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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Jason "Germ Guy" Tetro

Putting Perspective On Personal Fermentation

Hey everyone,

First off, it’s been an incredible few months since the release of The Germ Files. I’ve been touring all over Ontario and have been thrilled to meet hundreds of people all interested in our daily relationship with microbes. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very kind review in the Washington Post.

Washington-Post

You can read the entire piece here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/why-we-should-love-germs/2016/02/29/f2c3b662-db27-11e5-891a-4ed04f4213e8_story.html

Over the course of the tour, one section seemed to gain interest with some of the audience members. It had to do with making fermented foods from microbes isolated from human fecal matter. The idea of finding new bacteria in the gut did have an expected effect…

 

monkees-nope(if you don’t know who these gents are, ask your grandparents)

But those feelings passed once I explained the lengthy process of isolating, purifying, and then testing a particular species. By the time fermentation happened, the bacterium had no direct links to the source an definitely would not have any related tastes. This practice is normal for any company wishing to use ‘human strains’ for their fermented foods and of course, probiotics.

However as in life there are always exceptions and just this past week, one seemingly has appeared.

bottled-instinctThe Order of Yoni Beer by Bottled Instinct

It’s well known beer is usually fermented with yeast. However, there are certain styles, such as the one pictured above, made with what is known as a sour mash. It’s particularly popular with home brewers though there are some larger companies using this technique to make a variety of choices. It’s also used to make certain American Whiskeys.

The key to a sour mash is the formation of lactic acid. To accomplish this, several species of bacteria have been used throughout the ages. One happens to be Lactobacillus acidophilus. The name may sound familiar because it is also a probiotic and as many on the tour have learned, is my favorite microbe.

jason-acidophilusMe and my L. acidophilus

The bacterium can also be found in a few places within the human body. The first is the same as I mentioned above. The company didn’t look there.

For those fluent in Hindi, the name of the beer, The Order of Yoni, gives away the other location. If you’re not up to speed on the Indian language, the word Yoni literally means the womb.

From a scientific perspective, the idea isn’t all that odd. After all, a sour mash made from isolates of Lactobacillus acidophilus acquired from a human female’s genitourinary microbiome may not seem all that bad. It might make for an interesting science or art project. After all, there have been such endeavours conducted in the past albeit not with this particular region of the body.

However, the company selling the product doesn’t quite explain it in the same way. Here’s a quote from their site:

“Using hi-tech of microbiology, we isolate, examine and prepare lactic acid bacteria from a unique woman. The bacteria, lactobacillus, transfer woman’s features, allure, grace, glamour, and her instincts into beers and other products, turning them into dance with lovely goddess.”

Needless to say…

carrie-wth(If you don’t know who this is, ask your parents)

As you might expect from the description and the model, this venture is all about trying to bottle the essence of beauty and provide it in a relatively easy to digest format. The company goes even further to name the person from whom the sample will be taken…a model named Alexandra Brendlova. If you don’t know who she is, here’s a promotional photo.

yoni-model

While this may be enough to convince people to give this a try, from a scientific perspective, the only place you’re going to feel anything is your wallet.

If you go deeper into the site, the company explains the process of isolating this unique Lactobacillus acidophilus for brewing. It’s no different than trying to isolate a bacterium from that other region. The samples are cultured, and the bacteria are isolated, and then grown until they reach the right levels to be used in the first stages of fermentation. This ensures safety but also takes away any links the species may have had to the owner.

There is one bright side to this venture. This concept shows just how popular microbes have become over the last decade. It really makes me wanna…

5sos(If you don’t know who these guys are, ask your kids)

While this particular product may not provide anything more than an intriguing sour mash beer, the interest from the media and those actually investing in the company reveals this may be the beginning of mainstream human microbial artisanal gastronomy.

If you are interested in going this route, I’d love to hear about it. Just be sure not to overstate the benefits. Though bacteria may come from a specific individual or type of person, don’t expect to transfer their outwardly qualities. A person may gain health benefits and perhaps help to change several biological parameters. But in terms of features, allure, grace, and glamour, no amount of Lactobacillus or any other microbe for that matter is going to help.

If this was the case, fecal transplantation would be a far more common practice.

 

 

Would love to hear your thoughts…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#TheGermFiles – Must Watch TV

Hey everyone,

Before I get to the videos, I just want to share this image I received on Saturday with you. While it doesn’t seem like much, it is for me a moment to truly enjoy.

bestseller

This is the Canadian Non-Fiction Bestseller list from last week and as you can see at #7, The Germ Files had an amazing debut. Considering the topic is about a subject generally considered nothing more than a niche of the sciences, I couldn’t be happier!

