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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Do You Really Need An Antibiotic?

This week has been filled with controversy. In that vein, I feel it’s a good time to say something equally controversial:

Sometimes the best antibiotic prescription
is no prescription at all.

Okay, if you happen to be in public health, especially in Canada, this might not seem all that troublesome. After all, it’s been a mantra in the medical community for years. Yet, considering we still hear about the abuse and misuse of these life-saving drugs, the guidance hasn’t been accepted universally.

One of the reasons for the lack of compliance is based on a statement I hear quite often when I’m out in the public realm. Maybe you have heard it – or said it – at one time or another:

Prove to me I don’t need an antibiotic.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult request. But over the last few years, researchers have been exploring whether a person can deal with a bacterial infection without the use of antibiotics. The answer is yes but finding a way to show this to the public has been a real challenge. Usually, the information is hidden in statistics, which can be subject to skepticism.

However, I came across something that might demonstrate why forgoing an antibiotic may be worthwhile. It looks something like this…

 (Kinda cool, eh?)

What you’re looking at is a figure that comes from a paper entitled, Symptom response to antibiotic prescribing strategies in acute sore throat in adults: the DESCARTE prospective cohort study in UK general practice. You can click on the title to read the paper.

As you can guess from the graph above and the title of the paper, the researchers examined the progression of the traditional sore throat based on symptoms. They looked at 1512 people who had suffered the illness. The symptom information then was matched with the treatment the individuals received.

  • Some had no antibiotics (the blue);
  • Some had a regular antibiotic prescription (the red);
  • Some had what is known as a delayed antibiotics (green).

Delayed antibiotics is a recent trend going around in which a patient is asked to wait a few days after an initial visit to determine if the infection goes away. This is a great way to determine if the infection is bacterial and may need antibiotics, or viral, in which case antibiotics are useless. This approach also allows the body to fight the infection few days. There’s a good reason for this:

The immune system can handle
many infections on its own.

Based on all the results, the addition of antibiotics resulted in an observed reduction in the length of the worst symptoms. But the extent was far less than anyone might have believed. In fact, once all the numbers were crunched, the benefit ended up being equivalent to a grand total of…

One day.

That’s it. Twenty-four hours of lessened symptoms. Nothing more.

The researchers did happen to point out that those who didn’t take antibiotics had a harder time dealing with the infection throughout the period. But in the end, they recovered just as well as those who had taken the antibiotics.

The results of this study may help add credence to the mantra, but that doesn’t mean forgoing antibiotics is valid for every infection. Just recently, I came across an individual who had a sore throat and decided not to take antibiotics. The person lasted a week before caving in to the pain. The bacterial infection was more troublesome and the immune system needed a boost.

If you are wondering what the best option might be should your throat start to scratch, your urinary tract start to burn, or your eyes begin to turn red and water, let me be perfectly clear:

I can’t tell you.

This is a decision that only can be made between you and your doctor.

What I will advise is that when you do feel those troubles and you make that appointment, don’t be quick to ask for a prescription. Your doctor may want perform some tests first to find out what might be causing the troubles. You may be asked to wait and see if your immune system can pull through. Or, there may be ample evidence to make the prescription immediately.

Just remember, if you are given a prescription and fill it, you need to stick with it until the end, even if you feel better. This way you can be sure that you are clearing your body of the infection and reducing the chances for recurrence down the road.

Finally, I’m curious about the use of antibiotics. So, let me ask a relatively simple question I hope many of you won’t mind answering:

When was your last antibiotic prescription?

 

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The Secret Behind Stress Eating And Obesity…

Mysteries are a staple in the entertainment business. Something nefarious has happened and it’s up to the hero to go through the clues and find the responsible suspect. Usually, when the answer is discovered, all the pieces are put together and eventually, the revelation is made…

(Usually with an all-knowing smirk…)

Mysteries are also a major part of scientific research. Large, scoping questions are asked and over years, clues are revealed through the tireless work of labs all over the world. It may take decades but eventually, the answer is found and the results are shared with the world.

