Monitoring food and health news

-- with particular attention to fads, fallacies and the "obesity" war

The original version of this blog is HERE. Dissecting Leftism is HERE (and mirrored here). The Blogroll. My Home Page. Email me (John Ray) here. Other mirror sites: Greenie Watch, Political Correctness Watch, Education Watch, Recipes, Gun Watch, Australian Politics, Tongue Tied, Immigration Watch and Socialized Medicine. For a list of backups viewable in China, see here. The archives for this site are here or here. (Click "Refresh" on your browser if background colour is missing)

A major cause of increasing obesity is certainly the campaign against it -- as dieting usually makes people FATTER. If there were any sincerity to the obesity warriors, they would ban all diet advertising and otherwise shut up about it. Re-authorizing now-banned school playground activities and school outings would help too. But it is so much easier to blame obesity on the evil "multinationals" than it is to blame it on your own restrictions on the natural activities of kids

NOTE: "No trial has ever demonstrated benefits from reducing dietary saturated fat".

A brief summary of the last 50 years' of research into diet: Everything you can possibly eat or drink is both bad and good for you


31 May, 2008

We must kick our methadone habit

Drug addicts often do not really need the heroin substitute that they are prescribed

By Theodore Dalrymple

It is unusual for politicians to face up to the obvious, but the Scottish Executive seems for once to have done so: it has recognised what has long stared it in the face, namely that dishing out methadone to drug addicts is not the answer to their problems or to the problems that they cause society. A different approach is needed.

Perhaps in 100 years historians will wonder why so many of the governing elite, from senior doctors to Cabinet ministers, persisted for so long in the belief that doling out methadone was the answer. The explanation, I think, will be that they wilfully misunderstood the nature of the problem.

Many years ago I used to dole out methadone like the best (or the worst) of them. This was before I thought at all deeply about the question of drug addiction and accepted uncritically all that I had been taught about it by doctors senior to me. I began to change my opinion when I worked in prison where it was the clinical policy to give addicts methadone. I noticed that, far from creating an atmosphere of contentment and satisfaction, it created one of perpetual tension and irritation. Shortly after having been prescribed a dose, the prisoner would return and say, in an intimidating fashion: "It's not holding me, doc, it's just not holding me," and sometimes announce that, unless he was prescribed more, he would end up attacking other prisoners, and then it would be the doctor's fault.

In Scotland the great majority of addicts prescribed methadone by their doctors never stop taking it, and most of them take other drugs as well. A particularly dangerous combination of drugs is methadone and benzodiazepines (drugs such as Valium), and yet drug clinics and other doctors persist in prescribing this often fatal combination - largely, I suspect, because they are too frightened of their patients to refuse them anything.

The number of people admitted to hospital having taken a dangerous overdose of methadone (556 in 2006-07) is greater, proportionately, than the number of people admitted to hospital having taken a dangerous overdose of heroin (1,530 cases). In Dublin recently, more people have died of methadone poisoning than of heroin overdose. The supposed cure causes as many problems as the supposed disease. If addicts prescribed methadone are given the opportunity to divert it on to the black market, they will: which suggests that they do not really need it in the first place.

In France, addicts are often prescribed a different drug, buprenorphine, which soon became the street drug of preference in Finland, to which it was illegally re-exported by the addicts. More recently, a huge epidemic of buprenorphine addiction has occurred in Georgia (the ex-Soviet republic), numbering scores of thousands of addicts, who take buprenorphine diverted from France. If the addicts really needed the drugs, they would take them rather than divert them on to a black market.

In the prison in which I used to work, a buprenorphine tablet that had been prescribed for an addict to alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal from heroin on arrival in the prison, and which an addict had put in his mouth and spat out for sale to another prisoner, was known as a "furry" because of its rough surface. Again, this suggests that addicts did not really need what they were prescribed, and that the whole basis of prescription was flawed.

The fundamental error that the Scottish Executive has now admitted is in having regarded addiction to heroin as a technical medical problem, to be solved by technical medical means. But that old approach amounts to a surrender to blackmail: give me what I want or I will continue to behave badly and to hold you responsible for the ill-effects of my own behaviour.

Suppose we gave money to burglars to induce them to stop burgling. No doubt most of them would stop for a length of time depending upon how much we gave them. But this does not mean that money is the treatment of the dreadful disease of burglary, or because we prevented certain individuals from continuing to burgle it means that we had reduced the disease of burglary in society as a whole. Rather, we would have encouraged its spread.

This is precisely the logic that has been applied to drug addiction. Just how precisely is evident from the Government's recent declared policy that clinics should now give drug addicts money or other rewards for not taking drugs (as least as proved by drug-free urine samples, something experienced drug addicts have long learnt to provide). This is the first time in the history of medicine, so far as I know, that bribery has been considered a medical treatment.

Contrary to what everyone supposes, withdrawal from heroin is not a serious medical condition - unlike, say, withdrawal from alcohol when it results in delirium tremens (the DTs). The suffering is grossly exaggerated and, in so far as it is genuine, is largely produced by anticipatory anxiety that is itself the consequence of years of mythologising the fearsomeness of withdrawal.

Addiction to heroin is a medical problem only to a minor extent, which is why predominantly medical means will never solve the problem. Most of Britain's 300,000 addicts are drawn from broken families, have a poor education, are without much hope for (or for that matter fear of) the future and have no cultural life, intellectual interests or religious belief. Delusory euphoria - the paradise at three pence a bottle that De Quincey described in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater - is the best that they think that they can hope for in life. This is not a medical problem. Where addiction is concerned, it is time to throw physic to the dogs.


Appalling: Australian toddlers prescribed ADHD drugs

TODDLERS as young as two are being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed drugs including Ritalin. Figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph reveal 311 children in NSW aged five and under depend on controversial medication, including 58 four-year-olds and 13 three-year-olds. Health Department figures show that, nationally, doctors have prescribed ADHD drugs to five toddlers aged only two, despite possible side effects.

The mother of one four-year-old who has been on Ritalin since the age of three said she knew there could be long-term effects but the change in her son's behaviour was worth the risk. "At first I was hoping he didn't have ADHD and I didn't want to put him on medication but I thought I should give it a go and there has been a big improvement," the single mother of two told The Daily Telegraph.

But the disturbing figures tell only part of the story. They cover scripts subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme - only a proportion of the young children on ADHD drugs. With Australia's ADHD rates among the highest in the world, the federal Department of Health said prescriptions paid for without PBS subsidies "are a significant portion of the total scripts". It has no corresponding data for them.

The most widely prescribed drugs for the youngest children, according to the figures to March this year, continue to be Ritalin and the longer-lasting associated drug, Concerta, which was added to the PBS last year. Dexamphetamine is the next most popular while Strattera, a longer-lasting non-stimulant, is less popular and prescribed mainly for children aged six and older.

As well as the three and four-year-olds, there are 240 five-year-olds on subsidised ADHD drugs in NSW. There are 6692 6- to 10-year-olds, 9006 11- to 15-year-old and 2584 16- to 18-year-olds. The figures follow the State Government's ADHD review which found there was no overprescribing of drugs. But child psychiatrist Jon Jureidini said he was disappointed at the number of preschoolers on the list. "I would be confident that they (the drugs) are being inappropriately used in most cases of preschool children," Dr Jureidini said. "ADHD is not a good explanation for putting these children on drugs. "I have seen children of that age displaying very disturbed behaviour but it is usually a medical problem or significant family circumstances that are undermining their well-being."

However paediatrician Dr Michael Kohn, the treating doctor for the four-year-old, said he was not surprised at the number of children on ADHD medication. Dr Kohn, a senior staff specialist in paediatrics at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, said the prescribing of ADHD drugs to children aged four and less was strictly controlled in NSW. Specialists needed the permission of the state's Stimulant's Committee with the committee having to meet on each individual case.

Source. Commentary here

30 May, 2008

Can aspirin help to prevent breast cancer?

Don't rely on it. The popular article below does not say where they got their info from but I presume this study from some years back has now reached journal publication somewhere. And it is just the usual epidemiological muck. A weak correlation is found -- in this case, taking aspirin reduced your risk from 1.7% to 1.5% or thereabouts -- and a simple causal inference is immediately declared "ex cathedra". The fact that women who regularly take aspirin might differ from women who do not in all sorts of ways is completely ignored. If there is any meaning in the findings at all, they probably mean that middle class women take more aspirin

Lurking in bathroom cabinets and medicine chests across the land is a wonder drug: aspirin. Over the past two decades, the mild painkiller has been used against rheumatoid arthritis, strokes and heart attacks, and has been shown to protect nerves, fight a virus linked with birth defects, inhibit a protein that enables the Aids virus to multiply, and help treat adult-onset diabetes.

Researchers have also suggested the drug may help prevent bowel, pancreatic and lung cancer, and a team in Italy has reported that taking regular doses for five years or more can cut the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and oesophagus by two thirds.

This week, the drug's superstar status was confirmed by an American study of more than 80,000 women which concluded that regular use of aspirin and ibuprofen can hinder the formation and growth of breast cancer, cutting the risk by up to half. Aspirin must now count as one of the greatest finds in medical history.

The history of its use stretches back thousands of years. A collection of medicinal recipes from the second millennium BC recommended treating rheumatic and back pain with an infusion of dried myrtle leaves, which contain salicylic acid, a close chemical relative of aspirin. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates prescribed extract of willow-tree bark for fever and labour pains. Again, the active substance is salicylic acid. By the late 1800s, salicylates had become the standard drug for treating arthritis, but they irritated the stomach. Enter Felix Hoffman who, working for the German company Bayer & Co, set out to find a less irritating medicine for his father's arthritic pain. In 1897, he created acetylsalicylic acid. Aspirin was born.

By 1950, aspirin was the best-selling painkiller, but it was not until 1971 that doctors discovered the drug's secret. British pharmacologist Sir John Vane found that aspirin worked by inhibiting hormone-like chemicals that play a role in pain and inflammation and regulate blood flow.

Around 50,000 tons of aspirin are now made annually. In the wake of this week's headlines, that amount looks likely to grow further. The new findings emerge from the Women's Health Initiative, a US government study started more than a decade ago to track diseases such as cancer. The data reveals that taking two or more tablets of aspirin and other so-called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs - NSAIDs - a week has a significant effect in reducing the risk of developing breast cancer.

Most of the women were taking aspirin and ibuprofen for arthritis, muscle pain or headaches. Regular use of the drugs for five to nine years reduced the participants' risk of developing breast cancer by 21 per cent, according to Prof Randall Harris of Ohio State University and his team. He was "amazed" by these results, which held good when confounding factors, such as age, weight and exercise, were taken into account. Extending the use of NSAIDs to 10 or more years resulted in an even greater reduction of 28 per cent. The researchers observed that ibuprofen was more effective than aspirin in preventing breast cancer (49 per cent versus 21 per cent reduction in risk). Small doses did not have any significant effect. "There is compelling and converging evidence to indicate that NSAIDs may have protective effects against breast cancer and other forms of cancer," says Prof Harris.

Aspirin is what pharmacologists call a "dirty" drug - it has many different actions because it binds to many molecular targets in the human body. In the case of cancer prevention, the key target is the cyclo-oxygenase enzyme COX-2, the trigger of pain and inflammation, which is made in abnormally high amounts in most human breast cancers. Recent studies indicate that COX-2 may be implicated in several events in tumour development.

Given that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer, affecting about one in 10 women in Britain, should all women now start taking aspirin? Certainly not in the case of very young women: last year, the then Medicines Control Agency warned that children under the age of 16 should not take the drug because of links with Reye's syndrome, a very rare but potentially fatal condition that affects the brain and liver in children and adolescents.

However, Prof Harris believes the new evidence is "so compelling" that women over 40 might consider taking aspirin or ibuprofen regularly - but only after consulting their GP, because there is a risk of side effects, such as indigestion, ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding.

The drug could become an important part of cancer prevention, agrees Dr Richard Sullivan, head of clinical programmes for Cancer Research UK. However, he stresses that scientists now need to weigh up how many women could be prevented from getting breast cancer and how many could suffer fatal side effects from taking these drugs. "Aspirin has to count as one of the greatest finds in the history of drug discovery," he says. "However, we're not yet at the stage where we can recommend that everyone starts taking aspirin on a daily basis to protect against breast cancer, as we'll need to further investigate its effectiveness and the possible side effects of long-term use."


Energy drinks linked to risky behavior among teenagers

That stimulants stimulate all sorts of behaviour -- both good and bad -- should not be a big surprise

Health researchers have identified a surprising new predictor for risky behavior among teenagers and young adults: the energy drink. Super-caffeinated energy drinks, with names like Red Bull, Monster, Full Throttle and Amp, have surged in popularity in the past decade. About a third of 12- to 24-year-olds say they regularly down energy drinks, which account for more than $3 billion in annual sales in the United States.

The trend has been the source of growing concern among health researchers and school officials. Around the country, the drinks have been linked with reports of nausea, abnormal heart rhythms and emergency room visits.

In Colorado Springs, several high school students last year became ill after drinking Spike Shooter, a high caffeine drink, prompting the principal to ban the beverages. In March, four middle school students in Broward County, Florida, went to the emergency room with heart palpitations and sweating after drinking the energy beverage Redline. In Tigard, Oregon, teachers this month sent parents e-mail alerting them that students who brought energy drinks to school were "literally drunk on a caffeine buzz or falling off a caffeine crash."

New research suggests the drinks are associated with a health issue far more worrisome than the jittery effects of caffeine risk taking. In March, The Journal of American College Health published a report on the link between energy drinks, athletics and risky behavior. The study's author, Kathleen Miller, an addiction researcher at the University of Buffalo, says it suggests that high consumption of energy drinks is associated with "toxic jock" behavior, a constellation of risky and aggressive behaviors including unprotected sex, substance abuse and violence.

The finding doesn't mean the drinks cause bad behavior. But the data suggest that regular consumption of energy drinks may be a red flag for parents that their children are more likely to take risks with their health and safety. "It appears the kids who are heavily into drinking energy drinks are more likely to be the ones who are inclined toward taking risks," Miller said.

The American Beverage Association says its members don't market energy drinks to teenagers. "The intended audience is adults," said Craig Stevens, a spokesman. He says the marketing is meant for "people who can actually afford the two or three bucks to buy the products."

The drinks include a variety of ingredients in different combinations: plant-based stimulants like guarana, herbs like ginkgo and ginseng, sugar, amino acids including taurine as well as vitamins. But the main active ingredient is caffeine. Caffeine content varies. A 12-ounce serving of Amp contains 107 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 34 to 38 milligrams for the same amount of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Monster has 120 milligrams and Red Bull has 116. Higher on the spectrum, Spike Shooter contains 428 milligrams of caffeine in 12 ounces, and Wired X344 contains 258.

Stevens points out that "mainstream" energy drinks often have less caffeine than a cup of coffee. At Starbucks, the caffeine content varies depending on the drink, from 75 milligrams in a 12-ounce cappuccino or latte to as much as 250 milligrams in a 12-ounce brewed coffee.

One concern about the drinks is that because they are served cold, they may be consumed in larger amounts and more quickly than hot coffee drinks, which are sipped. Another worry is the increasing popularity of mixing energy drinks with alcohol. The addition of caffeine can make alcohol users feel less drunk, but motor coordination and visual reaction time are just as impaired as when they drink alcohol by itself, according to an April 2006 study in the medical journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"You're every bit as drunk, you're just an awake drunk," said Mary Claire O'Brien, associate professor in the departments of emergency medicine and public health services at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

O'Brien surveyed energy drink and alcohol use among college students at 10 universities in North Carolina. The study, published this month in Academic Emergency Medicine, showed that students who mixed energy drinks with alcohol got drunk twice as often as those who consumed alcohol by itself and were far more likely to be injured or require medical treatment while drinking. Energy drink mixers were more likely to be victims or perpetrators of aggressive sexual behavior. The effect remained even after researchers controlled for the amount of alcohol consumed.

Energy drink marketers say they don't encourage consumers to mix the drinks with alcohol. Michelle Naughton, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo, which markets Amp, said, "We expect consumers to enjoy our products responsibly."


29 May, 2008

Moderate wine drinking promotes a healthier liver

Or does it? Maybe it does but the study below does not prove it. The study is better than many in that it did control for social class variables but there are many things not controlled for -- such as personality, diet and lifestyle. Are we to assume that non-drinkers and moderate drinkers are the same on average? Surely not. Yet we would have to assume that to make the causal inferences below.

Amusing that wine is found to be good for you but beer is bad. All of the results below were quite predictable from the probable habits of the researchers. Wine has been getting a good rap for some years now. Anybody would think that wine-drinking had become popular among the bourgeoisie in recent years! Oh dear!

I am sure that the researchers would be quite huffy about the suggestion I have just made but they should read up on the Rosenthal effect

Popular summary below followed by journal abstract

In Hepatology this week, researchers have shown that moderate wine consumption decreases the risk of developing fatty liver disease. A total of 11,754 adults aged 21 and over were involved in the study -- 7211 non-drinkers and 4543 moderate drinkers. "Moderate" was defined as having up to an average of one drink per day of either 120 millilitres (ml) of wine, 350ml of beer or 30ml of spirits. Compared to non-drinkers, those who drank one glass of wine a day had half the risk of developing fatty liver disease. But those who drank moderate amounts of beer or spirits had more than four times the risk of liver disease as non-drinkers.


Modest wine drinking and decreased prevalence of suspected nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

By Winston Dunn et al.


People at risk for coronary heart disease are often at risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The association of modest wine consumption with NAFLD has not been studied and the recommendation of wine for patients at risk for both diseases is controversial. The aim is to test the hypothesis that modest wine consumption is associated with decreased prevalence of NAFLD. We included Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey participants who either reported no alcohol consumption or preferentially drinking wine with total alcohol consumption up to 10 g per day. Suspected NAFLD was based on unexplained serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) elevation over the cut point of the reference laboratory (ALT > 43) and the cut point based on the 95th percentile of healthy subjects (ALT > 30 for men; ALT > 19 for women).

Multivariate analysis was adjusted for age, gender, race, neighborhood, income, education, caffeine intake, and physical activity. A total of 7,211 nondrinkers and 945 modest wine drinkers comprised the study sample. Based on the reference laboratory cut point, suspected NAFLD was observed in 3.2% of nondrinkers and 0.4% of modest wine drinkers. The adjusted odds ratio was 0.15 (95% confidence interval, 0.05-0.49). Using the healthy subject cut point, suspected NAFLD was observed in 14.3% of nondrinkers and 8.6% of wine drinkers. The adjusted odds ratio was 0.51 (95% confidence interval, 0.33-0.79). Conclusion: Modest wine consumption is associated with reduced prevalence of suspected NAFLD. The current study supports the safety of one glass of wine per day for cardioprotection in patients at risk for both coronary heart disease and NAFLD.

HEPATOLOGY 2008, Volume 47, Issue 6 , Pages 1947 - 1954

What happened to the obesity "epidemic"?

The percentage of children who are obese has been roughly stable since 1999, but no one knows why. But why not?

The stunning three-decade rise in childhood obesity that prompted the government to declare an "epidemic" of fat appears to have leveled off, although the rate is still more than three times higher than in the 1970s, researchers reported today. The analysis was based on data from tens of thousands of children showing that the percentage of obese youngsters has been roughly stable since 1999 in every age and racial group they surveyed.

The level of obesity "is still too high," said lead author Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But she added: "Maybe there is some cause for optimism."

The mystery is what caused the plateau. The leading possibility is that educational and regulatory campaigns to get children to eat less junk food and exercise more have begun to pay off.

The findings "may signal that this national epidemic is not an unstoppable force," said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has committed $500 million to promoting physical activity in communities and improving nutrition in schools. "When parents, government, schools, the food and beverage industries, other businesses, and the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors work together, we can make progress, and we can reverse this epidemic," she said in a statement.

Some researchers, however, said the answer could be that the epidemic has simply reached a saturation point -- kids just can't get any fatter. "Eventually it had to level off," said S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was not involved in the study. "The question was when. Maybe this is it."

The rise in obesity among children and adults has been one of the biggest public health issues of the last few years, both in this country and around the world. It was first noticed by researchers in the 1980s as a relentless upward slope that threatened to undo progress on heart disease and exacerbate other killer illnesses influenced by weight, including diabetes, high blood pressure and some types of cancer.

The CDC issued an unsettling report in 2004 [later discredited] that concluded obesity caused 400,000 deaths a year in the United States, just slightly below the death toll from smoking. About a third of U.S. adults are obese, based on a measurement known as body mass index, a ratio of height and weight.

Of particular concern has been obesity in children because their eating patterns set them on course for lifelong health problems. One study in 2005 found that as a result of obesity, children today could be the first generation of the modern era to live shorter lives than their parents.

The latest study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., showed that 16.3% of children ages 2 to 19 are obese and an additional 15.6% are overweight.

The government has been tracking the heights and weights of children since the 1970s as part of an ongoing health and nutrition survey. By today's definition, 5% of children at that time were obese and 10% were overweight.

The latest analysis, which looked at 4,207 children surveyed in 2005 and 2006, found their BMIs did not differ significantly from children surveyed in 2003 and 2004.

When the researchers incorporated the new numbers into their analysis, their statistical model showed that 1999 marked the beginning of the leveling off. The finding tracks with a study last year showing a stabilization of obesity rates among adults.