Okay, moving on…

I know I’ve been posting videos regarding #TheGermFiles on various social media platforms but thought I would try to compile them in one spot.

It first started with a promo for the book. I made this a few months ago with my friends, Sean Webb and Jay Trout. Fantastic gents with some amazing skills…

When the book came out, I was fortunate to appear on several television broadcasts. I had a wonderful time with Canada AM talking about good germs…

canada-am

CANADA AM

Then it was off to The Social, where I had an absolutely hilarious time with the hosts and the audience. Not only did we have some laughs, there was also some good information shared!

thesocial

THE SOCIAL

Then there was The Agenda. I really had a great time talking with Piya Chattopadhyay who really took it down to the most basic levels of why germs matter to us.

jason-agendaTHE AGENDA

I have to honestly give a HUGE thank you to Sharon Klein at Penguin Random House. She has been my biggest supporter and done all the work to get me on the radar of these shows long before I was in the studio. It meant I was given the rare opportunity of simply having to show up, enjoy the makeup brush, and then have a lovely chat with the host(s).

I hope you enjoy these segments and as always, if you have any questions, comments, or thoughts, let me know in the comments.

Antibiotic Resistance and Rethinking The Name “Superbug”

As some of you may know, every month, I have the honour of being a guest on the Ward and Al Show on SiriusXM Canada Talks (Channel 167). For the hour, I get to talk about the wonderful world of science with the hosts…

wardal-siriusxm-slogan

Ward Anderson and Alison Dore

I adore them because they have an incredible interest in science but more importantly, how to make the strange world of the lab come alive in the public realm.

We normally talk about headlines of the day and sure enough, last Monday, the topic turned to antibiotic resistance. It’s been featured quite often over the last few weeks as a crisis looms over our ability to fight infectious disease.  We may even enter what is known as…

postantibioticera

The Post-Antibiotic Era.

Almost sounds like something from a comic book, doesn’t it?  Well, when the subject turned to what exactly antibiotic resistance looks like, there was no better place to turn than the comic book world.  Or, in this case, movie trailer.

Last week, the new Batman vs Superman trailer was unveiled and it is quite the experience. But there’s an interesting scene contained within the three minutes that has many a fan talking. Head to about 2:20 and watch for the next twenty seconds.

The monster is known as Doomsday and has the potential to wipe out an entire city block with one burst of incredible molecular energy.  As you can see in the trailer, he’s pretty good at it and can cause some major devastation. For Batman, this appears to be a certain demise.

BUT…

He lives thanks to the introduction of an even more powerful shield donned by none other than Wonder Woman. Thanks to her, the Caped Crusader is saved and the world is introduced to yet another superhero.  Even more intriguing is her appearance was not chaperoned by either Batman or Superman.  She somehow appeared out of nowhere and ended up saving the day…at least for the Dark Knight.

It’s a pretty fun scene although at first glance, this seems to have little to do with antibiotic resistance.  Let me explain…

First off, antibiotics, while chemical in nature, are very similar to that energy burst from Doomsday.  All targets, bacteria and human cells are affected and many end up getting wiped out (yes, even our human cells can fall victim).  Not to mention, the landscape after an antibiotic treatment is devastated.  For a sensitive bacterium in the midst of the onslaught, death is a certainty. As Martha Stewart might say…

and-thats-a-good-thing(Yes, I went there)

Now, if a bacterium somehow develops resistance to an antibiotic, it has in effect picked up that shield and can survive the attack.  The shield could be a barrier or in some cases it could be a mechanism to break down the molecular energy rendering the antibiotic useless.  Either way, the carrier of the shield – and in many cases, those in the immediate vicinity – are saved and given the chance to fight another day.

As we all know, leaving an embittered entity in the middle of a wasteland can lead to even more troubles. For anyone suffering from an antibiotic resistant infection, they know this well. The bacteria grow without hesitation and in many cases end up producing even greater troubles thanks to toxins and other attacking chemicals.

Because of their ability to resist and eventually cause troubles, we tend to call these bacteria…

superbug

Superbugs!

In light of this particular trailer, though, I wonder if we may need to re-examine this term.

Think about this:  in the midst of Doomsday’s energy, Superman would have been just fine. He could handle the burst in the same way he seems to be relatively invincible.  Granted, there are some things that could hurt and possibly kill him (Kryptonite, anyone?) but in general, he’s pretty much unstoppable.

