Stories tagged public health

Apr
01
2009

You're charging me how much?: Even big shots like Bogart are taking note of the large increase in cigarette taxes that are going into effect today.
You're charging me how much?: Even big shots like Bogart are taking note of the large increase in cigarette taxes that are going into effect today.Courtesy Yousuf Karsh / Library and Archives Canada
What do you get when taxes on a pack of cigarettes jump 250 percent? Lots of calls to smoking cessation programs.

Today, the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes jumps from 39 cents a pack to $1.01 The national average price for a pack of cigarettes prior to the tax hike was $5.

In the past, a 10 percent hike in cigarette tax translated into a four-percent increase in people quitting smoking. Health experts expect those numbers to climb even higher with today’s hefty tax hike. One number being tossed around is a nine-percent decline in smoking with the new tax.

Prior to the tax hike, public consumption of cigarettes had been dropping about three percent per year. That drop, experts point out, includes people who outright quit and those who cut back on their smoking.

Smoking cessation hotlines have seen a huge spike in business in recent days. An Omaha office has seen its call traffic go up 50 percent this week. An office in Michigan has seen its annual budget already dry up after having fielded three times as many calls this year as it had in all of 2008.

There’s an interesting political twist to this cigarette tax increase, whose new revenue will be used to fund a national children’s health insurance program. Congress approved the tax increase last year, but President George W. Bush vetoed the bill. President Barack Obama, who has struggled to stop smoking himself, signed a new version of the bill shortly after taking office this year.

What do you think of these causes and effects on a cigarette tax? Is a “sin tax” like this a good way to drive public health policy reform? Or this an abuse of government power interfering with people’s private lives? Share your viewpoint here with other Science Buzz readers.

Mar
16
2009

His eyes and nipples are killing mosquitoes: But his robo brain is targeted on humans alone.
His eyes and nipples are killing mosquitoes: But his robo brain is targeted on humans alone.Courtesy TheAlieness GiselaGiardino23
If you’re like me, y’all probably woke up this morning thinking, “I wonder if the end of the world will come with a zombie apocalypse, or a laser-armed, ‘screw you dad, you’re not the boss of me’-style robot rebellion?” It’s a valid question, and the answer could be a major factor in how your week plays out. (Happy Monday, by the way. Way to go on another weekend.)

But, you know what? Zombie apocalypse or robot uprising… who says it can’t be both? Check out The Wall Street journal—it seems to me that well-intended malaria research is making each option a likely future (i.e. inevitable).

All sorts of scientists are getting terribly clever ideas about eliminating mosquitoes (and therefore malaria) these days. The Gates Foundation (among other organizations) has mosquitoes on the brain, and there plenty of money out there for anti-malaria research. And, in the tradition of Bill Gates himself, some of the projects are looking pretty smart, and kind of crazy.

Because the WSJ article only mentions it in passing, I’ll get the zombie apocalypse thing out of the way now. One of the many projects being funded by the Gates Foundation is the brainchild of a Japanese scientist who hopes to turn mosquitoes into “flying syringes.” That horrifying mental image aside, the idea is that mosquitoes could be engineered to deliver vaccinations to their hosts with every bite. It’s a nice idea… but come on! Hasn’t he ever played a video game? Let’s get real here. According to well-accepted science fiction, that sort of project always results in a zombie plague. Zombies, of course, can’t get measles, so the project would technically by a success, but I’m not prepared to get behind that one quite yet.

Now the robot/laser thing… that’s where the thrust of the article is. Apparently there are some astrophysicists out there with time in their hands, and they’re dragging the concept of the flyswatter kicking and screaming into this new century. The flyswatter of the future is similar in concept to the flyswatter of the past (also known as “the flyswatter”), in that they both are useful for killing flying insects. They differ in that the flyswatter of the past is a cheap, hand-operated device, capable of both killing a bug a couple feet away from you, as well as occupying the attention of a 7-year-old for an entire summer afternoon. The flyswatter of the future, on the other hand, is a high-power laser-based, computer-operated weapon, capable of both eliminating millions of mosquitoes within a hundred feet of the device, as well as ending civilization as we know it.

The device is a lot like the ill-fated “Star Wars” laser-based missile defense system tossed around in the 80s. And that makes sense, because the whole thing was thought up by one of the brains behind the “Star Wars” system.