More here

28 May, 2008

Pay more for modern drugs and live longer?

Oh dear! I would have expected better than this of economists. The finding that people who use expensive modern drugs live longer is entirely to be expected from the fact that such people are undoubtedly richer. High social class people live longer generally

AUSTRALIANS can add almost 15 months to their lifespan by using the latest drugs - if they can afford it. A study has confirmed the benefits of new-generation medicines, but finds they come at a cost of $10,585 for every extra year of life. The study, published this month by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, compared the average age at death from 1995 to 2008 with dates of registration of 113 drugs being sold in Australia. It found a link, with later-version drugs, rather than older ones, associated with longer lifespans.

"This implies that using newer drugs has reduced premature mortality - especially mortality before age 65 - in the Australian population," it says. The study suggested older medicines still offered benefits, noting that even in the absence of the most recent pharmaceuticals, average age at death would still have increased by about eight months.

Health economists have paid increasing attention to the cost of drugs as spending on Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme has risen. The PBS, which costs taxpayers about $6 billion a year, subsidised 80 per cent of the 170 million prescriptions that were filled in 2004-05. The agency's budget grew by 12.9 per cent a year from 1997-98 to 2002-03, before growth rates slowed due to pricing reforms.


Coke safer than water!

But still not safe enough for the attention-seeking fanatics. Given the vast amount of Sodium benzoate that has already gone down throats worldwide with no demonstrable harm resulting, the whole thing is a crock, anyway

Coca-Cola Australia has no plans to phase out a controversial additive in its drinks, despite moves in Britain to remove it. Sodium benzoate has been linked to damage to DNA and hyperactivity in children [For the crap that passes for reseach on the connection between food additives and hyperactivity see my post of 25th], and is used as a preservative in Diet Coke in Australia. Coca-Cola in Britain said it had begun withdrawing the additive from Diet Coke in January in response to consumer demand for more natural products.

Sodium benzoate is used to stop fizzy drinks going mouldy. It is found naturally in some fruits, including bananas, but is used in greater strengths in the soft drink industry. A statement from Coca-Cola revealed there were no plans to change the formulation of the popular drink in Australia. "The use of food additives is strictly regulated under Australian law," it stated. "All of the ingredients used in products of The Coca-Cola Company are safe and approved for use by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand."

A survey by FSANZ in 2006 found levels of benzene and sodium benzoate in soft drinks were well below World Health Organisation guidelines for levels in drinking water. Even so, they have been working with the food industry to reduce the level of benzene in drinks.


27 May, 2008

DNA again: Low cancer risk for big drinkers

Another entry in the old alternating good for you, bad for you, good for you farce

The genes that regulate how quickly people get drunk also influence their risks of developing cancer of the mouth, larynx or gullet, a new study has found. People with a fast-acting variant of the gene for alcohol dehydrogenase - the enzyme that breaks down alcohol - were at much lower risk of these cancers, according to scientists collaborating in the international study. The reason, they conclude in Nature Genetics, is that these hyper-active enzymes break down alcohol, which is a toxin, more quickly.

This means that the mouth and throat are exposed to the damaging effects of alcohol for a shorter period, with a lower chance that cancer will be initiated. The study was led by Paul Brennan of the University of Aberdeen and incorporated data from almost 4,000 cases of cancer and more than 5,000 healthy people from Europe and Latin America.

There are known to be many variants of the alcohol dehydrogenase gene, which determine in part how susceptible people are to drinking. Its true purpose is to convert the alcohol created by bacteria in the gut into aldehydes, and then, via another enzyme, into harmless substances. Since the invention of brewing thousands of years ago, however, the alcohol and aldehyde enzymes have found themselves a much bigger task - detoxifying alcohol drunk for pleasure. Some people who lack the enzyme cannot drink even small amounts without becoming drunk.

The new study looked at the frequency of six variants of the alcohol dehydrogenase gene in the cancer cases and compared it with the frequency of the same six variants in people who had not developed cancer. It identified two variants that are particularly powerfully protective, called rs1229984 and rs1573496. People with the rs1229984 gene are known to break down alcohol 100 times faster than those without it. The results showed that both these genes protect against cancer, and are particularly powerful in combination. Those who carry both genes were 55 per cent less likely to develop any of the cancers studied.

Dr Tatiana Macfarlane, senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen's department of general practice and primary care, and one of the authors, said: "The study showed that your risk of getting oral cancers is linked to genetics as well as lifestyle. "We found that, in particular, the risk depends on how fast your body metabolises alcohol. "The results suggest that the faster you metabolise it, the lower your risk. "These results provided the strongest evidence yet that alcohol consumption is strongly linked to oral cancers. "The risk is particularly high if you also smoke or rarely eat fruit and vegetables."

Professor Gary Macfarlane, chair in epidemiology at the University, said: "At a time when we are concerned about the levels of alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom, these results demonstrate the public health importance of measures to reduce consumption and prevent deaths at young ages from diseases, including oral cancers."

In healthy people, neither of these gene variants seems to be linked to the amount of alcohol consumed. If possessing these protective genes encouraged people to drink more - because they metabolised alcohol more quickly - then any benefit would be eroded. But in fact there is no link between the genes and drinking habits. Equally, the genes do not have any effect on cancer risk among non-drinkers.

The only possible conclusion, say the authors, is that the protective effect comes from the greater ability of the carriers of these genes to break down alcohol before it can do so much harm


Rogue DNA can lead to nutritional deficincies

That some people can have nutritional deficiences because of their genes clearly detonates a lot of simplistic thinking. All men are NOT equal, once again

WHEN Michael Fenech sits down to dinner, he looks at the food on his plate rather differently to the rest of us. For Fenech, a principal researcher with the CSIRO's Human Nutrition centre in Adelaide, tasty morsels of meat and vegetables are more than just fuel to keep his body running. They also contain nutrients that have the potential to protect his DNA from serious damage, and affect his chances of falling ill.

Fenech has spent the past 20 years studying the nutrients we need to keep our genes healthy, and how our genetic make-up influences the way we respond to food. That work has put him at the forefront of a new scientific discipline known as "nutrigenomics", which brings to bear a detailed understanding of how humans differ from one another in genetic terms and applies it to the traditional science of nutrition.

It's also a field that's poised to take on growing importance given the recent political emphasis on "preventive" health care, as highlighted in this week's federal budget. Advocates say nutrigenomics could allow us to tailor our diets to our individual genetic characteristics -- potentially helping us lose weight more effectively, avoid cancer, say goodbye to binge drinking and live to a ripe old age.

Folate -- a vitamin found in leafy vegetables, fortified grain products and other foods -- is a good example of how nutrients can affect our genes, Fenech says. "When one has inadequate intake of folate, the DNA in the cells can be damaged, or fragmented, or the expression of the genes can be altered," he says. This can have a dramatic effect on our chromosomes, causing as much damage as carcinogenic doses of radiation. Similar damage may result from deficiencies in other nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, retinol, nicotinic acid, vitamin E and vitamin B12, adds Fenech. And as our cells grow and divide the damage can accumulate, a problem associated with infertility, developmental defects in the foetus, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions.

But avoiding these unhealthy outcomes is not a simple matter of everyone boosting their nutrient intake a certain amount, Fenech says. Each of us carries within our cells different forms of genes that affect how our bodies absorb and use the nutrients we need, such as folate and vitamin B12. "At this point in time, we're assuming that the nutritional requirements are the same for everyone and that everyone absorbs the nutrients in the same way -- well, that's not the case."

Fenech's work is giving us an important insight into the detailed mechanics of how good dietary choices keep us healthy, says nutritionist Rosemary Stanton. "Michael Fenech is a genuinely good researcher," she says. "The sort of work he does may offer some really important solutions for some people."

In 2005, Fenech and his CSIRO colleagues developed a test that specifically measures the amount of damage present in human DNA, dubbed the "cytokenesis-block micronucleus cytome (CBMN Cyt) assay." Since last year, the test has been used by an Adelaide health clinic called Reach 100. For a fee of roughly $600 per test, the clinic offers patients a chance to have their level of DNA damage measured by CSIRO scientists, and then provides tailored suggestions on how to improve it through dietary supplements and lifestyle changes.

Beyond preventing DNA damage, nutrigenomics suggests there might be other ways to personalise our diet according to our genetic make-up. One particular gene, called apolipoprotein E (APOE), for example, can have a dramatic impact on your risk of heart disease and diabetes, depending on which variant you carry. About one in five people carries a specific variant of the gene that raises cholesterol, increases diabetes and Alzheimer's risk and reverses the protective effects of moderate alcohol drinking.

Individuals with that genotype should be careful about their diet and exercise, and in particular should give up or avoid smoking and alcohol, Lynn Ferguson from Nutrigenomics New Zealand wrote in the journal Molecular Diagnosis & Therapy in 2006. "However, very few of the population are aware of their APOE genotype at present."

Fenech adds that genes can also partly determine how well you do on particular diets. "We know that there is variation in people's response to weight-loss diets and the genetic basis of that response is being unravelled," he says. "That is actually being worked out now."


26 May, 2008


It well might. Wartime is a time for some very stressful experiences. It is also, however, a time of great comradeship and that could have a positive effect. So where does the balance lie? The study below is more rigorous than most in that it makes defensible comparisons. And its conclusion is that war deployment has a POSITIVE effect.

But that conclusion is too "incorrect" so the authors descend into illogic. They say that nutcases are weeded out during recruit training and that is why veterans come back OK.

But that seems to ignore their own findings. They compared marines who had been deployed to a war zone with marines who had not. But BOTH groups had passed through recruit training -- so both should have been equally "weeded out". Yet despite the high comparability of the two groups, those who had seen war did better in terms of mental health.

Journal abstract follows:

Psychiatric Diagnoses in Historic and Contemporary Military Cohorts: Combat Deployment and the Healthy Warrior Effect

By Gerald E. Larson et al.

Research studies have identified heightened psychiatric problems among veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). However, these studies have not compared incidence rates of psychiatric disorders across robust cohorts, nor have they documented psychiatric problems prior to combat exposure. The authors' objectives in this study were to determine incidence rates of diagnosed mental disorders in a cohort of Marines deployed to combat during OIF or OEF in 2001-2005 and to compare these with mental disorder rates in two historical and two contemporary military control groups. After exclusion of persons who had been deployed to a combat zone with a preexisting psychiatric diagnosis, the cumulative rate of post-OIF/-OEF mental disorders was 6.4%. All psychiatric conditions except post-traumatic stress disorder occurred at a lower rate in combat-deployed personnel than in personnel who were not deployed to a combat zone. The findings suggest that psychiatric disorders in Marines are diagnosed most frequently during the initial months of recruit training rather than after combat deployment. The disproportionate loss of psychologically unfit personnel early in training creates a "healthy warrior effect," because only those persons who have proven their resilience during training remain eligible for combat.

American Journal of Epidemiology, 1988, Volume 167, Number 11 Pp. 1269-1276

Melanomas gone in just seven days

Melanomas are a very deadly form of skin cancer and the normal treatment is radical surgery

AUSTRALIAN researchers have discovered a range of new treatments for melanoma which could save up to 1500 lives a year. The Sydney Melanoma Unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital is conducting a clinical trial in which individual tumours are injected with a red dye called rose bengal.

Unit director John Thompson said within seven days the tumours become necrotic and die, and within 14 days they simply lift off the skin. Professor Thompson said an earlier trial of 20 patients showed between 60 and 80percent of tumours were successfully treated with one injection. The trial also found that rose bengal didn't affect healthy tissue and seemed to induce a beneficial immune system response that killed off other tumours that hadn't been injected.

"It has been interesting to observe that not only injected tumour deposits undergo involution [reduction] and necrosis but non-injected 'bystander' lesions sometimes undergo involution as well," he told the Australasian College of Dermatologists annual meeting last week. Rose bengal has been used for 50 years to diagnose liver and eye cancer. It has also been used as an insecticide.

Professor Thompson said phase one of the trial had proved the treatment was safe, although one woman ended up in intensive care with a serious reaction after driving for 1 hours in the summer sun after having her injection. For another study, Professor Thompson is hoping to recruit 65 patients who have melanomas that can't be treated with surgery.

Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world, with 9500 cases diagnosed annually. One in 19 Australians can expect to be diagnosed with a melanoma in their lifetime. If detected early, there is an excellent chance of survival. However, standard chemotherapy is not highly effective once the melanoma has spread.

The development of a vaccine has been elusive but researchers at the Newcastle Melanoma Unit have made a surprising breakthrough. Professor Thompson said about 120 patients were given an injection made from materials from their own tumour. The procedure was designed to stimulate the body's immune system to reject the tumour. The patients had metastatic (widespread) stage IV disease and an average life expectancy of six to nine months. The trial showed those who got the vaccine had a 40percent chance of surviving for five years, compared to 22 per cent for those who weren't vaccinated. "It surprised us greatly - there was a fairly substantial benefit in the patients who received the vaccine," Professor Thompson said.

At Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Diona Damian has treated three patients with extensive widespread melanoma with diphencyprone (DPCP), a chemical used to treat warts and hair loss. Associate Professor Damian said two patients are disease-free three years and one year later respectively, while in a third patient, the application of DPCP appeared to slow the progression of the disease but he died 18 months later.


25 May, 2008

Another medical ignoramus

When the specialists are talking garbage, what hope is there for the average person with a problem? News report below followed by an extended comment

REMOVING artificial colours and preservatives from the diets of children with ADHD should be considered a first-line treatment to reduce hyperactivity, a child allergy specialist says. Professor Andrew Kemp from the Children's Hospital at Westmead, in Sydney, said there was good scientific evidence that preservatives and colourings increased hyperactive behaviour. However, parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were rarely encouraged to make dietary changes.

"Three main treatments are available for hyperactivity in children - drugs, behavioural therapy and dietary modification," Professor Kemp wrote in the British Medical Journal. "Interestingly, the use of drugs and dietary modification is supported by several trials, whereas behavioural therapy - which is presumably thought necessary for adequate treatment - has little or no scientifically based support."

He said eliminating colourings and preservatives was wrongly regarded by some as an "alternative treatment" rather than a standard treatment, like drugs, for ADHD. By contrast, Professor Kemp said, alternative medicines that were regarded with suspicion by many medical practitioners were used widely by up to half of ADHD families.

A recent trial in almost 300 British children without ADHD showed that eating a mixture of food additives, equivalent to that found in two 56g bags of lollies, significantly increased hyperactivity.

Professor Kemp said there was a strong case for trialling elimination in ADHD children given the evidence, the harmless nature of such intervention and the large numbers of children taking drugs for hyperactivity. Recent statistics from Western Australia show 2.4 per cent of that state's children had been prescribed stimulant drugs.


The fool seems to be hanging his hat on just a few studies -- ignoring the many studies that failed to find any effect. If a theory is popular and lots of studies are done, some will show an effect by chance alone. And even the "confirmatory" studies leave a lot to be desired. Let's look at one example of the amazing reasoning in such studies. I reproduce just 4 paragraphs:

Food additives are associated with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the results of a randomized trial published in the June issue of the Archives of Diseases in Childhood. The investigators suggest removing these from the diet of all children.

"There have been no population based studies examining the prevalence of hyperactivity related to intolerance to food additives following the initial claims of the detrimental effect of artificial additives on children's behaviour," write B. Bateman, from the University of Southampton in the U.K., and colleagues. "Subsequent studies, despite improved methodology, have failed to substantiate this claim or have only shown a small effect."

So they did a new study. The theory HAD to be proved. And they found?

During the withdrawal phase, there were significant reductions in hyperactive behavior. Based on parental reports, there were significantly greater increases in hyperactive behavior when children were given the drink containing additives than when given the placebo drink. The presence or absence of hyperactivity or of atopy did not influence these effects. There were no significant differences detected based on objective behavioral testing in the clinic by a tester blind to dietary status.

Study limitations include possible self-selection of families to take part in the food challenge, completion of all phases of the study by only 70% (277of 397) of those invited, and inability to demonstrate changes in hyperactivity on the basis of psychologist-administered tests. The authors recommend attempts at replication in other general population samples and extension of this study to older age groups.

They admitted the large limitations of their research and, on the most objective bit of evidence (in red above) that they had, they found (as did many studies before them) that there was NO EFFECT of the additives! Yet they still go on to make recommendations as if there had been an effect!

And note another revealing detail in the report: Kids with atopy (allergic tendencies) were NOT more likely to be affected by the additives! If anybody should have been, they should have been. But they were not.

An awful lot of medical research is just one big steaming heap of crap.

24 May, 2008

Pap smears 'are a waste of time'

A CERVICAL cancer specialist has welcomed a drop in screening among young women, saying Australians had finally realised they are "wasting their time" getting pap smears every two years. New statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show cervical cancer cases and death rates have dropped, but testing rates among younger women were slipping. Health officials say the drop, by as much as 15 per cent in the past decade, was a concern and called for women to be vigilant about biennial screening even if they have been immunised with the new cervical cancer vaccine.

But Dr Gerry Wain, former director of the NSW cervical cancer screening program, said the results showed women and doctors were understanding cervical cancer prevention better than the policy makers. "They know from going back time and time again for smears that it's just not necessary to get them that often," said Dr Wain, a gynaecological oncologist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney. "It's wasting their time and it's putting pressure on the screening program that it just doesn't need."

Dr Wain said he supported changing guidelines to three-yearly screening as recommended by the World Health Organisation, and called for women aged 20 to 24 to be removed from the program all together. "They have the vaccine, and statistics show their infections invariably go away on their own anyway," he said.

The new report, Cervical Screening in Australia 2005-2006, showed that in the two years to 2006, about 56 per cent of women in their late 20s got a pap smear compared to 65 per cent a decade earlier. A similar drop was seen among women in their early 20s and 30s.

The statistics were gathered before the introduction of Gardasil and Cervarix, Australian-developed vaccines which protect against two types of human papillomavirus that cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancer cases. Universal vaccination is expected to dramatically decrease rates of disease for the under 26-year olds who get it, but AIHW officials say all women still need to get screened.

"The need for women to have regular pap tests remains as important as ever, despite the significant advance of the new cervical cancer vaccination," said the institute's medical adviser Dr Paul Magnus.

The report showed Australia had one of the highest screening rates in the world. Both the number of new cases and the death rate had more than halved in the past decade.


Patch form of HRT may pose less clotting risks than pill does

Good to see that proper caution about the results is included and that the very low probablity of harm is mentioned. The small number of studies chosen for inclusion in the survey seems rather surprising, however. Are we seeing biased data selection here?

Previous studies have found an increased risk not only of blood clots, but also coronary heart disease and breast cancer among postmenopausal women who take hormone replacement therapy (HRT). But, according to background information in the paper, no one has assessed how high the increased risk is, or whether the risk varies with the type of therapy.

Scarabin and his colleagues reviewed data from eight observational studies and nine randomized controlled trials on HRT and venous thromboembolism (VTE), a potentially fatal blood clot in the vein. Pool results indicated that the risk of VTE was 2.5 times higher in women taking oral estrogen compared to women taking no estrogen. The risk was most pronounced during the first year of treatment and in women who were overweight or predisposed toward developing blood clots. By contrast, women currently using the patch had only a slightly elevated risk compared to women taking no estrogen. Women who had stopped taking HRT saw their risk return to normal.

According to the authors, the increased risk translates into an additional 1.5 events per 1,000 women per year. Most of the data came from existing observational trials, however, not the gold-standard randomized trials, so the findings should be interpreted with caution, the authors warned.

Other experts agreed. "It's observational and very interesting, but clearly more studies need to be done," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Maybe this opens the door for a way to give hormones more safely to those who need it."


23 May, 2008

Raw Milk Rebellion: How much business does the government have in the barnyard?

See also a previous post here on May 5th

On May 1, Pennsylvania state troopers arrived at the home of Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt, seizing a reported $20,000 to 25,000 worth of farm equipment and placing Nolt under arrest. His crime? The illegal sale of unpasteurized milk and other dairy products. And Nolt isn't alone. In February, federal investigators subpoenaed two employees of Mark McAfee's Organic Pastures Dairy in California. Though the subpoenas do not indicate the purpose of the investigation, McAfee told me the feds were seeking evidence that his dairy was selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption across state lines.

These are just the latest skirmishes in the growing conflict over the right to sell unpasteurized, or "raw" milk. On one side of the fight is an odd coalition of whole foodists, dairy farmers, and libertarians who want the government to butt out of their milk-drinking decisions. On the other side are public health officials and assorted busybodies determined to tighten regulations.

Fittingly, the debate has come to a head in California, a state equally known for its organic foods and its nanny state meddling. Late last year, the legislature quietly enacted strict new bacteria limits on raw milk, holding the product to the same standard of sterility as its pasteurized counterpart. Proponents contend the rule is necessary to protect consumers from dangerous diseases. Opponents, including McAfee and state Senator Dean Florez, say the standard is unfeasible and will put dairymen out of business. They've secured a temporary restraining order against the law, but losing in court could bring about what Florez calls "the end of raw milk in California."