Batman, on the other hand, was a sitting duck. Without any type of resistance, he was surely a goner.  But thanks to the arrival of the Amazing Amazon, he was given a chance to embrace the protection. Of course, if she didn’t have that shield, she would have joined her human counterpart as a victim rather than a survivor.

If you look at antibiotic resistant bacteria, they are nothing like Superman.  Even if they could resist to all antibiotics – we call them pan resistant – they most likely can be killed with good ol’ fashioned soap and water. They are physically feeble and incredibly dependent on water, food, and a welcoming environment.  They are not super by any means. They simply have the weapons and defenses to keep them alive in the harshest climes. So why call them Superbugs?

Okay, I know it’s not all that important what they are called.  It’s just a fancy name for a particular group of bacteria. But in light of what we now know about their biology, biochemistry, and activities in various environments, including development or acquisition of resistance, perhaps it’s time for a change in perspective and in name.

Of course, choosing a new moniker may not be easy.  If we adopt the same superlative as the female shield bearer, we end up with…

wonderbugsWONDERBUGS!

Not to mention, there already is a wonder bug out there in the form of a car with a magical horn.  If you can remember…

Wonderbug_Krofft_Supershow_1976

…you are definitely over forty.

While “Wonderbugs” may not be the best choice to call antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we still need to examine a different nickname.

I think a better option would be to use a term based on their characteristics.  Let’s focus on the reality and leave out the superlatives. We don’t have to be academic either as there’s apparently no harm in creativity.  After all, we are in a world where the Son of Yeezus is called Saint (if you don’t know what that means, you are probably over forty).  I am sure we can find a good balance between science and the public.

So, with that in mind, let’s see if we can come up with a better name for antibiotic resistant bacteria than “Superbugs.” If we find one we all enjoy, we might even make it spread like a virus (which by the way is not affected by antibiotics) and become adopted in the public.

I’ll start by suggesting what I would love these bacteria to be called:

armor

ARMOR

(Antibiotic Resistant Microbes Of Relevance)

The first part is self-explanatory. But the second offers perspective on the importance of antibiotic resistance in our lives. After all, resistance is rampant in the environment but many of these species with shields are harmless to us and pose no threat to our health or medicine.  All together, it makes for a very good and scientifically accurate name to reflect the mechanism of antibiotic resistance.  I’m sure even superheroes would love the term.

Now it’s your turn. What is your suggestion to replace “Superbugs”?

Hope to hear your thoughts…

What Adele Can Teach Us About The Flu Vaccine

If you follow popular music, then you’ve no doubt heard about…

adele-25-packshot

Adele

This incredible songstress has been smashing records with her new album, simply entitled, 25. She has taken the music industry by storm and has reinvigorated the music scene. So much so, she had an entire television special devoted to her entitled, “Live in London.”

During her performance, she sang one of her most beloved songs, “Someone Like You.”

Most people in the audience knew the song and many joined in if only quietly.  But then, something happened at about 1:35 in the song.  She changed the melody, singing in a very different fashion than expected.

The audience sat back quietly listening, learning, and eventually figuring out the new direction.  By the end of the song, the people were back, singing with her, matching the new notes perfectly generating a perfect moment for everyone there and watching from afar.

As I sat watching, I was taken by the experience and immediately thought to another important part of our lives…

immune-system

The Immune System

Much like the audience, our immune systems are forced to deal with something altogether new and unexpected such as a novel strain of the flu.  Eventually, though, our defense forces develop a response and evolve to the changed environment.

The only difference is the time it takes to adapt.  As you can see, the audience needed only a few minutes.  Our bodies need much longer, up to three weeks.  During that time, we experience cellular confusion, viral analysis, and attempts to respond which manifest in the form of symptoms. Yes, those coughs, sniffles, aches and pains are simply due to our bodies trying to figure out how to deal with the unknown or at least changed entity.

Much like anyone trying to learn a song, immunity needs practice to achieve the right match.  This can be difficult without some type of guide.  All one has to do is ask musicians about the trials and errors of figuring out an entire piece of music from scratch only using their ears.  It’s a painstaking task with a variety of symptoms – usually psychological – attached to it.  For immunity to achieve the same result, our bodies have to undergo the same tribulations.

But there is a way to reduce the time and effort needed to gain the ability to learn.  For a musician, this comes in the form of sheet music and/or prior recordings. For our immune systems, it’s…

vaccine

 

A vaccine is for the most part, an easy method of training the immune system to adapt to a particular pathogen.  It’s essentially a biological form of sheet music or recording allowing our immunity to adapt to the invader and learn how to react.

