Health Archives

December 1, 2007

December 1—World AIDS Day


With December 1 being World AIDS Day, I thought I would highlight some relevant statistics from The World Almanac 2008 (page 851):

  • Global HIV prevalence leveled off somewhat in 2006. But the total number living with HIV/AIDS continues to rise because new cases outpace HIV/AIDS-related deaths.
  • 40% of new HIV/AIDS infections in 2006 were in young adults 15-24 years old.
  • Women made up 48%, or just under half, of all adults (ages 15 and older) living with HIV/AIDS in 2006.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa was the worst-affected region. In 2006, about 62.5% of all those living with HIV/AIDS were in sub-Saharan Africa. The epidemic was most intense in Swaziland.

The above map shows the prevalence of HIV infections in adults worldwide in 2006. Infection rates range from less than 0.1% in the tan areas to 15%-34% in the dark red areas. The original map can be seen in greater detail here.

The UNAIDS program estimates that 33.2 million [30.6-36.1 million] people were living with HIV/AIDS by year-end 2007. Keep in mind, however, that this estimate is not directly comparable to previously published statistics. Revised estimates for 2007 and previous years were released in November, based on improved methods of gathering data and observation of populations. The latest HIV/AIDS statistics are available at the following sites:
2007 AIDS Epidemic Update (UNAIDS)
WHO and HIV/AIDS (World Health Organization)

Map: "A global view of HIV infection, 2006." Data source: WHO/UNAIDS. Courtesy of WHO.

November 12, 2007

Philadelphia's "Other" Must-See Sight

ud9r7787.gifWhile some visitors travel to Philadelphia—the cradle of American independence—to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the new National Constitution Center, my last trip there in May brought me to the one place I'd always wanted to visit—the Mütter Museum. Located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, this medical museum was founded as a resource for doctors and the public to learn about anatomy and human medical anomalies.

What kind of treasures am I talking about here? Presidential curiosity seekers will see the cancerous growth removed from Grover Cleveland's jaw in 1893 and a bone from the body of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, along with a plaster cast of Siamese twins Chang & Eng Bunker (1811-1874) as well as their liver, a five foot long human colon, a collection of 2,000 items that were swallowed and removed, and the skeleton of a 7' 6" man.

This museum is not for the faint at heart!

Photo: A mold of Siamese twins joined at the liver on display at the Mütter Museum. (The College of Physicians' Mütter Museum)

November 2, 2007

Weird Science


Without innovative, creative critical thinking, scientific progress would grind to a halt. Still, when we checked in on this year's Ig Nobel winners recently, some of the subjects and hypotheses inspired more than a little incredulity. I had the same response when I read about an article in this week's New Scientist that documents the most bizarre and outrageous scientific experiments of all time. Some are more than a little cruel (the grafting of a puppy's head and front legs to an adult German shepherd that caused both animals' deaths comes to mind), but others are just bizarre.

For example:
  • Psychologist begins experiments on son to test if laughing is spontaneous when tickled.
  • Conclusion: Laughing is an innate response to tickling
  • To test if people can sleep through anything, volunteers have their eyes taped open and bright lights shone in their eyes.
  • Conclusion: The men dozed off in 12 minutes
  • Doctor rubs vomit from yellow fever patients into open wounds and drinks it.
  • Conclusion: Mistakenly claims it is not infectious
[Summaries from The Guardian]

Bizarre Experiments (with full details)

Flickr photo by practicalowl

July 25, 2007

Revised Blood Donation Guidelines


I hope it's not a sign of limited public interest, but information seems to be scarce on new guidelines for blood donations.

These revised guidelines come in response to transfusion-related acute lung injury, or TRALI, in which a blood transfusion recipient's lungs fill with fluid, impairing breathing. This reaction typically occurs within six hours of a transfusion. According to the American Red Cross, "TRALI occurs in about 1:5,000 transfusions, and about 6% of TRALI reactions are fatal."