Of course, there are times when the answer seems to be impossible to find. Researchers are left scouring through the data in the hopes of finding something that may open up a path to discovery. But more times than not, the results offer little direction allowing hope to be replaced with…

(Stress…)

I’ve been there numerous times and one of the things I find is that when I get stressed, I tend to get hungry. Making the situation worse is that the pangs are not satiated by eating healthy food. I want something bad, fatty and sugary. It could be fish and chips, a fatty burger, or…

(A tart…)

This phenomenon, known as stress-eating, is quite common although how it happens has been, in itself, a mystery. For decades, researchers have been working with people and animal models in the hopes of finding the one mechanism – or if they are lucky the one cell type – responsible for this rather poor health choice.

Now, we may finally have an…

(Aha! moment…)

It comes in the form of a paper entitled, Microglial Inflammatory Signaling Orchestrates the Hypothalamic Immune Response to Dietary Excess and Mediates Obesity Susceptibility. You can click on the title to read the paper.

The researchers used mice to explore what happens inside the brain during what is known as diet-induced obesity. It is a well-known condition caused by a very familiar villain of health. I’m sure you’ll know it as soon as its name is revealed…

(Sorry, Moriarty…)

It’s inflammation.

When the body suffers from this ailment, immune cells drive other bodily systems to alter their function. This happens in the gut, in the blood, and yes, even in the brain. In the latter, the immune cells involved are known as…

(Microglia…)

They are the soldiers responsible for ensuring the brain is protected from infections, injury, and other invasions. These cells had been shown to be involved in increasing one’s appetite for unhealthy foods particularly when the body experiences stress.

But no one could quite figure out how or why…

The team focused on the area of the brain known to be responsible for the need to eat. It’s officially called the mediobasal hypothalamus, but is more commonly referred to as the MBH. To give you an idea of the size of this region…

(Here’s the hypothalamus…)

 

(And here is the MBH…)

The first experiments examined the concept of a loss of function. In other words, they reduced the cell’s population from this area and also prevented these cells from doing their jobs properly. As expected, both helped to reduce the urge to eat in the animals.

The next stage of the process required them to do the opposite and amp up the effects of the microglia. To do this, they created a hyper-inflammatory environment. When they did this, the mice had severe hunger issues.

These experiments were run of the mill neuroscience and little can be concluded from this information. But before you start wondering…


(When will he get to the good stuff?)

Let me tell you that we’re close to that Aha! moment.

When the microglia were hyperstimulated, something else happened. The mice became resistant to a particular chemical known to be involved in obesity and other weight-related issues. It’s called…

(Leptin…)

I know it doesn’t look like much but this little protein has a huge impact on our ability to control our weight. It helps to control how happy we are with the nutrients inside us.

But if we lose out on the ability to respond to leptin, a condition called resistance, a rather vicious cycle occurs. We tend to eat more sugary and fatty foods in order to feel full. But since we can’t sense that fullness, we continue to eat. Put it this way…

(Leptin resistance is bad…)

In this experiment, the researchers had caused leptin resistance by making the microglia hyperactive. In turn, this led to the initiation of the cycle, and the mice became obese.

Now you can say Aha! or perhaps even…

(Hallelujah!)

So, to recap:

  1. Stress changes the way microglia function in the brain including the MBH;
  2. They can get overexcited and become resistant to leptin;
  3. Leptin resistance can lead to changes in energy balance & reduce the sense of fullness;
  4. This leads to an urge to eat sugary foods;
  5. This in turn eventually can lead to weight gain.

The overall results of this study do help us to solve the mystery of stress-eating (at least in mice). But the information also introduces another more intriguing question…

(Can we prevent obesity?)

Although we won’t know this for quite some time, the clock may already be ticking in this direction. When the researchers took out the microglia, they used a drug called PLX5622. It’s being tested in clinical trials to manage arthritis. With these results in hand, the drug may be given further examination to see whether it may be able to help calm down the microglia and possibly control stress eating.

But that is for the future. In the meantime, when we feel stressed and find ourselves stricken with the munchies, just realize we may not to blame. Based on this study, it may be just our microglia forcing us to think and act this way. With more research, we may be able one day to find ways to reduce the stress we feel and reduce the chances for obesity.

In the meantime, if you want to avoid stress eating, the best way to achieve this may be to find at least a few moments during the day when you can exist is the state known to reduce the hunger…

(Calm…)

From Germ Guy to YEGhead…

Normally, I am contacted by the media about three to five times per week for interviews although that number can reach into the dozens over a seven-day period. As a result of the sheer number of appearances, I tend not to post the reports lest this blog be little more than a link hub.