Normally, only one or a few shots are needed to accomplish the task. But there is one case where a single shot is simply not good enough. It’s the influenza virus or, the flu.

As I said in my book The Germ Code, this virus is the master of evolution and is continually changing.  Our immune systems have to figure out how to react to these changes.  But the change is minimal. If we have already experienced a similar version of the virus, we can fight while we adapt. If we have had no previous exposure, the time it takes to react may be insufferable.

Take Adele’s song change.  The audience already knew 95% of the music and lyrics so the minor change allowed for a rapid adaptation.  If she had sung something completely unknown, however, she would have been met with silence.  There simply would not have been enough time to evolve and adapt to the new combination of notes and words.

The same exists for influenza. If we have already seen most of the virus in the form of infection or vaccination, any subsequent infection may end up being mild.  The more we are infected – or preferably vaccinated – the better trained our bodies will be against the virus.  It’s why getting a shot every year can be helpful even if you never come into contact with the flu.

Of course, there are some times when a vaccine may not match the virus exactly.  We saw that last year when the formulation missed one of the targets.  But…

vaccine-effectiveness

That was only one of three strains (the first one). The others were gave the expected levels of protection across all ages. This meant there was still a good reason to get the shot.

I appreciate this may not be entirely convincing as the numbers are far less than what people expect from a vaccine: 100%.  Yet, when it comes to the flu, the immune system can use all the help it can get.  Even if the protection isn’t perfect, by having that training, when the virus does show up, our immune systems can adapt more quickly and help to reduce the severity of symptoms.  Considering the impact of a full blown infection while our immune systems try to adapt, it may be well worth getting the shot, even if it is a partial miss.

As always, I would love to know your thoughts…

 

 

 

A Trifecta Coda To Antibiotic Awareness Week

Hey everyone…

I know it’s been some time since I wrote here. For more on why, check out my front page.

Last week was a special time for those working in public health.  It was the first…

aaw

After 70 years of knowing bacteria can become resistant to these life-saving drugs, the world has taken notice.  You may have seen and heard headlines in the media over the last week discussing antibiotics. The situation has become a crisis as we face what is known as the post-antibiotic era.

But what exactly does that mean? Perhaps this might help:

ar-casesdeaths-cdc

This is just in the United States – worldwide, the number is far greater.

The statistics are frightening and the risk for troubles are growing.  But while the message about antibiotic resistance spreads, some of the more valuable information has been left unsaid.

Now that Antibiotic Awareness Week is over, I wanted to add a coda to the event. I wanted to bring attention to the issue by going into the science of the issue and show some of the latest work describing just how resistance comes about, what we can do in the present, and a look to the future.


popsci-resistanceThe Complexity of Antibiotic Resistance

First, my Popular Science column explores how antibiotic resistance comes about. It’s all about a word used quite often in ecology:  fitness.  When a bacterium comes into contact with an antibiotic, it may die but it may also find a way to survive. Depending on the drug, the fitness differs, even for the same bacterium.  This reveals how dynamic resistance is as a whole and why it is so difficult to prevent.  After all, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack.


mechanismThe Ways Antimicrobial Peptides can kill bacteria

My Huffington Post Canada column takes a different look at the problem by looking forward to the future. Because resistance to antibiotics is so hard to tackle, the best way to approach it is to look for alternative measures.  One of the best options is called an antimicrobial peptide, or AMP.

These molecules are simple in design and extremely effective at killing bacteria. The supply could be endless as almost every species on Earth produces them. All we need to do is go hunting for them and then test them in the lab. Though it may take some time, AMPs may be the answer to antibiotics and may one day become the treatment of choice.


Finally, I wanted to take a completely different perspective on antibiotic resistance not seen in the news. For this, I teamed up with two great video experts, Jay Trout and Sean Webb. Together, we put a short 2:22 video together on where you can find antibiotic resistance and what you can do to help prevent the post-antibiotic era.

As you’ll see, there are three easy ways you can make a difference.  After all, we all play a role in stalling the approach of the post-antibiotic era.  We can all do our part.

For those wondering, the video is in Standard Definition so anyone with a slow internet stream can still watch it. If you are looking for an HD version, just let me know.


Antibiotic resistance will continue to be a problem for a very long time. But knowing the trifecta past, present, and future will ultimately help us to achieve the goals of Antibiotic Awareness Week. We cannot lose our ability to use antibiotics…at least not yet.  Let’s make sure we are all helping to make a difference.

As always, would love to know your thoughts.

 

 

The Science Behind Mom’s Cold and Flu Remedies…

Hey everyone,

It has been quite the week for good germs.