While the fight to produce and consume unpasteurized milk might seem like a step back in time, raw milk advocates have good reason to lament the state of the modern dairy. Today's agricultural processes sacrifice flavor for safety. In the 2004 edition of his classic book, On Food and Cooking, food science writer Harold McGee explains how milk used to change with the seasons. When it wasn't preserved in cheese, butter, or other products, it was enjoyed fresh on the farm and tasted of the pasture. The growth of cities in the 18th and 19th centuries changed this. Without access to grass, cows were often fed on less nutritious fare, like the spent grains from beer brewing. The resulting milk was less flavorful and frequently unsafe. Expanding railroads and the invention of the refrigerated rail car brought fresher milk to the cities, but these required producers to pool their output, increasing the risk of contamination. Milk-borne illness quickly became a major cause of infant mortality.

Thus pasteurization came as a tremendous boon. By heating milk below the boiling point, producers killed off potentially harmful bacteria and increased their product's shelf life. As pasteurization became the norm, both the federal government and many states prohibited the sale of unpasteurized milk. Though these regulations made milk safer, today's burgeoning growth in natural foods requires a looser regulatory approach.

In short, safer milk resulted in the loss of seasonality and taste. Cooking milk introduces new flavors, some of them unpleasant. And since pasteurization kills bacteria indiscriminately, many raw milk devotees argue that the process robs them of probiotics, bacteria that they say build their immune systems and aid digestion. As McAfee put it to me, "kids are germ magnets." Exposing them to raw milk, he argues, is good for them. Similarly, the testimonials section on the website of the Campaign for Real Milk, a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation that aims to overturn legal barriers to unpasteurized milk, is full of quotes from people writing that the product has cured them of everything from indigestion to autism. While some of these claims are obviously far-fetched, it's clear that many raw milk drinkers believe they benefit from introducing a thriving population of bacteria into their bodies.

And therein lies the problem. If a batch of unpasteurized milk happens to be tainted with E. coli or Listeria, feeding it to a "germ magnet" will lead to potentially serious illness. In his testimony at Florez' senate hearing, University of California-Davis professor Michael Payne testified that although raw milk accounts for just a tiny percentage of milk consumption in the U.S., it is responsible for twice the number of disease outbreaks as pasteurized milk. John Sheehan, director of the FDA's Division of Dairy and Egg Safety, takes things further and compares drinking raw milk to "playing Russian roulette with your health."

Alarmist statements like Sheehan's make it hard to believe the government's more reasonable warnings, and the FDA's ban is arguably part of what gives raw milk its allure. Payne does not advocate banning the sale of raw milk, but he does suggest that tighter regulations could help ensure safety. At greatest issue is California's new requirement that raw milk contain no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter, the same standard that pasteurized milk must meet. The state argues that even though these bacteria are not inherently harmful, their presence is suggestive of fecal contamination; McAfee contends that such a low measure will be impossible to satisfy in California. Although Maine and Washington have instituted the 10 coliform limit without killing their raw milk industries, he is right to worry. Nearly a quarter of samples tested in Washington and Maine didn't pass the test, and even California's own Department of Food and Agriculture reports that only 25% of bulk milk samples collected in the state pass the test before being pasteurized.

Florez is considering legislation that would substantially raise the coliform limit for raw milk and increase testing for pathogens, along with other safety improvements. Given that so many raw milk consumers demand live bacteria in their milk, it's a reasonable compromise, and one that McAfee says his dairy could live with.

And yet, while certain regulations make sense for broad retail sales, there's something heroic in the civil disobedience of men like Mark Nolt. After all, if a consenting adult wants to buy milk taken straight from the cow, is it any business of the law to interfere?

When I recently visited dairywoman Kitty Hockman-Nicholas at Hedgebrook Farms in Winchester, Virginia, I saw nothing dangerous or diabolical. Kitty showed me around the farm, introduced her cows by name, and demonstrated her milking process. It would have been illegal for Kitty to sell me raw milk-she provides it for people who buy into "cow shares" and thus technically own the cows from which they get their dairy-but she kindly sent me home with some as a gift.

My trip to the farm provided delightful insight into the origins of one of our most essential foods. I didn't enjoy any miraculous health effects after drinking it, but the taste was smooth and creamy, with none of the processed aftertaste I now can't help noticing in store-bought milk. As I sipped my unpasteurized beverage, I reflected on the absurdity of the situation: If Kitty were to offer the same experience to others for a profit, the government could forcibly put her out of business.

Though Mark Nolt, Mark McAfee, and their loyal customers' devotion to raw milk may seem eccentric to some, the consumption of raw fish in sushi or uncooked meat in beef carpaccio is equally strange to others. And with consumer freedom increasingly under attack from busybodies on the left and right, it's hard not to admire their rebelliousness and their resolution to drink milk in its freshest form. Though there is certainly a place for reasonable food safety laws, any regulation that leads to otherwise law-abiding farmers being shutdown or arrested has gone too far. With a growing movement of consumers demanding raw milk, the time has come for the government to get out of their way.


The A2 milk theory

Three years ago Victorian dairy farmers Wayne, Peter and David Mulcahy made what could certainly be viewed as a risky business decision. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to start the labor-intensive process of converting their entire herd of cows. In a few years, the only milk produced on their Kyabram farm will be a variety known as A2, named for an ancient version of an ordinary cow gene.

Because the Mulcahys wanted to continue selling regular milk - and earn a premium from the A2 milk they were already producing - they've gone to considerable lengths. The process has involved genetically testing their cows, and then segregating them from the rest of the herd. They have to be milked separately, and the milk has to be stored and processed separately. The family purchased additional storage vats and equipment, and had to be particularly diligent to ensure that none of the cows strayed into the other herd.

So why the extra efforts? It has to do with a protein, a compound that's important to building and regulating the body. A tiny protein found in ordinary milk might not seem a likely villain, but some experts warn that under certain circumstances, it can be. More than 100 scientific papers have drawn links between A1 beta-casein, a protein found in cow's milk, and serious illnesses including type 1 or juvenile diabetes and heart disease, and to a lesser extent, autism and schizophrenia. But just how strong the evidence is - and what should be done as a result from a public health perspective - has been the subject of debate.

In 2002 the Mulcahys happened upon a stock agent connected with A2 Corporation, the company that holds the patents for genetic testing of cattle and owns the A2 Milk trademark, a guarantee that the cow does not produce A1 beta-casein. They researched the claims the group made, and found them compelling. And they had some experience of their own. Peter's young daughter, Alexandra, would become violently ill within 20 minutes of consuming any dairy product, leading her doctor to conclude she was "lactose intolerant". But after hearing anecdotes of people who couldn't tolerate "normal milk" but didn't seem to have problems with A2, her parents decided to give it a shot. Sure enough, Alexandra could drink A2 milk without getting sick. "Our experience with Alexandra not only convinced us to convert to A2 cows, we believe the whole Australian dairy industry will eventually move that way too," Peter says.

Every litre of milk contains about two teaspoons of beta-casein, usually a mix between A1 and A2. A2 is the original type, found in herds of cattle thousands of years ago, but over time a natural mutation occurred in some European cattle, and A1 beta-casein developed, says Keith Woodford, professor of farm management and agribusiness at Lincoln University in New Zealand, and the author of a book on the subject, Devil in the Milk. According to Woodford, the genetic difference between the two beta-caseins is tiny, but the difference in outcome is enormous. "The beta-casein has 209 amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and the difference between A1 and A2 is just one of these," he says.

That is, the amino acids appear in a fixed sequence, and while A1 milk has an amino acid called histidine at one position, A2 milk has a proline. Woodford says that histidine changes the way the protein is digested, releasing a protein fragment called beta-casomorphin 7, or BMC7 for short. BMC7, he says, is a powerful opioid-a narcotic. It's also an oxidant. In laboratory tests BMC7 modifies cholesterol to a form that creates dangerous fatty plaques that line artery walls.

There have been no studies confirming a link between A1 and milk intolerance, but Woodford says anecdotal and observational evidence shows that a number of people who are intolerant to milk and automatically assume it's the lactose causing the problem, may in fact be intolerant to the BCM7. Alexandra Mulcahy may well be a case in point. Woodford ticks off the evidence against A1. For example, he says, experiments with mice found that 47 per cent of those fed A1 beta-casein developed diabetes after 250 days. None of the mice fed A2 beta-casein developed the disease.

But it's not all black-and-white, like the Mulcahy's Holsteins. For most people, BCM7 passes through their system without further ado because it's just too big to get through their gut wall into the blood stream. Still, for about 20 per cent of people BCM7 could be a problem. These include people who have a "leaky gut" that allows molecules called peptides to pass through. Groups who could be at risk of leaky guts include newborn babies, people with untreated celiac disease, stomach ulcers and Crohn's disease.

Public health expert Boyd Swinburn knows how heated the topic can be. He wrote a literature review of A1 and A2 beta-caseins for the New Zealand Food Safety Authority which was released in 2004. That report didn't take a hard-line stance, but didn't say the A2 coast was clear, either, though that's how the New Zealand Food Safety Authority interpreted the findings in its media hype: "all milk was safe", it spruiked, using a phrase Swinburn explicitly avoided. "The research that's there at the moment is very suggestive, but it's certainly not conclusive," says Swinburn, who now chairs Deakin University's population health program in the school of exercise and nutrition sciences. "There's good rationale for dairy farmers to consider changing their herds, but there's not empirical evidence that's strong enough for government warnings." Likewise, Food Standards Australia New Zealand spokersperson Lydia Buchtmann says FSANZ has examined the "very limited scientific evidence available on comparative health effects of the two milks" and does not believe the available information warrants a change to the Food Standards Code.

"FSANZ has noted that further research is in progress and concluded that, while there are some interesting hypotheses being examined, it could not proceed with regulatory action on the basis of the available evidence. FSANZ has not received any applications to amend the milk provisions of the Food Standards Code to consider A1 or A2 milk," she says. Still, Swinburn says there's now enough evidence to begin encouraging dairy farmers to switch their herds, if only as a precautionary measure. It takes about a decade to make a gradual transition to an A2-exclusive herd by breeding on A2 bulls. If the farmers keep selling regular milk with both A1 and A2 in the meantime, there's virtually nothing to lose. "There's no added cost, no detrimental effects and very little risk, and in fact there's quite a bit to gain," Swinburn says. "In 10 years either there'll be much stronger proof of these links and the farmer will be in a better position, or if not they won't have lost anything."

Meanwhile, Swinburn says people who have a strong family history of type 1 diabetes, who are at high risk of heart disease, or who have an autistic child, may want to consider drinking A2 milk. If they can find it, that is. So far, A2 milk is available in about 1500 supermarkets-costing about twice as much as the home brands - but shoppers in Tasmania and Western Australia are out of luck as the milk is still not available there.

Woodford agrees that it's probably too early to push for changes to regulation. He says the most important thing at this stage is to make sure people are aware of all the available evidence. But that's easier said than done. He argues that the dairy industry has downplayed the evidence amidst concerns that changing to A2 cows will create a communications and marketing nightmare and confuse consumers during the 10-year gap while the milk still contains a blend of the two beta-caseins. "There should be clear information so that farmers and consumers can make informed decisions," Woodford says. It's a decision the Mulcahy brothers have already made.


22 May, 2008

Quackery at Yale

Post below excerpted from DC's Improbable Science. See the original for links and more

Remember that the terms `integrative' and `complementary' are euphemisms coined by quacks to make their wares sound more respectable, There is no point integrating treatments that don't work with treatments that do work.

`Integrative Medicine' at Yale says, like all the others on the roll of shame, says "we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide". They all pay lip service to being "evidence based", but there is just one snag. It is untrue. In almost all cases, the evidence is either negative or absent. But this does not put them off for a moment. The whole process is simply dishonest.

The evidence

The evidence has been summarised in several books recently, The following books are particularly interesting because they are all `views from the inside. Edzard Ernst is the UK's first Professor of Complementary Medicine. Barker Bausell was research director of an NIH funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialized Research Center at the University of Maryland.

The first two books go through the evidence fairly and carefully. They show no bias against alternative treatments (if anything, I'd say they are rather generous in cases of doubt).

For a first class US account try Barker Bausell's Snake Oil Science. Bausell's book gives an excellent account of how to test treatments properly, and of all the ways you can be fooled into thinking something works when it doesn't. Bausell concludes
"There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo".
For an excellent account of how to find the truth, try also Testing Treatments (Evans. Thornton and Chalmers)
It can now be said with some certainty that the number of alternative treatments that have been shown to work better than placebo is very small, and quite possibly zero
With that settled, what's going on at Yale (and many others on the roll of shame)? David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is founder and director of the Integrative Medicine Center (IMC) at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut. He is also an associate professor, adjunct, of Public Health and director of the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

That sounds pretty respectable. But he is into not just good nutrition, exercise, relaxation and massage, but also utterly barmy and disproved things like homeopathy and `therapeutic touch'.

Watch the movie

It so happens that Yale recently held an "Integrative Medicine Scientific Symposium". Can we find the much vaunted evidence base there? That is easy to answer because three hours of this symposium have appeared on YouTube. So this is the public face of Yale medical school.

Dr Katz goes through several different trials, all of which come out negative. And what is his conclusion? You guessed. His conclusion is not that the treatments don't work but that we need a "more fluid concept of evidence" .

It's equally bizarre to hear Richard Belitsky, Dean of Medical Education at Yale saying he is "very proud" of this betrayal of enlightenment values. If this is what Yale now considers to be education, it might be better to go somewhere else.

This is not science. It isn't even common sense. It is a retreat to the dark ages of medicine when a physician felt free to guess the answer. In fact it's worse. In the old days there was no evidence to assess. Now there is a fair amount of evidence, but Dr Katz feels free to ignore it and guess anyway. He refers to teaching about evidence as `indoctrination', a pretty graphic illustration of his deeply anti-scientific approach to knowledge. And he makes a joke about having diverted a $1m grant from CDC, for much needed systematic reviews, into something that fits his aims better.

Katz asks, as one must, what should we do if there is no treatment that is known to help a patient. That is only too frequent a problem. The reasonable thing to say is "there is no treatment that is known to help". But Dr Katz thinks it's better to guess an answer. There is nothing wrong with placebo effects but there is everything wrong with trying to pretend that you are doing more than give placebos. Perhaps he should consider the dilemmas of alternative medicine.

No surprise that it is the Left who are big on food nuttiness

Facts and evidence generally matter little to them. Looking good is all

Fried shrimp on a bed of jasmine rice and a side of mango salad, all served on a styrofoam plate. Bottled water to wash it all down. These trendy catering treats are unlikely to appear on the menu at parties sponsored by the Denver 2008 Host Committee during the Democratic National Convention this summer.

Fried foods are forbidden at the committee's 22 or so events, as is liquid served in individual plastic containers. Plates must be reusable, like china, recyclable or compostable. The food should be local, organic or both.

And caterers must provide foods in "at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white," garnishes not included, according to a Request for Proposals, or RFP, distributed last week. The shrimp-and-mango ensemble? All it's got is white, brown and orange, so it may not have the nutritional balance that generally comes from a multihued menu. "Blue could be a challenge," joked Ed Janos, owner of Cook's Fresh Market in Denver. "All I can think of are blueberries."

The national nominating convention Aug. 25-28 will bring about 50,000 people to Denver, and many will scarf loads of chow served at catered parties. The prospect of that business windfall has tantalized caterers since Denver was named host city for the convention more than a year ago. Caterers praise the committee and the city for their green ambitions, but some say they're baffled by parts of the RFP.

"I think it's a great idea for our community and our environment. The question is, how practical is it?" asks Nick Agro, the owner of Whirled Peas Catering in Commerce City. "We all want to source locally, but we're in Colorado. The growing season is short. It's dry here. And I question the feasibility of that." Agro's biggest worry is price. Using organic and local products hikes the costs. "There is going to be sticker shock when those bids start coming in," he says. "I'll cook anything, but I've had clients who have approached me about all-organic menus, and then they see the organic stuff pretty much doubles your price."

The document, which applies only to the host committee's parties, came after months of work that involved discussions with caterers and event planners along the Front Range, says Parry Burnap, Denver's "greening" director. Burnap is attached to the host committee full time for now; the committee works closely with the city but is a separate, nonprofit entity.

Thousands of other parties hosted by corporations, lobbying groups, individuals, nonprofits and more will happen in Denver during the convention, Burnap says. None of them is subject to the committee's green agenda. The committee's effort to host eco-friendly events, she says, hinges on its determination not just to put on a smart convention but to transform Denver into a top-shelf green city. "We are hoping that everything we are doing for greening (the convention) has some legacy value," she says. The RFP, for example, will likely live on after the convention in a brochure the city will distribute widely to help guide local businesses interested in improving their green practices.

Burnap says taking the organic and local route may be more costly, but the committee thinks caterers will find ways to comply and still make a profit. "It takes some creativity because some of these things are more expensive," she says. "But we're at the front end of a market shift."

Joanne Katz, owner of Three Tomatoes Catering in Denver, cheers the committee's environmental aspirations and is eager to get involved with the convention, but she wonders if some of the choices the committee is making are really green. Compostable products, such as forks and knives made from corn starch, are often imported from Asia, delivered to the U.S. in fuel-consuming ships. But some U.S. products are made from recyclable pressed paper. Which decision is more environmentally sound? "Customers are beginning to demand these things, and we don't have all of the information," she says. "And we are doing the best we can, one project at a time."

Burnap acknowledged that figuring out what is most green can be difficult. "Maybe in 20 years, there will be better analysis for us to make better choices," she says. "One we are talking about now is, is it better to compost or to recycle? If you are using a cup for a beverage, is it better to be (plastic) and back in the materials stream, or compostable, biodegradable waste and go into the waste stream or compost? There are no definitive answers."

Composting for the convention hasn't been entirely figured out yet, she says. Colorado has commercial composting companies, such as A1 Organics in Eaton, but the link between the composters and caterers hasn't been made.

The committee is working with other groups to develop a carbon-footprint "calculator" that will measure the environmental impact of each event and suggest an "offset" - a fee - that will go toward a fund helping to match carbon losses with carbon gains. "That's a fun one," Burnap says. "If these event planners will calculate and offset, it will start to get the money flowing into the Colorado Carbon Fund, a fund that will reinvest in renewable energy here in Colorado."


21 May, 2008

Using a mobile phone while pregnant can seriously damage your baby?

The endless hatred of anything popular again. If something is popular, the elitists never stop trying to prove that it is bad. They need to show that it is bad to prop up their own feelings of superiority. They have failed so far but, when they never stop trying, they must by chance alone come across some data somewhere that supports their prejudices. Sadly for them, however, what we have below is just epidemiological speculation again. What they REALLY found is probably that early adopters of technology are more self indulgent and that self-indulgent mothers have kids who are more disturbed.

A medical correspondent also asks: "Are women with cell phones also likely to give cell phones to their children -- who then will not be paying attention and doing their homework, but chatting mindlessly and sending friends text messages in class etc..?"

It's all speculation. Epidemiology cannot prove ANY causal link, any more than rodent studies can (except among rodents), and policy prescriptions should not be based on it.

Women who use mobile phones when pregnant are more likely to give birth to children with behavioural problems, according to authoritative research. A giant study, which surveyed more than 13,000 children, found that using the handsets just two or three times a day was enough to raise the risk of their babies developing hyperactivity and difficulties with conduct, emotions and relationships by the time they reached school age. And it adds that the likelihood is even greater if the children themselves used the phones before the age of seven.

The results of the study, the first of its kind, have taken the top scientists who conducted it by surprise. But they follow warnings against both pregnant women and children using mobiles by the official Russian radiation watchdog body, which believes that the peril they pose "is not much lower than the risk to children's health from tobacco or alcohol".

The research - at the universities of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Aarhus, Denmark - is to be published in the July issue of the journal Epidemiology and will carry particular weight because one of its authors has been sceptical that mobile phones pose a risk to health. UCLA's Professor Leeka Kheifets - who serves on a key committee of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, the body that sets the guidelines for exposure to mobile phones - wrote three and a half years ago that the results of studies on people who used them "to date give no consistent evidence of a causal relationship between exposure to radiofrequency fields and any adverse health effect".

The scientists questioned the mothers of 13,159 children born in Denmark in the late 1990s about their use of the phones in pregnancy, and their children's use of them and behaviour up to the age of seven. As they gave birth before mobiles became universal, about half of the mothers had used them infrequently or not at all, enabling comparisons to be made.

They found that mothers who did use the handsets were 54 per cent more likely to have children with behavioural problems and that the likelihood increased with the amount of potential exposure to the radiation. And when the children also later used the phones they were, overall, 80 per cent more likely to suffer from difficulties with behaviour. They were 25 per cent more at risk from emotional problems, 34 per cent more likely to suffer from difficulties relating to their peers, 35 per cent more likely to be hyperactive, and 49 per cent more prone to problems with conduct.

The scientists say that the results were "unexpected", and that they knew of no biological mechanisms that could cause them. But when they tried to explain them by accounting for other possible causes - such as smoking during pregnancy, family psychiatric history or socio-economic status - they found that, far from disappearing, the association with mobile phone use got even stronger.

They add that there might be other possible explanations that they did not examine - such as that mothers who used the phones frequently might pay less attention to their children - and stress that the results "should be interpreted with caution" and checked by further studies. But they conclude that "if they are real they would have major public health implications".

Professor Sam Milham, of the blue-chip Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and the University of Washington School of Public Health - one of the pioneers of research in the field - said last week that he had no doubt that the results were real. He pointed out that recent Canadian research on pregnant rats exposed to similar radiation had found structural changes in their offspring's brains.

The Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection says that use of the phones by both pregnant women and children should be "limited". It concludes that children who talk on the handsets are likely to suffer from "disruption of memory, decline of attention, diminishing learning and cognitive abilities, increased irritability" in the short term, and that longer-term hazards include "depressive syndrome" and "degeneration of the nervous structures of the brain".


Breast-feeding, but not oral contraceptives, is associated with a reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis

The results below are again epidemiological so permit no firm inferences but, as rheumatoid arthritis is one of those intrinsically hard-to-explain autoimmune diseases, new lines of investigation are welcome. Since women who do not breastfeed are a biological aberration and since autoimmune diseases are too, there is some plausibility to the connection made below

New research at Malmo University Hospital has revealed that mothers who have more children and especially those who breastfeed their babies have a significantly lowered risk of arthritis later in life. Use of oral contraceptives, on the other hand, is of no benefit.

The study, which was funded by Lund University, The Craaford Foundation and the Swedish Rheumatism Association, wanted to determine whether breast-feeding or the use of oral contraceptives (OC) could affect the future risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in a community-based prospective cohort.

Researcher Dr. Mitra Pikwer found that breastfeeding for more than a year reduced women's risk of rheumatoid arthritis 54% and breastfeeding for at least a month tended to reduce the risk 26 percent. Moreover, women who gave birth to more children tended to be at lower RA risk, with a 13% reduction for each child they had.

Female hormones are thought to play a role in rheumatoid arthritis because the incidence is twice as high for women than men, the researchers said. While arthritis often improves during pregnancy, there was no evidence of benefits in RA from the use of oral contraceptives, which contain some of the same hormones that are elevated during pregnancy.

From a community based health survey of 18,326 women, the analysis included 136 women with incident rheumatoid arthritis who were matched by age to 544 women (controls) in the study who did not have rheumatoid arthritis.

Women who had breastfed their children for 13 months or more had an odds ratio of 0.46 for incident RA and those who breastfed for one to 12 months had an odds ratio of 0.74 compared with those who had never breastfed.

See an abstract of the research here


20 May, 2008

New Zealand's Meningococcal Gold Rush

Another "Orchestrated litany of lies". New Zealand is good at those. For some other recent examples of how official New Zealand works, see here and here and here. For an update on New Zealand's original "orchestrated litany of lies", see here. To use an expression that would be understood in New Zealand: Everyone in government in New Zealand is "pissing in one another's pocket"


New Zealand's meningococcal disease story, as unravelled through analysis of previously secret documents obtained under the Official Information Act, reveals that the New Zealand government, media and public have been misled and manipulated by officials, advisors and scientists alike.

As a result of this manipulation, the government has committed an unprecedented 200 million taxpayer dollars to a mass vaccination experiment of 1.15 million New Zealand children with an untested and experimental vaccine. Despite being reassured by a bevy of pro-vaccine and vaccine manufacturer sponsored experts and none-less than the Minister of Health herself that the MeNZB(tm) vaccine is thoroughly tested and proven to be safe and effective, we reveal that Chiron's MeNZB(tm) vaccine was never used in the trials used to approve its license. We reveal that despite assurances, there is no evidence that the MeNZB(tm) vaccine will actually work as promised.

We believe that the magnitude of policy, regulatory and scientific misconduct is such that not only should vaccination with this vaccine be halted forthwith, but that the meningococcal vaccination program should be independently audited and the circumstances surrounding the development and implementation of the program subjected to a full Royal Commission of Inquiry.
In January 2002 the Minister of Health Annette King announced that "$100 million-plus" had been set aside to fund development and implementation of a vaccine to combat New Zealand's unique strain-specific meningococcal group B bacterium [1]

By May that year, following Ministry of Health negotiations with the preferred contract supplier, Chiron Corporation, that figure had become "a commitment of up to $200 million." [2] By September 2004 the sum of $250 million was being mentioned in parliament. [3]

In a July 7 2004 press release Ms King described the development and approval of the MeNZBT vaccine as `fantastic news.' She went on to explain that the MeNZBT vaccine had been "specifically developed with scientists from biotechnology company Chiron Corporation." Cabinet was told in 2001, immediately prior to approving the signing of the Chiron contract, that the deal included the "development of a unique or 'orphan' vaccine." [4]

Chiron's own press release declared they [Chiron] had specifically developed the vaccine. [5] The company quoted Ms King congratulating them "for their effort and dedication to this project."

But documents received under the Official Information Act reveal that the MeNZBT vaccine was not developed by Chiron Corporation. It was developed by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Chiron had bought the rights to mass manufacture and market the Norwegian meningococcal B vaccines in November 1999, nearly two years before the New Zealand government signed the initial contract with the company. [27]

Last March, in replying to a question in the House from National MP Dr Lynda Scott, the Minister of Health declared that $10.7 million has been spent on the development of the group B meningococcal vaccine. [49] While Cabinet papers, released under the Official Information Act, had most financial details censored as being commercially sensitive, it would appear that of the total $200 million cost, Chiron will net around a cool $140 million for developing and supplying the already developed vaccine. [28]

From the Norwegian perspective, the off-loading of their Norwegian specific vaccine to Chiron must have been a godsend given it had likely invested over a hundred million $US in double blind, placebo controlled studies involving 170,000 people and over 2,000 doctors and nurses for a vaccine that was never licensed for use in mass vaccination. (New Zealand's preliminary trials involved about 1,500 people and cost at least $7.8 million). In parliament on 19 October 2004 Ms King stated "[the Norwegian Government decision not to approve their vaccine for use] was ... based on the evidence they had, that it did not stack up in terms of cost-benefit, so they did not continue with it."

However The Lancet medical journal reported in 1991 that the Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that the large and robust clinical trials proved the vaccine to have insufficient efficacy to justify its use in a mass vaccination program. [6] The Lancet paper also contained data showing that the epidemic was waning naturally by the completion of the trials. The incidence had declined from peak levels by about 50%, similar to the natural decline that had occurred in New Zealand when the vaccine was approved.

More here

Hot humid weather causes aggression

Darwin heat has to be experienced to be believed

A NEW study has confirmed what people in the Top End [Northwestern Australia] have long known - soaring temperatures and overcast skies make tempers fray. Surgeons at Royal Darwin Hospital who analysed fracture rates found that so-called "mango madness", - a period of extreme weather tension that triggers violence as the wet season hits - is not just a myth.

An analysis presented at a medical conference in Hong Kong today showed fracture hospitalisations were 40 per cent higher in October and November when the Northern Territory had high temperatures with constant cloud cover and no rain. "It's also when the mango is harvested, so now it's official," said surgeon Mahiban Thomas. "When there are mangos in the markets there is madness in the streets."

The Northern Territory has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption and violence in Australia. Almost 90 per cent of facial fractures admissions in the NT are caused by violence, the second highest rate after Greenland, which has extended periods of darkness.

Dr Thomas and his colleagues mapped monthly hospitalisations over 12 years to 2006 and compared them with historic weather data on temperature, humidity, rainfall, and sunshine. Most months had 15 to 20 admissions but there were consistently more than 30 in October and November when daily minimum temperatures at night were highest, humidity peaked and the rainfall and sunshine hours were lowest. "Hot nights spell trouble when there's all that warmth but no rain to relieve it and bring the tension down," Dr Thomas said. "We can't do anything about the weather but now we've proven the trend we can at least be prepared for it when October rolls around."

Psychologist Mathew Brambling, of Queensland University of Technology, said the findings added to growing international proof that weather, particularly heat and lack of sunshine, affected mood. Suicide rates were known to rise in heat waves, while shorter, dark days could affect the secretion of certain neurochemicals involved in mood, giving rise to a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). "In tropical climates, there's a combination of these heat tensions that affect the way the brain works and influences irritability and impulsiveness for violence," Dr Brambling said.


19 May, 2008

A lesson for Britain's obesity hysterics

New evidence from America suggests that intervening in schools and forcing kids to eat, think and learn healthily does not make them slimmer

One of the conceits of anti-obesity campaigners is that they `know' how to prevent children from becoming fat. But if the results of a much-awaited study on one of the central pillars of fighting childhood obesity - school interventions for healthy eating - are anything to go by, then such school-based programmes are expensive failures.

In its new obesity strategy, the UK government has placed considerable emphasis on school-based interventions which are designed to reduce childhood obesity through including lessons about healthy eating, serving only `healthy food', involving parents, and using social marketing strategies designed to apply social pressure to `encourage' children to eat healthily. All of these, according to both the prime minister Gordon Brown and the health minister Alan Johnson, represent the best in evidence-backed approaches to reducing childhood obesity.

Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. The journal Pediatrics has recently published the results of the Student Nutrition Policy Initiative (1), a US programme which includes almost all of the government's initiatives for tackling obesity - and the results demonstrate that the government's plans to prevent obesity in Britain's children are almost certain to fail.

In the School Nutrition Policy Initiative, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control, 10 inner-city Philadelphia schools were targeted. Over 1,300 students were divided into intervention and control schools. In the intervention schools, staff were instructed in healthy eating and physical activity and how to integrate these themes into their teaching. Students were provided with 50 hours of healthy eating instruction each year. Children, for instance, were taught writing through essay assignments on nutrition. Every food sold or served in the schools had to meet strict healthy eating standards and all vending machines were taken out of the schools. Perhaps most controversially, children who failed to eat properly were denied rewards such as sitting by friends or extra recess.

And what were the results of such massive obesity-prevention efforts? From the spin in the press, one would think that the children in the schools with all of the focus on healthy food, along with the stigma of being overweight, ended up weighing less. After all, this was about reducing and preventing overweight and obesity. For example, the website Science Daily reported the study as showing that `school-based intervention, which reduced the incidence of overweight by 50 per cent, offers a potential means of preventing childhood weight gain and obesity on a large scale' (2).

But this puts a rather one-sided spin on the results. According to the study, the percentage of obese children in the intervention schools actually increased by 1.25 per cent compared with an increase of 1.37 per cent in the schools which didn't get all the obesity-prevention measures. In other words, there was no statistically significant difference between the schools. As the researchers themselves admitted: `After two years, there were no differences between intervention and control schools in the prevalence of obesity.' Even more shocking, they reported that `the intervention had no effect at the upper end of the BMI distribution. on the incidence, prevalence, or remission of obesity'.

And what about all that attention to healthy eating? After all, the point was that kids would not only have less chance of getting fat, but that they would eat better, too. In the intervention schools, at the end of the two-year programme, the number of children who were eating `healthily', that is, eating the required amounts of vegetables and fruits, declined. These kids were eating fewer servings of fruits and vegetables than the kids who had no nutritional instruction and who attended school where `unhealthy' foods were served.

So, whether success was measured by changes in body mass index, eating patterns, or the numbers of kids who were overweight or obese, this massive social-engineering project that is supposed to serve as a model for Britain was a failure.

The anti-obesity activists and the government have continually said that the so-called obesity epidemic is all about children. And they have had confidently told us that they knew best how to deal with overweight and obese children. But the evidence - as opposed to the faith - suggests otherwise. It suggests that when it comes to food, obesity and children, the food nannies and the government really know next to nothing about what works.


The Sugar Pushers

Banned! First alcohol prohibition, then other drugs. Now candy. Yes, candy is now banned on many school campuses. Why? Refined sugar is so bad for you it's wicked. I'm sure you know many of the major bad guys here. Twinkies. Ho Hos. Nestle's Crunch. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Maybe you consumed some of these unsavory savories yourself in your youth. They're not fruit and vegetables, that's for sure.

In California the ban on intra-curricular sugar is legislative and statewide. So, that's that, right? No candy ever winds its way into a Golden-State kid's lunch pail or backpack. Right?

Uh, not quite. There's a black market. Valiant pint-sized entrepreneurs are sneaking the nefariously edible junk food onto school grounds despite the risks. According to Jim Nason, principal of Hook Junior High School, some of these rule-breakers "are walking around campus with upwards of $40 in their pockets. . . ." Forty bucks? That's almost as high as the national debt.

It's not just California. Sugar trafficking stretches from one coast to the other. In New Haven, Connecticut, eighth-grader and honors student Michael Sheridan was suspended for a day for buying a bag of Skittles. And banned from an honors student dinner. And not allowed to be class vice-president any more. Seems the public schools are always panicking over something. Now, it's sugar. When will they panic over poor education?


18 May, 2008

Another deceitful breast cancer scare

I first reproduce a media report below -- to which I would simply have responded that we were probably looking at a social class effect on both variables -- and then I reproduce an excerpt from a much more searching look by Sandy Szwarc:

Get your daughters off the couch: New research shows exercise during the teen years - starting as young as age 12 - can help protect girls from breast cancer when they're grown. Middle-aged women have long been advised to get active to lower their risk of breast cancer after menopause.

What's new: That starting so young pays off, too. "This really points to the benefit of sustained physical activity from adolescence through the adult years, to get the maximum benefit," said Dr. Graham Colditz of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the study's lead author.

Researchers tracked nearly 65,000 nurses ages 24 to 42 who enrolled in a major health study. They answered detailed questionnaires about their physical activity dating back to age 12. Within six years of enrolling, 550 were diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause. A quarter of all breast cancer is diagnosed at these younger ages, when it's typically more aggressive. Women who were physically active as teens and young adults were 23 percent less likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer than women who grew up sedentary, researchers report Wednesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The biggest impact was regular exercise from ages 12 to 22.

"This is not the extreme athlete," Colditz cautioned. The women at lowest risk reported doing 3 hours and 15 minutes of running or other vigorous activity a week - or, for the less athletic, 13 hours a week of walking. Typically, the teens reported more strenuous exercise while during adulthood, walking was most common. Why would it help? A big point of exercise in middle age and beyond is to keep off the pounds. After menopause, fat tissue is a chief source of estrogen. In youth, however, the theory is that physical activity itself lowers estrogen levels. Studies of teen athletes show that very intense exercise can delay onset of menstrual cycles and cause irregular periods.

The moderate exercise reported in this study was nowhere near enough for those big changes. But it probably was enough to cause slight yet still helpful hormone changes, said Dr. Alpa Patel, a cancer prevention specialist at the American Cancer Society, who praised the new research. And while the study examined only premenopausal breast cancer, "it's certainly likely and possible" that the protection from youthful exercise will last long enough to affect more common postmenopausal breast cancer, too, Colditz added.

If you were a bookworm as a teen, it's not too late, Patel said. Other research on the middle-age benefits of exercise shows mom should join her daughters for that bike ride or game of tennis or at least a daily walk around the block. Many breast cancer risks a woman can't change: How early she starts menstruating, how late menopause hits, family history of the disease. Even though the exercise benefit is modest, physical activity and body weight are risk factors that women can control, Patel stressed. "I'd say you and your daughter are getting off the couch," she said. "Women who engage in physical activity not only during adolescence but during adulthood lower their risk."


Excerpt from Sandy Szwarc:

There was a press release about a new study... sent out to media before the study was published in the medical journal... more than 500 media outlets reported on the study on the same day and all saying the same thing... Stop me if you've heard this before.

This week, people around the world were told about a new study of 65,000 women said to have found another threat for girls and young women who fail to exercise regularly: a higher risk for breast cancer, "which kills 40,000 American women every year." From the press release, media reported that parents should get their daughters off the couch because women ages 12-35 who exercise regularly can cut their risk for breast cancer by 23%. This study was said to be one more reason to require girls to take PE to stay in shape, said a Mercury News editorial.

Science isn't marketed through public relations firms, nor does it try to manipulate or scare you. If the media's lockstep coverage, verbatim from a single press release, wasn't enough of a clue that this was marketing and "science by press release," then your next clue was the size of the study. No, the bigger the study doesn't necessarily mean the findings are more important. In fact, it rarely does. The bigger the number of people studied, the less likely it is to have been an actual clinical trial, the only kind of study that can test a hypothesis and credibly suggest a cause or effective intervention. That's because good clinical trials are expensive to conduct, while those done in a computer, using numbers and data rather than people and verified clinical evidence, aren't.

Since we know all studies are not created equal, let's look at this one. Was it a randomized clinical trial that followed tens of thousands of women from age 12 and found that vigorous daily exercise resulted in fewer cases of breast cancer? No. The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, was authored by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, which houses the largest and longest-running Rorschach test of epidemiology: The Nurses Health Study. This is a huge quarry of questionnaires gathered since 1976 from more than 120,000 nurses and has been used by its researchers to pick out characteristics in unlimited combinations to find all sorts of correlations and conclude just about anything they set out to find. Well over 500 such computer studies have been published from this database and many of the correlations reported even contradict each other.....


None of the relative risks were tenable and beyond random chance or statistical error for this type of study. This study was unable to find any credible relationship between exercise and premenopausal breast cancer. All of the relative risks hugged null (RR=1)....

In a 2005 issue of the Nurses Health Study Annual Newsletter, Walter Willett, MD, MPH, the principal investigator of the Nurses Health Study II, which is the cohort used for this week’s study, had a very different report on what the Nurses Health Study data had shown: “Being physically active doesn’t seem to offer women much protection against premenopausal breast cancer — and being lean actually seems to increase risk,” he wrote. His message on the exact same data calmly defused worries that premenopausal breast cancer is a woman’s fault. We’ll give him the last word:
Despite most efforts [to identify a cause or risk factor], premenopausal breast cancer remains something of a mystery, and women understandably feel frustrated when they’ve ‘done everything right’ and still develop this disease. Clearly, the usual advice to exercise and eat well is not enough to prevent breast cancer.

Stem cell find linked to memory

AUSTRALIAN researchers have discovered stem cells in the brain that are vital for learning and memory. They have also worked out how to activate the cells so they produce new neurons, a discovery that could eventually lead to better treatments for degenerative brain conditions of ageing, such as dementia.

The director of the Queensland Brain Institute, Perry Bartlett, said neuroscientists knew there had to be stem cells somewhere in the hippocampus - the part of the brain involved in important functions such as learning and memory - because people and other animals produced large numbers of new neurons in this region throughout life.

But the stem cells had proved extremely difficult to find. Professor Bartlett now understands why. His team has discovered that mice have only eight to 10 of these cells in this region of the brain. "And in humans there is probably not a lot more. You don't need a large number," he said.

As people get older they make fewer new brain cells, which reduces their mental functioning, particularly in navigation and short-term memory. "But we think that even though there is a loss in the ability to make new nerve cells, the machinery is still there. The exciting part is that we're starting to discover ways to activate the stem cells, even in aged animals," Professor Bartlett said.

Working with live mice and their brain tissue in the lab, his team produced a threefold increase in the number of cells in the hippocampus producing new neurons. "It's a pretty massive effect," said Professor Bartlett, of the University of Queensland, whose team's findings are published in The Journal of Neuroscience.


17 May, 2007

Chicago lifts two-year ban on foie gras

Gourmets in Chicago can order foie gras again after the city council on Wednesday repealed a two-year restaurant ban on a delicacy that critics say is produced at cruel expense to geese and ducks. The aldermen voted 37-6 to drop the ban on restaurants serving foie gras, an ordinance that had passed with a single dissenting vote in April 2006. The city had issued a few warnings to restaurants for flouting the ban and one defiant eatery was fined.

Mayor Richard Daley had called the ban the "silliest ordinance" the city council ever passed and said it made Chicago "the laughingstock of the nation." Animal rights groups decry foie gras as a product of inhumane treatment as it is made by force-feeding geese and ducks through a steel pipe put down their throats, expanding their livers to 10 times normal size. In 2004, California passed a law that will end the production and sale of foie gras in the state in 2012. Similar laws have been proposed in a few other states.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals criticized Chicago's move to overturn the ban. "This is industry's dirty political manoeuvring at its worst," the group said in a statement. "Today, that compassionate decision was reversed in a secretive, rushed bow to special interests that benefit from the cruel treatment of animals. It goes against what the vast majority of Chicagoans believe in."

"I thought it was us sticking our nose in something we probably shouldn't have even been in," Alderman Dick Mell told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, adding that veal calves and chickens also suffer in confinement.


Australia: Sperm donor law to be refined

Not before time. Sweden take note (not that they will. They know it all)

Men who donate sperm for use in lVF treatment in Queensland will be freed from child support payments under new state laws. Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Kerry Shine said a loophole in legislation would be closed this week to clarify the status of biological fathers.

Mr Shine said the husband or de facto partner of a woman who conceived using lVF treatment automatically assumed legal responsibility for the child. "However, responsibility reverts to a biological father whose sperm is used to impregnate a single woman or woman in a same-sex relationship, even without his knowledge," he said. "This means an lVF father can be pursued for child support payments even though he never even knew the child's mother.

"This is a legal loophole that has potential for abuse. These men are not deadbeats who have fathered children and then tried to avoid their responsibilities. This is a totally different situation and the law should reflect that reality."

Mr Shine said there had ueen no known cases to date - but the amendment would stop any. "Clearly, if we allow this loophole to remain open, it could affect the number of men willing to become donors because of a fear they'll be up for child payments in the future."

The changes, which would go before Cabinet tomorrow and be introduced to State Parliament this week, would protect men who donated sperm from being unfairly targeted by a mother. The amendment would apply to the Status of Children Act 1978, which conferred responsibility on lVF parents to enable them to exercise the legal powers and responsibilities to care for their children.

Mr Shine said the amendment would be retrospective to clarify the status of children born since 1988, when the provisions were originally inserted. "These laws came in when in-vitro fertilisation was a relatively new technology and it is time to update them for the modern world," he said.