Researchers think that certain antibodies—specifically antibodies present in female donors who have been pregnant or donors who have themselves received transfusions—may be responsible for TRALI. As these antibodies are found most often in plasma, many blood centers are no longer accepting plasma donations from women.

Women are still eligible to give whole blood and other blood components, such as red blood cells and platelets.

American Red Cross Blood Bulletin (pdf)
Blood Donation Eligibility Guidelines (American Red Cross)

Photo: Army Cpl. Christopher LeRoy, 932nd Blood Support Detachment blood technician, begins the blood platelet donation procedure on Army Sgt. Jennifer Skebong, 583rd Medlog Co. For the first time in the history of Afghanistan blood platelets are being collected in the country for the treatment of critically injured patients. Courtesy of the Army's Soldiers Media Center.

June 22, 2007

Fewer Smokers in the Big Apple

Before New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg quit the Grand Old Party, he quit smoking. After reading today’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, let’s hope that he shows more mercy towards the Republicans than he has towards Joe Camel.

In the report, the Center for Disease Control states that the number of smokers in New York City has decreased 19% since 2002, or by about 240,000 people. Only 17.5% of New Yorkers currently smoke. The year 2002 is important because Mayor Bloomberg raised cigarette taxes from $1.19 to $3 a pack. In March 2003, he made New York the first major east coast city to ban smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues. Last year, he personally paid $125 million for an anti-smoking ad campaign that the average New Yorker saw 110 times, according to the CDC.

I believe the most significant part of the report is that smoking among young adults (18-24 years) has dropped 34.9%. Only 11.2% of young New Yorkers smoke. That’s less than half the national average of 23%.

Decline in Smoking Prevalence --- New York City, 2002--2006 (

May 9, 2007

The Five-Second Rule

seconds.jpg With a nod to Vincent's earlier post on bacteria-eating maggots, some more food for (unappetizing) thought: the Five-Second Rule, a hallowed hallmark of elementary-school cafeterias everywhere, has officially been debunked. According to an article published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, we really shouldn't be comforting ourselves with the notion that dropped food, picked up in less than five seconds, is clean enough to eat (unless you'd be willing to eat off the floor itself).

The authors of the article build on the work of Jillian Clarke, who as a high school intern pioneered research on the Five-Second Rule, for which she received the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in public health. (The Ig Nobel is bestowed on scientists whose research "first makes people LAUGH, then makes them THINK.") Among Clarke's findings? Sweet treats are much more likely to be picked up and eaten than vegetables.

The Five-Second Rule, or How Dirty is That Bologna [NYT]
Clarke's Findings
Journal of Applied Microbiology [article abstract]

Photo from cavitationjunkie's flickr stream

May 4, 2007

How's Your Air?

469939617_67fdb65cda_m.jpg The American Lung Association just released its 2007 State of the Air report, which tracks levels of particle pollution and ozone in the air nationwide. Air pollution doesn't just contribute to global warming; it also can have a serious effect on a person's health, in both the short- and long-term. According to the report, 46 percent of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.

Ten Most Polluted Cities (Short-Term Particle Pollution)
1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA
2. Pittsburgh-New Castle, PA
3. Fresno-Madera, CA
4. Bakersfield, CA
5. Logan, UT-ID
6. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL
7. Salt Lake City-Ogden-Clearfield, UT
8. Detroit-Warren-Flint, MI
9. Eugene-Springfield, OR
10. Cleveland-Akron-Elyria, OH

Look up the status of your city, county, or state, or find more information about the health effects of air pollution in the full report at the links below.

State of the Air: 2007 [customizable]
Cleanest and Most-Polluted Cities and Counties
Health Effects of Ozone and Particle Pollution

NASA photo of pollution in the atmosphere over Northern New York.