The mosquito zapper works by having a computer visually recognize mosquitoes from a distance, and then instantly blasting them with a laser beam. The laser isn’t powerful enough to hurt a human, but it can turn a mosquito into a smoking husk in a fraction of a second. The computer can even tell the difference between male and female mosquitoes based on their wing beats. It’s an important distinction, because it’s only female mosquitoes that drink blood and transfer disease (whereas males just drink plant nectar).

The prototype that Star Wars-guy’s team is working on is made of parts they were able to find on ebay—a 35mm camera zoom lens, a Dell PC, a few flashlights, a little box of mirrors and lasers, and a 10-gallon aquarium full of mosquitoes. The system was able to bullseye the bugs from about 100 feet away.

Aside from the so far overlooked ethical issue of putting a laser in the hands of a robot (figuratively), the project still has a long ways to go in its development. It currently relies on a reflective screen behind the mosquito tank (the flashlights create a silhouette of each mosquito on the screen, and it’s this figure that the computer recognizes), and, to my knowledge, the areas of the planet affected by malaria are somewhat larger than a 10-gallon aquarium. It still doesn’t quite match up to the low-tech reliability of a mosquito net, either.

The scientists envision a final version of the machine being used to create an invisible wall around a village to keep out mosquitoes, or being mounted on a drone aircraft, which could bring death from above for billions of the bugs. And, naturally, it could shoot hot little lasers at the tops of our heads. (Which I would hate.)

Aside from making the device harmless to humans, the researchers are also figuring out how to ensure that the mosquito death ray doesn’t automatically destroy everything that is small and flies. We don’t want to kill butterflies, for instance, because they’re so pretty. And we don’t want to kill bees, because we need them to pollinate crops. And to make honey. And if the robots do go all Skynet on us, bees and butterflies are probably where they’d start.

Pretty neat stuff, anyhow, and not generally what you’d think of when it comes to anti-malaria research.

Feb
05
2009


From left to right, top to bottom: "Talk to the hand."; An adult-themed ventriloquism act; "Pull it, or I'll have your family sent to the moon!"; and "I put a tapeworm in your rice!"Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that billionaire comedian Bill Gates is keeping it real the only way he knows how: experimental performance art.

While giving a talk on malaria at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference in Long Beach, California, this week, Gates kept his fellow wealthy tech dudes amused by releasing a swarm of malarial mosquitoes into the conference hall. For a few moments, the delegates were treated to the experience of what it must be like to be intentionally infected with a deadly tropical disease by one of the very few human beings richer than them.

Not one to carry a joke too far, however, Gates quickly donned his Ashton Kutcher trucker hat, and let out a relieving “psych!” None of the mosquitoes were infected! The stunt (or “punk”) was intended to remind the attendees of the conference that, as usual, they were safe from malaria.

“There are places in the world,” cackled Gates, “Where it’s possible to contract malaria even without the help of the richest man on the planet. Think about that! We spend lots more money on crazy rich-person medical procedures than on malaria prevention programs, and y’all should get your ethical priorities in line.”

Everyone at the conference ended up having a super good time, and nobody left with a high fever and severe vomiting. But next time, Gates promised, if malaria is still a problem, he would, “trap each and every one of you poindexters in a net full of dengue-infected mosquitoes.”

Man, the world is so exciting when you make an effort to change reality a little.

Salmonella link to peanut butter
Salmonella link to peanut butterCourtesy jmacphoto.com

The source of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 399 people in 42 states since September may be peanut butter, Minnesota health officials said Friday.
Labs are now trying to confirm whether the strain, or serotype, found in the peanut butter -- Salmonella Typhimurium, the most common type found in the U.S. -- is the one infecting people around the country. (Read more in Scientific American)

Aug
06
2008

Researchers at Swansea University, in the UK, are developing an antibiotic that can fight the MRSA superbug. And they're using superbugs to do it. OK, not superbugs. They're using the secretions from the maggots of the common green bottle fly.

A cage match I'm not sure I want to see: Maggots secrete a compound that can fight superbugs, including 12 strains of MRSA, E. coli, and C. difficile.
A cage match I'm not sure I want to see: Maggots secrete a compound that can fight superbugs, including 12 strains of MRSA, E. coli, and C. difficile.Courtesy National Institutes of Health

Super gross? Sure. And you won't see an ad for this antibiotic (Seraticin) on TV anytime soon. It takes some 20 maggots to make a single drop of the drug. So scientists have to fully identify it, figure out a way to synthesize it in the lab, test it on human cells, and put it through a clinical trial.