Dr David Molloy, director of the Queensland Fertility Group and obstetrics spokesman for Australian Medical Association Queensland, had brought the loophole to authorities' attention. He said it could also have created uncertainty in respect of an IVF child's legal parents.

The article above is by Darrell Giles and appeared in the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" on May 11, 2008.

16 May, 2008

Now it's pet shampoo that causes autism!

This is just data dredging. If you ask enough questions, some will correlate by chance alone

Chemicals found in pet shampoos may be linked to a raised risk of autism, a study of how environmental factors influence the developmental disorder has suggested. Mothers who used pesticide-based shampoos to wash their pets while pregnant were twice as likely to have a child with an autistic spectrum disorder as those who did not, according to early results from a US research team.

The findings, from the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment study, which is funded by the US National Institutes of Health, raise the possibility that chemicals called pyrethrins found in pet shampoos and flea sprays are linked to a raised risk of autism. Scientists behind the research emphasise that the findings remain preliminary. Mothers of autistic children may be more likely to remember their use of chemicals than are mothers whose children develop normally.

The study asked 333 mothers of children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) and 198 mothers of typically developing children to fill in questionnaires about their exposure to environmental chemicals, from three months before they became pregnant to their babies' first birthdays. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, of the University of California-Davis will present preliminary findings today at the International Meeting for Autism Research in London. "Mothers of ASD children were twice as likely to report using pet shampoos for fleas or ticks during the exposure period as compared with control mothers," she said. "The strongest association was during the second trimester, but risk was elevated for use in other time windows as well.

"It is possible that mothers of typically developing children tended to forget about their use of pesticides around the home, which could have biased the results. Nonetheless, the higher self-reported use of pet shampoos by mothers of children with ASDs raises concern about the safety of these products." It is accepted widely that autism is heavily influenced by genetics. Environmental factors may add to the risk.


Boost for IVF births

MELBOURNE scientists have developed a world-first IVF technique to boost pregnancy success rates, without multiple embryo implants. Monash University specialists have developed the first DNA fingerprinting to identify which embryos are most likely to result in the birth of a healthy baby. The discovery by Dr Gayle Jones and Dr David Cram may be used to pinpoint a handful of genes identifying the best very early stage embryos before they are implanted. Currently, with no reliable way of identifying which embryos are viable, many women have implanted multiple embryos to increase their chances of pregnancy resulting in high rates of multiple births.

Dr Jones said knowing which five-day-old embryos - blastocysts - were viable before implantation would eliminate the need for multiple transfers and give women a greater chance of becoming pregnant sooner. "With our method we believe we will be able to rank embryos according to their viability and put only one back without a significant reduction in the pregnancy outcome," Dr Jones said. "It should give confidence to both doctors and patients to change to electing to have single embryos put back."

The breakthrough has attracted strong international interest since being revealed in the Human Reproduction journal yesterday . Dr Jones warned, however, it would take another two years before more major progress was made because researchers needed to study more full-term pregnancies.

With the backing of Monash IVF, scientists from the university's Immunology and Stem Cell laboratories and their colleagues at the Genesis Athens Hospital in Greece recruited 48 women undergoing IVF, resulting in 37 babies.


15 May, 2008

Court to Hear Families on Vaccine-Autism Link

Hungry lawyers at work

For the second time this year, families claiming that vaccinations triggered autism in their young children will head to a federal court to determine whether they are eligible to collect damages from the government. The case, which begins today, offers two 10-year-old boys from Portland, Ore. - William Mead and Jordan King - as test cases for the theory that thimerosal-containing vaccines, on their own, cause autism.

Lawyers for these families maintain that the boys were developing normally until they were exposed to vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury. After receiving these vaccinations, the attorneys say, the boys began to show symptoms of autism - a developmental disability characterized by difficulty in communicating and interacting with others.

The theory that thimerosal is singularly culpable in bringing about autism is only one of three upon which courts will decide. In 2007, hearings were conducted in three test cases intended to examine whether the combination of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines containing thimerosal cause autism. And later this year, attorneys will present four more test cases to determine whether MMR vaccines, regardless of whether or not they contain thimerosal, may bring about the condition.

Each of these theories challenge the position held by the mainstream medical community that vaccines, whether they contain thimerosal or not, do not cause autism - a position that a majority of scientific studies support. In 2004, a panel convened by the Institute of Medicine concluded there was no credible evidence that the thimerosal in vaccines led to autism. Still, since 2001, the ingredient has been removed from most vaccines, save for certain influenza shots, in response to autism fears.

Still, attorneys for the families involved need only show that it is more likely than not that thimerosal-containing vaccines caused the boys' injuries. If successful, the families could receive compensation for past and future medical expenses, special education expenses and up to $250,000 for pain and suffering, among other monies. The final decision, which could take up to several months to arrive, may be appealed by either the families or the federal government.

More here

Study links air pollution, blood clots in veins

The usual old epidemiological nonsense. The possibility of a common cause for the correlated phenomena -- such as poverty -- is not looked at

Air pollution heavy in small particles may cause blood clots in the legs, the same condition air travelers call "economy class syndrome" from immobility during flight, researchers said on Monday. Dr. Andrea Baccarelli of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and colleagues said they found the link after looking at 870 people in Italy who had developed deep vein thrombosis between 1995 and 2005.

When compared with 1,210 others living in the same region who did not have the problem, they found that for every increase in particulate matter of 10 micrograms per square meter the previous year, the risk of deep vein thrombosis increased by 70 percent.

On top of that, the blood of those with higher levels of exposure to particulate matter was quicker to clot when tested at a clinic, they reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Air pollution from automobiles and industry can contain tiny particles of carbon, nitrates, metals and other materials that have been linked over the years to a variety of health problems.

While lung diseases were an initial concern, later research has indicated it may cause heart disease and stroke, possibly because it increases the rate at which blood can coagulate, Baccarelli and colleagues said.

Until now particulate pollution had not been linked to blood clots in the veins. The mechanism that causes problems for some air travelers is related not to the blood itself but to impaired circulation when sitting in one place without exercise for long periods of time.

The findings introduce a new and common risk for deep vein thrombosis, the researchers said and "give further substance to the call for tighter standards and continued efforts aimed at reducing the impact of urban air pollutants on human health." In a commentary, Dr. Robert Brook of the of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor said if the findings are proven by additional research it may turn out that "the actual totality of the health burden posed by air pollution, already known to be tremendous, may be even greater than ever anticipated." [And it might not]


14 May, 2008

First, we have the epidemiological garbage:

Anti-inflammatory drugs stop Alzheimer's

Painkillers such as ibuprofen may lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease, concludes a study in the latest issue of Neurology. The study found that long-term use of such non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) was associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer's, suggesting that these drugs could be used to prevent or delay the disease. A total of 49,349 men aged 55 and older who developed Alzheimer's disease and 196,850 men without dementia were involved in the study. Those who used ibuprofen for more than five years were more than 40 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than non-users. And the longer ibuprofen was used, the lower the risk of developing dementia. The findings do not prove that NSAIDs prevent Alzheimer's, say the authors, but they may provide clues to how the disease develops.

Neurology 2008;70 (Vlad S, et al)


Then we have a controlled trial

Anti-inflammatory drugs do not improve cognitive function in older adults

Another failure for epidemiological "wisdom". It died when properly tested

The anti-inflammatory drugs naproxen and celecoxib do not appear to improve cognitive function in older adults with a family history of Alzheimer's disease, and naproxen may have a slightly detrimental effect, according to an article posted online today that will appear in the July 2008 print issue of Archives of Neurology.

Inflammatory processes may play a role in Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, as well as in the decline of cognitive (thinking, learning and memory) function in older adults, according to background information in the article. "Consistent with this hypothesis, observational studies have shown an association between the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease," the authors write.

The ADAPT (Alzheimer's Disease Anti-Inflammatory Prevention Trial) Research Group conducted a randomized clinical trial involving 2,117 individuals age 70 and older with a family history of Alzheimer's disease. From March 2001 to December 2004, 617 took 200 milligrams of the NSAID celecoxib twice daily, 596 took 220 milligrams of naproxen sodium twice daily and 904 took placebo. Each year, the study participants took seven tests assessing cognitive function that were added into one global summary score. Treatments were halted in December 2004 because another study found increased cardiovascular risks associated with celecoxib.

"The ADAPT cognitive function results through six months after study treatment cessation do not show a protective effect with the use of NSAIDs and may suggest that cognitive scores are lower," the authors write. "The global summary scores, which combine the results from seven individual tests in the cognitive assessment battery, were significantly lower over time for naproxen, but not for celecoxib, compared with placebo."

There are several explanations for the difference between these findings and those of previous observational trials, the authors note. Because observational trials do not assign participants to treatment groups but analyze existing behavior, additional factors that were not measured may have confounded or affected the results. In addition, the findings of this trial may apply only to celecoxib and naproxen and not to other anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen. Finally, NSAIDs may be protective only when given several years before the time when cognitive function would have begun to decline.

"Continued follow-up of trial participants, even after cessation of treatment, appears warranted to investigate treatment effects with respect to the timing of exposure," the authors write. "However, for now we suggest that naproxen and celecoxib should not be used for the prevention of Alzheimer's disease."


The two studies above are not exactly comparable but they are close enough for us to be very dubious of the epidemiological "finding"

13 May, 2008

Depressed elderly found to have low levels of vitamin D

So what? They could have low levels of lots of things. When you are depressed you don't eat well. This is so silly I cannot be bothered to look up the academic article behind the report below

A new study in the Archives of General Psychiatry has shown that people with low vitamin D levels have a higher risk of depression. The findings suggest that increasing vitamin D intake through foods such as fish and dairy products, or by taking supplements, could be an effective treatment for depression. Levels of vitamin D were measured in blood samples from 1282 adults aged 65 to 95. Of these, 26 had major depressive disorder, 169 had minor depression and 1087 were not depressed. Vitamin D levels were 14 per cent lower in those with major and minor depression compared with those without depression. Further research is needed to determine whether low vitamin D levels occur before or after the onset of depression.

Arch Gen Psychiatry 2008;65:508-512 (Hoogendijk WJG, et al)


Is Red Wine Healthy?

This article is commendably skeptical but it overlooks the potential circulatory benefits of the vasodilation brought on by alcohol

In 1991, Professor Serge Reynaud unveiled a landmark concept in the British medical journal, Lancet. He described the "French Paradox," the strange phenomenon that French citizens have lower heart disease mortality rates than other western nations despite higher smoking rates and a cholesterol-rich diet.

Professor Reynaud attributed this phenomenon to wine consumption-particularly red wine. Red wine is rich in antioxidants, compounds that protect the heart by increasing HDL levels in the blood ("good cholesterol") and prevent the formation of blood clots and cholesterol-laden plaques. These clots and plaques block arteries in the heart and brain, leading to heart attacks and strokes. This article was met with delight by cardiologists and oenophiles alike. But is it as simple as "a Merlot a day keeps the doctor away"?

Unfortunately, no. The American Heart Association (AHA) cautions that every good intention has an unintended consequence. Though light to moderate alcohol intake (One or two drinks 3-4 times weekly for men, less for women) did appear to reduce rates of heart disease in some people studied, for others there were damaging effects.

The way that alcohol is broken down in the human body requires our systems to deal with a toxic, formaldehyde-like material. This toxin, acetaldehyde, decreases oxygen levels. It also depletes critical vitamins like Niacin and Thiamine and actually destroys the ability of brain cells to communicate.

Alcohol raises levels of triglycerides, another type of fat in the blood. Carbohydrates are found in wine, beer and spirits; high blood pressure and diabetes result from excess caloric intake. Alcohol consumption is associated with higher risks of suicide, liver damage, breast cancer and-no surprise-alcoholism. It is not possible to predict which drinkers will develop these problems, even among those who intend to drink only moderately. Therefore, the AHA recommendation is for non-drinkers not to start drinking as a good health measure.

Is red wine better than white wine or booze? This difficult question was made no less complicated by research that examined the size of the different antioxidants found in wine. It was demonstrated that although red wine has higher levels of protective antioxidants than did white wine, the protective compounds in white wine are smaller, more easily absorbed and may be more efficient. Still too clear? Add this mixer: beer also contains compounds that thin the blood and therefore may be protective as wine against clot formation.

If alcohol is potentially dangerous, shouldn't grape juice or extracts from wine be just as beneficial without the side effects? In a word, no. Alcohol, especially consumed on an empty stomach, increases the absorption of beneficial antioxidants. Though there may be helpful effects from consuming antioxidants from other sources, there does appear to be an effect specific to alcohol-containing drinks.

What Do I Do? As of 2005, there is no "one cask fits all" answer to this question. For light to moderate drinkers (for women, one drink daily or less), there isn't clear evidence to support recommending abstinence. For non-drinkers, there is significant evidence against starting to drink just for heart protective effects.

For heavy drinkers, medical recommendations are the most clear: whether the alcohol comes in a six-pack or a fancy bottle. eliminating or drastically reducing alcohol consumption is critical to preventing the cascade of physical, emotional and financial damage associated with heavy use. A sobering thought, indeed.


12 May, 2008

Eat like a caveman for a healthy heart -- but too bad about your bones

A "caveman diet" of berries, nuts, lean meat and fish could help reduce the risk of developing heart disease -- and increase the risk of osteoporosis

Scientists found that volunteers who ate the stone age fare for just three weeks had lowered blood pressure and a reduced risk of clots. They also lost an average of five pounds in weight.

Our early ancestors lived on a diet lacking in cereals, dairy products and refined sugar for centuries before farming developed and some scientists believe that the human body is still best suited to this kind of food.

Volunteers in the trial, run by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, were allowed to eat only foods from a prescribed list, which included fresh or frozen fruit, berries or vegetables, lean meat, unsalted fish, canned tomatoes, lemon or lime juice, spices and coffee or tea without milk or sugar, for three weeks. All dairy products were banned as well as beans, salt, peanuts, pasta or rice, sausages, alcohol, sugar and fruit juice. However, participants were allowed up to two potatoes a day. They were also given some dried fruit, cured meats and a portion of fatty meat as a weekly treat.

After three weeks, the 14 volunteers who completed the study had lost an average of five pounds, the findings, published in the current issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, show.

Systolic blood pressure, the higher of the two readings taken, had fallen by an average of just under 5 per cent, while levels of a clotting agent in the blood, which can cause heart attacks and strokes, dropped by 72 per cent.

Dr Per Wandell, who led the study, said that the research proved that even short term use of the diet had "favourable effects" on the major risk factors for heart disease. However, he warned that the lack of certain foodstuffs could have other impacts on overall health. "One negative effect was the decreased intake of calcium (from dairy goods)," he said, "which could be a risk factor for osteoporosis later in life."


Study Finds Having More Children Linked to Longer Life

Among the Amish, anyway

As studies continue to confirm the decreased lifespan of individuals engaging in homosexual relationships, a recent University of Maryland study indicated a link between larger families and longer lifespan. A 2006 study of Amish in Lancaster, PA found that men born between 1749 and 1912, who lived 50 or more years, averaged 0.23 more years of life per additional child. Women from the same period average 0.32 extra years of life per additional child, up to the 14th child.

"We conclude that high parity among men and later menopause among women may be markers for increased life span. Understanding the biological and/or social factors mediating these relationships may provide insights into mechanisms underlying successful aging," the researchers stated.

While the UM study shows the health benefits of the traditional large family, other recent studies have revealed the health dangers of non-traditional social relations. A recent study found that individuals taking part in legal same-sex "marriages" in Norway and Denmark lived 24 fewer years than individuals in traditional marriages, Drs. Paul and Kirk Cameron reported at the 2007 annual Eastern Psychological Association convention.

"Given the greatly reduced lifespan for homosexuals, school children should be strongly and consistently warned about the dangers of homosexuality even more so than smoking. Those school districts which are introducing pro-gay curricula need to rethink their priorities," argued Dr. Paul Cameron.

A study that appeared in the 1997 International Journal of Epidemiology found that homosexual lifestyle reduced life expectancy 8 to 20 years. Despite the findings of their own work, the research group distanced themselves from "homophobic" claims that the homosexual lifestyle is unhealthy or destructive.


11 May, 2008

Video games OK after all

This debate will go on forever. Elitist hatred of anything popular will ensure that

Boys who don't play videogames at all are at greater risk of getting into trouble than those who play violent games occasionally, according to two Harvard psychologists. The pair also said there was also no evidence to suggest violent games turn young people into criminals or violent people, despite some media reports.

"If you look at the violent crime in the US over the past 20 years among teenagers it's gone down, and gone down significantly, and if you look at videogame play, it's gone up," said Dr Lawrence Kutner and Dr Cheryl Olsen of Harvard Medical School in a recent interview. "The big concern that you hear the politicians and the pundits argue, that playing violent videogames will somehow turn your child into a criminal or a violent person, there's absolutely no evidence for that."

Dr Kutner and Dr Olson conducted a two-year study of 1250 children and 500 parents, funded by the US Department of Justice, to uncover links between games and children's behaviour. The pair found that while there was no direct link between games and violence, there was a correlation between adult-rated games and aggressive behaviour. Half of the boys who played adult-rated games had been in a fight in the past 12 months, compared to 28 per cent of boys who played games with a less mature rating. Among girls, 40 per cent who played adult-rated games had been in a fight recently compared to only 12 per cent of those who didn't.

However Dr Kutner and Dr Olsen said it was unclear if adult-rated games triggered aggressive behaviour, or if aggressive children were drawn to playing them. Dr Kutner and Dr Olsen said while it was normal for children to play games, there were certain "risk markers" that parents should watch out for that may indicate an increased chance of getting into trouble. "If you have, for example, a girl who plays 15 hours a week of exclusively violent videogames, I'd be very concerned because it's very unusual," Dr Kutner said. "But for boys (the danger sign) is not playing video games at all, because it looks like for this generation, videogames are a measure of social competence for boys."

In an interview with G4 TV's X-Play program, Dr Kutner said Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho had not played any games at college, according to his roommates. "That struck them as really odd, because everyone else did," he said. "That fell right into line with our research findings, that the kids who don't play (games) at all are actually at greater risk of getting into trouble."

Dr Kutner and Dr Olsen dismissed previous studies by "experimental psychologists" that attempted to measure links between games and aggression by using electric shocks and loud noises in laboratories. "There seems to be a core of experimental psychologists who've really grabbed the headlines on this topic," Dr Olsen told X-Play. "They tend to take college students in Psych 101 and they pay them a little bit or give them some course credit and they have them play a violent or a non-violent game for fifteen or twenty minutes. "Then they have them do something like blast an airhorn or give a little shock to someone they can't see in another room. "They try to say aggression in the real world is the same as aggression in the lab, where they're blasting an airhorn for a fraction of a second longer."

Dr Kutner and Dr Olson, who are married, are co-founders and directors of the Centre for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital. The results of their research into games and children's mental health were published last month in a book titled Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games.


The great organic myths: Why organic foods are an indulgence the world can't afford

They're not healthier or better for the environment - and they're packed with pesticides. In an age of climate change and shortages, these foods are an indugence the world can't afford, argues environmental expert Rob Johnston

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment

The study of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for the UK, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should concern anyone who buys organic. It shows that milk and dairy production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain.

Also, organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle - and methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Meat and poultry are the largest agricultural contributors to GHG emissions. LCA assessment counts the energy used to manufacture pesticide for growing cattle feed, but still shows that a kilo of organic beef releases 12 per cent more GHGs, causes twice as much nutrient pollution and more acid rain.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) relates food production to: energy required to manufacture artificial fertilisers and pesticides; fossil fuel burnt by farm equipment; nutrient pollution caused by nitrate and phosphate run-off into water courses; release of gases that cause acid rain; and the area of land farmed. A similar review by the University of Hohenheim, Germany, in 2000 reached the same conclusions (Hohenheim is a proponent of organic farming and quoted by the Soil Association).

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable

Organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertiliser production, but need more fossil fuel for ploughing. A hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one. Heated greenhouse tomatoes in Britain use up to 100 times more energy than those grown in fields in Africa. Organic yield is 75 per cent of conventional tomato crops but takes twice the energy - so the climate consequences of home-grown organic tomatoes exceed those of Kenyan imports.

Defra estimates organic tomato production in the UK releases almost three times the nutrient pollution and uses 25 per cent more water per kg of fruit than normal production. However, a kilogram of wheat takes 1,700 joules (J) of energy to produce, against 2,500J for the same amount of conventional wheat, although nutrient pollution is three times higher for organic.

Myth three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides

Food scares are always good news for the organic food industry. The Soil Association and other organic farming trade groups say conventional food must be unhealthy because farmers use pesticides. Actually, organic farmers also use pesticides. The difference is that "organic" pesticides are so dangerous that they have been "grandfathered" with current regulations and do not have to pass stringent modern safety tests.

For example, organic farmers can treat fungal diseases with copper solutions. Unlike modern, biodegradable, pesticides copper stays toxic in the soil for ever. The organic insecticide rotenone (in derris) is highly neurotoxic to humans - exposure can cause Parkinson's disease. But none of these "natural" chemicals is a reason not to buy organic food; nor are the man-made chemicals used in conventional farming.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

The proponents of organic food - particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon - say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for 50 years.

