Tag Archives: health

Gut bacteriophages associated with improved cognitive function and memory in both animals and humans

A growing body of evidence has implicated gut bacteria in regulating neurological processes such as neurodegeneration and cognition. Now, a study from Spanish researchers shows that viruses present in the gut microbiota can also improve mental functions in flies, mice, and humans.

Credit: CDC.

They easily assimilate into their human hosts — 8% of our DNA consists of ancient viruses, with another 40% of our DNA containing genetic code thought to be viral in origin. As it stands, the gut virome (the combined genome of all viruses housed within the intestines) is a crucial but commonly overlooked component of the gut microbiome.

But we’re not entirely sure what it does.

This viral community is comprised chiefly of bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria and can transfer genetic code to their bacterial hosts. Remarkably, the integration of bacteriophages or phages into their hosts is so stable that over 80% of all bacterial genomes on earth now contain prophages, permanent phage DNA as part of their own — including the bacteria inside us humans. Now, researchers are inching closer to understanding the effects of this phenomenon.

Gut and brain

In their whitepaper published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe, a multi-institutional team of scientists describes the impact of phages on executive function, a set of cognitive processes and skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals. These fundamental skills include adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization, the regulation of which is thought, in part, to be controlled by the gut microbiota.

The study focuses on the Caudovirales and Microviridae family of bacteriophages that dominate the human gut virome, containing over 2,800 species of phages between them.

“The complex bacteriophage communities represent one of the biggest gaps in our understanding of the human microbiome. In fact, most studies have focused on the dysbiotic process only in bacterial populations,” write the authors of the new study.

Specifically, the scientists showed that volunteers with increased Caudovirales levels in the gut microbiome performed better in executive processes and verbal memory. In comparison, the data showed that increased Microviridae levels impaired executive abilities. Simply put, there seems to be an association between this type of gut biome and higher cognitive functions.

These two prevalent bacteriophages run parallel to human host cognition, the researchers write, and they may do this by hijacking the bacterial host metabolism.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers first tested fecal samples from 114 volunteers and then validated the results in another 942 participants, measuring levels of both types of bacteriophage. They also gave each volunteer memory and cognitive tests to identify a possible correlation between the levels of each species present in the gut virome and skill levels.

The researchers then studied which foods may transport these two kinds of phage into the human gut -results indicated that the most common route appeared to be through dairy products.

They then transplanted fecal samples from the human volunteers into the guts of fruit flies and mice – after which they compared the animal’s executive function with control groups. As with the human participants, animals transplanted with high levels of Caudovirales tended to do better on the tests – leading to increased scores in object recognition in mice and up-regulated memory-promoting genes in the prefrontal cortex. Improved memory scores and upregulation of memory-involved genes were also observed in fruit flies harboring higher levels of these phages.

Conversely, higher Microviridae levels (correlated with increased fat levels in humans) downregulated these memory-promoting genes in all animals, stunting their performance in the cognition tests. Therefore, the group surmised that bacteriophages warrant consideration as a novel dietary intervention in the microbiome-brain axis.

Regarding this intervention, Arthur C. Ouwehand, Technical Fellow, Health and Nutrition Sciences, DuPont, who was not involved in the study, told Metafact.io:

“Most dietary fibres are one way or another fermentable and provide an energy source for the intestinal microbiota.” Leading “to the formation of beneficial metabolites such as acetic, propionic and butyric acid.”

He goes on to add that “These so-called short-chain fatty acids may also lower the pH of the colonic content, which may contribute to an increased absorption of certain minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the colon. The fibre fermenting members of the colonic microbiota are in general considered beneficial while the protein fermenting members are considered potentially detrimental.”

It would certainly be interesting to identify which foods are acting on bacteriophages contained within our gut bacteria to influence cognition.

Despite this, the researchers acknowledge that their work does not conclusively prove that phages in the gut can impact cognition and explain that the test scores could have resulted from different bacteria levels in the stomach but suggest it does seem likely. They close by stating more work is required to prove the case.

Housework can help keep our minds and bodies limber into old age

Doing chores around the house can help keep our minds and bodies healthy over time, new research reports.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

Staying physically active as we age can bring a whole range of health benefits, both physically and mentally. Among these are improved memory function, longer attention spans, and improved leg strength. In older age, physical exertion helps reduce the risk of developing long-term conditions, immobility, dependency, and overall mortality.

According to new research, even doing chores around the house can help us stay physically active.

Doing this and that

“Health promotion messaging on staying active should not just be about recreational physical activities,” Dr. Shiou-Liang Wee from the Department of Psychological Medicine, National University of Singapore, the corresponding author of the paper, explains for ZME Science. “Housework is a purposeful activity performed by many older adults. Independent of recreation, commuting, and other occupational activities, heavy housework is linked to sharper memory and better fall protection in older adults.”

“Older adults do housework as they need to and want to. It may not be necessary to tell them to exercise instead of housework if that is what they have been doing. This may have some relevance when these older adults are home because of COVID-19.”

Global monitoring data revealed that most people didn’t get the recommended weekly physical activity levels, the team explains. People in developed countries, especially, were twice as likely as the world average to not get enough physical exercise.

Housework, however, is one type of physical activity that everybody engages in, to some extent. Furthermore, it is a good indicator of an individual’s ability to live independently. As such, the team wanted to see whether doing household chores could help people age healthily, and boost physical as well as mental capacity among older adults — especially those living in wealthy countries, who are generally not getting enough exercise.

The study worked with 489 randomly-selected adults aged 21 to 90, from Singapore. All participants had fewer than 5 underlying health conditions, with no known cognitive issues. They were all living independently in a residential town and were fit to carry out daily tasks by themselves. Participants aged 21-64 were classified as “younger”, while those aged 65-90 were classified as “older”.