May 1, 2007

Appendectomy, Through Your Mouth

An appendectomy, or removal of the appendix, is considered a very simple operation. The surgeon makes a small incision in the patient’s abdomen, cuts through some muscle, finds the appendix, and removes it. The patient feels some discomfort (read: annoying pain) for a few days afterward as the incision heals, and then under normal circumstances, the patient is out the door. Here’s an article about a new technique that involves snaking surgical instruments down the patient’s esophagus, cutting through the stomach lining, and removing the appendix from, well, the inside. It sounds a little unsettling and there are numerous risks: stomach bacteria getting into the body cavity, internal bleeding, possible punctures in places that are best left unpunctures. But there also may be some rewards: no scar, possible lower chance of post operative infection, less recovery time.

Appendix-removal via the mouth leaves no scar,” New Scientist, April 30, 2007.

March 30, 2007

Vaccines in the Global Fight

DPRK_measles.jpg News this morning that European pharmaceutical company GSK had developed a low-cost vaccine "that may never cover its research costs" got me thinking about the industry and its presence in impoverished countries. The vaccine, which GSK is in the process of registering, protects against meningitis A and C and will be sold only in Africa.

In 2002, an estimated 57 million deaths worldwide were attributed to vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of that number, about 26,000 deaths were from meningitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has compiled a time line related to vaccines. It spans half a century, from the licensing of a polio vaccine, in 1955, to the 2005 declaration that rubella was no longer endemic in the U.S.

The World Almanac 2007 also has a guide to common infectious diseases and the number of cases of each that occur in the U.S. annually (pp. 148-49).

Links: "New Low Cost Vaccine for Africa" (BBC)
Vaccines Timeline (CDC)
Development of New Vaccines Fact Sheet (WHO)

Photo: North Korean schoolchildren are vaccinated against measles, UNICEF.

March 20, 2007

Give and Take

lenny.jpg For the last month or so, nearly every day on my way to work, I've seen this advertisement on the subway, which reads: "Jerry Orbach gave his heart and soul to acting, and the gift of sight to two New Yorkers." The ad, which encourages people to register to become eye donors, includes a picture of the late song-and-dance man, best known for his long run on TV's Law & Order.

So organ donation was on my mind when I read this story last week. Apparently South Carolina lawmakers are considering offering inmates up to 180 days off of their sentences as incentive to voluntarily donate organs or bone marrow. Obviously, there is a shortage of viable organs donated for those in need—as of last Friday, there were about 95,000 people waiting for transplants in the U.S. alone—but there are clearly ethical issues concerning a program like this as well.

Click the links below for more information about organ donation and those waiting for transplants. (The myths link addresses serious concerns, in addition to that strangely pervasive urban legend about waking up in a bathtub full of ice...)

Organ Donation Statistics (customizable)
Myths About Organ Donation

Related: New Trend in Organ Donation Raises Questions

Jerry Orbach photo from kathryn's Flickr page

March 5, 2007

Cefquinome and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

cefquinome.jpg Cefquinome is an antibiotic (made by Intervet, Inc.) that the FDA may soon approve for use in cattle. Usually, this wouldn’t cause much of a stir outside the medical or veterinary industries, but according to the Washington Post, approval of cefquinome may have negative consequences on a global scale. Some doctors fear that overuse of the powerful antibiotic may speed the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Proponents argue that the risk outweighs the reward. But a curious point is that FDA’s own advisory board rejected approval of cefquinome last fall (in a non-binding resolution), and a number of health organizations, including the American Medical Association, have also come out against it. According to the Post article, a recently implemented “guidance document” called “Guidance for Industry #152,” codifies how the FDA should weigh the risk/reward of new animal drugs. In an excerpt from the article:
The wording of "Guidance for Industry #152" was crafted within the FDA after a long struggle. In the end, the agency adopted language that, for drugs like cefquinome, is more deferential to pharmaceutical companies than is recommended by the World Health Organization. Cefquinome's seemingly inexorable march to market shows how a few words in an obscure regulatory document can sway the government's approach to protecting public health.
It'll be interesting to see how or if this'll play out in a more visible public forum. It should be noted that no antibiotic from the class in which cefquinome belongs has been approved in the U.S. for animal use.

