Archive | November 2013

A Deadly Disease Gets Even Deadlier

We know AIDS is deadly. Thirty-five million people have died from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome since scientists discovered it in 1981. Just as many people now have HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus. That’s the virus that causes AIDS.

Now there’s an even deadlier version of the virus, known as HIV A3/O2. The recently discovered strain is a cross between two versions common in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. A new study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases reports that the new strain is almost 3 times as likely to lead to AIDS and AIDS-related death as version A3.

The progression to AIDS also appears to occur faster with HIV A3/O2—between 5 and 8 years. The times ranges for the two “parent” strains are about 6 to 9 years and 7 to 11 years.

“Recombinants seem to be more vigorous and more aggressive than the strains from which they developed,” lead study author Angelica Palm notes in the press release announcing the study. She’s a doctoral student at Lund University.

The strain has not yet reached the United States. Nonetheless, global travel and other factors suggest it won’t just stay in West Africa.

The development of a more deadly strain is not necessarily a surprise. Viruses mutate by nature.

Nonetheless, the new discovery is a wake-up call. The world needs effective HIV vaccines now more than ever. While we’ve made enormous strides since 1981, the fight is far from over.

World AIDS Day is December 1. Despite all the din about holiday shopping, take time out to remember the people who have been affected by HIV. Refresh your knowledge with the latest facts about HIV and AIDS. Then Act Aware and spread the word.

HIV and AIDS won’t go away by themselves. The more we all get involved, the stronger the world’s chances are of dealing with the disease.


Step Right Up–Or Don’t

One of the most awful things about grade school was the yearly weight check. Teachers would line us up in long rows in the corridors. Then one by one we’d have to stand on a big balance scale in front of the school nurse. There was no privacy curtain, so other kids could see where you’d tip the scales. Even if the precise number didn’t get around, there would still be snide remarks to me and the other kids who weren’t stick-skinny.scale

There was no follow-up support, counseling, or nutrition advice. There wasn’t even any new knowledge imparted. We could all step on scales at home and read the numbers. Nope—it was just a yearly weigh-in with a heavy dose of embarrassment. It was enough to make you want to go for some ice cream or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Now Enrique C. Morales Villegas is calling for mandatory measuring of the body mass index and other measures for all Mexican teens at age 18. Additional screening would occur every three years after that. Morales Villegas is Director of the Cardiometabolic Research Centre in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The announcement comes as part of the 2013 Mexican Congress of Cardiology.

“I have proposed to the Mexican government that 18 year-olds should have obligatory measurements of glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index (BMI), with repeat assessment every three years. Screening could be done in schools, shopping centres and other public places and if an abnormality is found a strategy should be in place to treat it. This would be easy and inexpensive and I am waiting for the government’s response,” said the doctor.

The good thing is that the doctor wants to reduce cardiovascular disease problems in Mexico. Cardiovascular disease is indeed a serious health problem. And the doctor wants a strategy in place to treat any problems that screening finds.

The bad news is that he’s proposing to do it in a way that interferes with people’s privacy. Yes, knowing these things is good for your health. But I wouldn’t want Big Brother forcing me to step on a scale and get a height check so the government knows how to get access to my BMI.

Similar arguments came forward when various American school districts pushed through mandatory student drug testing for teens in extracurricular activities. A divided Supreme Court held this was constitutional in the 2002 case of Board of Education v. Earls. Nonetheless, the fact that something may be constitutional doesn’t make it a good idea.

Advocating for good health is a good thing. But people’s right to privacy is a good thing too. Let’s not destroy one for the sake of the other.

We Can’t Wait

Sometimes you have to go to the toilet—and you just can’t wait! We all know that feeling, and it’s awful. But at least we’ve got a toilet to go to.toilet

Right now, 2.5 billion people do not have clean toilet facilities. That’s one out of every three people on planet Earth. And that’s unacceptable.

Many of the 4 billion annual cases of diarrhea are a direct result of inadequate sanitation, reports UNICEF. Diarrhea can be deadly. Every year, it kills about 1.8 million people—90 percent of whom are children under five years old. Other diseases linked to poor sanitation include cholera, typhoid, polio, schistosomiasis, hepatitis and more.

The good news is that we can solve this problem. As Sally Edwards, a program officer for the Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization, told me:

The technology exists to provide water and sanitation to all.  The materials exist.  This is not a problem that we do not have the answers to.  What is lacking is commitment and financial resources.”

Today, World Toilet Day, is the day to make that commitment. Here are three simple things you do:

  1. Visit the official website for World Toilet Day to learn more about the problem.
  2. Spread the word. Tweet at  #WeCantWait or post a link on Facebook or other media.
  3. Give to or UNICEF to help get simple, sustainable sanitation to people who need it.

Both and UNICEF work worldwide. Many projects are microfinance projects, meaning the money you donate can fund loans for projects. When they get paid back, the money can fund more projects.

All three steps take less than 15 minutes, so please, do them now. If everyone who can help does something, we can save lives and make a difference for billions of people.

After all, as the slogan for World Toilet Day says, “We can’t wait.”