However, I want to share one particular interview from yesterday with you.

(The Ryan Jespersen Show)

If you have about twenty minutes, you can listen to the entire discussion as the topics encapsulate most of the stories I’ve been discussing over the last seven days.

Even if you don’t have that amount of time, I would suggest you listen to the first two minutes as I make an announcement live on air. As to the nature of that announcement, if you are familiar with airport codes, you might already know the details from the title of this post.

If not, this might offer some assistance…

(If, of course, you are familiar with hockey…)

If that isn’t helping, this visual clue may help…

(If, of course, you are familiar with shopping malls…)

If it’s still not clicking, perhaps this can make everything perfectly clear…

(a.k.a. YEG)

Come January 2018, I’ll be leaving the metropolis of Toronto and heading out west to the exquisite environs of Edmonton.

The move is not random, I assure you. This has been in discussion for almost a year and only recently became official. I won’t share the details here but if you wish to learn more, you know how to contact me.

What I can tell you is this. The move has the potential to open up new avenues in the realm of science communication. Being The Germ Guy has brought me to this incredible point in my life. Yet, I have expanded my horizons over the last decade. I hope to increase the scope of my work over the coming years although perhaps not with the moniker, The YEGhead. But who knows…

The process most likely will be slow but I promise you, I will do my best not to lose my mercurial nature. It is a part of who I am and I cannot imagine losing it. Besides, I find it always helps to deal with stories such as one I recently discussed on TV dealing with…

(Germy birthday cakes…)

I hope you will continue to stick with me as I make this transition. I have been thankful for your support over the years and will do my best to keep you engaged and entertained regardless of what place I call home.

 

Expanding Horizons Into A Brain New World…

To say the last few months have been busy would be an understatement. April and May were filled with events including keynotes, workshops and my usual “Germ Guy” performances. By the time I arrived home, there was only one thing I wanted to do…

(After I take my probiotics of course…)

But amid the chaos, I also took on a new task, which may seem a little odd at first. I decided it was time to start looking at how to communicate a very different type of science. Microbes and the immune system are fantastic but I wanted to delve into another facet of human existence…


(Neuroscience…)

This wasn’t a flight of fancy, mind you. It’s been on my mind for quite some time.

It all started a few years back when I was starting to write The Germ Files. I had been hoping to find a way to merge the worlds of microbiology and the brain. My goal at the time was to call the microbial population in all of us, “The Third Brain.” Unfortunately, when it came to making this concept – or if you wish to be accurate, conceit – work, one word came to mind…

(It simply did not work…)

Clearly, I needed to learn more before I could speak about the topic. The only issue with that, however, was a lack of time. I couldn’t afford to put in the effort needed to achieve the right level of understanding. I needed the time to read, read and read some more to gain an appreciation of neuroscience. Then I had to practice writing to effectively communicate.

I’ve been involved in this for about a year but the last few months have afforded me the chance to get comfortable with the topic. I’ve gained the right appreciation needed to go deep into the science and resurface with meaningful and enriching information for the public.

But now comes the hard part…

(Making it entertaining…)

As I continue on this journey, I may interrupt my regularly schedule germy posts with articles and other tidbits from the neuroscience world. If all goes well, you’ll have the same enjoyment factor as those dealing with microbes.

Of course, if I don’t meet your level of expectation, I hope you will let me know…

(Kindly if possible…)

In the meantime, I’ll be getting back to regular posting here on those microbiological and immunological papers and topics I find fascinating. I know it’s been quiet but hope you have not been too offended by the absence.

Oh, if you are looking to see how I have been translating neuroscience for the public, you can check out a compilation of articles I wrote over the last while here: CAN News. I’m sure you will find some of the stories fascinating at the scientific level and I hope personally engaging.

 

 

 

 

Want To Remove Political Bias? Get ‘Em Curious…

There has been quite a bit of attention on science as of late. Granted, most of it has been negative; manifested in an ongoing backlash against recommendations made by scientists. No matter how much evidence is provided, there’s always that recurring refrain:

jerry(SHOW ME THE PROOF!)

I completely understand this sentiment. After all, science is not absolute and as such, has difficulties dealing with questions based on analysis. As researchers, we are trained to deal with these types of questions and find ways to respond to them accurately.