"FDA Rules Override Warnings About Drug," Washington Post, March 4, 2007
Reuters Synopsis of above article
"Introduction to Cefquinome (CEQ) and Overview of Microbial Safety Assessment" (FDA information page)
FDA Guidelines: Guidance for Industry #152" (PDF)

February 21, 2007

Girlhood Lost

girls-report.jpg The American Psychological Association this week issued a Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. According to the report, women younger and younger are being bombarded by images, music, and other entertainment, which promote the idea of looking and acting sexy. In short, girlhood is giving way to womanhood earlier, little girls are seeing themselves as sexual beings earlier, and they are developing psychological disorders because of this trend.

It’s not news that girls are being encouraged through mass media to look and act more adult and sexy. It is also well known that this type of constant exposure increases the risk of girls developing low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression. But the report is alarming because it asserts that girlhood is being cut short dramatically, and that girls are starting to think of themselves as sexual beings as early as 6 years old. It’s one thing to depict children acting as adults, but there has to be a limit, which I think was surpassed long before this became the norm:

Ten-year-old girls can slide their low-cut jeans over "eye-candy" panties. French maid costumes, garter belt included, are available in preteen sizes. Barbie now comes in a "bling-bling" style, replete with halter top and go-go boots. And it's not unusual for girls under 12 to sing, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" (Washington Post, Feb. 20 2007)

Report on the APA Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls , American Psychological Association (PDF download)
"Goodbye to Girlhood," Washington Post, February 20, 2007.

February 15, 2007

A Private Zoo (Closer Than You Think)

giantmicrobes.jpg Researchers at NYU's School of Medicine just released a study of a large group of species with whom we are all intimately connected...but of whom we are also mostly unaware. Dr. Martin Blaser and his colleagues have identified about 182 species of bacteria that live on human skin, and estimate that there are probably at least 250:
"In comparison," Blaser added, "a good zoo might have 100 species or 200 species. So we already know that there are as many different species in our skin, just on the forearm, as there are in a good zoo."

"Microbes have been living in animals probably for a billion years. And the microbes that we have in our body are not accidental. They have evolved with us," Blaser said.

Link: Human skin populated by veritable zoo of bacteria (Scientific American)

Previously: The Air That We Breathe

Stuffed bacteria from

February 14, 2007

Starving or Feeding?

cold-virus.jpg I'm a big fan of the New York Times' health column "Really?" Each column is devoted to taking a long-held belief and dissecting it for its veracity.

Yesterday's column, "The Claim: Starve a Cold, Feed a Fever," proved timely. It laid out the facts--scientists have found little evidence that starving or feeding a cold or fever helps--and made its conclusion. Seems like plenty of rest and fluids are still the best medicine. My suggestion? Chicken noodle soup.

Link: "The Claim: Starve a Cold, Feed a Fever"

Photo: Cold viruses.

February 9, 2007

I Want a New Drug

pills.jpg A few weeks ago, the FDA announced the beginning of a pilot program to issue "report cards" to keep closer tabs on the side effects of new drugs. Coming in the wake of the 2004 Vioxx recall, the program is a response to a report by the Institute of Medicine that criticized the FDA's drug safety tracking. Several senators proposed legislation to form a separate group within the FDA to track already marketed drugs on February 8.

These developments reminded me of an article I read a few months back that looks at the complexities of balancing the need to safeguard the public from potentially harmful new drugs with the desire to market potentially lifesaving treatments as soon as possible. The article also examines whether patients with terminal conditions should have unlimited access to experimental drugs. Pretty fascinating—though labyrinthine—issues.

The Right to a Trial
FDA Proposes Report Cards
FDA Approval Process Explained

Flickr photo by confusedvision (cc)

February 6, 2007

Cooking Healthy on a Budget

Swedish%20Chef.jpg The USDA’s Food Stamp Nutrition Connection Recipe Finder contains more than 400 recipes concocted by nutrition and health professionals and organizations to provide healthy, low cost food choices.

