Friday, 27 January 2012

Bird-Flu Bioterror



Bird flu has hit the headlines yet again, this time in response to terrorism fears. Both the BBC1 and New Scientist2 have published articles on the issues involved. Scientists researching bird flu (H5N1) and its mutagenic properties have been developing a more virulent strain in order to better understand and prepare for potential outbreaks, which are likely to occur naturally in the future. However the US government have requested that key details are not published, as the fear is that it could be used for terrorism. The issue is that as soon as research is censored and the information is not freely shared between scientists and research groups then there can no longer be a united global research effort to better understand and combat potential future outbreaks. Research would be unnecessarily repeated and slowed down, due to a lack of openly sharing the information, essentially costing millions in wasted funding and delaying results.


Many factors make bird flu an inevitable threat in the future, as global populations increase, demand for meat also increases and so many people are forced to live in close contact with both pigs and chickens. Many chickens and birds naturally harbour influenza viruses, but it is not easily transmitted to humans, however it is deadly when it is transmitted, because humans are not the virus's normal host and we do not have any previous exposure or developed immunity. Pigs can however be easily infected with both bird and human strains, leading to a mixing pool effect and highly virulent mutant influenza strains can result which are infectious to humans, and have the potential to be transmitted from human to human, if a combination of gene mutations are present. Mutations are common and random but can be under selective pressure, depending on how successful these mutations make the virus. Essentially is boils down to a numbers game; with enough time and enough opportunities these highly virulent bird flu viruses will appear in nature. That is why a global effort to monitor flu outbreaks and develop research is so vital to avoid another global pandemic like that of the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed more people than both world wars combined. While it is important to be aware of potential terrorist risks, restraining research is only likely to make situations like that depicted in Contagion3 an ever increasing reality, because vital preventative measures and vaccinations would not be in place to combat an outbreak.

1, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16662346
2, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21311-killer-flu-research-to-be-censored.html
3, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contagion_(film)

E Markham (2012). Bird-Flu Bioterror Blogspot

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Exciting Elements


Long gone are the thoughts of the elements being something resigned to a stuffy periodic table in a science lab, as Sam Kean brings the elements to life in his new book “The Disappearing Spoon” 1. It is a wonderful book, telling untold, unusial and often fascinating story behind the elements of the periodic table. This book is filled with wonderful anecdotes that the reader cannot help but quote for weeks afterwards. Each chapter focuses on a group of elements, and while the concept may seem dull, the book is written in a light and personal way, which gives its stories a page turning quality. It is critically acclaimed, having been short listed for the Royal Society Winton prize. It has also achieved praising reviews from newspapers like the Guardian, which describes the book by saying “The pace is enthusiastic, the tone and language are pitched at the young or the non-chemical and the examples are pleasingly unexpected” 2. The book is written for those with no scientific background, and so is accessible to old and young alike. It is an enjoyable read and is highly recommended.

1. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Disappearing-Spoon-Sam-Kean/dp/0857520261/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1326388365&sr=8-3
2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/nov/10/disappearing-spoon-sam-kean-review

E Markham (2012). Exciting Elements Blogspot

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Troubling Treatments

Representing Science within popular culture can often be a difficult thing to achieve, as it is often complex and easily misinterpreted. This January's issue of Tatler, a high-end women’s fashion magazine, contained an article about how to “beat the Flu” 1. While we understand this is unlikely to be detailed medical advice, and more likely to be advice on general health, the article made some surprising statements.

The first thing to notice about the article is that is a blatant promotion of a health spa, as all the advice within it pertained to EF Medispa in London 2, however it did not state that it was an advertisement in the article. They offered treatments like “soft wave healing laser” which involved shining lights on you in order to “boost your immune system”, then there was Simon Cowels favourite treatment, the “drip and chill”, which is an IV injection of vitamins. Lastly, you could opt for the “Californian Colonic” which involves an enema of plant extracts, which will apparently kill any unfriendly bacteria in your gut.


While there is no doubt about the benefits of rest and relaxation, unless you like in a cave and have serious vitamin D deficiency, the “soft wave healing laser” will not have any effect, and will certainly not have any influence on your immune system. The IV of vitamins will do very little for anyone with a balanced diet, and since most vitamins cannot be stored within the body, the vitamins will simply be filtered out by the liver and kidneys. The “Californian Colonic” will probably make you fell better simply because it is quite an unpleasant procedure and you would feel quite relieved it had stopped, but medically it would have no benefits because the plant extract does not have any significant antibacterial action, and additionally, this is bacteria within the colon, which has nothing to do with the claims of the article, being able to beating the flu, which is a virus and does not live in your colon, so would be unaffected either way.

Upon visiting the clinics website 2, it offered many other treatments under the dubious title of “Age Prevention Medicine”, this included PRP therapy, which involved removing serum from the blood and micro-injecting it under the surface of the skin. But then it talks about obtaining fat cells, reprogramming them in to stem cells and then injecting them in to the face. This seemed like conflicting statements, as PRP therapy is a pseudoscientific treatment that is supposed to involve the extraction of serum that contains high levels of growth factors and this is then injected, in order to stimulate cell growth and repair 3. So it seems they are unclear of the actual procedure of the treatment they are offering! After contacting the clinic for more information and to clear up this discrepancy, no reply has been made.    

Another treatment offered by the clinic is called Photo-biological Stimulation Therapy, with involved a small amount of blood being extracted and then exposed to UV light, before being returned to your body. Apparently this will allow your blood to bind more oxygen and so you will feel more energised. This same treatment, from the same clinic, also featured a Daily Mail’s article about the procedure 4, including a statement from a doctor saying “‘There is no evidence to show how the process of irradiating small amounts of blood and re-injecting it has a therapeutic benefit,’ says Dr Rajendra Sharma, of The Diagnostic Clinic in London.”. After all, how can UV light, which disrupts DNA, have any effect on the red blood cells ability to bind oxygen? Since red blood cells do not even contain DNA.

1. Simson, I. (Jan 2012) Time to... beat the flu. Tatler.
2. http://www.efmedispa.com/health/age-prevention-medicine/
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platelet-rich_plasma
4. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/beauty/article-1321397/Vampire-UVB-therapy-Having-blood-sucked-cleaned-work-miracles.html

E Markham (2012). Troubling Treatments
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