But the current situation is far worse. Instead of an argument of evidence vs evidence, questions are being asked based on fear, ideology, or what I consider to be the worst, political leanings. When this happens, a seed of doubt can quickly turn into an epidemic of distrust in the public. Most scientists are not ready for this type of dissent and many find themselves facing a…

mission-impossible-1(Mission Impossible…)

When you think about it, scientists are not alone. We are seeing similar actions against some of our most valued institutions such as the media, the justice system, and public health. In all of these cases, hard working people are doing their best to improve society and yet, at the end of the day, they always feel like they are…

money(Behind the 8-Ball)

In light of this, researchers have attempted to figure out how to dampen the fierce opposition, especially that which is not based on evidence and/or mechanisms. Unfortunately, in most cases, the results have suggested most strategies simply cannot get through the wall of politics. No matter how much scientists wish people would say it, in general, they are unwilling to state…

want-truth(I WANT THE TRUTH!) 

As to why people do not wish to learn more, you might say the answer is the same line you may have said to yourselves after seeing the above image…

handle(Which usually is the case…)

But researchers continue undeterred and finally it seems a group of researchers may have found one possible solution to this problem. The paper was published in the journal Political Psychology and as you might expect, goes after the concept of politics in the rejection of science.

You can read the whole article here: Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing but the answer is so simple, it could be considered laughable…

fashion(Unless you compare it to this…)

The team of researchers wanted to find out what could negate politically-motivated reasoning not based on evidence or mechanism. To do this, they first had to figure out what the difference was between normal reasoning and those based on political viewpoints. They provide a nice summary in this figure…

reasoning(Politics, um, trumps facts…)

This is troublesome to say the least because no matter how well scientists may communicate their views, they are destined to lose out because of those political predispositions. In order to succeed at gaining interest in science, something had to be done to negate the political viewpoints. But rather than use evidence, they decided to rely on something a little more…

risky(Risqué…work with me here…)

Instead of detailing evidence, such as those you might see in news stories, the team decided to go a different route. They wanted to offer something much more intrinsic to every human, regardless of political viewpoint. It’s been around for thousands of years and yet, from a scientific perspective, never seems to be a viable option when trying to convince people of the value of research. I’m talking about…

magnolia(Entertainment…)

The group asked volunteers to watch portions of scientific films with names such as, “Your Inner Fish,” “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” and “Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink.” The excerpts were chosen such that they wouldn’t overtly point to evidence or mechanisms. Rather, they would merely offer hints of the natural course of the world in the hopes of developing a sense of curiosity.

It was a gamble to say the least. After all, it could be disastrous to take a chance against the political grain…

lestat(Or the political fans for that matter…)

Yet, it worked. When people were asked about their curiosity on several politically-sensitive topics, climate change or fracking, individuals on both side of the spectrum seemed to have a similar patterns of interest.

But this wasn’t the real shocker. That came when the authors asked about the volunteers’ attitudes to these topics. Even the most die-hard conservatives changed their views in comparison to controls. Watching the films helped these individuals believe the concerns regarding these issues were real and without action, pose a threat to humanity.

For the authors, this was a complete surprise. By simply showing science in the form on entertainment, they had developed a change that was equivalent to…

knight-and-day(Okay, you can groan about this one…)

I admit, the results may seem incredible. Yet, from a purely human perspective, this should come as no surprise. No matter how deep political views may be entrenched, we all can be drawn from them through entertainment, particularly if it’s done well. Our belief system is hijacked by what we see and this can negate or at least lessen the impact of what is ingrained in us.

The results of this study reveal the importance of curiosity and entertainment in ensuring scientific success. However, there is one potential drawback to going the route of entertainment as opposed to evidence. No matter how slick and professional the output, there should always be a link back to the original research. If the public cannot identify the science within the style, then they may not realize why they are watching, listening, or reading. In essence, they might completely miss…

lessrossman
(Who the real actor may be…)

While this research may suggest going the entertainment route will lead to a more scientifically-based society, scientists also need to understand this approach can only go so far. Even though curiosity may help negate political bias, it may not be enough to get individuals to act in a manner that befits the concern. That will require a different type of convincing that so far, no one has figured out. But you can be sure, should that strategy every be found, those who come up with it will most definitely be considered at least in the scientific world…

topgun(I know you were waiting for it…)

The Trouble With Cause By Association…

If you happen to keep up with the media, you’ll no doubt encounter health stories focusing on behaviour and disease. Usually, the reports go along these lines…

“A new study has revealed that doing/not doing X can lead to a higher/lower risk for Y.”