Aside from being a major step up from government-issued cheese, I thought this page could be useful even if you don’t use food stamps. The recipes are simple and concise, so they’re good for beginner cooks or people with limited cooking supplies (and money) like college students.

Some examples:

The recipes have been categorized by important nutrients, the type of dish, audience, cooking equipment, and cost. There is a rating system but it doesn’t seem to get much use. Sure, this isn’t Bon Appétit (for that there’s Epicurious) but you can’t cook Striped Bass with Saffron Vegetables and Spices Broccoli Rabe with $5 and some beginner’s luck.

Photo of the best chef ever at the Smithsonian from oppositeofsuper's Flickr stream (cc)

February 2, 2007

Preparing for the Next Flu Pandemic

Pandemic_scale.bmpThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define a flu pandemic as a "global disease outbreak," which occurs when a new influenza virus arises to which people have little or no immunity. The last flu pandemic, which occurred in 1968, killed about 34,000 people in the U.S. and 700,000 worldwide.

On Thursday, the CDC released an interim planning guide on how to handle a future flu pandemic. The guide includes a pandemic severity scale. The scale--which many have compared to the hurricane scale--is based on "case fatality ratio," or the numbers of deaths among the ill.

The CDC puts forth guidelines that local governments and communities can follow depending on the severity of an outbreak. It assumes there will be no vaccines in the beginning and insufficient medication for all those infected. Suggestions include isolation and treatment, voluntary quarantine, the closing of schools, and the changing of workplace rules to decrease contact between people.

"Interim Pre-Pandemic Planning Guide" (full CDC report in PDF)

Previously: "1918: La Grippe" (Sarah Janssen's earlier blog entry about the 1918 flu pandemic)

February 1, 2007

"The World as You've Never Seen it Before"

That's the tag line for Worldmapper, a novel approach to visualizing global data, and a collaborative project of a group of cartographers, social scientists, and other experts at the University of Michigan and the University of Sheffield. From a recent article on The Daily Telegraph website:
"You can say it, you can prove it, you can tabulate it, but it is only when you show it that it hits home," said Prof Danny Dorling, of the University of Sheffield, one of the developers of Worldmapper, a collection of maps — cartograms — that rescale the size of territories in proportion to the value being represented.

On the maps of public health spending, research expenditure and wealth, Africa appears tiny. But in those that show global malaria cases and the deaths due to drought, Africa appears enormous.

You'll find a year's worth of maps on the site, spanning categories from income and housing to pollution and "destruction." Each map is also accompanied by a brief summary of the topic, plus links to labeled territory and population maps, data sheets in Excel or Opendoc formats, and even a downloadable PDF poster showcasing the map and some of its key data points.

Choose a topic, and you're bound to find something interesting. I was struck by two maps, which are as good a place to start as any:

map_childlabor.jpgChild Labor (at left): "Nine of the ten territories with the highest proportions of child labourers are in Africa. . . . The map shows that most child labour occurs in African and Southern Asian territories. India has the highest number of child labourers, twice as many as China where the second highest population of child labourers lives."

map_toyimports.jpgToy Imports (at right): "Most imports of toys (US$ net) are to the United States, followed by the United Kingdom. Toys are fun but not necessities. Thus toy imports give an indication of disposable incomes. The lowest imports of toys (US$ net) per person are to territories in Africa and also Tajikistan (in the Middle East)."

Link: Worldmapper

January 24, 2007

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Measurement? That's Sooo Corny

Each year in the Environment chapter of the World Almanac, we present the annual atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (for 2007, it’s on page 284). We get that information from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, which is part of the Department of Energy. Pre-1943 levels are derived from air bubbles in ice core samples taken in Antarctica, and later measurements are taken directly from the atmosphere. corn_crop.jpgSoon though, you may see us presenting CO2 levels taken from corn samples. That’s right, good ol’ fashioned corn, the vegetable that can do anything from feeding the world, to fueling our cars, to giving us a tasty treat at movie theaters.