First, a story coming out of Australia revealed how the use of one particular probiotic strain, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, can help to alleviate peanut allergies.  Although the paper is not open access, you can read the summary of the study by clicking on the photo/link below.

untitled (2)http://www.mcri.edu.au/news/2015/january/peanut-allergy/

The other story making headlines was the impact of probiotics on mental health. For the last decade, trials have shown the benefit of good germs for the mind. The can help keep the mind calm as well as reduce stress and anxiety levels.  Now it seems Canadian researchers are performing clinical trials to determine the benefit of taking probiotics instead of prozac.

I spoke on this earlier in January with the CBC and the producer it was very well received. Some have asked for a link to the broadcast and I’m happy to say you can hear the segment below.

fresh-air-https://soundcloud.com/cbc-fresh-air/good-mood-through-
good-bacteria-with-jason-tetro-jan-1715

It’s such a pleasure to see the benefit of good germs in the news but as we all know, there are microbes that cause us misery including cold and flu viruses.  Hygiene and social distancing (stay home when sick) are great ways to prevent illness.  Yet, at one time or another, most of us find ourselves victim to the sniffles, coughs, aches and pains.

When we get sick, a trip to the drug store is the usual course of action. But there are more natural ways to fight the bugs and regain our health. Many are traditional in nature and they differ depending on one’s background.  These remedies are homegrown and range from the reasonable to the extreme – mustard plaster anyone?  But one thing is for sure: most of them work.

On Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss these remedies with the radio program, Ontario Today. The goal was to reveal scientifically how these remedies worked and why they are sometimes as good as modern medicine.

For the next two hours – on air and online – I was treated to dozens of examples originating from all over the world.  Although I’d heard of many in the past, some were quite simply out of this world. Yet, they all worked and the science could prove why.

Essentially, a home remedy should accomplish at least one of three goals.

1. Reduce the level of inflammation, which is a consequence of infection

2. Improve blood flow to shift the body from lethargy to action 

3. Utilize antimicrobial properties contained in the remedies to kill viruses  

As each one was brought up, the science became clear either through mention of the ingredients or through the overall results.  All I had to do was classify them and when possible within time constraints, provide a mechanism.

If you want to check out the discussion, you can head to the Ontario Today website. Both the radio and online portions are there.

cbc-radio-ontario-todayhttp://www.cbc.ca/ontariotoday/2015/01/30/
moms-home-remedies-for-getting-better

It was such a fantastic time for me because of the two-way conversation between scientists. Each caller was a scientist (or a representative of one, usually their mothers or grandmothers).  We had a collaborative conversation.  Then there was the passion expressed by each contributor. The experience was akin to a scientific conference where researchers are eager to share their findings with the rest of the community.

I’ll end by asking if you have any old style remedies you want to share. If so, put it in the comment section below. I’m sure people would love to hear how you go about fighting the cold and the flu.

I know I would…

A New Year’s Resolution Worth Globalizing…

Hey everyone,

It’s been a rather hectic week as I’ve had the honour of discussing several topics very close to me. From antibiotic alternatives in agriculture to the concept of how microbes may control our moods, it’s been a combination of hard work and, as always, joy.

I’ve also been faced with a slight conundrum. Many people have Emailed me recently asking for advice on choosing products. I’ve been reluctant to mention any brands in the public forum and have my reasons. I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post and the difficulty of being a spokesperson for microbes.

Until then, I want to introduce you to another incredible person.

caityCaity Jackson

I met Caity earlier this month while she was taking some time away from her work in Sweden.  She is a global health expert and quickly becoming a leader in this field. She is part of a weekly program known as This Week in Global Health (TWIGH) and strives each week to bring the latest information on the health of humanity to the rest of the world.

When we spoke, she brought up a rather curious concept. What is in a name when it comes to a topic. We went over a number of different philosophical, psychological and yes, sciPOP ideas and came up with a few ideas. I asked her if she would put her thoughts down for this blog and she agreed.

If you want to follow Caity, you can find her on Twitter and also at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.  I’m sure after reading her post, you may have questions and also some ideas of your own to share.

And now…Caity Jackson…

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A new year means a new you!

Well, that is what we are meant to believe.  A new haircut, a new outfit, a new diet, a new workout, heck, bring on a new name!

nameWait…a new name?

Okay, this isn’t about changing the words on your identification card. This is about changing something much more robust…the way we look at the health of humanity.

Health is one of the top priorities on most new year resolution lists, and rightly so!  And aside from personal health, there are many other different types of health: public health, community health, natural health, and so on.