The whole point is to make you, as the audience take a step back and think…

hmm1(Hmm…)

These studies are useful as they can help us determine whether certain actions can lead to subsequent health events. They can also help guide policy.

But, there is a rather unfortunate catch. Sometimes, the recommendations arising from these reports contradict each other. The epitome of this conundrum happens to centre around a drink we all know and many of us love…

coffee(A Cup o’ Joe…)

Over the last few years, we’ve been inundated with reports on the health benefits and risks associated with coffee consumption.

On the good side, two to four cups a day may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, ovarian cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer and depression. If you’re a caffeine fiend (like me), six cups a day could reduce the chances for skin cancer.

Reading this list may make you want to say…

garfield(Never mess with an upset Garfield…)

But before you start purchasing those boxes of beans, there is a flip side. Other studies have revealed distinctly different outcomes. Some suggest more than four cups a day may decrease bone density and increase cholesterol. Then there are studies suggesting this much coffee may increase the risk of death by fifty-six percent.

Looking at these numbers might make change your answer to any java offering to…

lemur(I would rather not die…)

From a policy perspective, this information is useful in developing certain recommendations. You can drink two to four cups a day but don’t go any higher. Makes sense, right?

Yet the public perspective is more inclined to be based on an all or nothing principle.  The compilation of these reports can muddy the waters and lead you to drift from Hmm to…

hmm2(Ugh…)

As to why this type of study divergence happens, there is a simple answer. All these studies are observational. The researchers are only looking at links between certain activities in a population of people and what happens to their health over time. This means the results, no matter how robust, only show association, not cause.

We tend to use a specific saying to stress this point:

corecauseCORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION

While this term is extremely useful in scientific realms, in the public forum, it may be considered yet another example of academic elitism.

To get a real grasp of the importance of this cautionary advice, a more appreciable example would provide a stronger perspective. I originally had thought about going through the coffee craziness, but a recent happening may be far more valuable.

This past weekend, I went to a concert for one of my favorite bands…

(Red Hot Chili Peppers…)

I’ve been a fan of their funky music for decades and have loved almost every album. Not to mention, they are perhaps the only group that regularly uses microbes in their lyrics.

Before the concert, I had reached out to the band on Twitter expressing my deep desire to hear a particular song, “Higher Ground.” Many of you might know it from the original singer…

wonder(Stevie Wonder…)

When the concert began however, the set list appeared to follow a path down which this song would not be included. While I was happy to be at the concert, I was feeling a little disappointed.

Then, about two-thirds into the 90 minute show, something magical happened. An incredible bass riff sounded through the concert hall. If you are not aware of it, just listen to the first few seconds…

(The whole song is worth a listen…)

I arose from my seat and starting singing – well screaming – along with the band. This was a singular moment of joy. But I also had another thought that made this experience even more special…

ididit(I caused the song to be played!)

I mean, I did send them a social media request and they did change their song list to suit me. I had to be the cause…right?!

Well, much to my chagrin, the answer is most likely…

goahead(and say NO…)

As hard as it is for me to accept, my one tweet most likely did not lead to a change in the set list. Sure, it might have happened but there was no evidence or mechanism to suggest I was the cause.

Now, if the member of the band I tweeted sent me a response, then there would be a mechanism in place…

  1. I tweeted.
  2. He saw it.
  3. He changed policy.
  4. I benefited.

But without proof, all I can do is surmise and apply conjecture similar to a…

fishing(You get the idea…)

Although the difference between my story and making recommendations for improved public health is an obvious stretch, I hope this at least provides some perspective on the limited power of observational studies. They are useful but need to be examined as a part of a larger picture. Changing one’s actions based on an individual report may lead to trouble.

I hope this example also will engage you to ask a very simple and yet incredibly important question the next time you see/hear/read one of these studies associating behaviour with health…

mechanism(Is there a mechanism?)

If the answer is no, then maybe it’s best to ignore the recommendations until better evidence comes around.