Scientists from U.C. Irvine measured levels of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in corn samples taken from 31 locations across the U.S. They chose corn because it’s grown pretty much everywhere, and the carbon in it is collected during a single growing season (so it's just the carbon from the most recent growing season, and not seasons past). CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels doesn’t contain any radiocarbons, so the scientists can easily tell if the carbon dioxide came from fossil fuels or from natural sources (veeeery C.S.I.-type stuff). By measuring the corn, the scientists were able to accurately tell which areas of the U.S. had highest concentrations of fossil-fuel-derived carbon dioxide. The highest levels were in California, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The lowest concentrations were in Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico--because, as scientists found, the Rocky Mountains act as a sort of CO2 barrier.

There are lots of ways to measure CO2 in the atmosphere but this method may provide a cost-effective complement to other methods. If anything, it just goes to show that whatever is in the air can eventually end up in our popcorn.

Press release:Scientists map air pollution using corn grown in U.S. fields (U.C. Irvine)
Map: CO2 concentrations in the U.S. (Red areas have the highest, blue areas have the lowest)
Abstract: Regional patterns of radiocarbon and fossil fuel-derived CO2 in surface air across North America (Geophysical Research Letters, January 23, 2007)

January 18, 2007

BMJ's Top Medical Advance Since 1840

dreamybathroom.jpg Have a glass of tap water, take a shower, give a 21 flush salute! Sanitation has been rated the top medical advance since 1840 according to the British Medical Journal. The competition was tough (anesthesia, vaccines, the oral contraceptive pill, full list here), but clean water and sewage disposal gathered the most votes in an online poll that asked voters to rank the top 15 milestones, as selected by a panel of BMJ’s editors and advisers.

BMJ Summarizes:

In the 1800s acute infectious diseases that killed male breadwinners were a major cause of poverty. Believing that diseases were caused by air contaminated by poor urban drainage, governments built new sewage disposal and water supply systems. This revolutionised public health in Europe, and mortality from infectious diseases fell dramatically. Nowadays we know that better water supply and sanitation can cut diarrhoea among children in developing countries by about a fifth. The 19th century “sanitary revolution” shows that effective intervention does not always need accurate knowledge, that environmental measures may be more effective than changing individual behaviour, and that universal measures may be better than targeted measures in reducing health inequalities.
The poll was made to commemorate the launch of BMJ’s new website. The entire issue, including articles on all 15 milestones, is free online.

Photo of "Haiku and High Design", runner up in the National Kitchen & Bath Assoc.'s 2006 Bathroom Design Awards.

January 12, 2007

1918: La Grippe

Home sick from work the other day, I stumbled on this fascinating online exhibit from the National Archives about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people—more than any illness in recorded history, and more people than were killed in World War I. About 25 percent of the American population contracted the flu, and in just one year, the average life expectancy of an American decreased by 12 years. flu.jpg

One of the most interesting documents from the exhibit is a list of precautions that people were advised to take to avoid contracting the disease, including:

Avoid close, stuffy, and poorly ventilated rooms—insist upon fresh air, but avoid disagreeable drafts.
Eat simple, nourishing food and drink plenty of water. Avoid constipation.
Secure at least seven hours sleep. Avoid physical fatigue.
Do not sleep or sit around in damp clothing.
Keep the feet dry.

In San Francisco, city officials fought the spread of the disease by championing gauze masks as 99% effective in preventing the flu, using the slogan: "Obey the laws, And wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws."

Visit the National Archives site for more pictures and documents related to this often forgotten disaster.

National Archives: Influenza Epidemic of 1918
American Experience: Influenza 1918

December 27, 2006

The Air That We Breathe

bacsta_cr.jpg Think about this the next time you take a breath of fresh air: according to a "first-of-its-kind census" by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, there is an incredible abundance of germ life in the air around us—which is teeming with as many as 1,800 types of bacteria. (Fortunately, most of the germs are harmless.)

