009 when people in at risk groups were offered the swine flu jab. Even thought it was proved safe and effective, many people refused to be vaccinated. The jab was only offered to those who are likely to have medical complication if they contracted swine flu, like pregnant women. Vaccination is an important part of risk management and so those in at risk groups should protect themselves.

But it is important to note, that not enough vaccine is available for everyone, so only those who really need it should become vaccinated, the BBC this week highlighted this point in a article attempting to quell the fears of over protective parents 5. The same limitations apply to antibiotics and antiviral drugs, where only those at increased risk should be offered them. It is important to note that these all cause a huge financial strain on the National Health Service and so should be prioritized to those at most at risk. Unfortunately the health service has to carry out a balancing act between the numbers of people who need medical treatment and the financial constraints of said medial treatment. Simple preventative actions cannot be over stated enough, the “catch it, kill it, bin it” campaign 6 and intensive hand washing campaign are likely to reduced the spread of viral infections just as much as the drugs used to treat them 4, after all, prevention is better than treatment.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Understanding Space

The sheer vastness of space is almost impossible to imagine, all of those planets, stars, and solar systems that make up the many universes, all waiting to be explored and understood. This is one of the great challenges for NASA in the 21st Century, to begin to understand the universes around us, how they came to be, how they are changing, as well as try to answer the big question of ‘is there life out there?’ This is in no way a small feat, as technology advances, progress also needs to be made in data analysis in order to keep up, otherwise huge amount of data are collected but not interpreted. This is the current situation with the Hubble telescope 1 taking constant detailed images of the universe. Huge amount of data accumulates but it needs interpreting. This is not an easy task, because of the subtlety of many of the images, computers cannot yet distinguish the shapes and outlines and accurately determine what type of astral body it is, or if in fact it is just an artifact.
This has lead to the rise of several projects, one of which relies on people around the world who have an interest in space and who want to help out, joining the network “Galaxy Zoo” 2 which allows members of the public to go through the images that have been collected and classify them in to categories. This is quite enjoyable and you get to see many incredible images taken by the telescope. However, this is obviously a slow process relying on people accurately being able to classify the images by hand, and several people need to classify each image to make sure its accurate, whilst it is enjoyable and you can have your name referenced when any discoveries are made; it is labor intensive and not efficient.
Another route being explored is looking for people with knowledge of computer programming and machine learning to get involved 4 in designing a program able to analyse these images accurately, making the process more efficient. Derren Brown recently wrote about this on his blog 3, and although this would not easy to design, computer algorithms would be more desirable in the long run. 
Over all, it is nice to know that ordinary individuals can contribute to the great discoveries currently taking place in physics and astronomy, and that when groups of people get together and help each other great problems can be over come. We are a long way off understanding all of the data currently collected, but we are slowly moving forward, and with each step we get closer to really understanding the universe we live in and how we came to be here. 

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Discovering Science

Julia Sweeney discusses her personal journey to question her beliefs, in an animated and comical way in her talk “letting go of God” 1. The story flows from growing up as a Catholic, she then plays with the idea of Buddhism but then finds Atheism. It’s an insightful story, highlighting some of the parts of the bible that are often skipped over in conventional teachings and media, and exposes the real stories and makes you question why so many people follow Christianity and its ‘teachings’ and yet have not read the Bible and fully understand what they claim to believe. Obviously, it’s a book which was written in a very different era, and so some of the messages need to be ‘open to interpretation’. But when you get down to it, many of the passages are conflicting, worrying or just plain non-senseical. Julia point out the fact that people today are far more ‘moral’ and humanitarian than the role models in the bible, but the whole topic is approached in a light hearted and humorous way.

What is interesting is that at first she felt science was intimidating and “unable to deal with uncertainty”, however, the more she explores science in order to better understand the world around her and back up her beliefs, this in fact causes her to question those very beliefs and she comes to the conclusion that science seems to better explain her questions and the more she asks questions the more fulfilling answers she receives from science. Her talk emphasizes the feelings of reward and fascination at suddenly having answers and theories to so many things in the world around us, and is far more fulfilling that just blind unquestioning faith. Her journey leads her to the realization of having to “except what is true over what I wished was true” and the importance “that everything we now know about the world is not blatantly ignored” in favor of ignorance. 

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Commercial Christmas

Christmas has conventionally been about family and feasting, but a recent trend has moved the focus of this holiday more towards gifts and spending money. Obviously there is a religious side to christmas for many people,  but even this has seen a stead decline over the years in favor of presents and unnecessary objects, which will then be discarded after the holiday season is over. This is all summed up wonderfully in a piece of street graffiti by the artist Banksy, who has become well known for his hard hitting and often controversial street graffiti. Bansky's "Christ with Shopping Bags" was displayed in Santa's Ghetto in London back in 2004, along side many other artists. The Guardian produced an review article for the event 1, stating that the gallery "rallies against the commercialisation of Christmas by selling lots of stuff", which is an interesting take on this modern holiday season. This image is interesting because it turns the conventions of christmas and what it was originally about on its head, and leaves the viewer with a strong take home message about how commercial christmas has become, from its origins as a religious festival. 