 

Another Reason Why We Should Never Bet Against Nature…

Over the last decade and a half, one entity has arisen from relative obscurity to being one of the most feared threats. Teams have come together to try and defeat this incredible opponent. Officials have tried to slow down the seemingly indomitable force. Yet, each and every time, failure is the end result and millions are left with what could be described as an itching feeling. It has become clear that when it comes to battle, you simply do not mess with…

(Bill Belichick!)

There is, of course, another threat that emulates the relative craftiness of the head coach of the New England Patriots. This one, however, casts a much wider net across the globe and leaves many more people suffering in its wake. I’m talking about…

mosquito (The Mosquito…)

This small insect has quickly risen to become one of humanity’s greatest public health concerns. Granted, for most of us, the annoyance of a mosquito bite is similar to watching the Pats win yet another Super Bowl…it’s temporary and eventually goes away.

mcnabb(Except maybe in the case of the Eagles…)

Heartbreak aside, for millions around the world, the mosquito situation is far more dire. A single bite can lead to a life-threatening illness. The problem has become so bad that this insect has become recognized as the world’s greatest killer…

deaths(Sorry sharks…)

For years, researchers have been trying to figure out how to stop the mosquito from causing so much trouble. Spraying pesticides has been an old-time favorite but this has proven to be inadequate. Attempts at using natural mosquito killers such as wasps and bacteria may work but they are not widely supported by the general public.

More recently, another approach has shown promise. Instead of focusing on killing the insects, some scientists have attempted to take out critical molecular components needed for reproduction. By genetically modifying these regions, females can be rendered infertile.

In essence, these researchers are trying to take out what I like to call the…

brady(Tom Brady Factor)

The process is rather straightforward. Mutations are incorporated into one generation of mosquitoes such that they simply cannot use the genes. The insects are then allowed to integrate into a community and mate with natural members of the population. The end result is fewer offspring and an overall reduction in the number of these biting pests. Biologically, this is what is known as a…

gene-drive(Gene Drive…)

If you want more information on this technique, you can read more about it here:
‘Gene drive’ mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria.

Early results have seemed promising, yet a major obstacle has been identified. While gene drives may be effective in the short term, researchers are learning they are probably not as useful as once believed. Instead of being a part of a winning strategy, they seem to be ending up being little more than a…

helmet-catch(Helmet catch…)

Granted, this moment was dazzling in display and helped the New York Giants defeat the Patriots. But it was also a fluke that could never be repeated. After all, Belichick returned to raise the trophy not long afterwards.

seattle(Sorry, Seattle…)

As to why gene drives don’t seem to be a long-lasting option, the answer appears to be something scientists always seem to be forgetting when they come up with these ideas. It’s even more unstoppable than Belichick and mosquitoes. We all know it and yet few ever seem to give it the credit it deserves. It’s known as…

nature(Nature…)

It apparently abhors these types of interventions and will do all it can to mitigate them and render them useless. In the case of the mosquito, the introduced mutations are targeted and taken out in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the fully functioning gene is returned. In other cases, natural mutations in the drive can shut it down. Then there is a behavioural component whereby those with the gene drives may interfere with mate selection.

In all of these cases, the end result is the same. The mosquito population thrives and we end up having to once again face…

brady-belichick(A Winning Combination…)

While this discovery may mean gene drives could be going the way of the Rams, Eagles, Panthers, and Seahawks in the fight against mosquitoes, research is always working to find new answers. Sure, the discoveries may not be worthy of your New York Football Giants, but they may eventually offer up a means to keep these insects at bay and help us to improve public health worldwide.

Of course, to accomplish this, researchers will have to be given the resources they need. In addition, they have to be sure to be as sharp and keen eyed as…

falcons
(Yeah, yeah, I know it’s hawks…work with me here!)

One more thing…even if you are not watching the game, don’t forget to check out my “Super Bowl Commercials” from a few years back. You can find them here: Super Bowl 2012 Commercials.

A Case of Extreme Vexing…

Every year, an infectious disease spreads like wildfire across North America bringing along with it misery for those who ends up being afflicted. People find themselves rushing to run to the bathroom to relieve that feeling of being sick to their stomachs. Although the condition only lasts a few days, the nightmare is not soon forgotten.

