|Today the White House starts gun control discussions with groups on both sides of the issue, and they’ve got their work cut out for them: the problem of gun violence is simultaneously social, cultural, educational, behavioral and governmental. Some researchers now argue that rebranding gun control as a public health issue may be the key to making real change.
Diabetes has become a common condition around the country, affecting about one in six Americans. But in Appalachia, the rate is twice that: One person of every three in the region is diabetic—and many people believe there’s no way they can avoid it. Over at Salon, Frank Browning details how diabetes has become an all-too-familiar part of life in the region:
[Health worker Lora Hamilton] says most people are resigned — and believe there’s nothing they can do. “They tell me, ‘I’ve got diabetes or I’m going to get it. I’m just gonna have to live with it. My granddad lost a leg. My grandmother was on dialysis.’ And what I say is, ‘Well, you know you can keep that from happening by taking care of yourself.’”
For frequent readers of this blog and Carl Zimmer’s The Loom, the bacterium Clostridium difficile may ring a bell. It’s a germ that can cause devastating, intractable gut infections, and is one of the reasons behind the recent development of fecal transplants to try to give the patient healthy gut bacteria to fight back with. C. difficile is on more people’s radar these days, and with good reason. A new Centers for Disease Control report shows that infections from C. difficile and another gut pathogen, norovirus, have grown more common and much more lethal in the last fifteen years. In 2007, they killed more than double the people they’d killed ten years before, jumping from 7,000 to 17,000. Most of those who died were elderly.
As income rises, the frequency of fast food visits rise as well, at least until income hits $60,000 a year; sit-down restaurant visits just keep on rising. (The y axis is frequency of visits.)
Obesity rates in the United States are highest among the poor, and high up on most lists of reasons why, you’ll find the truism that fast food is cheap food, and the poor, who can’t afford healthier fare, are its main consumers. A new study suggests, however, that the people eating the most fast food are middle class, with incomes as high as $60,000 a year. Using a national database of about 5,000 people, researchers at UC Davis found that the frequency of people’s visits to fast-food restaurants increased with rising household income until $60,000, when frequency started to go down (though, interestingly, people making more than $100,000 still went to fast food more than those making $20,000). Visits to sit-down restaurants, on the other hand, increased with rising income and just kept on growing.
Last fall, it came to light that researchers had infected 700 Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients with syphilis in a US Public Health Service study between 1946 and 1948. The American government apologized for these “abhorrent” practices, and promised to investigate what had happened. A White House bioethics commission released its report on the study this Tuesday—and as horrific as the experiments sounded initially, the full story is even worse.
Crystals of smashed cement, the perfect size for lodging in lungs,
made up most of the dust rising from the World Trade Center.
When ten million of tons of building, mixed with 91,000 liters of jet fuel, collapse into a smoking heap, an incredible variety of pulverized materials rise into the air. Though no one took samples of the plume that rose up from the World Trade Center on 9/11, samples of the dust that filtered down in the following days and gas emanating from the pile have given a glimpse of what rescue workers and others breathed in: heavy metals from computers, cellulose from paper, shards of metal and stone from the buildings’ walls, calcium carbonate from the tons of smashed cement, fibers from rugs, fragments of glass and burned hair.
Swine flu is not gone, and it is not stagnant. Though the public health scare about the 2009 swine flu pandemic subsided, the virus—like avian flu—remains in pockets of animals, shuffling its genes while hidden from the watchful eyes of virus experts. Virologists call this genetic switcheroo “reassortment,” and it’s how new and dangerous strains of flu snuck up on humankind in the past—and how they could do it again. This time, though, virologist Jinhua Liu and colleagues are trying to get a jump on the viruses.
For a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today, this team of Chinese researchers simulated what could be a dire situation for humans: swine flu (H1N1) and avian flu (H9N2) together in one animal. When these flu strains are together they can exchange genetic material. So to test what that mixing might produce, Liu’s team swapped genes between the two and created 127 hybrid viruses, testing each on mice.
Eight of these hybrid strains turned out to be more virulent and dangerous in the mice than their parent strains of swine flu and bird flu. [National Geographic]
According to Dutch virologist Ab Osterhaus, we can’t be sure that these eight nasty strains are the ones that would hit humans hardest—animal studies aren’t perfect.
“Mice mirror, to a certain extent, what happens in humans,” he says, but they are not perfect model animals. Liu agrees. He plans to investigate how contagious his new viral blends are in guinea pigs and ferrets—animals whose respiratory system better reflects our own feverish battle with flu. [ScienceNOW]
Dialysis can be a life-saver for people with kidney failure, but according to a major investigation, the way we do it and finance it in this country is a total mess.
Writing in The Atlantic, reporter Robin Fields of the nonprofit investigate journalism group ProPublica lays out her long investigation into dialysis. Though the procedure since 1972 has been the only one guaranteed universal coverage to all Americans through Medicare, Fields finds it disturbingly inefficient, with one in four American patient dying within a year of beginning treatment:
Now, almost four decades later, a program once envisioned as a model for a national health-care system has evolved into a hulking monster. Taxpayers spend more than $20 billion a year to care for those on dialysis—about $77,000 per patient, more, by some accounts, than any other nation. Yet the United States continues to have one of the industrialized world’s highest mortality rates for dialysis care. Even taking into account differences in patient characteristics, studies suggest that if our system performed as well as Italy’s, or France’s, or Japan’s, thousands fewer kidney patients would die each year. [The Atlantic]
How did things go so awry? Medicare mandated coverage, the investigation finds, but it did not properly mandate how the clinics spent Medicare’s money.
Girls around the country are starting puberty ever younger, says a new study out in Pediatrics.
Researchers led by Frank Biro studied more than a thousand girls between six and eight years old from New York, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. Their findings: By the age of 7, about 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 11 percent of white girls showed enough breast development to be considered pubescent. Those numbers are even more extreme than the findings of a similar 1997 study that seemed to show the age entering puberty was dropping fast.
“In 1997, people said, ‘That can’t be right; there must be something wrong with the study’. But the average age is going down even further” [Los Angeles Times].
The starkness of Biro’s statistics has drawn plenty of attention. But just what it means is a difficult question, because there’s no “ideal” age for entering puberty.