In order to set a baseline of physical fitness for these participants, the team measured their walking speed and sit-to-stand speed from a chair. A range of tests — including short and delayed memory, visuospatial ability, and attention span — were used to determine their mental agility.

In addition, each participant was quizzed about how often they engaged in household chores, and how intensely, alongside other types of physical activity. Housework tasks were separated between light and heavy activity. Light activities include chores such as washing ourselves, dusting, making the bed, ironing, hanging clothes out to dry, or cooking. Heavy ones included window cleaning, changing beddings, vacuuming, washing floors, or painting/decorating a room.

“Both housework and exercise involve physical exertion and energy expenditure that can be measured as metabolic equivalent of task (MET),” Dr. Shiou-Liang Wee adds for ZME Science. “Light housework is 2.5 MET, like Yoga. Heavy housework is 4.0 MET, like resistance training.”

METs are roughly equivalent to the amount of energy (measured in calories) that are expended per minute of physical activity.

One of the first findings of the study is that only around 30% of those in the younger group and 48% of those in the older age group met physical activity recommendations through recreational activities. However, nearly two-thirds of participants in both groups (61% and 66%, respectively) met these recommendations through housework exclusively.

After adjusting for other types of regular physical activity, the team found that performing housework was associated with better physical and mental performance among the older age groups. The cognitive scores for participants in the older group engaging in high volumes of light and heavy housework were 8% and 5% higher than those doing low volumes of such tasks.

Chores also had different effects on the cognitive abilities of participants based on their intensity. Heavy housework for example was associated with a 14% higher score in attention tasks, an 8% faster sit-to-stand time, and a 23% higher score in balance/coordination tasks on average. Light housework was associated with 12% and 8% higher short and delayed memory scores, respectively. 

However, the team notes that participants in the younger group had five more years of education, on average, than those in the older participants group. Since education has been linked with increased mental agility and slower cognitive decline, the authors explain that this could account for the differences in cognitive impact observed among the two groups.

Take the findings with a grain of salt, however. This is an observational study and, as such, cannot be used to establish a cause and effect relationship. Furthermore, the study relied on self-reported data, which is notoriously unreliable. That being said, the results here do align well with previous research on the impact of aerobic exercise on cognitive function; the link between housework and mental agility seen in this study might be based on similar mechanisms, the team proposes.

The paper “Cross-sectional associations of housework with cognitive, physical and sensorimotor functions in younger and older community-dwelling adults: the Yishun Study” has been published in the journal BMJ Open.

In unprecedented bid, health science journals unite and call for ambitious climate action

More than 200 health journals called on governments to take action on the climate crisis as targets to reduce emissions are still not enough to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius (a target that many already see as not ambitious enough).

It’s an unprecedented move — the first time such a large number of publications have come together to make the same statement, which shows how severe the situation has become. It’s not just a climate crisis, it’s a health crisis.

Image credit: Flickr / Jeanne

“The risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but there is no vaccine for the climate crisis. Every action taken to limit emissions and warming brings us closer to a healthier and safer future,” World Health Organization head Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. 

The joint editorial was published simultaneously in 233 international journals, including The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Chinese Science Bulletin and the Medical Journal of Australia. It’s being published one week from the UN general assembly and less than two months from the COP26 climate summit in the UK — two events that could mark a turning point in our climate woes, but could also bitterly disappoint.

Health journals and health professionals have been warning for decades about the growing effects of the climate crisis, such as extreme weather events, rising temperatures and degradation of ecosystems. Far from being just isolated events, these will be taxing on people’s health, affecting especially the most vulnerable people in society, including poor communities, minorities, and the elderly. 

An urgent crisis

The editorial notes health is being affected by rising temperatures and the destruction of the natural world, with the risk of causing “catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reserve” if the current trends continue. The world can’t wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to pass in order to reduce emissions, the journals all agreed. 

Only “fundamental and equitable” changes to societies can reverse the current trajectory the world is facing. Governments have to make big changes to how societies function and how we live. This includes redesigning transportation systems, cities production and distribution of food, financial markets and the entire health system. 

“Health professionals have been on the front line of the covid-19 crisis, and they are united in warning that going above 1.5°C and allowing the continued destruction of nature will bring the next, far deadlier crisis,” Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of The BMJ and one of the editorial’s coauthors, said in a statement. “Wealthier nations must act faster.”

The same unprecedented funding provided by government for the Covid-19 pandemic has to be replicated for the environmental crisis, the editorial reads. Large investments will be needed but this will bring positive health and economic outcomes, such as reduced air pollution levels, improved housing and diet and high-quality jobs.  

Rich countries that have created the environmental crisis need to step-up their game, providing support for low-income and middle-income countries in the climate crisis. The editorial calls for them to fulfill even go further beyond the $100 billion a year financial pledge made as part of the Paris Agreement – which so far hasn’t been met. 

However, pulling the brakes on our emissions doesn’t have to damage the economy. In fact, when we factor in all the hidden costs of climate change (such as the health cost), tackling it becomes cheaper than not doing so.

Health professionals have to do all they can to encourage the transition to a “sustainable, fairer, resilient and healthier” world, the editorial continues. They have to “proactively contribute” to prevent further damage from the environmental crisis and act on the “root causes” of the crisis. This includes “holding leaders accountable.”

“The changing climate is endangering us in many ways, including its critical impacts on health and healthcare delivery. As medical practitioners, we have an obligation not only to anticipate new healthcare needs but also to be active participants in limiting the causes of the climate crisis,” Eric Rubin, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said in a statement. 

The Paris Agreement on climate change calls to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ª to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. But we are very far from that. Based on the current pledges by governments, the world is heading to a 3º to 4º warming. There’s still time to revert this but we do have to act right now. 

The full editorial can be read here. 

Unprocessed plant-based food keeps your heart healthier at any age

Basing your meals on unprocessed plant-based foods is healthy for your heart at any age, according to a duo of studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Image credits Arek Socha.