For those wondering, I’m not talking about…

bieber_fever(Although it it quite contagious…)

Instead I’m talking about an illness with many names. Some fifty years ago, it was known as the Winter Vomiting Disease. Then in the 1970s, it was called Norwalk Virus, named after the city in which the virus was originally isolated. Some know it as the cruise ship virus due to its ability to turn a joyful voyage on the sea into a ugly nightmare. Officially, however, it’s known as…

(Norovirus…or noro)

Having studies this organism in the lab, I can tell you it is quite possibly the perfect outbreak pathogen. It has everything going for it…

  1. It can survive for weeks on surfaces – it can be picked up quite easily;
  2. It has a low infectious dose – you only need to ingest a few to develop illness;
  3. It continues to spread after you feel better;
  4. It can resist regular disinfection procedures.

To say the least, this is a true…

eenie-meenie(Eenie Meenie…)

The moment noro finds its way into a confined environment, such as a cruise ship, college dormitory, school, or hospital ward, the situation becomes one of extreme vexing. The virus simply moves its way around from person to person until the entire population has been affected.

To gain any kind of control over this problem, officials need to use equally extreme interventions, such as closing a ward, cancelling the cruise ship trip, or banishing dorm residents for a week. If this were to happen under any other circumstance, it would lead to a massive request for these authorities to say…

sorry(And here’s some money too…)

But when the cause of the conflict is noro, there really is no other recourse.

Although noro hits each year around this time, some seasons end up being far more troublesome than others. The virus seems to affect more people and cause even greater damage. Even more vexing, those who believe they are immune to the virus – because they already had suffered from it – suddenly find themselves back at the toilet again wondering…

mean(What Do You Mean?!)

This happens to be one of those years. It’s not really anyone’s fault, mind you. The trouble is due to the natural ability of the virus to evolve. Much like that other, more famous virus, influenza, noro has several circulating strains, known as genotypes. Just this year alone, the CDC has estimated the number of virus types spreading in the United States is at least six…

norovirus(Although not distributed evenly…)

Unless a person happens to have had come into contact with all of these different genotypes, the risk for infection is always present. This sets up a rather inconvenient truth in which we much admit no matter how many times we may end up with the illness, we must…

neversaynever(No matter how much we would like to…)

There is a small bright side to this situation. Unlike respiratory viruses, noro needs to get into our gastrointestinal tracts in order to harm us. There is only one cell type the virus likes to attack and it’s deep inside the intestines. If we can prevent entry of the invader, we may be able to stay safe.

Granted, this does mean we have to ask one question…

wherenow(Where Are U Now?)

Yet as this image suggests, the answer is relatively easy. Most of the time noro spreads, it’s because it was on someone’s hands. People can pick up the virus from a surface, such as a sink tap or a washroom door handle and readily transfer it to other surfaces or, in the case of self-inoculation, the mouth.

Contamination of objects may not lead to an outbreak. But, when hands come into contact with food, all bets are off. This route usually is the one causing large numbers of infections in restaurants and on cruise ships. Usually, the incident occurs because one or more people simply did not wash their hands properly prior to handling fresh foods not meant for cooking. The end result sadly, is a mass of people disposing of their recent meals from both ends.

This latter situation is exactly why adhering to food safety protocols is so important. It’s also why I feel avoiding even the simplest actions to keep food safe makes…

nosense(No Sense!)

As each year passes and more cases are recorded, I imagine the virus will reach a certain level of infamy. People all over the world may find themselves wanting to avoid the gut-wrenching symptoms and those days of vexation. Granted, it won’t be easy as noro is an able opponent. Yet, as far as I can see, all we need is a combination of purpose, prowess, power and possibly…

bieber-pronger(Pronger!)

With these in place, we can do our best to ensure the virus stays out of our guts for good.

PS: Have you ever had norovirus? If you have, let me know how it felt.

PPS: For the record, I had it and hated it although not as much as when Chris Pronger pretty much did the same thing to the Ottawa Senators during the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals as he did to Bieber yesterday.

A New Type of Vaccination…Against Alternative Facts

This week, the average American experienced a taste of what it is like to be a public health official or researcher. It wasn’t due to an outbreak or epidemic, mind you. It had to do with this…

inauguration(Inauguration Day…)

Despite what your eyes might see above, several people claimed the crowd attending the 2017 event was more populous than that in 2009. A variety of statistics were thrown around to support this view. Even the centre of all that attention entered the debate suggesting he felt there were far more people than the visual evidence suggests.