Meat Mummies

Hot dogs are always a big hit with baseball fans. Getting a good deal is even better. In 2013, the Cleveland Indians increased the number of Dollar Dog Days by 66 percent over 2012’s schedule. Fans responded, and Terry Francona was named American League Manager of the Year.

Coincidence? I think not.

Ancient Egyptians also had a passion for preserved meat—to the point of making meat mummies. Normal folk would’t get them, of course. Nonetheless, meat mummies were part of the afterlife pantry supplies for pharoahs or others who could afford the pricy mummification process.

What was in those meat mummies? There’s no Nutrition Facts label like you’d find on a package of hot dogs like those served at baseball games or barbecues. Nonetheless, scientists at the University of Bristol and American University in Cairo have completed a chemical analysis of a few tombs’ meaty tidbits. Their report appears in this week’s early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our findings show that the Ancient Egyptians prepared the food offerings they made to their dead using preservation techniques at least as exotic as those used in embalming human and animal mummies,” write authors Katherine A. Clark, Salima Ikram, and Richard Evershed.

DSCN2981Mummified meats were pretty upscale, too. The scientists analyzed beef ribs, calf victuals and duck. Another meat mummy is believed to have been goat. “”The poultry looks like you’ve just gone to Safeway and bought a roast bird,” Ikram told NBC News. “And they’re almost 4,000 years old.”

I wonder how hot dogs would stand up to the test of time. Probably not as well as Twinkies, I’d guess.

Turtles, Pelicans, and More–Oh, My!

Chantal Audran with Delta Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Chantal Audran with Delta
Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski


There’s no such thing as a “typical” day at the office for Chantal Audran and Beth Palmer. One minute they’re wrangling a young loggerhead for a photo op. Less than an hour later, they’re chasing an injured pelican so they can get it to a vet.

Audran and Chantal both work at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center on—you guessed it—Tybee Island, Georgia. The center is small compared to many other science centers and aquariums. But the organization’s hands-on science more than makes up for it.

“Our mission is to cultivate responsible stewardship of coastal Georgia’s natural resources through education, conservation, and research,” says Palmer, Program Director for the center. Exhibits highlight various species that live in and around the coast. The center also offers guided marsh and beach walks that let visitors see wildlife up close and personal in their natural habitat. Other programs include counting and monitoring turtle nests along the island’s sandy beaches.

So, what about that turtle wrangling? Delta is a 1-1/2 year old loggerhead turtle. She’s been living at the center and is just about to be released into the ocean to join other “teenage” turtles. While Delta is nowhere near her adult weight of 250 pounds, she’s still pretty hefty.

After several tries, Audran managed to grab Delta from behind and carry her to a table in the center’s work room. She and Palmer took several measurements. They also shot photos to go with the press release that will go out when Delta is officially released next week.

Visitors to the center can still see a loggerhead. Ike hatched on August 28, and he’ll be happily swimming around at the center until he too is old enough to be released. (Thanks to the local IKEA for sponsoring Ike!)

And the pelican? My husband and I had passed it on our walk to the center, and I wondered why it was just sitting there on the beach, letting me snap about a dozen photos of it. We wondered it if might be injured, or just resting, or something else.

Anyway, I asked Audran about it while we were at the center. And as we walked back along the beach, she and Palmer were already on the scene with a large plastic carryall and a couple of wet towels.

Chasing an injured pelican is a lot harder than you’d think it should be. And an injured pelican does not particularly want to be caught. This one snapped its beak a lot.

Beth Palmer and Chantal Audran try to help an injured pelican. Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Beth Palmer and Chantal Audran try to help an injured pelican.
Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

After several tosses with the wet towel, the bird was weighted down. Then Palmer and Audran gently pushed the bird into the carryall and closed the lid. Holes in the lid would let the pelican breathe until they got it to a vet.

“It looks like her wing is broken,” Audran told me. “That’s the worst thing.”

“Injured wings are very serious for birds as they will be limited on finding food and avoiding predators,” Palmer explained. “The severity and recovery of the injury will determine if the bird will be fit for release back into the wild.”

Thanks to Palmer and Audran, this pelican is getting some help. Let’s hope it has a happy ending.

Avoid the Blame Game

Do you have your mother’s eyes or your father’s chin? Sometimes it’s obvious where inherited traits come from. For others, a new technique promises to let scientists see whether particular parts of DNA come from mom or dad.

The new sequencing method, called HaploSeq, comes from Bing Ren and other scientists at the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine. They and others hope HaploSeq can help solve mysteries behind a multitude of diseases. That’s a good thing.

What would be bad is if people start using the information in the wrong way. It’s awful enough to think of any child getting sick with a serious disease. It would be worse if parents start blaming each other about who passed along the guilty gene sequence.

This doesn’t mean the research shouldn’t proceed. The more we learn about inheritable diseases, the better the chances are that we can develop treatments or prevent them.

Nonetheless, the development underscores the ongoing need to weigh the ethical consequences of scientific research. It’s not enough to figure out whether certain genes came from mom or dad. Ideally, we’ll find a way to use that information to help whoever has those genes. And we’ll also help mom and dad—and the rest of the family—deal with the news in a way that helps everyone find a healthier, happier outcome.