Eating meals rich in unprocessed plants, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts, legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils, is a good way to keep your heart healthy all throughout your life. New research says that eating such diets in young adulthood is associated with lower risks of developing cardiovascular disease in midlife.

Eat your veggies

“Earlier research was focused on single nutrients or single foods, yet there is little data about a plant-centered diet and the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Yuni Choi, Ph.D., lead author of one of the studies and a postdoctoral researcher in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

The paper looked at the occurrence of heart disease in 4,946 adults, all of whom were enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. All participants were aged 18 to 30 at the time of enrollment in the study, were free of cardiovascular disease, and were also analyzed by education level (equivalent to more than high school vs. high school or less). The sample included 2,509 black adults and 2,437 white adults, and 54.9% of participants were women.

Each participant had eight follow-up exams between the enrollment period (1985-1986) and the study’s end (2015-16), which included lab tests, physical measurements, as well as assessments of their medical histories and lifestyle factors. The participants were not instructed to change their habits in any way, such as being told to include or exclude certain items from their diets, and were not told their scores on the diet measures during the trial, so as not to influence the outcome.

The quality of each participant’s diet was scored based on the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS) composed of 46 food groups at years 0, 7 and 20 of the study. The food groups were classified into beneficial (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains), neutral (such as potatoes, refined grains, lean meats, and shellfish), and adverse (fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries, and soft drinks) based on what we know of their relationship to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Under this methodology, higher scores were indicative of diets that more heavily revolved around nutritionally rich plant-based items.

Based on the data from this study, two papers measured how healthy plant food consumption influences cardiovascular health, in young adults or postmenopausal women. Both of these groups saw benefits, the papers report, as members of both were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when they ate more healthy plant foods.

During the 32-year follow-up period, 289 participants developed cardiovascular disease (including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, heart-related chest pain or clogged arteries anywhere in the body). However, those who scored in the top 20% on the long-term diet quality score were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, after controlling for factors such as age, sex, education, and a host of other relevant factors. Those who improved their diet score the most between 25 to 50 years old were 61% less likely to develop subsequent cardiovascular disease compared to those whose quality of diet declined between the same ages.

The team notes that the study included very few participants who were vegetarians, so the study didn’t record the effects of strict vegetarianism (which excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs) on cardiovascular health, but are representative of general dietary habits.

“A nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian,” Choi said. “People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.”

That being said, the study is observational. In other words, it can show that certain dietary habits are correlated to certain health outcomes, but it can’t say for sure that one causes the the other. Still, the findings are relevant for all of us, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. So maybe help yourself to some extra veggies and greens during your next lunch break.

The first paper “Relationship Between a Plant‐Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort Study” has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The second paper “Plant‐Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle Adulthood” has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Exercise five hours a week to protect against hypertension later in life

Current public health guidelines should be updated to recommend around 5 hours of moderate exercise per week, a new paper reports. This exercise regime, especially if maintained throughout our 30s, 40s, and 50s, can prevent the onset of conditions caused by hypertension later in life.

Image via Pixabay.

New research led by the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals reports that the current recommendation of two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise per week isn’t quite enough to reap maximum benefits. However, updating this to five hours per week could help reduce the risks of medical complications later on in life. More to the point, maintaining this level of physical exercise through to our 50s or older reduces the risk of developing high blood pressure — a condition that may lead to heart attack and stroke.

Running from your problems

“Results from randomized controlled trials and observational studies have shown that exercise lowers blood pressure, suggesting that it may be important to focus on exercise as a way to lower blood pressure in all adults as they approach middle age,” said senior author Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, Ph.D., of the UCSF Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

“Teenagers and those in their early twenties may be physically active but these patterns change with age. Our study suggests that maintaining physical activity during young adulthood — at higher levels than previously recommended — may be particularly important.”

The study followed roughly 5,000 adults (ages 18 to 30) for 30 years, who were in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. They came from urban backgrounds in Birmingham, AL, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oakland, CA. The study recorded their exercise habits, medical history, alcohol intake, and smoking status. Each participant’s blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels were also monitored during this time. It was considered that a participant had hypertension if their blood pressure was 130 over 80 mmHg or higher, in line with the threshold established by the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association.

Approximately half the participants were Black (51.6%) and the remainder were White. Slightly under half (45.5%) were men.

Black men were found to be the most active group in early adulthood, exercising slightly more than White men, and significantly more than Black and White women. By age 60, Black men’s physical exercise, on average, dropped to under half (from 560 exercise units to around 300 units), which is equivalent to the recommended two-and-a-half hours a week of moderate-intensity activity. Still, this was less than what White men managed to get in (approximately 430 units), slightly more than what White women achieved on average (320 units), and significantly more than what Black women managed by this age (around 200 units per week). However, Black men reported the highest rates of smoking, which may preclude physical activity over time.

Physical activity for White men declined in their twenties and thirties, stabilizing at around age 40. For White women, physical activity hovered around 380 exercise units, decreasing in their thirties, and remaining constant to age 60.

“Although Black male youth may have high engagement in sports, socio-economic factors, neighborhood environments, and work or family responsibilities may prevent continued engagement in physical activity through adulthood,” said first author Jason Nagata, MD, of the UCSF Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine.

Hypertension at age 60 was diagnosed in around 80% to 90% of Black men and women, around 70% of White men, and around 50% of White women. These figures align well with the average reported exercise rates among the different groups, the team explains. Furthermore, it also aligns well with previous research which found that exercise can help lower blood pressure. The results, therefore, showcase the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle that includes at least five hours of moderate exercise per week even as we grow older.

The almost 18% of participants who maintained moderate levels of exercise for at least five hours a week during early adulthood (which is double the current recommended minimum) had an 18% lower likelihood of developing hypertension compared to those who exercised less, further supporting the team’s conclusions.