But have you heard of global health?  How about international health?  What about universal health (gotta think about the aliens, you know)?

Think about it.  It has a logo thanks to the World Health Organization…

who_logoThe logo of the WHO

…yet, what do we call this overarching concept?

As we venture into 2015, we have a wider view of health thanks in part to a few diseases, a few disasters and the occasional blight of reason.  But when it comes to giving this concept of worldly health a name, what should we call it?  After all, an accurate name or term must elicit the right emotion, the right action, and as sciPOP dictates, be catchy too!

So let’s take a look at the options.

The term global health is postulated to be just one of many in a line of evolving words used to conceptualize the health of all.  Where did it come from?  Well, academic course naming trends and article keywords point to the transition to this from what was previously ‘international health.’  Of course, we still hear people calling this field of study International Public Health, Tropical Medicine, or Public Health just applied to a larger population.

It may seem like a game of semantics but when one considers that ‘most of the (Gates) foundation’s resources go to global health issues’ and the annual budget of is in the range of 3.2 billion to 3.6 billion dollars, you can see the right name is paramount.

So, what is in a name?  Is there a vast difference between international and global health?

Now whether you are a ‘global’ fan or an ‘international’ fan, both arguably mean the same thing: health of the population of the world.  Yet, as with any attempt to define a large subject with one word, it can get, well, testy.  Some have argued that the move is needed from a word that in it has a direct depiction of borders (inter-nation) to a word that has a holistic and all-encompassing (global).  After all, this is in essence how we view health. I would argue however that this shows a trend in how we view the manifestation of health.

Then there is the issue of optics. International health has been suggested to have an image of a rich country helping a poor country.  Although for those of us in the richer countries, this sounds familiar.  But health isn’t about helping; it’s about doing.  If all countries do not play a significant role, it’s doomed to fail. So, we need to be sure the word doesn’t cause the wrong image.  In contrast, global health proposes an image where everyone suffers the same risks of poor health and the same benefits of healthcare regardless of where you live.

health
Now here’s an experiment – a sciPOP experiment.

Picture the world 50+ years ago, the whole world.  Try and think about what your city might have looked like, what your country looked like, what the other side of the world looked like. There was definitely a lot more contrast between neighbouring cities and countries, especially far-flung nations.  Therefore the fruits and goods of Panama were hardly going to pop up unexpectedly in Bangladesh, let alone the Panamanian infectious diseases or lifestyle habits.

Now fast-forward 50 years. If you go to the far reaches of the world, you may still find some creature comforts of home, like a certain brand of pop soda. Commercial entities have managed to get their product on shelves in nearly every nook and cranny of the world (bar the Brazilian rainforest…they are really slacking in distribution there).  The globalization of the world brought an unseen feeling of closeness to our vast planet, increasing our connectivity in ways our grandparents wouldn’t have imagined.

sodasSoda Pop From Around The World

Now what if instead of a soda can, we had access to health options, from care to promotion to products like hand sanitizers and pharmaceuticals?  In your view, which one would be better to have?  One makes you feel good for a few minutes while the other may keep you happy throughout your life.

This concept of a planetary access to health is without a doubt holistic and I think accurately describes the current situation.  But perhaps the best way to see this is through the eyes of public health officials.  For them, the rise of infections such as Ebola, MERS, HIV as well as chronic ailments including diabetes, heart disease, and chronic illnesses offer some perfect examples of how similar our health problems are, despite the great distance and fixed borders between us.  There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ anymore and every nation’s action has ripple effects outside of their borders.

Now take one last point into consideration. Although humans have drawn lines on maps to distinguish nationalities, health has never seen borders.  No disease comes to the border of France and Germany and says, ‘ok guys, we stop here, we’re just going to stay in one country!’.  But with the frequent flying and global distribution chains, the ability for anything to get anywhere in the world is no longer a question of how, but how quickly, and this concept means an incredible challenge for all members of the planet.

nobordersDisease Sees A World Without Borders

From these points, I for one am in the ‘global health’ camp.  Here’s why:

I believe that a small thing like a word may change the way we view health on a global scale.  The current Ebola epidemic (yes, it is still ongoing despite the lack of media attention in Western nations) has shown us most recently, but there have been a plethora of examples in the past that have shown how a health risk anywhere in the world is most definitely a health risk for all (think SARS and MERS and avian flu for example).

Apart from diseases classified as infectious or contagious, 60% of all deaths globally in 2008 were due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and 80% of these deaths occurred in low, and middle-income countries, showing how poor eating habits and low level of exercise in our Western lifestyle are also contagious.  I would be thrilled to see this change in terms encourage policy modification and reshape the way we view the world and our health in it.