There are several practical applications for this research. For example, it could lead to a nationwide bacteria census, which would show the normal levels and yearly fluctuations in the amounts of certain pathogens in the air. This could help the Department of Homeland Security identify abnormal levels of bacteria that could signal a bio-attack. It may also give scientists more insight into the role that climate plays in the amount of bacteria in the air.

If more surveys like this are done, you may one day see some World Almanac data showing nationwide bacterial levels in various U.S. cities. But that could be years away, so don't hold your breath.

Study Finds the Air Rich with Bacteria (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

Have a Heart!

heart-interior.jpgA friend recently brought up a question that had long nagged her: why are our hearts on the left side of our bodies instead of in the center? I thought I’d play Q&A columnist on this one.

While the human body on the outside appears symmetrical, internally it is not, and the primary reason seems to be space. The typical human torso exhibits left-right asymmetry because it can pack in only so much: for example, the heart, stomach, and spleen on the left, the appendix and gall bladder on the right. And actually, only about two-thirds of the heart is located left of the body’s midline. But we feel that side more strongly because our hearts’ left chambers pump blood to the rest of our bodies.*

Some people are born with their heart on the right. In others, all the organs are flipped—their bodies are basically mirror images of most people’s bodies, a condition called situs inversus. Symmetry can also occur. The heart can appear on the midline, in which case the person might have two left or two right lungs. These conditions aren’t life threatening unless "tubes and vessels don't connect properly," as this article puts it. The article states that about 35,000 birth defects every year are the result of organs growing in different places.

*The blood flow sequence is also responsible for the difference in size between the left and right lung. (That is, oxygen-poor blood enters the heart on the right and flows from there to the lungs, as you may all remember from biology class diagrams.)

Image from National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

December 20, 2006

More Drug Money, But Fewer New Drugs

Fillmore_pills.jpgYou’d think that if more money were put into scientific research, then there would be more results, or in this case, more drugs. However, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that examines research costs in the pharmaceutical industry, this isn’t necessarily so.

The GAO found that between 1993 and 2004, funds dedicated to research in the pharmaceutical industry increased nearly 150%. But during that same period, applications sent by drug companies to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for the approval of new drugs rose only 38%. There are many possible reasons for this poor return on research investment, including a growing emphasis on creating highly profitable "blockbuster” drugs (which are harder to develop) and high failure rates in trials of drugs developed to treat complex diseases such as cancer. However, critics (including members of Congress who requested the report) assert that even these factors don't necessarily account for the high cost of drugs already on the market. You may hear more mention of this report later on when Congress again takes up the issue of medical care and drug costs.

GAO-07-49: New Drug Development (Abstract)
GAO-07-49: New Drug Development (Full report PDF)
New Drugs Declining, Research Costs Increasing, GAO Says (Washington Post, December 20, 2006)

Photo: Mike Chen (CC)

December 6, 2006

How Natural is Natural Food?

In the 2007 World Almanac, we added a section on Food Label Claims (pg. 151) to better explain what organic, free-range, and other such claims mean. This is one of my favorite sections to research. I'm very concerned about what I put into my body and I'm extremely skeptical of food labels, especially ones that make it seem like the products came straight from the Garden of Eden. One particularly dubious label is “natural,” which the USDA defined back in 1982. Basically, it means that the product doesn’t contain any artificial ingredient or color and has been “minimally processed.” Minimal processing, which applies mostly to meat and poultry, is defined as “nothing done to fundamentally alter the raw products.”

Since they first set down those "guidelines," however, there have been many new additives and processes developed that are used to enhance flavor and preserve food (such as the use of chlorine to clean meat, or the injection of salt water for flavor, both of which can be used in producing “natural” products). So the USDA is taking up the issue. According to this release, the USDA will begin hearings on the what should and shouldn’t be allowed under the food claim “natural.” Putting together new guidelines for these terms takes a lot of time and research, so we probably won’t see this resolved for a while.

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