This all culminated when a spokesperson who was questioned about these obviously inaccurate conclusions suggested they were…

alternative-facts(Alternative Facts…)

As you might expect, this started a rather heated debate in the media and the term itself went viral on social media. Even Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, entered the discussion pointing out…

fact(To much rejoicing I might add…)

Yet despite all this, those siding with the 2017 claim did not budge.

Right about now, you might find yourself experiencing a tinge of malcontent. Depending on how long this simmers (or festers), you may end up wanting to…

scream(Scream!)

But as much as I hate to say it, for public health officials and researchers, this is par for the course. Each and every day, these wonderful people watch helplessly as evidence is set aside and replaced by a combination of alternative facts, feelings, and conjecture. If they try to set the record straight, they are met with a combination of derision, defamatory comments, and accusations of…

dog-cat(Illiteracy…my favorite)

Using alternative facts to push a claim is a common practice in many different scientific arenas. Three of the most popular – and for the record, false – claims happen to be…

  • Vaccines cause autism.
  • GMOs are going to harm us.
  • Climate Change is not real

No matter what evidence from the scientific literature is presented, those who stand by these claims never let up. Instead, they share a variety of alternative facts in the hopes of confusing the public. What they are doing is relying on one of the fundamental tenets of science:  it is not absolute…

zero(Except, of course for Absolute Zero…)

Because scientists cannot conclude with complete certainty, alternative facts can squeeze into the discussion and eventually overtake it. Depending on the index case – the person who introduced these falsehoods – misinformation can spread like a virus. An outbreak may ensue and if not caught early enough, quickly turn into an epidemic of speculation, doubt, and lack of trust.

This analogy, while depressing, does offer some hope and a possible hypothesis to counter alternative facts. It goes something like this…

Because alternative facts are viruses of fiction,
we can vaccinate against them using factual information.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking…

what(He’s lost it this time…)

I admit, it does seem far-fetched. Yet, a group of researchers based in America and the UK, this theory appeared to be worthy of at least a preliminary test.

The team focused on climate change as the topic of interest. The virus, if you will, is the continuing perception that it does not exist. The vaccine was comprised not of a liquid injected into the arm, but a flood of factual information injected into the brain through communication.

Here’s how the experiment worked. The team conducted an online survey in which hundreds of people were asked about their view on climate change. Then, they were exposed to information regarding the phenomenon. The messages fell into one of the following categories:

  1. A consensus statement on climate change – it is happening;
  2. Alternative facts (which they called a counter-message);
  3. A simple vaccine comprised of easy to understand information about climate change;
  4. A stronger vaccine comprised of detailed knowledge and information on climate change.

After the exposures were complete, the volunteers were asked again for their views.

When the results came back, this is what they saw…

conesnsus

(The numbers here reveal the change in people’s views from their original stance…)

As you can see, the power of alternative facts (Line 3) is undeniable. These untrue perspectives were able to change the viewpoint of close to 10% of the people. They also are effective at in neutralizing an opposing message. Just look at Line 4. Even though the consensus statement was made, as soon as those viral entities made their way into the brain – especially for Republicans – the stance changed for the worse.

When you think about it, this is why people who want to avoid the truth turn to alternative facts. They know these distractions from reality can sway a person to doubt and possibly force them to turn away from what is known to be true.

But the real story comes in the subsequent lines. Line 5 is the simple vaccine while Line 6 is the stronger version. Both were effective at helping to sway the stance towards the evidence. Even when those alternative facts were presented, they had little effect. In essence, the vaccine had worked.

When it was all said and done, the vaccine wasn’t quite as effective as they hoped. The effectiveness was only about 20%. If this were a real biological vaccine, it would have to go back to the drawing board. However, for this purpose, a change of 20% of the population could be regarded as…

yuge(Sorry, I had to…)

When you think about a population of hundreds of millions of people such as America, swaying that many minds towards reality over fiction would be considered a triumph.

Of course, this study was done in a controlled setting using surveys and volunteers. No one quite knows if it would be as effective in the real world. However, for those who continue to spread the good word, this study should provide some comfort. The more these people continue to vaccinate the public, the greater the chance we may all be able to live in a world ruled by scientific evidence instead of…

pinocc(You get the idea…)

If you want to read the entire study, you can find it here: Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change – van der Linden – 2017 – Global Challenges – Wiley Online Library

 

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