Maybe it is just a name though, as Shakespeare famously wrote ‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Does either term illicit a reaction from your thoughts? Do they differ in terms of the emotional response or images they suggest? Hmm…

So, you know where I stand. Where do you see the future of health for all? Is it global health? International health? Perhaps there’s a name that might make everything even more homogeneous. Let me know your thoughts.

References:

http://www.gatesfoundation.org/who-we-are/resources-and-media/annual-letters-list/annual-letter-2012 and http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/General-Information/Foundation-Factsheet

http://ncdfree.org/what-are-ncds/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891552011000079

Coffee Is For Talking, Not Germs…

It’s only a week into the year and germs are already a hot topic! The rapid rise of the flu has been the most prominent headline.  But I’ve been talking about several other issues from the impact microbes have on the mind to advancing the need for alternatives to antibiotics in agriculture.

Let’s just say it’s been a wild start to 2015 and it is only going to get crazier…and busier.

With that being said, I don’t want to let this blog go by the wayside as it did in 2014 (and again, I apologize).  As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve invited a few colleagues to share with me some of their experiences with the germy world. I’m hoping their personal perspectives will bring a different light to the subject.

It’s all part of the sciPOP experiments. I think these different viewpoints will widen the scope of our relationship with germs beyond the microbiological and immunological.

First up…Nathalie Earl.  She is one of my closest friends and confidantes and has been since my days in high school. She is a herpetologist and an expert in the lab with her own publication record. She’s also an amazing mother of two wonderful kids and will be my mentor when I take the reproductive plunge.

Kermit-the-Frog

For the record, one of her nicknames is Kermit
(how appropriate)

A few weeks ago, she told me a story about something she saw while having a cup of coffee. It was such a fascinating story I asked her to write it here.  I’m sure you will find it as intriguing as I did.

I’m hoping Nathalie will become a regular to this blog as I find I always learn when I talk with her.  Hope you can help me welcome her with your comments.

So, without further ado…Nathalie Earl.

——————————————————————–

So germs are a hot topic…we live with them everyday and many of us read the Germ Guy’s Blog about them. Yet we don’t go to the coffee shop to talk about them; well unless you are a group of microbiologists (and yes, Jason has…many times!) For the rest of us, I know what you are probably thinking…germs in the coffee shop?

Well YES! However; not most likely what you are thinking.

It was a first for me – I love people watching and how we interact with one another.  So when I saw the little baby,  I was like most people …Oh! What a cute baby, then I saw IT – a luggage tag hanging from the handle of the car seat, just above the baby, it read:

I am a PREMI and your
GERMS are too BIG for me!

My first reaction; Jason would love this! Then I contemplated the message.  This baby’s parents were trying to prevent unwanted physical contact with their baby and had found a way for him/her to let people know that is was NOT OK to touch.

baby-501630_640Interesting, right?

That being said, why should we Joe Q Public care?  What would lead this parent to put up this message?

Well, premature babies have an underdeveloped immune system, that’s why.

The quick and dirty explanation is that premature babies have not come to full term. That means they have not produced enough white blood cells or antibodies to be around other people. If they do, their immune system cannot fight off germs that could cause infections. So, whether it is an adult or another full term infant, distance is needed, even if no one appears to be sick.

So, we know premies are off limits.  But a coffee shop can be chock full of germs. So, how do we ensure we don’t spread infections to others especially during cold and flu season? People like The Germ Guy, are on the radio/TV/or internet telling us to wash our hands as often a possible.  With these reminders we have adapted our greetings to not involve contact or if contact is required the “fist bump” as an acceptable alternative.  When a handshake is required it is more often (then not) followed by the clicking sound of the cap on our personal bottles of hand sanitizer.  Besides, the smell of coffee and alcohol sanitizer can be somewhat relaxing – having been around Jason, I know this for certain!

Okay, many would say that we require exposure to germs to help strengthen our immune system.  I do agree on the condition people have a strong enough immune system.  Thus this only applies to adults and children older than 6 months.  In this way, we can have a properly functional immune system and enjoy or endure exposure to many germs over our life time.  But if you are a premi, forget about it.

So what do you think?  Were the parents over protective with the sign? Should the baby have stayed at home until he/she had a stronger immune system?  What about when we go to the coffee shop alone? Do you ever worry about what germs are carried to the coffee shop? Or are you too busy getting caffeinated to be curious about the consequences?