If there is a "cocktail effect" it would first show up in farmers, but they have among the lowest cancer rates of any group. Carcinogenic effects of pesticides could show up as stomach cancer, but stomach cancer rates have fallen faster than any other. Sixty years ago, all Britain's food was organic; we lived only until our early sixties, malnutrition and food poisoning were rife. Now, modern agriculture (including the careful use of well-tested chemicals) makes food cheap and safe and we live into our eighties.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier

To quote Hohenheim University: "No clear conclusions about the quality of organic food can be reached using the results of present literature and research results." What research there is does not support the claims made for organic food. Large studies in Holland, Denmark and Austria found the food-poisoning bacterium Campylobacter in 100 per cent of organic chicken flocks but only a third of conventional flocks; equal rates of contamination with Salmonella (despite many organic flocks being vaccinated against it); and 72 per cent of organic chickens infected with parasites.

This high level of infection among organic chickens could cross-contaminate non-organic chickens processed on the same production lines. Organic farmers boast that their animals are not routinely treated with antibiotics or (for example) worming medicines. But, as a result, organic animals suffer more diseases. In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against 4 per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often. Disease is the major reason why organic animals are only half the weight of conventionally reared animals - so organic farming is not necessarily a boon to animal welfare.

Myth six: Organic food contains more nutrients

The Soil Association points to a few small studies that demonstrate slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients in organic produce - flavonoids in organic tomatoes and omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk, for example. The easiest way to increase the concentration of nutrients in food is to leave it in an airing cupboard for a few days. Dehydrated foods contain much higher concentrations of carbohydrates and nutrients than whole foods. But, just as in humans, dehydration is often a sign of disease.

The study that found higher flavonoid levels in organic tomatoes revealed them to be the result of stress from lack of nitrogen - the plants stopped making flesh and made defensive chemicals (such as flavonoids) instead.

Myth seven: The demand for organic food is booming

Less than 1 per cent of the food sold in Britain is organic, but you would never guess it from the media. The Soil Association positions itself as a charity that promotes good farming practices. Modestly, on its website, it claims: "... in many ways the Soil Association can claim to be the first organisation to promote and practice sustainable development." But the Soil Association is also, in effect, a trade group - and very successful lobbying organisation.

Every year, news outlets report the Soil Association's annual claim of a big increase in the size of the organic market. For 2006 (the latest available figures) it boasted sales of 1.937bn pounds. Mintel (a retail consultantcy hired by the Soil Association) estimated only 1.5bn pounds in organic food sales for 2006. The more reliable TNS Worldpanel, (tracking actual purchases) found just o1bn of organics sold - from a total food sector of o104bn. Sixty years ago all our food was organic so demand has actually gone down by 99 per cent. Despite the "boom" in organics, the amount of land being farmed organically has been decreasing since its height in 2003. Although the area of land being converted to organic usage is scheduled to rise, more farmers are going back to conventional farming.

The Soil Association invariably claims that anyone who questions the value of organic farming works for chemical manufacturers and agribusiness or is in league with some shady right-wing US free-market lobby group. Which is ironic, considering that a number of British fascists were involved in the founding of the Soil Association and its journal was edited by one of Oswald Mosley's blackshirts until the late 1960s.

All Britain's food is safer than ever before, In a serious age, we should talk about the future seriously and not use food scares and misinformation as a tactic to increase sales.


10 May, 2008

Sleep and obesity: Some totally uninformative research

They admit that it enables no causative inferences

People who sleep fewer than six hours a night – or more than nine – are more likely to be obese, according to a new government study that is one of the largest to show a link between irregular sleep and big bellies. The study also linked light sleepers to higher smoking rates, less physical activity and more alcohol use.

The research adds weight to a stream of studies that have found obesity and other health problems in those who don't get proper shuteye, said Dr. Ron Kramer, a Colorado physician and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "The data is all coming together that short sleepers and long sleepers don't do so well," Kramer said.

The study released Wednesday is based on door-to-door surveys of 87,000 U.S. adults from 2004 through 2006 conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such surveys can't prove cause-effect relationships, so – for example – it's not clear if smoking causes sleeplessness or if sleeplessness prompts smoking, said Charlotte Schoenborn, the study's lead author. It also did not account for the influence of other factors, such as depression, which can contribute to heavy eating, smoking, sleeplessness and other problems.

Smoking was highest for people who got under six hours of sleep, with 31 percent saying they were current smokers. Those who got nine or more hours also were big puffers, with 26 percent smoking. The overall U.S. smoking rate is about 21 percent. For those in the study who sleep seven to eight hours, the rate was lower, at 18 percent. Results were similar, though a bit less dramatic, for obesity: About 33 percent of those who slept less than six hours were obese, and 26 percent for those who got nine or more. Normal sleepers were the thinnest group, with obesity at 22 percent. For alcohol use, those who slept the least were the biggest drinkers. However, alcohol use for those who slept seven to eight hours and those who slept nine hours or more was similar.

In another measure, nearly half of those who slept nine hours or more each night were physically inactive in their leisure time, which was worse even than the lightest sleepers and the proper sleepers. Many of those who sleep nine hours or more may have serious health problems that make exercise difficult.

Many elderly people are in the group who get the least sleep, which would help explain why physical activity rates are low. Those skimpy sleepers who are younger may still feel too tired to exercise, experts said.

Stress or psychological problems may explain what's going on with some of the lighter sleepers, experts said. Other studies have found inadequate sleep is tied to appetite-influencing hormone imbalances and a higher incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure, noted James Gangwisch, a respected Columbia University sleep researcher. "We're getting to the point that they may start recommending getting enough sleep as a standard approach to weight loss and the prevention of obesity," said Gangwisch, who was not involved in the study.


Ecstasy may be the best way to treat PTSD

At last the incurably traumatised may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And controversially, the key to taming their demons is the `killer' drug Ecstasy. Thalidomide is back in use so everything is possible

An Ecstasy tablet. That's what it took to make Donna Kilgore feel alive again - that and the doctor who prescribed it. As the pill began to take effect, she giggled for the first time in ages. She felt warm and fuzzy, as if she was floating. The anxiety melted away. Gradually, it all became clear: the guilt, the anger, the shame.

Before, she'd been frozen, unable to feel anything but fear for 10 years. Touching her own arms was, she says, "like touching a corpse". She was terrified, unable to respond to her loving husband or rock her baby to sleep. She couldn't drive over bridges for fear of dying, was by turns uncontrollably angry and paralysed with numbness. When she spoke, she heard her voice as if it were miles away; her head felt detached from her body. "It was like living in a movie but watching myself through the camera lens," she says. "I wasn't real."

Unknowingly, Donna, now 39, had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And she would become the first subject in a pioneering American research programme to test the effects of MDMA - otherwise known as the dancefloor drug Ecstasy - on PTSD sufferers.

Some doctors believe MDMA could be the key to solving previously untreatable deep-rooted traumas. For a hard core of PTSD cases, no amount of antidepressants or psychotherapy can rid them of the horror of systematic abuse or a bad near-death experience, and the slightest reminder triggers vivid flashbacks.

PTSD-specific psychotherapy has always been based on the idea that the sufferer must be guided back to the pivotal moment of that trauma - the crash, the battlefield, the moment of rape - and relive it before they can move on and begin to heal. But what if that trauma is insurmountable? What if a person is so horrified by their experience that even to think of revisiting it can bring on hysterics? After hysterics, the Home Office estimates that 11,000 clubbers take Ecstasy every weekend. Could MDMA - the illegal class-A rave drug, found in the system of Leah Betts when she died in 1995, and over 200 others since - really help? Dr Michael Mithoefer, the psychiatrist from South Carolina who struggled for years to get funding and permission for the study, believes so. Some regard his study - approved by the US government - as irresponsible, dangerous even. But Mithoefer's results tell a different story.

MDMA was patented in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck. To begin with, it was merely an intermediate chemical used in creating a drug to control bleeding. In the 1920s MDMA was used in studies on blood glucose as a substitute for adrenaline. The Merck chemist Max Oberlin concluded that it would be worth "keeping an eye on this field". Still, no further studies were carried out until 1952, when the chemist Dr Albert van Schoor tested the toxicity of MDMA on flies. "Flies lie in supine position, then death," he recorded.

MDMA's therapeutic potential wasn't realised until 1976, when the American chemist Alexander Shulgin tried it on himself. He noted that its effect, "an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones", could be ideal for psychotherapy, as it induced a state of openness and trust without hallucination or paranoia. It quickly became known as a wonder drug, and began to be used widely in couples therapy and for treating anxiety disorders. None of these tests was "empirical" in the scientific sense - no placebos, no follow-up testing - but anecdotally the results were almost entirely positive.

Word, and supplies, of the new "love drug" got out, and in the early 1980s it became popular in the fashionable clubs of Dallas, LA and London, where it was known as Ecstasy, X or "dolphins". As use became widespread, the US authorities panicked, and by 1985 MDMA was an illegal, schedule-1 drug. UK laws were even tighter: MDMA, illegal under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, was categorised class A in 1977, carrying a sentence of up to seven years for possession.

Criminalisation put paid to MDMA research almost overnight, at least until Mithoefer's current programme began. But it didn't stop the ravers. The drug was popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s for its energising, euphoric effects. There are no official figures for that period, but the Home Office estimates that in 2006/7, between 236,000 and 341,000 people took Ecstasy. Experts say the drug is far less fashionable now than in its heyday in 1988, the second so-called "summer of love".

The MDMA used in the studies - the drug Dr Mithoefer gave Donna and other patients - was the pure chemical compound, not the black-market Ecstasy bought by recreational users. "A lot of Ecstasy pills aren't MDMA at all," says Steve Rolles of the drug-policy reform group Transform. "They may be amphetamines, or unknown pharmaceuticals, or they can be cut with almost any drug in pill or powder form. That's when you magnify risks associated with taking a drug that's already toxic. Plus, people use it irresponsibly, mixing it with other drugs, not drinking enough water or drinking too much."

The images of Leah Betts and Lorna Spinks lying in hospital on life-support, bloodied and bloated, are familiar to all of us - we know drugs cost lives. But has MDMA's reputation been tarnished so badly that its potential medical value has been overshadowed? That question is the reason that Donna agreed to speak to The Sunday Times about her MDMA treatment. "It's so important people know what it did for me, what it could do for others," she says. Her voice trembles: it isn't easy to talk about what she went through.

In 1993, Donna was brutally raped. She was a single parent living in a small town in Alaska, working as a dental nurse for the Air Force. She was due to work an early shift the next day and her two-year-old daughter was staying with a friend for the night. She was alone at home. At midnight she opened the door to a stranger who said he was looking for his dog. He asked if her husband was at home, and a second's hesitation was enough. He burst in, backing her up against the fireplace in the living room. Donna picked up a poker to defend herself. He said: "If you co-operate, I won't kill you. I've got a gun." And he reached into his jacket....

Donna had never taken Ecstasy before. "I was a little afraid, but I was desperate. I had to have some kind of relief. I didn't want to live any more. This was no way to wake up every morning. So I met Dr Mithoefer. I said, `Doctor, I will do anything short of a lobotomy. I need to get better.' " That's how, in March 2004, Donna became the first of Mithoefer's subjects in the MDMA study. Lying on a futon, with Mithoefer on one side of her and his wife, Annie, a psychiatric nurse, on the other, talking softly to her, she swallowed the small white pill. It was her last hope.

"After 5 or 10 minutes, I started giggling and I said, `I don't think I got the placebo,"' she recalls. "It was a fuzzy, relaxing, on-a-different-plane feeling. Kind of floaty. It was an awakening." For the first time Donna faced her fears. "I saw myself standing on top of a mountain looking down. You know you've got to go down the mountain and up the other side to get better. But there's so much fog down there, you're afraid of going into it. You know what's down there and it's horrible.

"What MDMA did was clear the fog so I could see. Down there was guilt, anger, shame, fear. And it wasn't so bad. I thought, `I can do this. This fear is not going to kill me.' I remembered the rape from start to finish - those memories I had repressed so deeply." Encouraged by the Mithoefers, Donna expressed her overwhelming love for her family, how she felt protected by their support and grateful for their love. MDMA is well known for inducing these compassionate, "loved-up" feelings. For Donna, the experience was life-changing.

So what happened when she went home? Was she cured? She sighs. "I don't know if there's such a thing as a cure. But after the first session I got up the next day and went outside, and it was like walking into a crayon box - everything was clear and bright. I did better in my job, in my marriage, with my kids. I had a feeling I'd never had before - hope. I felt I could live instead of exist."

Mithoefer's study, which looks set to cost $1m by the time it finishes in four years' time, is scrupulously monitored. Doblin had 1,000g of MDMA made specially, each gram costing $4. Mithoefer had to obtain a licence from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which keeps track of exactly how much MDMA each licence-holder has, and periodically checks the stocks for purity. A defibrillator must be kept in the building at all times in case of cardiac arrest, and an emergency nurse must be present during the treatment session. Once the study is complete, it will be subject to peer review. Then, all being well, Mithoefer hopes to see MDMA therapy available on prescription, administered in controlled surroundings, in 5 to 10 years. ...


9 May, 2008

The alleged polypill miracle

There is absolutely no evidence for the longevity claims below and there have been some scathing criticisms of the leap of faith embodied in the claims. It is all a statistical extrapolation from dubious data. All the ingredients have negative as well as positive effects and the bottom line could be a SHORTENED lifespan. The "polymeal" proposal is based on similar logic and yet we know from longevity studies that diet and lifestyle changes have negligible effects on lifespan. Remember that hard-won bit of wisdom: "The miracle cure of today is often the iatrogenic disaster of the future"

A five-in-one polypill developed by British doctors could prevent 100,000 premature deaths from heart conditions every year. The inventors of the pill - which could be taken daily by everyone over 55 at a cost of about 7 pounds a week - claim it could prevent 80 per cent of heart attacks and strokes among those who use it.

The drug, which combines five individual treatments, has received the backing of Prof Roger Boyle, the Government's national director for heart disease and stroke, who has called for it to be prescribed on the NHS. Prof Nicholas Wald, the director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, said: "I am delighted we have reached this milestone. Now we want to get it out there so people can use it. "Our mission is to make this available to everyone over 55 at an affordable price. ''The founders of our group would like this pill to be available to everyone for about 1 pound a day."

The polypill has been in development for several years. Research published by Prof Wald in 2003 concluded: "The polypill strategy could largely prevent heart attacks and stroke if taken by everyone aged 55 and older and everyone with existing cardiovascular disease. ''It would be acceptably safe and, with widespread use, would have a greater impact on the prevention of disease in the western world than any other single intervention." The paper added that a third of people taking the drug would benefit, gaining an extra 11 years of life on average.

More than 130,000 people suffer a stroke in Britain every year, half of whom die. Heart attacks affect up to 230,000 people each year, claiming the lives of 30 per cent of them. Prof Boyle said the polypill ''would certainly have a big impact''. He added: ''We need to remember that one third of deaths are due to cardiovascular disease, despite substantial reductions over the past few years."

The polypill comprises a cholesterol-reducing statin, three types of medicine to lower blood pressure and a folic acid that reduces levels of an amino acid implicated in heart attacks and strokes. Clinical trials have established that the individual ingredients prevent heart attacks and strokes, so the combined pill would only require small-scale trials to ensure it behaves in the same way. The inventors can then apply for a licence in Britain, leading to the pill becoming available within two years. It will be made by Cipla, one of India's largest pharmaceutical companies.


"Healthy lifestyle" absurdities in Australia

READING policy documents can be a hard way to make a living. But sometimes you simply can't believe what you are reading. Last year the Labor Party released its GP super clinics policy, co-authored by Kevin Rudd and Nicola Roxon, which contained the following statement: "Preventative health care needs to be made more accessible to ordinary Australians struggling to find the time in their busy lives to look after their own health. We can't expect people to take better care of their health if we won't help provide the health services they need to make this a reality."

Not sure whether to laugh at the absurdity or be outraged by the patronising tone, I was intrigued to figure out how anybody could endorse such an extraordinary notion. Public health experts have argued since the 1970s that people make unhealthy choices out of ignorance and that governments, therefore, have a duty to tell them through public health education campaigns how to change their lifestyle to protect their health. For more than 30 years, Australian governments have told us to quit smoking, eat moderately and exercise regularly, most memorably through the "Life! Be In It" campaign. We have listened, up to a point at least, and the easy prevention work has now been accomplished.

Many middle-class people are converts to the wellness cult: they have stopped smoking, improved their diet and started to exercise. But many others, particularly those on lower incomes, prefer to live for the day and have ignored the healthy lifestyle message. Recent reports on public health policy in Britain and Australia found that despite decades of spending on prevention programs, levels of physical activity have not increased and obesity levels have shot up. Obesity-related chronic disease already puts pressure on the health system and it will accentuate the challenges we face as the population ages.

Prevention hasn't worked because however intensively the health lifestyle message is pushed, it comes down to individuals to have the will, self-discipline and impulse control to change longstanding behaviours that are often pleasurable. As international studies have found, the main reason anti-obesity initiatives have failed is that many people find it difficult to sustain lifestyle modifications for long periods.

But instead of acknowledging these limits to prevention, public health experts are going further, to justify even greater public health spending. Obesity has been redefined as an epidemic, as if victims passively contract it (infected, of course, by wicked and coercive fast-food advertising). As the victims of this epidemic are concentrated in lower-income groups, obesity has also been classified as health inequality, which makes it a social problem. The blame for it falls on "a catastrophic failure of governments to implement effective evidence-based action".

Even though governments took health experts' advice and spent millions on preventive education, it is now the government, rather than the individual, that the experts deem responsible for obesity, because it has not done enough to force people to drop their hamburgers and get off the couch. While this obviously ignores the role individuals play in continuing to make unhealthy lifestyle decisions, this argument has nevertheless managed to convince some politicians that governments must indeed take action to stem the epidemic.

Hence we have the truly remarkable, paternalistic policy endorsed by the Labor Party. The Government's policy documents acknowledge that public health campaigns had at least made most people aware of the lifestyle changes required to promote good health. But in Rudd and Roxon's view, what recent history - the failure to curb obesity - really demonstrates is how the system failed to provide help to turn knowledge into practice. So-called ordinary Australians therefore need Medicare-funded preventive health care, of course, because unless the government was prepared to help them, how could they be expected to take care of their own health.

The Labor Party has announced an initiative: a national network of super clinics to be located in lower-income communities. In a forerunner of the Prime Minister's one-stop shop childcare centres proposal, the Government's plan in health is to bring a range of allied health services under one roof, so super clinics can deliver what are ominously titled lifestyle interventions. The Government will pay teams of sleek middle-class health professionals to harass the bulging lower orders and help them eat food they don't like and get exercise they don't want to take.

Life! The Government Will Make You Be In It: this could be the slogan of the super clinics. But the Government can't make you be in it, and its policy is neither evidence-based nor effective. Unsurprisingly, studies show that even high-intensity lifestyle interventions have little impact, especially on long-term diet and exercise habits. Why, then, is the Government lumbering all of us with the cost of ineffective preventive care?

Cheered on by the experts, the Rudd Government is determined to unfurl a new range of preventive policies to try to contain the future cost of Medicare. Prevention's better than cure, as they say. But the evidence suggests the Government's policies won't work. It should let ordinary Australians be and help ordinary taxpayers instead. Millions of taxpayers' dollars are already wasted every year preaching the virtues of brown bread, wheatgrass juice and jogging to those who won't be converted.


8 May, 2008

Television stunts children's growth?

When will we hear the end of this nonsense? All that the study found was that working class mothers talk to their kids less when the kids are watching TV. Who knew? All the rest is speculation. There is also a line of thought that says that TV gives a high level of visual stimulation which helps brain development. Journal Abstract follows the media version below

Mothers who let their babies watch TV are stalling their development, potentially ruining their chances of success at school. New research has found that few mums talk to their babies while the tots watch TV, though the interaction is vital for long-term development and behaviour. The US study found almost 97 per cent of six-month-olds watch an average of two hours of TV a day. Just a third of under-twos were watching educational shows and half were watching programs not intended for young children.

Talk between parent and child occurred in less than a quarter of viewings. But when mums and babies sat down together to watch an educational show, almost two-thirds interacted. US Academy of Paediatrics guidelines suggest children should not watch TV before the age of two. Australian experts recognise that infants will watch some TV, but it should be limited.

Study author Dr Alan Mendelsohn, from the New York University School of Medicine, said: "Our conclusions are especially significant because parent-infant interactions have huge ramifications for early child development, as well as school advancement and success during adolescence."

Young Media Australia president Jane Roberts said Australian infants watched an average of 44 minutes of TV a day. But she said: "There is no show produced here, or imported, that is made for under 12 months old. At best, it's made for children from about 18 months." Ms Roberts said television did not meet any of the developmental needs of babies: "They need response and interaction, and you don't get that from TV." And it was not just the limited verbal interaction involved in viewing, but the lack of social and emotional interaction.

The study, published in the Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found interaction increased when the baby was a first-born and among mothers who regularly read to their child.


Infant Television and Video Exposure Associated With Limited Parent-Child Verbal Interactions in Low Socioeconomic Status Households

By Alan L. Mendelsohn et al.

Objective: To assess verbal interactions related to television and other electronic media exposure among mothers and 6 month-old-infants.

Design: Cross-sectional analysis of 154 mother-infant dyads participating in a long-term study related to early child development.

Setting: Urban public hospital.

Participants: Low socioeconomic status mothers of 6-month-old infants.

Main Exposure: Media exposure and content.