In the meantime, using live maggots on infected wounds is a time-tested way of beating infections. Dr. Alun Morgan, of ZooBiotic Ltd, told the BBC,

"Maggots are great little multitaskers. They produce enzymes that clean wounds, they make a wound more alkaline which may slow bacterial growth and finally they produce a range of antibacterial chemicals that stop the bacteria growing."

How effective are maggots? The University of Manchester has been doing research on diabetic patients with MRSA-contaminated foot ulcers. The patients treated with maggots were mostly cured within three weeks. Patients who got more conventional treatment needed 28 weeks.

So give maggots a big shout out. And then check these other stories:
"NHS 'needs to use more maggots'"
Prescription insects
Fun with beetles

Researchers at the International AIDS Conference sifted through published papers on the risk of heterosexual HIV transmission. They say that while a popular estimate pegs the rate of HIV transmission through heterosexual sex at 1 per 1000 contacts, true rates of infectivity are all over the map and dependent on many variables. The infectivity rate for certain sorts of activities is much, much higher-- as high as 1 in 3 contacts. The take away message? "Claims in both the popular media and the peer-reviewed literature that HIV is very difficult to transmit heterosexually are dangerous in any context where the possibility of HIV exposure exists."

Jul
24
2008

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled salmonella
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled salmonellaCourtesy lucianvenutian
But did anybody listen?
According to a Star and Tribune article MN’s own “Team Diarrhea” figured out jalapeño peppers were to blame for the MN Salmonella cases and told the FDA and CDC to look at jalapeño peppers as the culprit for cases nationwide instead of tomatoes. The DNA of the strains in MN matched the cases elsewhere. To learn more about this story check out a previous Buzz Blog.

I’m happy to report that these super sleuths were advisors and content experts in the development of Disease Detectives which is currently in the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Human Body Gallery. You can learn more about some of these disease detectives here.

So check out today’s Star and Tribune article and give thanks to Kirk Smith and the rest of his team at the Minnesota Department of Health for doing their best to keep us safe!

May
12
2008

Monitoring consumption: By strapping this Scram device on someone's leg, officials can monitor the alcohol intake of offenders. Is this a good idea?
Monitoring consumption: By strapping this Scram device on someone's leg, officials can monitor the alcohol intake of offenders. Is this a good idea?Courtesy Alcohol Monitoring Systems
There’s a new tool for justice officials to use in dealing chronic alcohol abuser: the Scram. Scram stands for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor.

It was recently featured in a medical column in the New York Times. Judges hoping to put some more death in the sentence for those involved with alcohol-related crimes order the convicted to wear a Scram on their leg for a prescribed amount of time along with a program of recovery treatment. The Scram senses the body’s intake of any alcohol by measuring air and perspiration emissions from the skin each hour. At least once every 24 hours, the wearer must download data the Scram has collected to a modem that reports the wear’s alcohol levels to a monitoring agency or probation officer. Should Scram show a level of alcohol use, which the sensors can gauge to within a blood-alcohol level of 0.02, authorities will follow up with the offender to see what happened.

In the time that the Scram has been used, authorities report that there’s been a high compliance rate among people not drinking. But occasionally there are misreads or misreports.

Consuming some types of baked goods, such as raisin bread or sourdough English muffins, have triggered Scrams to report alcohol use by an offender. And being an electronics-based device, malfunctions can occur.

On user of the device included in the Times story had two consecutive days of his Scram reporting alcohol use several months into wearing the device. A wary probation officer gave him the benefit of the doubt when he strongly denied any drinking, and further review found that a build up of sweat and grime under the Scram was causing the false alarms.

So what do you think? Is this a good use of technology to help people get over alcohol misuse? Proponents of Scram say that it helps enforce sobriety while the offender has time to learn and work a program of recovery. But is this an infringement of a person’s right to privacy? Does an alcohol offender give up some of his/her rights to privacy? How long should someone sentenced to wear a Scram have to wear the device? Are there better ways for dealing with this? Share your ideas here with other Science Buzz readers.