“Nearly half of our participants in young adulthood had suboptimal levels of physical activity, which was significantly associated with the onset of hypertension, indicating that we need to raise the minimum standard for physical activity,” Nagata said. “This might be especially the case after high school when opportunities for physical activity diminish as young adults transition to college, the workforce and parenthood, and leisure time is eroded.”

The paper has been published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and will be available online shortly.

Close-in of an ant carrying something.

Ants handle social isolation about as well as humans do — poorly

If you’re having a hard time coping with the isolation this pandemic has imposed on us, find solace in the fact that ants, too, would be just as stressed as you in this situation.

Close-in of an ant carrying something, probably a crumb of bread.
Image via Pixabay.

A new paper reports that ants react to social isolation in a similar way to humans and other social species. The most notable changes identified in ants isolated from their groups involve shifts in their social and hygiene behaviors, the team explains. Gene expression for alleles governing the immune and stress response in the brains of these ants were also downregulated, they add.

The burden of loneliness

“[These observed changes] make the immune system less efficient, a phenomenon that is also apparent in socially isolating humans — notably at present during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Professor Susanne Foitzik from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), lead author of the study. The study on a species of ant native to Germany has recently been published in Molecular Ecology.

I don’t think I need to remind you all of this, but humans find social isolation to be a very stressful experience. It can go as far as having a significant and negative impact on our physical health and general well-being. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety can set in quite easily in isolated individuals, they also develop addictions more easily, and their immune system (along with their overall health) takes a hit.

Still, we know much less about how social insects respond to isolation than we do about social animals, including humans. Ants are extremely social insects, living their whole lives in a dense colony and depend on their mates to survive (just like everyone else there). Their lives are so deeply steeped in the social fabric of their colony that worker ants don’t even reproduce, instead caring for the nest and queen, who does all the baby-making. This would be an unthinkable proposition for most other species on Earth.

The team worked with Temnothorax nylanderi, a species endemic to Western Europe. This species lives in cavities formed in fallen plant matter such as acorns or sticks, with colonies usually containing a few dozen workers. The researchers collected young worker ants who were involved in caring for the young from 14 colonies, keeping them in isolation for varying amounts of time. The shortest was one hour, and the longest, 28 days.

After the isolation period, these ants were released back to their colonies. The team explains that these individuals seemed to show lower interest in their adult colony mates, spent less time grooming themselves, but spent more with the brood.

“This reduction in hygienic behavior may make the ants more susceptible to parasites, but it is also a feature typical of social deprivation in other social organisms,” explained Professor Susanne Foitzik.

Gene activity was also impacted. The authors report that a constellation of genes involved in governing the immune system and stress response of these ants was “downregulated”, i.e. less active. This finding is consistent with previous literature showing a weakened immune system after isolation in other social species.

“Our study shows that ants are as affected by isolation as social mammals are and suggests a general link between social well-being, stress tolerance, and immunocompetence in social animals,” concludes Foitzik.

The paper “Social isolation causes downregulation of immune and stress response genes and behavioral changes in a social insect” has been published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

What counts as fruits and veggies for the “five a day”? This study clears things out

“What should we eat?” is a question you’ll hear a lot from your significant other. While they may not be sure, a new paper is: about 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables every day.

New research from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, reports that getting five servings of fruits and vegetables every day (particularly getting 2 of fruit and 3 of vegetables) is the optimal amount for all your health needs. This ratio was found to help reduce the risks of developing numerous chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

However, only 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. eat enough fruits and vegs, the study adds, citing statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pear-shaped snacks

“While groups like the American Heart Association recommend four to five servings each of fruits and vegetables daily, consumers likely get inconsistent messages about what defines optimal daily intake of fruits and vegetables such as the recommended amount, and which foods to include and avoid,” said lead study author Dong D. Wang, M.D., Sc.D., an epidemiologist, nutritionist and a member of the medical faculty at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The paper looked at two studies — the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study — which together followed nearly 100,000 adults worldwide for up to 30 years. Both studies included detailed dietary information on its participants, which were collected every two to four years. The team also included data on fruit and vegetable intake alongside mortality rates from a further 26 studies that included about 1.9 million participants in 29 countries and territories in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

All in all, the analysis revealed that:

  • About 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily was associated with the lowest risk of death among participants. Having more than five servings didn’t seem to confer any additional benefits.
  • Having 2 servings of fruit and 3 of veggies daily seemed to yield the best results; these participants had a 13% lower risk of death from all causes, a 12% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 10% lower risk of death from cancer, and a 35% lower risk of death from respiratory disease, compared to participants who ate 2 servings of fruit or vegetables per day.
  • Starchy foods (corn, potato, peas, fruit juices, so on) were not associated with this reduction in mortality. In other words, they don’t count towards your 5 daily servings.
  • Leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce, or kale, alongside fruits and vegetables rich in beta carotenes and vitamin C (brightly-colored items such as carrots, bell peppers, berries, or citrus fruits) do count towards these 5 servings.

“Our analysis in the two cohorts of U.S. men and women yielded results similar to those from 26 cohorts around the world, which supports the biological plausibility of our findings and suggests these findings can be applied to broader populations,” Wang said.

The team hopes that their work will help make it a bit clearer to everybody on exactly what constitutes good dietary habits, and which items count towards the succinct public message of 5-a-day. This amount, says Wang, likely “offers the most benefit in terms of prevention of major chronic disease” and is relatively achievable on a day-to-day basis.

One particularly important finding here is that not all fruits and vegetables offer the same benefits — some even offer none. Of particular note here are starchy vegetables, fruit juices, and potatoes, which offer no benefits despite the fact that current dietary guidelines treat these items the same as other fruits or vegetables. Fruit juices contain a lot of sugar, for instance, while potatoes aren’t as good for you as other vegetables.