As Jason always says, I’d love to know your answers and thoughts…

 

Experiments in sciPOP: Of Flu Vaccines and Sports Teams…

My how time flies…

When I last wrote here, it was October and now here we are in 2015! So, first off…

happy-new-year-2015-1920-1080-3088HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I would also like to say to all the new people who are following this blog…

Thank-You-messageTHANK YOU!!!

I am extremely grateful to see so many people choosing to sign up and I promise I will do my best to keep adding to this site.

It’s been a rather incredible time over the last few months and as you might expect, very busy. I’ve been to conferences, invited seminars, given a few book presentations and been asked to do dozens of media interviews ranging in topics from kissing microbes to a mumps outbreak.

I’ve also had the chance to meet some other health enthusiasts and evangelists along the way.  Some of them will appear here on the blog over the coming weeks and months and I am sure you will love what they have to say and share.

As to the development of sciPOP – the art of story re-telling – it’s been going well in the real world. I’ve been so thankful for the kind words and even more so for the purchases of The Germ Code.  I am still amazed that the tome – my very first experiment in sciPOP – continues to do well. I just wish I could sign all of them as thanks.

As to what will come in 2015, I have started to find ways to experiment with sciPOP so I can gauge how to further develop it. Some of these experiments will appear here while others will be incorporated into other works and appearances.  Also, some researchers will share their experiments here.  To learn more about how this will progress, you can click on the link in the header to find out more.

If you have an idea for sciPOP, be sure to let me know. If it’s a question, I may use it for a future article or perhaps in some other fashion in the media.  If you wish to share an experiment, then please feel free to let me know and we can find a way to let everyone know about it.

Now on to the experiment…
(and yes, this is my sciPOP mad scientist look)

As to what construes a sciPOP experiment, it really means taking a look at science in a different light that appeals to the general public. One such example happened last week when I was asked to join CBC to discuss a recent new article focusing on the flu vaccine.


get-your-flu-shot

As you may have heard, the flu vaccine for this season is not as effective as public health officials might like. Instead of the usual 70% average, data revealed the ability to protect against one of the four major circulating strains could be lower than 50%.  While the usual protection will still be there for the other strains, this lack of a ‘winning record’ against this one particular strain led officials to sound the alarm and forewarn of a bad flu season.

When I was asked to discuss this topic, one of the questions focused on whether people would turn away from the vaccine.  After all, when a medical treatment or vaccine is considered to be less effective, some people tend to ask, “Why bother?”  It made sense in one way and yet, considering the tolerance of failure in regards to some other offerings, also led to some head-scratching and eventually an answer:

090821_slide_leafsSPORTS FANS!

Think about it (and for those who heard me on CBC I hope you have):

Sports fans are rabid for their teams.  Living in Toronto, I know how loyal this city is to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. The motto, “Go Leafs Go,” is as much a part of this city as the CN Tower.

Yet, when you take a look at the record, the team has not done particularly well.  In the last ten years, the team has struggled and even had losing records for some season. They have only made the playoffs once and even then suffered one of the most dramatic losses seen in the history of the game.

If you were to ask a fan if he or she would say, “Why bother?” to supporting their team, even in the worst of seasons, you would be met with ridicule and spite. It’s just that simple – no matter what happens, a fan is a fan always.

So why is it then that we cannot make the same fanaticism for the flu vaccine?

don-cherryThe Biggest Hockey Fan Gets His Flu Shot

Let’s take it a little further.  When you look at the mechanics of vaccination, we realize the jab is really a sports trainer for our bodies. In the same way as pumping weights helps muscles, practice time helps mental acuity, and proper nutrition helps metabolism, a vaccine prepares the immune system.  Even though the shot may not be 100% effective, it will still provide an opportunity for the body to get some practice and develop memory.

For this year, it may be too late to convince people to change their perspective. Most have already made their decision to either get the shot or to give it a pass.  But as we move into the flu season for the Southern Hemisphere – which by the way, the vaccine is properly developed – and then into the fall and winter up here in the North, perhaps we can learn to become fans rather than critics.

If all goes well, we might see a rise in the number of people getting the vaccine and with any luck, a less than robust flu season to come.

flu-shot-turn-wheelShow the vaccine some love…

Let me know what you think by commenting below. Even if it’s just to wish everyone a happy new year, I’d love to hear from you.


P.S. I do have one more note for those who heard me on CBC. When I spoke about the nature of the vaccine, I mentioned it contained an H3N2 strain, 2 H1N1 strains including the pandemic and a B strain. I goofed. It’s actually H3N2, H1N1 (pandemic), and 2 B strains.  I apologize for the error.

 

 

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