Main Outcome Measures: Mother-infant verbal interaction associated with media exposure and maternal coviewing.

Results: Of 154 low socioeconomic status mothers, 149 (96.8%) reported daily media exposure in their infants, with median exposure of 120 (interquartile range, 60-210) minutes in a 24-hour period. Among 426 program exposures, mother-infant interactions were reported during 101 (23.7%). Interactions were reported most frequently with educational young child-oriented media (42.8% of programs), compared with 21.3% of noneducational young child-oriented programs (adjusted odds ratio, 0.4; 95% confidence interval, 0.1-0.98) and 14.7% of school-age/teenage/adult-oriented programs (adjusted odds ratio, 0.2; 95% confidence interval, 0.1-0.3). Among coviewed programs with educational content, mothers reported interactions during 62.7% of exposures. Coviewing was not reported more frequently for educational young child-oriented programs.

Conclusions: We found limited verbal interactions during television exposure in infancy, with interactions reported for less than one-quarter of exposures. Although interactions were most commonly reported among programs with educational content that had been coviewed, programs with educational content were not more likely to be coviewed than were other programs. Our findings do not support development of infant-directed educational programming in the absence of strategies to increase coviewing and interactions.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(5):411-417.

Little limbs raise risk of Alzheimer's

Epidemiologists do have some shame after all. I rather expected this to be a claim that short arms CAUSE Alzheimer's

MEN and women with short arms and legs are more likely to develop Alzheimer's in later life, scientists claim. They believe every extra inch on a limb can help to protect against the disease. For women, every additional inch (2.5cm) of leg reduced the chances of developing any kind of dementia by 16 per cent and Alzheimer's by 22 per cent. For each extra inch of arm span, women were found to be about 10 per cent less likely to develop dementia. Those with the shortest arm span (less than 150cm between fingertips when arms were outstretched) were 1 1/2 times more likely to suffer mental decline. In men, each extra 2.5cm of arm span lowered the risk by 6 per cent.

The most likely explanation is poor nutrition in early life, which can affect the eventual length of limbs. The study was published yesterday in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, and involved 2798 men and women in the US with an average age of 72. The findings were consistent with other studies done in Korea, where shorter limb length was associated with greater risk of dementia.


Gregorian chanting 'can reduce blood pressure and stress'

This seems reasonable, even if the research is very preliminary

Stress levels could be reduced simply by participating in some Gregorian chanting, researchers claimed today. Dr Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, revealed that teaching people to control their breathing and applying the musical structure of chanting can help their emotional state. He said: "We have recently carried out research that demonstrates that the regular breathing and musical structure of chanting can have a significant and positive physiological impact."

The research involved five monks having their heart rate and blood pressure measured throughout a 24-hour period. Results showed their heart rate and blood pressure dipped to its lowest point in the day when they were chanting. Dr Watkins pointed to previous studies that also demonstrated such practices have been shown to lower blood pressure, increase performance hormone levels as well as reduce anxiety and depression. The lecturer also runs Cardiac Coherence Ltd, a company that helps executives perform under stressful conditions.

He said: "The control of the breathing, the feelings of wellbeing that communal singing bring, and the simplicity of the melodies, seem to have a powerful effect on reducing blood pressure and therefore stress." "We have found that teaching individuals to control their breathing, generate more positive emotional states and connect better with those around them - all key aspects of Gregorian chanting - can significantly improve their mental state, reduce tension, and increase their efficiency in the workplace."

Record company Universal recently chose the monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, Vienna to make an album after responding to a public interest in the genre. The company also believes the Halo computer game series, available on PCs and Xbox consoles, sparked a resurgence in the music traditionally sung in male church choirs, as Gregorian chant-like melodies form the main soundtrack of the games.


7 May, 2008

Pollution leads to baldness - research

Wotta lotta crap! Men living in polluted areas are probably different in many ways. Poorer, for a start. How do we know whether or not any of the other differences are to blame for the baldness? Perhaps being bald reduces your chances, makes you poorer and sends you to live in more polluted areas. It's all mere epidemiological speculation again

TO the follicly-challenged who've tried gels, drugs and even a transplant with little joy, the research will come as a breath of fresh air. A study suggests that men living in polluted areas are more likely to go bald than those who enjoy living in a cleaner atmosphere. The discovery raises the prospect that yet more treatments for the often confidence-sapping condition could be developed.

Academics at the University of London linked the onset of male-pattern baldness to environmental factors, such as air pollution and smoking. They believe toxins and carcinogens found in polluted air can stop hair growing by blocking mechanisms that produce the protein from which hair is made. Baldness is known to be hereditary, but research suggests environmental factors could exacerbate hair loss.

Male-pattern baldness, which affects two-thirds of men, usually develops gradually, typically starting with the appearance of a bald spot in the crown and thinning of the temples.

Mike Philpott, of the school of medicine at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "We think any pollutant that can get into the bloodstream or into the skin and into the hair follicle could cause some stress to it and impair the ability of the hair to make a fibre. There are a whole host of carcinogens and toxins that could trigger this." The study was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.


Breastfed kids 'smarter'

The authors below are right to mention social factors. Mothers who were singled out may have given their child more attention and that could have been the effective factor. This is only a first approximation to a control-group study

And note a rather pesky finding for the breastfeeding enthusiasts. A study found that breastfeeding is helpful in only some cases. And it does appear to be a very well-controlled study. The abstract is here. The authors do however rather overgeneralize the significance of their findings. The last sentence of their abstract is particularly silly. It is: "It also shows that genes may work via the environment to shape the IQ, helping to close the nature versus nurture debate". Nobody has ever questioned that IQ is a product of both genes and the environment -- but you do have to have the right genes to start with for an optimal result. The study would in fact appear to have identified one of the genes concerned

MOTHERS who breastfeed their children can expect them to grow up smarter than their formula-fed peers, say Canadian researchers in a study of lactation, released today. The study published in this month's issue of Archives of General Psychiatry found breastfeeding raises a child's IQ and improves his or her academic performance. "Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding makes kids smarter,'' said lead investigator Michaelo Kramer, of McGill University in Montreal.

His team followed 13,889 infants born between June 1996 and December 1997 at 31 Belarussian maternity hospitals and clinics for six-and-a-half years. Half of the mothers were encouraged to breastfeed exclusively and for a prolonged period, while the other half were not. The children's cognitive abilities were later assessed using IQ tests and based on their early grades at school. On average, the breastfed group scored better in all tests, and "significantly higher'' in both reading and writing.

Mr Kramer said, however, it is still unclear if the cognitive benefits of breastfeeding are due to the makeup of breast milk itself or the social and physical interactions between mother and child inherent in breastfeeding. In the study, he suggests the higher frequency and duration of breastfeeding compared to bottle-feeding results in increased verbal interaction between mother and child, which "might also have a stimulatory effect on cognitive development''.

Other studies, he also points out, have shown that a mother rat's grooming and licking of its pups has long-term behavioural effects on its offspring.


6 May, 2008

The unspoken truths about Aids

Epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani says political correctness over criticising sexual practices such as multiple partners in Africa has prevented us finding an effective strategy to fight HIV. Even she, however, is not game to mention the REALLY "incorrect" stuff -- that AIDS is so common in Africa because anal intercourse is so common between men and women there. To condemn that would be to condemn homosexuality and homosexuality is of course sacred

After researching HIV for over a decade, I know that we now have the information, the tools and the money required to eradicate Aids in most of the world. But we’re not doing it – and that makes me very angry.

To be fair, Britain has been a world leader in sensible HIV prevention. Under Margaret Thatcher, we were the first country to fund clean needles for drug injectors at a national level, and to make methadone widely available so that heroin addicts could stop injecting. The result: fewer than one in 75 drug injectors in Britain is infected with HIV, compared with one in two in Indonesia, for example.

For all its sensible policies, though, Britain won’t give out needles in prison. Yet two-thirds of all injectors in Britain have been to prison at some point; and nearly a quarter of all male injectors in prison say they’ve shot up while inside. Meanwhile, taxpayers fund needle-exchange programmes in prisons in other countries through the Department for International Development. But in Britain, the Home Office dictates what happens in prison, and denial rules.

I call it the Three Monkeys approach to HIV: we close our eyes to people injecting drugs, to people buying and selling sex, to people getting plastered and getting laid. We close our eyes, in short, to all the things that do the most to spread HIV. Yet we can’t close our eyes to the fact that nearly 60m people have been infected with a preventable, fatal disease. About 25m of those are already in their graves. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that two-thirds of people with HIV in the world are Africans. Yet few people ask why.

HIV is largely a sexually transmitted infection, so there must be something different about sex in Africa. Yet you can’t say that without appearing to be racist. So campaigners have come up with other reasons that HIV is worse in Africa: poverty, ignorance, men having more power than women. All politically correct, but not epidemiologically correct.

The truth is that a society in which many people have two or three partners on the go at any one time will produce a bigger epidemic than a society where people may have 10 partners in five years, but only one at a time. And it’s a fact that in parts of Africa, it’s more common for both men and women to have two or three simultaneous relationships than to have serial partners. Do people behave in this way because they are poor and ignorant? Not in Bangladesh, or Bolivia, or dozens of other countries where incomes and literacy are low. Indeed, in Africa, the incidence of HIV infection is highest in the richest households and the richest countries.

In east Africa, HIV spread first among people who had lots of partners – in other words, men and women who traded sex for money or favours. Had condom use in commercial sex been pushed to very high levels at the time – as happened in Thailand – the epidemic would have been contained. But most African leaders played Three Monkeys. So a miner infected a prostitute, who infected another client, who went home and infected his wife, who infected her regular boyfriend. Suddenly, HIV was everyone’s problem.

In Africa. Outside the continent, most people infected with HIV are men who have anal sex with other men, people who inject drugs and people who buy and sell sex, as well as their lovers. Indeed, it was these groups that first surfed into public consciousness. Early in the epidemic, the virus was treated as a sign of wickedness, a black mark for bad behaviour. But voters don’t care for the wicked; ergo, politicians don’t care for the wicked. Ergo, no money for HIV.

God knows, we needed it. When I started out in this business in the mid1990s, the world was spending just $250m a year on HIV in poor countries. Later, as African infection rates soared, HIV was repositioned as an affliction of the innocent. The cash started to roll in and, last year, the world spent $10 billion on HIV in poor countries. When the funding pie was small, HIV prevention meant doing helpful things for sex workers, gay men and drug injectors. Now that the pie has grown to 40 times its original size, and HIV has been painted as almost exclusively a matter of poverty, youth and “innocent victims”, everyone wants a bite.

The UN agencies were the first to jump on to the growing pile of funding, each finding a way to link the blood-borne virus to its own mandate. Other agencies dealing with children, development, economics, labour and agriculture all suddenly found that HIV was fundamental to their work. But the trail of funding hasn’t always taken them in the right direction.

It’s true, of course, that HIV has become a generalised problem in east and southern Africa, where, frankly, it is hard to know what to do about it except pray for better leaders. But what is true of those areas is simply not true for the rest of the world – where the “Aids is everyone’s problem” approach can do a lot of damage.

A couple of years ago, I received an e-mail from Save the Children UK, asking for a reference for someone who had applied to be their HIV adviser in Indonesia. I asked why they needed an HIV adviser when only one in 22,000 of that nation’s children suffer from HIV – and most infections are in adult men. The charity would have been better off working on routine health services, education, even sanitation, I suggested. But no, Save the Children would do HIV in Indonesia, come hell or high water, because it was a corporate priority.

I felt like sending them to see Lenny Sugiharto. Lenny had come to the HIV prevention group I worked with, looking for funding for an “information, education and communication” programme for transgender sex workers (waria) in Jakarta. Our information on HIV among waria was sorely out of date. So we did a study; and a week later, I went to the lab to pick up the colour-coded HIV test results – red for positive, blue for negative. The list was a quarter red. To the embarrassment of the lab staff, I wept. And when I told Lenny the results, she went as grey as her Muslim headscarf. Then she drew up a new proposal for prevention and care. If only the policy-makers of the world were more like this transgender sex worker. If only governments, UN agencies, even big nongovernmental organisations could relate the science to the reality and do the things that make the most difference. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.

Organisations raise money through appeals; and photos of orphans with big eyes set the registers ringing. Have you ever seen a flyer with a prostitute on it? Or a picture of a young guy about to inject himself? Even Irish pop star Bono, so gifted at whipping up moral outrage, can recognise a losing battle when he sees one. Bono’s Product (Red) campaign, which allows people to feel good about buying gadgets because a fraction of the profit goes to “fighting Aids”, is very careful about what it funds. So careful that it actually breaks the rules of the Global Fund on Aids, TB and malaria, to which it gives the “red pound”.

The fund was supposed to make it easier to pay for the difficult stuff – such as needle exchanges, or clinics for sex workers. In theory, all the money goes into a single pot. Poor countries put forward proposals, a panel of experts vets each request, then millions are dished out to the most deserving. Donors are not supposed to cherry-pick (“I’ll have the orphans, please; thanks, but no junkies”). Yet (Red) has ploughed more than $100m into the Global Fund – and every penny is earmarked for drugs to prevent pregnant women from passing HIV on to their babies, for treatment of the sick and for support for orphans.

In other words, (Red) has chosen the projects that consumers of iPods and Gap T-shirts can feel good about. Because nearly everyone feels good about treating sick people – but preventing them getting sick in the first place: well, that’s a lot more controversial.

In east and southern Africa, two decades of denial and mismanagement have allowed the HIV virus to hollow out whole countries. In the rest of the world, HIV continues to threaten men and women who inject drugs, buy sex or sell it, as well as men who have sex with one another. The lovers of those people are at risk, too. Together, they add up to tens of millions of souls – so we don’t want funding for HIV to evaporate. We just want to be able to use more of the money doing sensible things to prevent new infections.


Days numbered for peanut allergy

A FORM of immunotherapy that could get rid of a person's allergy to peanuts is likely within five years, according to a US expert. Peanut allergy often appears in the first three years of life, with the allergic reaction to eating peanuts ranging from a minor irritation to a life-threatening, whole-body allergic response called anaphylaxis. Many children grow out of allergies to milk or eggs. Only about 20 per cent lose a peanut allergy.

Dr Wesley Burks, a food allergy expert at Duke University Medical Centre in the United States wrote in The Lancet medical journal that a solution was on the horizon. "I think there's some type of immunotherapy that will be available in five years. And the reason I say that is that there are multiple types of studies that are ongoing now," Dr Burks said. Ideally, such a therapy would change a person's immune response to peanuts from an allergic one to a non-allergic one, he said.

One approach was using engineered peanut proteins. Other approaches showing promise include the use of Chinese herbal medicine. Genetic engineering might also produce an allergen-free peanut, Dr Burks said. But, he said, because several peanut proteins were involved in the allergic response, the process of altering enough peanut allergens would probably create something other than a peanut.

He said peanut allergy affects about 1 per cent of children under the age of five. He cited research showing the condition becoming more common - doubling among young children from 0.4 per cent in 1997 to 0.8 per cent in 2002 in one US study. It is unclear why it was more common, he said. One theory was the "hygiene hypothesis", which holds that too little exposure to infectious agents in early childhood raises susceptibility to allergic reactions.

Symptoms of peanut allergy include skin reactions such as hives, itching around the mouth and throat, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, wheezing and, in severe cases, anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency.


5 May, 2008

Legally enforced food correctness

No choice allowed. There are many reasons why raw milk might have advantages as well as disadvantages. Where I grew up there was a lot of raw milk consumed and when the kids in my class at school were tested for TB, we had all had it -- with no ill effects. It was probably the local milk that had immunized us as cows do carry bacilli of that type. There should be some allowance for people who wish to think for themselves

The agents arrived before dawn. They concealed the squad car and police van behind trees, and there, on the road that runs past Michael Schmidt’s farm in Durham, Ontario, they waited for the dairyman to make his move. A team from the Ministry of Natural Resources had been watching Schmidt for months, shadowing him on his weekly runs to Toronto. Two officers had even infiltrated the farmer’s inner circle, obtaining for themselves samples of his product. Lab tests confirmed their suspicions. It was raw milk. The unpasteurized stuff. Now the time had come to take him down.

Schmidt had risen that morning at 4 a.m. He milked his cows and ate breakfast. He loaded up a delivery, then fired up the bus. But as he reached the end of the driveway, two cars moved in to block his path. A police officer stepped into the road and raised his hand. Another ran to the bus and banged on the door. Others were close behind. Eventually twenty-four officers from five different agencies would search the farm. Many of them carried guns. “The farm basically flooded, from everywhere came these people,” Schmidt later told me in his lilting German accent. “It looked like the Russian army coming, all these men with earflap hats.”

The process of heating milk to kill bacteria has been common for nearly a century, and selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption is currently illegal in Canada and in half the U.S. states. Yet thousands of people in North America still seek raw milk. Some say milk in its natural state keeps them healthy; others just crave its taste. Schmidt operates one of the many black-market networks that supply these raw-milk enthusiasts.

Schmidt showed men in biohazard suits [In biohazard suits?? What jerks!] around his barn, both annoyed and amused by the absurdity of the situation. The government had known that he was producing raw milk for at least a dozen years, yet an officer was now informing him that they would be seizing all the “unpasteurized product” and shuttling it to the University of Guelph for testing.

In recent years, raids of this sort have not been unusual. In October 2006, Michigan officials destroyed a truckload of Richard Hebron’s unpasteurized dairy. The previous month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture shut down Carol Schmitmeyer’s farm for selling raw milk. Cincinnati cops also swooped in to stop Gary Oaks in March 2006 as he unloaded raw milk in the parking lot of a local church. When bewildered residents gathered around, an officer told them to step away from “the white liquid substance.” The previous September an undercover agent in Ohio asked Amish dairyman Arlie Stutzman for a jug of unpasteurized milk. Stutzman refused payment, but when the agent offered to leave a donation instead, the farmer said he could give whatever he thought was fair. Busted.

If the police actions against Schmidt and other farmers have been overzealous, they are nevertheless motivated by a real threat. The requirement for pasteurization—heating milk to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit for fifteen seconds—neutralizes such deadly bacteria as Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and salmonella. Between 1919, when only a third of the milk in Massachusetts was pasteurized, and 1939, when almost all of it was, the number of outbreaks of milk-borne disease fell by nearly 90 percent. Indeed, pasteurization is part of a much broader security cordon set up in the past century to protect people from germs. Although milk has a special place on the watch list (it’s not washable and comes out of apertures that sit just below the orifice of excretion), all foods are subject to scrutiny. The thing that makes our defense against raw milk so interesting, however, is the mounting evidence that these health measures also could be doing us great harm.

Over the past fifty years, people in developed countries began showing up in doctors’ offices with autoimmune disorders in far greater numbers. In many places, the rates of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease have doubled and even tripled. Almost half the people living in First World nations now suffer from allergies. It turns out that people who grow up on farms are much less likely to have these problems. Perhaps, scientists hypothesized, we’ve become too clean and aren’t being exposed to the bacteria we need to prime our immune systems.

What we pour over our cereal has become the physical analogue of this larger ideological struggle over microbial security. The very thing that makes raw milk dangerous, its dirtiness, may make people healthier, and pasteurization could be cleansing beneficial bacteria from milk. The recent wave of raw-milk busts comes at a time when new evidence is invigorating those who threaten to throw open our borders to bacterial incursion. Public-health officials are infuriated by the raw milkers’ sheer wrongheadedness and inability to correctly interpret the facts, and the raw milkers feel the same way about them. Milk as it emerges from the teat, it seems, is both panacea and poison.



I thought I might say a little more about my experience of raw milk. We got it from a local Danish guy named Augie Sorensen. Augie had a farmlet not far from us on which he ran dairy cattle. He used to supply unpasteurized milk (probably illegally) to quite a few Innisfail households -- including ours for a while. People would leave out a container and Augie would come along and fill it with very fresh milk.

The memorable thing about him however was his milk delivery vehicle -- a white horse-drawn cart that looked rather like a chariot. It did however have pneumatic tyres. The milk was stored under cover at the front of the cart and Augie stood up at the back to "drive".

I can still see Augie, tall and thin with his typically Scandinavian golden-brown skin and wearing his white pith helmet while standing up proudly in the back of his white cart guiding it along with his long reins. His big chestnut horse always used to have blinkers on -- probably needed if it was to be driven among motor vehicles.

My mother did not patronize Augie for long. She went back to bottled milk -- probably because of health concerns. But there is no doubt that Augie's milk tasted better. The authorities eventually caught up with him and closed him down though. Apparently his cows DID have TB or brucellosis in them. The fact that nobody came down with TB as a result of drinking Augie's milk did not matter to the bureaucrats at all, of course.

Super protein could ease treatment for cancer

AUSTRALIAN scientists have discovered a gene that could revolutionise the way cancers are treated and end aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Researchers have identified a super protein, called hSSB1, that cancer cells need to survive but that normal cells can function without. It is hoped the breakthrough will lead to the development of a new drug that targets the hSSB1 gene, destroying cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells intact, said co-author Liza Cubeddu, from the University of Sydney's School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences.

"Not only does chemotherapy kill off the cancerous cells, it also kills off healthy cells, leading to severe nausea, fatigue, hair loss and in some cases death," Dr Cubeddu said. "This drug could revolutionise how cancers are treated and potentially put an end to aggressive DNA-damaging chemotherapies and radiotherapy treatments."