Still, the study so far is only observational, which means that it found an association between certain dietary factors and a lower risk of death. But as you all surely know by now, correlation does not imply causations — just because these two elements are associated doesn’t mean that one causes the other. More work is needed to establish a solid cause-and-effect relationship, but in the meantime, it can’t hurt to chow down on some fruits and vegs.

The paper “Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies of US Men and Women and a Meta-Analysis of 26 Cohort Studies” has been published in the journal Circulation.

After 18 million mRNA vaccinations, allergic shocks remain exceedingly rare

For every million shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, between 2 and 5 cases of anaphylaxis have been reported. According to newly published data from the CDC, serious allergic reactions remain extraordinarily rare, and they’re treatable.

Image via Pixabay.

In December 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued Emergency Use Authorizations for 2 mRNA-based vaccines: the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine . Shortly after each authorization, the vaccines underwent the “most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history,” the CDC said on its website. So far, the vaccines seem to be behaving admirably.

In the first days of the vaccination, a handful of anaphylaxis reports raised concerns, but reassuring data from more shots came in, showing that anaphylaxis rates are in line with those from other vaccines. The Pfizer vaccine seems to have a rate of 4.7 anaphylaxis cases / million of doses, while the Moderna vaccine has a rate of 2.5 cases/million doses administered. For comparison, the flu shot has a rate of 1.3 / million, while other vaccines have a rate up to 25 cases / million.

The CDC records and follows all side effects after vaccines — from mild to very serious. The agency says that mild allergic reactions such as hives, wheezing and swelling, can occur, and those who have had such a reaction to the first dose should also not get the second. However, specialists are more interested in severe side effects, especially severe allergic reactions.

Not only are these severe side effects exceedingly rare (a rate of 0.0003%), but they are also very treatable. All but one happened within 11 minutes of vaccine administration, and all 66 persons were treated in health care settings. Although 18 patients were hospitalized in intensive care, they were all alright in the end — and this is out of a rate of 18 million doses.

Credits: Shimabukuro / JAMA.

These aren’t just the first mRNA vaccines developed for COVID-19 — they’re the first mRNA vaccines in history. This is exciting because it opens up a new avenue for vaccines, not just for COVID-19 but other diseases as well. The fact that mRNA vaccines are safe shows great promise.

Encouraging data also came from the UK, where a similar analysis showed that severe side effects are also extremely rare, and the most common side effects are by far represented by things like headaches or a sore arm. In Israel, where over half a million people have received both doses, there were also no fatalities — and Israeli data shows a 92% effectiveness rate at preventing disease, consistent with the results originally published by Pfizer.

So far, COVID-19 has killed more than 474,000 Americans. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing illness after two shots, which strongly shows that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Most agencies recommend not taking the vaccine only if you have a history of severe allergy. Still, even in the very unlikely case that anaphylaxis does happen, it is typically manageable.

What’s killing people around the world

Headlines dealing with ‘Health’ have inevitably been filled with COVID-19 stats. It’s understandable. We want to try to understand as much as possible about this killer beast that. But the pandemic isn’t the only thing killing people.

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) quantified what has killed pepeople in 2020. According to their finds, the top 10 killers are responsible for more than of half of the entire toll.

What’s killing people and how

Stepping off the COVID-19 info treadmill for a moment might not be such a bad idea, especially if it gives us the time to assess what the World Health Organization reports as the top causes of death and disability worldwide from 2000 to 2019.

According to WHO’s 2019 Global Health Estimates, published on Dec. 9, noncommunicable diseases made up seven of the world’s top ten causes of death. The top killer, however, was heart disease.

The world’s biggest killer was ischaemic heart disease, responsible for 16% of the world’s deaths. “Since 2000, the largest increase in deaths has been for this disease, rising by more than 2 million to 8.9 million deaths in 2019,” the report mentions. Ischemia is defined as a condition in which the blood flow and oxygen are restricted or reduced. The American Heart Association says that cardiac ischemia refers to decreased blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle.

Overall, the top global causes of death were grouped into three categories: cardiovascular (ischaemic heart disease, stroke), respiratory (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections), and neonatal conditions like birth asphyxia and birth trauma, neonatal sepsis and infections, and preterm birth complications.

In terms of wealth

The WHO report further looked at diseases vis a vis income levels. In high-income countries, deaths due to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias were on the rise, surpassing stroke as the second leading cause.

In upper-middle-income countries, deaths from lung cancer rose: “stomach cancer featured highly in upper-middle-income countries compared to the other income groups, remaining the only group with this disease in the top 10 causes of death,” the WHO explains.

Communicable diseases, meanwhile, showed troubling numbers in low-income countries. Six of the top 10 causes of death in low-income countries were communicable diseases.

“People living in a low-income country are far more likely to die of a communicable disease than a noncommunicable disease,” said the WHO report. This is also perhaps why so many developed countries found it difficult to deal with the pandemic — they were not used to dealing with infectious diseases recently.

The pandemic has only shown even more just how important and difficult it is to maintain accurate datasets of this nature.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance for countries to invest in civil registration and vital statistics systems to allow daily counting of deaths, and direct prevention and treatment efforts. It has also revealed inherent fragmentation in data collection systems in most low-income countries, where policy-makers still do not know with confidence how many people die and of what causes,” said the WHO.

Pandemic forecast

Jason Beaubien of NPR News reflected on the time of the report’s data, through 2019 — before COVID-19 was known to be the global threat that it has become.

“So far this year,” said Beaubien, COVID has killed more than 1.5 million people. Forecasters predict that by the end of this year, the pandemic’s death toll could rise to 1.9 million.”

If so, COVID-19 would surely occupy a place on the list of the most deadly diseases.