E Markham (2010). Commercial Christmas blogspot

Friday, 24 December 2010

Counterfeit Claims

This week I was reading most popular Odd Stories of 2010 1, when I came across this completely ridiculous 'news story'. Yahoo News are not known for accurate and unbiased news reporting, so I was happy to allow them some creative license with the chosen stories, however the story at number 3 is just plain illogical and even a child could see that this is in no way factual. The article claims that Prahlad Jani, a 83 year old man from India, has not eaten or drank anything for 70 years, stating that he exists on meditation alone. If this was not farcical enough, they then state that the Indian military are trying to study him in order to improve the national army and for astronauts training. I'm sorry but this is not a news story, this is just plain illogical and even a child could tell you this is not possible. I was curious if any other websites had a more accurate version of the story, or if in fact it was something only Yahoo were willing to claim was 'news'. Unfortunately, Googling his name only leads to the story in dozens of websites, including the Telegraph 2 and the BBC 3. The Telegraph reported on the most recent 'scientific study' on Prahlad Jani, carried out this year, where he was studied for a week. This involved him being watched by CCTV and receiving medical checks from the doctors. If this was carried out in a scientifically rigorous way then maybe he would have something to support his claims, or he would then be exposed as the faker he clearly is. Unfortunately, he was allowed visitors and was not constantly monitored, leading to the study being carried out under uncontrolled conditions. Luckily any findings from this study are unlikely to make it into any reputable medical journal or scientific paper. What is distressing about this story is the fact that most of the news reports are not balanced, and so allowing people to think that this man has actually fasted for 70 years, which is clearly not true. The use of the scientific study to try and back up his claims was a pointless exercise, unless its carried out under stringent conditions in order to actually sort the fact from the fiction. 

Why his claims cannot be true:
  1. It would break the laws of physics and thermodynamics, because he was obtaining 'energy for work' ie movement, without an input of 'stored energy' ie food. 
  2. The longest period most people can go without food for is roughly 4-6 weeks, after this the major organs begin to fail and the person is likely to go in to a coma because the brain requires high levels of glucose to remain functional.
  3. Humans can only survive a few days without drinking water, because its required in order to replace water lost through sweat and urination, as well as other metabolic processes.
  4. If people can survive without food, then why do 4 million people starve to death every year? 
  5. In order for an organism to be considered alive, it must take in nutrients and excrete waste. 
Fortunately, there are a few people logical enough to see through this story. One of which is James Randi, and world renowned magician and skeptic. He has been fighting pseudoscience and ludicrous claims like this for years, and offers anyone 1 million dollars for proof of any supernatural claim, when carried out under scientific conditions. In his response to this news story 4, he outlines the the fallacies of the claims and the fact that this was an illogical waste of time and money for the Indian government. It is stories like this that make you wonder how stupid the media believes there readers to be, and why the news cannot actually consist of factual reports.

E Markham (2010). Counterfeit Claims blogspot

Homeopathic Hazard

This week the BBC reported on the the risks associated with the use of alternative therapies instead of conventional medicine 1. There is no scientific proof to support the efficacy of homeopathy 3, and so many people are not obtaining correct information, leading to them being misled by the scientific sounding claims of alternative medicine such as homeopathy, and so not receiving potentially life saving vaccinations. This trend has developed since the MMR scare of 1998 2, in which autism was suggested to be linked to the Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccination, this was later disproved in several large scale studies. However the damage had already been done, parents feared for there children's safety and so chose not to vaccinate there children. Since then, measles has seen a huge resurgence within the UK, leading to 10 fold increase in the number of cases, and reports of mumps increasing to almost 5,000 cases in per year. Vaccination is very important for 2 reasons, firstly it protects the individual from a potentially lethal disease, like Measles or Polio. Secondly, when roughly 95% of the population is vaccinated this stops deadly pandemics and epidemics from forming, because the number of people vaccinated create a 'herd immunity'. Herd immunity protects the few people who are not vaccinated, because the number of susceptible people is not sufficient to allow the disease to spread.

The report from the BBC highlights the fact that many people are becoming misled by pseudoscience and in doing so are attempting to protect there children from 'unnecessary medicine' and use more 'natural alternatives', however these are not alternatives, because they are putting their child at unnecessary risk of serious illness and death. This would not be such a problem if people choosing homeopathic vaccinations only made up a small percentage of the population, because then they would be protected from herd immunity. But in the recent years the use of alternative medicine has seen a dramatic increase, leaving the population vulnerable to a resurgence in diseases almost eradicated in previous generations, due to the lack of herd immunity in the current population. One of the main problems is due to the misunderstand of what homeopathy actually is, and this is compounded by the fact that the NHS offers homeopathic treatments 4. The reasoning behind this varies, but it is suggested that for mild problems where no effective treatment is available, homeopathy can be offered, and can be seen as effective in some cases due to the placebo effect 5. However this is a topic for another day. 

E Markham (2010). Homeopathic Hazard blogspot