The international study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, was based on the study of an ancient organism which lives in boiling sulphuric acid pools in Iceland by Derek Richard, from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

Known as archaea, these single- celled micro-organisms survive in one of the most extreme environments on Earth, relying on hSSB1 to protect and repair its DNA. Institute scientists found hSSB1 also exists in humans. "When we discovered this gene we thought it might be important for DNA repair and genome stability, but we were amazed by just how important it seems to be," said Professor Malcolm White, from the University of St Andrews in Britain.

The body's DNA suffers damage from environmental factors such as exposure to toxic chemicals and UV radiation, as well as genetic factors. "An average cell's DNA is damaged 30,000 times every day, and without hSSB1 these cells cannot repair their genes," Dr Richard said. "The next challenge is to find out how it signals that DNA is damaged, and determine if it plays a role in the development of cancer or in patients' responses to chemotherapy and radiotherapy." QIMR and drug discovery firm Cancer Therapeutics are working on a drug based on the findings.


4 May, 2008

"Healthy" food may not be so healthy

It is no surprise that children love junk food. Its makers go to great lengths to make sure that their offerings deliver a full-on, unsubtle assault on taste buds, with plenty of salt or sugar to create the sense that it is "tasty". But a significant proportion of our nation's children are worryingly chubby and heading for potential obesity problems in later life, it seems that others are suffering from "muesli belt malnutrition": the overzealous application of "healthy eating" rules imposed on their daily food intake. A recent study warns us that too much fibre and too little fat can lead to vitamin deficiencies and stunts growth in the under-fives.

This means that young children who have wholemeal bread, brown pasta and piles of fruit imposed on them are getting too full too quickly and do not have room for enough foods such as dairy products, meat, eggs and fish, which have vital nutrients for growth and development.

So how do we strike a balance? Children thrive on a good variety of foods, which includes grains and potatoes such as bread, pasta, noodles, rice and all varieties of potatoes; calcium-rich foods such as milk, yoghurt, fish canned with edible bones such as pilchards; protein-rich foods such as eggs, chicken and turkey, red meat and Quorn products; plus a variety of different fruit and vegetables. The million-dollar question is how much should they have of each at various ages.


Despite a promising beginning, the article then goes on to quote the standard unsubstantiated crap about what is healthy and what is not. There's only so much you can safely say in a newspaper

Blacklisted Bacon

Los Angeles food cops have blacklisted bacon. As a result, the city's law enforcement is on the lookout for the most notorious ring of pork pushers: food cart vendors who serve bacon-wrapped hot dogs. (The infraction is taken so seriously that one merchant even found herself behind bars for more than a month after a recent series of raids.) Threatening a $1,000 fine, six months in jail, and confiscation and disposal of a violator's food and equipment, the city's Health Department is determined to drive home the message that "bacon is a potentially hazardous food."

Like other nanny-state initiatives, the argument against bacon-wrapped offerings is a technicality at best. Grilling is the traditional way to prepare the classic bacon dog. But the county's Environmental Health Department only allows vendors to boil or steam hot dogs. As Reason TV noted, this trivial distinction leaves hot dog vendors "trapped between government regulations and consumer demand."

Over-the-top food bans in the name of "public health" are not foreign to L.A. officials. Last year, city lawmakers unveiled plans to "fight" obesity by prohibiting fast food restaurants from building new outlets. And before that campaign, bureaucrats pushed for trans fat bans.

Though these and other intrusive policies make city officials feel "tough on rinds," scientific evidence proves that this slap-the-hand-that-feeds-you approach actually accomplishes very little for the public good. These for-your-own-good policies also take a toll on our individual liberties. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that we should not take these little intrusions lightly:
It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones.
The bacon dog ban is a case in point.


A reader writes:

The issue is actually the fear that bacon will be stored or processed in an unsafe manner and turn into culture medium. I don't know if a standard cart has the ability to hold bacon outside the "danger zone" of 40øF -- 140øF.

For my own use, I don't worry too much about it -- I'm sure the process of frying it kills just about everything living on it, and as long as I don't do extreme violence to proper storage conditions, I've never had any problem.

New Jersey Lawmakers Consider Tax On Fast Food

The sputtering economy has caused an increase in prices of many staples including gasoline, rice, ice cream, even beer. Now some lawmakers in New Jersey are considering taking food taxes a step further and install a proverbial "sin" tax on fast food. Yes, the idea of marking up your favorite fast food burger or pack of fries is actually being tossed around, and it's not settling well with many residents. "They're taxing everything. Now you're gonna tax fast food? That's crazy," said Newark resident Miriam Robertson. Added Livingston resident Tina Abrahamian: "No one wants to be taxed. I mean, it's a necessity to eat and people need to eat and with everything skyrocketing, that's the last thing we want to tax."

The thought of taxing a Big Mac or a Wendy's burger came up at a New Jersey Hospital Association meeting where Gov. Jon S. Corzine was asked if it could be an option to help fund struggling hospitals. At the meeting, he reportedly called it a "constructive suggestion." A spokesperson for the governor, however, told CBS 2 on Wednesday: "The governor is open to reasonable solutions to help solve our financing problems, but there are no plans for any fast food tax."

State Sen. Richard Codey has been quoted as saying a tax on fast food "is a tax on the poor." And plenty of residents agree. "[It cost] $12.86 for [fries] and this little chicken wrap, and they want to tax that? You're serious?" asked Newark resident Saladine Fuller. "If they raise it, I'll stop buying it."

Still, some say taxing fast food isn't such a bad idea. "I think this country has gone too much in the direction of fast and unhealthy food, and if people are taxed they may terminate that and turn toward more healthy foods," said West Orange resident Maureen Felix. For now, the fast food tax is just an idea. Detroit lawmakers once toyed with it, but it never passed into law.


3 May, 2008

Eating 5 tomatoes a day 'offers sun protection'

The sample size was too small to enable generalizations

Eating five tomatoes a day could help protect against sunburn and premature ageing, research suggests. Experts at Manchester and Newcastle universities found that the fruit improved the skin's ability to protect itself against ultraviolet light. The researchers calculated that the protection offered was comparable to applying factor 1.3 sunscreen. Now they hope further research will establish whether eating tomatoes protects against more severe forms of sun damage, such as skin cancer.

"You don't have to eat an excessive amount of tomatoes to experience the effect if you are already eating a tomato-based diet with plenty of things like spaghetti and pizza toppings," said Prof Mark Birch-Machin, a dermatology scientist at Newcastle University. "Eating tomatoes is going to have this benefit in the sun, but it is still important to use conventional methods of protecting yourself against the sun such as sunscreens, shade and clothing."

Researchers studied the skin of 20 people, half of whom were given five tablespoons (55g) of standard tomato paste, the equivalent of five or six cooked tomatoes, with 10g of olive oil. The other half received just olive oil. The experiment was carried out over 12 weeks and the group was exposed to ultraviolet light at the beginning and the end of the trial. The results, presented to the British Society for Investigative Dermatology in Oxford, found that those who had eaten the paste had 33 per cent more protection against sunburn.

Ultraviolet light leads to excess production of harmful molecules called "reactive oxygen species", which can damage skin structures and eventually cause wrinkles and skin cancer. Tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene, which can neutralise these molecules. This red pigment is found in a number of fruit and vegetables, but is at its most concentrated in tomatoes. The tomatoes were cooked and made into a paste because the heating process frees up lycopene.

Analysis of skin samples from both groups also showed that the tomatoes had boosted the skin's procollagen levels, a molecule which gives skin its structure. Losing procollagen leads to the skin ageing and losing its elasticity. It was also found that the increased levels of lycopene reduced damage to mitochondrial DNA in the skin, which is also linked to ageing skin.


Physical activity, healthy eating and BMI not linked in older teens

Contrary to what many researchers expect, physically active older teens don't necessarily eat a healthier diet than their less-active contemporaries. And there appeared to be no link between body mass index (BMI) values and levels of physical activity, the research showed. The study of 900 Vancouver-area teenagers in Grades 10 through 12 was conducted by Dr. Catherine Sabiston, of McGill University, and P.R.E. Crocker, of the University of British Columbia (UBC). The results of their research - conducted in Vancouver while Dr. Sabiston was still a PhD student at UBC - were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health earlier this year.

Overall, said Sabiston, now an assistant professor in McGill's Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, boys reported participating in more physical activities but ate a less-healthy diet than did girls. Moreover - and contrary to established wisdom in the field -researchers found that people with "healthier" BMI values were no more likely to be physically active than those with higher, "unhealthier" values. Unexpectedly, it was the latter who were more likely to eat a healthier diet. "A lot of people are surprised," Dr. Sabiston said, "but when you think about it, BMI doesn't have a huge impact on physical activity. And in terms of diet, it actually makes sense that someone who is not happy with their body might try to eat more healthily."

According to Sabiston, who is also director of McGill's Health Behaviour and Emotion Lab, the results showed only a very weak correlation between physical activity and healthy eating, and virtually no correlation between an individual's BMI and his or her level of physical activity. The study was undertaken to test a comprehensive model of physical activity and healthy eating behaviour in teens aged 15 to 18, partially in response to two perceived problems with existing research in the field. "First of all, older adolescents are an unrepresented sample in research studies," Sabiston said. "Researchers have generally looked at youths or at university populations and have completely missed this unique, intermediate age group." Second, Sabiston said, many researchers have traditionally treated physical activity and healthy eating as separate phenomena, and have only rarely explored their similarities and differences simultaneously.

The study also found a significant difference in the way boys and girls approach physical activity and healthy diet. Boys, Sabiston said, need to attach value to a healthy diet and feel confident in their ability to follow a healthy diet before they'll actually do it. Girls, she said, regardless of how they feel about their ability to eat a healthy diet, only need to feel it is important to do so before they'll eat properly.

What this study really says, Sabiston explained, is that one cannot assume that someone who is physically active necessarily eats a healthy diet - or the reverse, that someone who is more sedentary or has a high BMI by definition eats a diet of junk food. "This study drives home the point that as a society, we're primarily focused on extrinsic things like appearance and weight versus the betterment of health," Sabiston said. "From a public health perspective, this means we should probably focus on people who are at a healthy weight or even underweight, and emphasize that healthy eating is not just about weight-change."


2 May, 2008

Smoking makes you depressed (?)

Cart before the horse! Depressed people smoke more. All the mentally ill do. It's a form of self-medication

SMOKERS are 41 per cent more likely to suffer from depression than those who have never taken a puff, according to new US research and a six-year study. Researchers from the University of Navarra and the University of Las Palmas De Gran Canaria in Spain, along with experts from Harvard University, have linked depression to tobacco use after completing a six-year study.

The results of the study, published in Spanish health journal Medicina Clinica, suggested that former smokers who had not had any tobacco in the last decade were the least likely to develop depression. "A significantly higher risk was found for smokers when they were compared to non smokers, whereas an inverse association was found for ex-smokers who had quit smoking more than 10 years ago," the researchers said. "This study supports an increased risk of depression associated to smoking."

Researcher Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez from the University of Navarra said many current smokers were diagnosed as having depression over the course of the study. "Over the course (of the study), 190 smokers who initially did not present depression were diagnosed with this disease by a doctor," Professor Martinez-Gonzalez said. "In addition, 65 who were not diagnosed indicated that they were taking anti-depressants during this period." The researchers also found that the more someone smoked tobacco, the less physically-active they were in their free time.


Regeneration advance

Lee Spievak, 69, severed half an inch from his fingertip after getting it caught in the propellor of a model plane. But over four months he watched as a perfectly-formed replacement grew from his stump, complete with tissue, nerves, nail, skin, and fingerprint. Doctors now hope that the treatment - using a powder called extra cellular matrix - could be used to repair severely burnt skin, or even damaged organs.

Mr Spievak, who works in a hobby shop in Ohio, was unable to find his severed fingertip and doctors told him he had lost it for good. His brother Alan, who works in the field of regenerative medicine, sent him the powder, which Mr Spievak calls 'pixie dust'. For ten days he put a little on the end of his finger, and says after just two applications the re-growth was already visible. He told BBC News: "Each day it was up further. Finally it closed up and was a finger. It took about four weeks before it was sealed." Now he says he has "complete feeling, complete movement."

The inventor of the powder, Dr Stephen Badylak from the University of Pittsburgh, has pioneered a process which involves scraping cells from the lining of a pig's bladder. The tissue is then "cleaned" of all cells in acid and dried out before being turned into sheets, or a powder. Scientists believe that when the extra cellular matrix is put on a wound, it stimulates cells in the tissue to grow rather than a scar.

Dr Badylak said: "I think that within ten years that we will have strategies that will re-grow the bones, and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones. And that is a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb." The US military is poised to start trials of the powder to regrow parts of the fingers of injured soldiers. Another trial in Buenos Aires will involve a woman who has cancer of the oesophagus.


Leftist bigotry in medical research

CONSIDER an academic scientist - we'll call him Louis - who receives funding from the beverage industry, the textile industry, and the livestock industry, and ultimately generates profound new scientific insights, beneficial both to the sponsoring companies and to the world as a whole. Are these accomplishments diminished because the work was industry funded? Should Louis - Pasteur - have an asterisk next to his name? That's the implication of a recent New York Times profile of three academic researchers from New England who have pledged to decline industry funding and "have lost their asterisks."

The notion that academic researchers who partner with industry are intrinsically tainted reflects a misunderstanding of the importance and quality of industry research, and the role industry plays in bringing new drugs to the patients who need them. While most of the original insights leading to new drugs and devices likely derive, at least in part, from the work of academic scientists, turning these preliminary advances into FDA-approved treatments required an exceptional investment by industry, and vital partnerships between academic investigators and company scientists.

The gaping distance between promising lab result and approved drug is apparent to anyone who has tried to reconcile the breathless news reports touting "scientific breakthrough" with the paucity of options available for patients suffering from any number of devastating medical conditions. In the last 10 years, for example, there have been more then 7,000 academic papers published on pancreatic cancer, but not a single breakthrough treatment.

The primary reason for this gap: The human body is complicated, and our understanding limited. In many cases, we are still struggling to figure out the molecular basis for important diseases. In other conditions, even when the cause is clear, designing a drug capable of selectively correcting the defect while not causing new problems, is a monumental challenge. To overcome these hurdles, there is a need for more, not less, interaction between academic physician scientists and their counterparts in industry, engagement that should occur at every stage of the drug development process.

Our own experiences with difficult science and sick patients has convinced us that the battle is not drug companies vs. academics, but rather between dreadful diseases and the medical researchers who are trying to subdue them.

Unfortunately, industry critics often lose sight of the big picture, and routinely stigmatize pharmaceutical researchers and their academic collaborators. Young academic investigators are often counseled against "selling out" and pursuing a career in pharmaceutical research, despite the exciting drug-development opportunities such a choice might afford. Senior university researchers who might contribute considerable wisdom to drug discovery efforts are reviled in the press if they associate with industry in any way, even though these relationships are vital for the creation of new medicines.

Finally, of course, there is the money. Because pharmaceutical companies are for-profit entities, conventional wisdom holds that any data they publish should be suspect. In fact, pharmaceutical research is tightly regulated, and industry-sponsored clinical studies are typically performed in a rigorous, consistent, and transparent fashion that would be the envy of many academics. To the extent some industry studies fall short, the problem generally lies not in the results obtained, but rather in the questions never asked - a critique that applies at least as well to the pharma-bashing studies now so popular in certain medical journals.

Also puzzling is the suggestion that it is improper for drug companies to solicit the perspective of academic experts, and immoral (or at least asterisk-worthy) for experts to accept financial compensation for their time. Expert insight may accelerate the delivery of new treatments to patients, and it seems disrespectful to suggest this time should not be valued.

Still, although the relationship between universities and industry should be broadened, useful and transparent guidelines must be developed to get this relationship right. Ultimately, these interactions must be defined, protected and enhanced if the medical community is to deliver on its commitment to secure the health and well-being of patients.


1 May, 2008

Are dogs a vaccine against allergies?

The study reported below looks pretty sound but it is a typical example of how medical research tends to be conducted in its own little bubble without reference to other evidence on the question examined. There could, for instance, be no group that disconfirms the "dirty environment" hypothesis more strikingly than Australian Aborigines. They commonly live in appallingly dirty environments that shock outsiders and they also live in VERY close contact with dogs.

So what is their incidence of autoimmune diseases? Is it low? Far from it. We read, for instance: "Contrary to popular belief, Indigenous Australians are more likely to have asthma than non-Indigenous Australians. This difference exists across all age groups but it is most pronounced in older adults, especially women aged over 35 in whom the prevalence for Indigenous Australians is double that for non-Indigenous Australians". Beat that! Another great theory stubs its toe on pesky facts

Children run less risk of being sensitive to allergens if there is a dog in the house in the early years of their lives, scientists have found. The conclusion, based on a six-year study of 9,000 children, adds weight to the theory that growing up with a pet trains the immune system to be less sensitive to potential triggers for allergies such as asthma, eczema and hay fever.

The "hygiene theory" of allergy holds that modern life has simply become too clean, meaning that babies' immune systems are not exposed to enough germs to develop normally.

Having a dog provides enough dirt of the right kind, the new German study suggests. But it may be important that baby meets dog early enough to affect the immune system as it develops. "Our results show clearly that the presence of a dog in the home during subjects' infancy is associated with a significantly low level of sensitisation to pollens and inhaled allergens," said Joachim Heinrich of the National Research Centre for Environmental Health in Munich. The same protective effect was not seen in children who had frequent contact with dogs but none at home.

Previous studies have suggested that exposure to pets may have a protective effect against allergies but many of these studies were based on retrospective questioning of subjects about their exposure. The new study did not require anybody to remember anything. The children were followed from birth to the age of six. This is likely to make for more reliable results.

In the European Respiratory Journal, Professor Heinrich and colleagues say that the blood of children raised in households with dogs contained fewer markers for allergy, such as antibodies to pollen, house dust mites, cat and dog dander, and mould spores. But actual experience was rather less encouraging. Those children raised alongside a dog were no less likely to develop asthma or other allergies than were the other children. So while their blood samples suggested they were not susceptible, their experience suggested they were. "It is not crystal clear why this is so," Professor Heinrich said. He hopes that the protective effect may show up later in life and is continuing to follow the children's progress. Further assessments will be made when they reach the age of 10.

In the meantime, he does not recommend that parents get a puppy. "Until we understand the mechanisms underlying this protective effect from dogs, we will not be able to draw any further conclusions or make any recommendations," Dr Heinrich said.

Doctors who specialise in allergy have found advising parents difficult. Where children already have allergies, cats and dogs tend to make them worse by exposing them to allergens from the pets' coats. But more recent evidence has tended to show that early exposure to cats, dogs, and to farm animals is neutral or even protective. Children raised on farms appear to be protected against all sorts of allergens, not just those produced by farm animals.

Other studies similar in design to Professor Heinrich's have produced equivocal findings. Some suggest early exposure to cats increases the risk, others that it diminishes it. Yet others find no effect one way or the other. But one study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2002 found that asthma symptoms were reduced in homes that owned a dog, and probably also in those that owned a cat.

Dr Guy Marks, of the Institute for Respiratory Medicine in New South Wales, concluded in 2002 that parents should neither be advised to rid their homes of pets, nor acquire them as a prevention against asthma. Further research was needed, he concluded.


Sun lamps help unborn babies beat osteoporosis?

This is epidemiology again but it has a reasonable basis in theory. What else characterizes women who give birth at the most favourable time should be investigated, however

Women due to give birth in winter should use a sun lamp during the final three months of pregnancy to protect their child from osteoporosis in later life, doctors have suggested. They made their recommendation as research found that children born to mothers whose final three months of pregnancy included a summer month were 40% less likely to suffer the bone-wasting condition in adult-hood. A mother's exposure to sunlight in that final period ensures the developing baby receives enough vitamin D to form strong bones.

Doctors suggest that women whose last trimester of pregnancy does not fall between May and September should consider taking a holiday in the Mediterranean. As flying is not advised in the late stages of pregnancy, however, they suggest that women may need to settle for a sun lamp or vitamin D supplements.

Dr Marwan Bukhari, a consultant rheumatologist at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and author of the study presented to the British Society for Rheumatology, said: "You only get good sunlight [when you make vitamin D] between May and September in this country. Pregnant women should have vitamin D supplements or should have lots of good sunshine in somewhere like north Africa or the southern Mediterranean [in winter]." Bukhari added: "Sun lamps are an option. It needs to be the right kind of sun lamp to convert fat under the skin to vitamin D." The doctors are not recommending sunbeds, which give a far higher dose of ultraviolet light than lamps.

Bukhari and colleagues studied 17,000 patients, mostly women and 95% of whom were white. They had all had scans carried out at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary between 1992 and 2004. They found that patients under 50 were 40% less likely to have developed osteoporosis if their mother's last trimester of pregnancy included a summer month. Older patients were 20%-40% less likely to have osteoporosis if their mothers' late stages of pregnancy were in the summer.

The study will revive the debate over whether excessive caution about exposure to sunshine is creating other health problems. Michael Holick, professor of medicine at Boston University in America, said a lack of vitamin D, caused by overzealous avoidance of the sun, was leading to thousands of unnecessary cancer deaths each year and increasing vulnerability to rickets. Bukhari said: "You could get skin cancer from a sun lamp but not if you use a judicious amount. An hour a month will not give you skin cancer."