The organization is stepping up to make sure detailed, accurate information is available on how many people die and of what cause, hoping to encourage rapid mortality surveillance.

Given the tools to support rapid mortality surveillance, the idea is that countries can collect data on the number of deaths by day, week, sex, age, and location. This can help health leaders deliver more timely efforts.

The pandemic has messed up our sleep, eating habits, and mental health, a new study reports

The COVID-19 lockdown has dramatically altered our personal habits, and not in a good way, a first-of-its-kind global survey reveals. The findings showed our mental health, sleep patterns, exercise routines, and eating habits were strongly disrupted by social isolation and lockdowns.

Credit UN Flickr

In response to the global outbreak, a wave of quarantine and stay-at-home mandates have been issued to attenuate the spread of the virus. While they were successful in stopping the spread of the virus, they affected society in other ways.

Anecdotally, it seems clear that the lockdown has taken a toll. The closures of offices, fitness centers, and restaurants have disrupted our dietary and physical activities. Meanwhile, social isolation has severe impacts on mental wellness. Stress is associated with sleep disruption, increased snacking, unhealthier food consumption — which often results in weight gain, which cascades into other health problems.

But there’s a difference between anecdotes and strong evidence. To assess the widespread impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health behaviors, the aim of the study was to quantify changes in habitual dietary behaviors, physical activity, sleep, sedentary behaviors, and mental health before and during the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers surveyed over 7,000 people from over 50 countries.

“The stay-at-home orders did result in one major health positive. Overall, healthy eating increased because we ate out less frequently. However, we snacked more. We got less exercise. We went to bed later and slept more poorly. Our anxiety levels doubled,” said Leanne Redman, one of the authors of the study.

Eating behaviors were significantly changed with COVID-19. Eating meals from restaurants and consuming pre-prepared food declined from 1.98 times per week to 1.08 times per week. Meanwhile, cooking meals at home increased from 4.49 to 5.18 days per week.

It wasn’t all bad, there were some good changes. Some of the positive reported eating behavior changes included less frequency of breakfast skipping, eating four or more meals at a restaurant and two or more meals from fast food, and an increased frequency of eating fruit. Meanwhile, reported negative changes included a larger consumption of sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.

There were no reported differences in vegetable intake from before to during the pandemic. An increase in healthy snacking was reported by 25.8% of participants, whereas 43.5% reported an increase in unhealthy snacking. Overall, 20.7% perceived they were eating healthier and 35.6% reported eating less healthy.

The shift towards unhealthy eating was accompanied by increases in sedentary behaviors, declines in physical activity, a later sleep onset time, and nearly twice the increase in reported anxiety compared to those eating healthier.

Changes to sleep quality varied, 43.8% reported worsened sleep quality while 10.2% reported improved sleep quality.

“This study is the first to survey thousands of people across the globe on lifestyle behavior changes in response to stay-at-home orders. The study demonstrates that chronic diseases like obesity affect our health beyond the physical,” said John Kirwan, Executive Director for Scientific Education at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

It’s concerning but unsurprising to see that society was disrupted by the quarantine measures. It should be noted that 7,000 people isn’t that big of a sample size for a global population, and further studies are required to clarify the extent of this disruption.

Moving on, few governments and health organizations recommend general lockdowns. Lockdowns should largely be used as ‘circuit breakers’, most guidance recommends — a brief and local intervention only when cases start to surge. Governments should weigh the positive impact of the lockdown in reducing viral transmission against the negative impacts. Unfortunately, however, with winter knocking on our door in the northern hemisphere and no end to the pandemic in sight, this is probably not the last we’ve heard of lockdowns.

The study was published in the journal Wiley.

The lockdown saved thousands of lives by reducing air pollution

The lockdown measures implemented in Europe and China at the start of the pandemic improved air quality and averted thousands of deaths in regions with severe air pollution, according to a new study. The authors called for control policies to achieve larger air quality improvements.

Credit CCO BAY

A team of scientists at the University of Notre Dame found that particulate matter (PM 2.5) concentrations in China and parts of Europe dropped by 29.7% and 17.1% respectively during the lockdown. They measured air quality between February and March in China and February and May in Europe, when stay-at-home orders were in place.

Particulate matter, small airborne particles, comes from combustion-related sources such as industrial emissions, transportation, wildfires, and chemical reactions of pollutants in the atmosphere. This has turned air pollution into the leading environmental cause of death, according to the World Health Organization.

“We look on these lockdowns as the first global experiment of forced low-emission scenarios,” said Paola Crippa, co-author of the study, in a statement. “This unique, real-world experiment shows us that strong improvements in severely polluted areas are achievable even in the short term, if strong measures are implemented.”

Crippa and her team measured particulate matter concentrations at more than 2,500 sites in Europe and China between 2016 and 2020. They integrated these into computer simulations to see how the lockdown impacted air quality and its effects.

The researchers estimated rates of premature death against four different economic recovery scenarios. One of them assumed a fast resumption of normal activity, and another one a gradual come-back. The other two contemplated a second outbreak between October and December and a permanent lockdown for the rest of the year.

“The most surprising part of this work is related to the impact on human health of the air quality improvements,” Crippa said. “It was somewhat unexpected to see that the number of averted fatalities in the long term due to air quality improvements is similar to the COVID-19 related fatalities, at least in China.”

The study found that from February to March an estimated 24,200 premature deaths associated with particulate matter were averted throughout China compared to 3,309 reported COVID-19 fatalities. Improvements in air quality were widespread across China because of extended lockdown measures.

The situation in Europe was quite different. While COVID-19 related deaths were higher compared to China, an estimated 2,190 deaths were still avoided during the lockdown period when compared to averages between 2016 and 2019. The averted fatalities figures become much larger in Europe and China when considering long-term effects.

The researchers believe the study is an example of the need for ad hoc control policies to be developed to achieve effective air quality improvements. This could include subsidies to electric vehicles, prioritizing public transport in heavily trafficked cities, and the adoption of more stringent emission limitations for industries.

“Continuous air pollution mitigation strategies might help in reducing mortality not only during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but also in future pandemics related to respiratory diseases, as people exposed to poor air quality are more likely to have pre-existing respiratory or pulmonary conditions that could make them more vulnerable to infectious diseases and ultimately increase the death rate,” the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.

Why is pork bad for you — a look at what the science says

Although in small quantities of under 70 grams (2.5 ounces) / day, red meat is not as harmful to your health, consumption of pork is associated with a significant risk of several chronic conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and several types of cancer.

“I would never recommend eating animal products, and certainly not pork,” says Dana Hunnes, assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

The main (but not the only) reason why pork is bad for you is its high content of saturated fats and cholesterol. However, as is often the case with nutrition, the scientific studies are not always clear-cut, and dietary recommendations tend to be laxer than existing evidence.

We eat too much pork

Pigs were domesticated in Mesopotamia, around 15,000 years ago. But up until the 20th century, consumption of pork was relatively low, and often restricted to the autumn-winter part of the year.

In the 20th century, mankind rethought its animal consumption, and industrial farming took over. The world now produces 4 times more meat than 50 years ago — which in 2013, meant 320 million tons of meat. Over 80 billion animals are slaughtered each year for meat, with pig meat being the most popular type of meat globally (although poultry is increasing most rapidly).

The average American consumes 124 kilograms of meat every year, and around 24 of those are pig. Pork (the “food” name of pigs) is consumed in a number of ways, from sausages and bacon to fresh meat and lard.

Image credits: Our World in Data.

Pork consumption in the US has remained relatively stable for much of the past century (although chicken, turkey, and beef have increased compared to the early 1900s). But this doesn’t necessarily mean good news.

Virtually all dietary guidelines recommend no more than 500 grams (1.1 pounds) of red meat a week — not just pork. Meanwhile, Americans consume double that, and the numbers keep growing.

It’s not just Americans (although the US is near the top of the list for per capita red meat consumption) — as the world is becoming more affluent, it is consuming more red meat, and pork is a staple in many parts of the world.

Despite some claims from the industry, pork is undoubtedly red meat. In particular, one advertising campaign from the U.S. National Pork Board labeled pork as “the other white meat”. The campaign was highly successful, and at some point, 87% of consumers identified pork with the slogan, although the USDA never considered pork to be anything other than red meat.

“Pork is considered a red meat, and it is high levels of saturated fat, and all of the other animal protein compounds that are deleterious to health. Pork is not a “white meat”, and even if it were, white meat has also been demonstrated to be deleterious to health,” Hunnes told ZME Science.

Is pork bad for you?

In 2012, a large study on over 100,000 individuals found strong evidence that consumption of red meat is linked to a shorter and less healthy life. The evidence was strong, although pork wasn’t analyzed in particular — this is often the case with such studies, they classify all red meat together.

“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” according to Dr. Frank Hu, one of the senior scientists involved in the study and a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

It was by no means an isolated study. Studies have highlighted the health risks associated with pork consumption for decades. Sometimes, it’s not always obvious problems — for instance, a 1985 study finding a correlation between pork consumption and cirrhosis. But most of the time, the same health problems pop up. Despite the fact that pork can be a source of nutrients such as protein and iron, it is associated with a number of health problems.

Pork consumption and cancer

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans. Several types of cancer have been linked to pork. For instance, a 2011 analysis found that for each additional 100 grams of red meat (either pork or beef) per day, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 17%. Correlations were also observed for pancreatic and prostate cancer, although the associations were not as strong.

“High intake of red and processed meat is associated with significant increased risk of colorectal, colon and rectal cancers,” the study concluded.

Even moderate intake of pork can increase the cancer risk, another study found. The study, carried out in 2019, found that even red meat consumption in accordance with existing guidelines leads to an increased bowel cancer risk: 20% with each extra slice of ham or rasher of bacon per day. This is particularly significant because it shows that the risk has remained significant even as people’s diets may have changed over the years.

Pork belly. Image credits: Rainer Zenz.

It’s worth noting that all these are big studies — and there’s more. A 2013 meta-analysis (a study of studies) found that gastric cancer risk also increases with red meat consumption, although the authors called for more research to clarify this connection.

A 2016 literature review found that for 100g or more per day of red meat, the risk breast cancer increases by 11%, 17% for colorectal cancer, and 19% for prostate cancer.

Meanwhile, a 2017 review found numerous potential carcinogens in red meat products, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic amines

“Red meat products, especially those that have been processed, have a wide variety of carcinogenic molecules known to increase the risk of colorectal cancer,” the study concluded.

It should be noted that this is an increase in relative risk. Let’s take an example.

Let’s say the cancer risk is 10%, and pork consumption causes a 17% increase in the total cancer risk. The net increase in risk is 17% of 10% — so in total, it’s a 1.7% increase that takes the total risk from 10 to 11.7%.

Some use this to claim that the disease risk from red meat is exaggerated. At the end of the day, we all judge risk in our own way, and one may consider the extra risk acceptable — but even a 1% change is huge considering how common these diseases are.

The exact risk is hard to establish, but overall, pork consumption seems to be linked with higher cancer risk. There is “sufficient evidence” to draw a link between the consumption of processed meat products and cancer, WHO experts also conclude.

Pork consumption and obesity

It’s no secret that the world (and especially the developed world) is facing an obesity crisis. Decades ago, the culprit was considered to be fat, whereas in more recent years, sugar has also emerged as a major issue. However, according to a recent study, meat is also to blame.

“In the analysis of obesity prevalence across 170 countries, we have found that sugar availability in a nation explains 50% of obesity variation while meat availability another 50%. After correcting for differences in nations’ wealth (Gross Domestic Product), calorie consumption, levels of urbanization and of physical inactivity, which are all major contributors to obesity, sugar availability remained an important factor, contributing independently 13%, while meat contributed another 13% to obesity,” said Professor Maciej Henneberg, head of the Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit, and one of the study authors.

Again, the effect of individual meats was not calculated, but overall, high meat availability was found to be correlated with obesity. It’s also worth noting that it’s not necessarily the fat, but also the protein in the meat that contributes to obesity.

According to another 2014 review of studies covering a combined total over 1 million participants, “red and processed meat intake is directly associated with risk of obesity, and higher BMI.”

The key to understanding these nutritional studies is to look at the big picture. You will always find differences between individual studies, and you can find studies that support varying viewpoints.

If you want to have a better understanding of this process, it’s best to look at large-scale studies and reviews of studies.

The fact that many diet-and-disease studies lump pork together with other types of red meat also dilutes the association related to pork alone.

According to the Global Burden of Disease study 4.7 million people died prematurely in 2017 as a result of obesity. Obesity is one of the most important health risk factors. According to recent estimates

Pork consumption and the link to diabetes and cardiovascular disease

This is where things are not as clear as before. Because red meat consumption is associated with increased weight, and increased weight is associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it’s doubly difficult to assess which risks are caused directly by meat, and which by increased weight. This is why studies in this regard are often inconclusive and hard to interpret.

Even so, the prevailing evidence seems to show negative effects of red meat consumption.

A 2011 study on over 100,000 participants found that “red meat consumption, particularly processed red meat, is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.” Substituting one serving of red meat per day with nuts, low-fat dairy and whole grains reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 35%. Another study, one year earlier, concluded that a “reduction of the consumption of processed meat may help prevent the global epidemic of type 2 diabetes”.

A review of almost half a million people found a positive link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. Eating red meat daily triples the levels of a heart disease-related chemical called TMAO.

“These findings reinforce current dietary recommendations that encourage all ages to follow a heart-healthy eating plan that limits red meat,” says nutrition researcher Dr. Charlotte Pratt, the NHLBI project officer for the study. “This means eating a variety of foods, including more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and plant-based protein sources such as beans and peas.”

Another recent study has found that eating two servings of red meat per week was linked to a 7% higher risk of heart and circulatory diseases, compared to eating none at all (again, this is relative risk).

However, another study concluded that eating meat within the recommended quantity does not increase cardiovascular risk, and recent studies have called for more studies on this issue.

A part of the reason why nutritional studies are so hard to reconcile is that they often rely on self-reported questionnaires. Humans are notoriously unreliable when it comes to self-reporting and often tend to distort the data.

This is why it’s important to look at results from multiple angles, and when possible, also try to find the mechanism producing the observed effect.

Another important aspect is how the meat is prepared: is it processed, and if yes, how? Is it cooked at high temperatures? All this can matter. As a rule of thumb, the more it is processed and cooked, the worse it is. This is particularly concerning since pork is often consumed in processed form (in products such as bacon or sausages), which seem to have an even higher health risk.

Other health risks associated with pork consumption: liver disease, MS, yersinia

Some of the health issues associated with pork consumption tend to fly under the radar.

For instance, the link between pork and multiple sclerosis (MS) is known at least since the 1980s, and has been demonstrated across dozens of countries. The link has been supported by multiple studies carried in various environments. It’s more than just an observation: between 2007 and 2009, a cluster of 24 pork plant workers fell mysteriously ill with a disease that triggers MS-like symptoms — a problem which was ultimately traced back to pork.

Remember the 1985 cirrhosis study we mentioned at the start of the article? Surprisingly, pork can also cause liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Alcohol is of course a main driver here, but pig meat has been repeatedly proven to play a role in both liver cancer and cirrhosis.

Yersinia is another potential risk factor that is often overlooked. In pork that isn’t properly cooked, the Yersinia bacteria can creep in, causing severe symptoms and even contributing to mortality. In the US alone, yersinia kills 35 people and causes 117,000 cases of food poisoning each year. Its main point of access inside the human body? You’ve guessed it — pork. The problem can be averted by properly cooking the meat.

Can pork ever be good for you?

Example of nutritional value of 100 gram serving of pork. Values may vary substantially based on the type of meat and how it is prepared.

Every once in a while, you end up seeing a “pork isn’t bad for you” study picked up by the media. Recently, one such study published in late 2019 made all the rounds. “Red meat is back on the menu” and “Stop worrying about red meat” were just some of the headlines flown around, validating what meat lovers all around the world wanted to hear. But there’s a problem — several, actually.

This was just one study, the authors themselves admitted low-quality evidence, and the study was called into question in more ways than one (see our detailed analysis of that study here).

A Professor of Medicine and Human Nutrition at University of Otago, New Zealand, summed up the general feeling among scientists:

“In my opinion, the weak recommendation based on low-certainty evidence that adults continue current consumption of unprocessed red meat and processed meat is potentially unhelpful and could be misleading.”

This doesn’t mean that the study is meaningless or that we should immediately disregard conflicting evidence — but neither should we overturn decades of research because a conflicting study came out. This just means that we shouldn’t jump on the next study that gets picked up by the media. Instead, looking at multiple, large studies can offer a much more accurate image.

It can be daunting to look through studies when all you want is to know whether bacon is alright, so if you want to boil it down to a simple tidbit, it’s hard to see pork as part of a healthy diet.

“All animal proteins, exclusive of what animal they come from, can be harmful to health, especially if and when they are processed. So I would never recommend eating animal products, and certainly not pork,” says Hunnes.

This being said, if your diet is low in salts, saturated fats and you have an active lifestyle, you can incorporate low amounts of lean, preferably unprocessed pork into your diet, and will still have a relatively low risk of developing chronic diseases.

There are many things we don’t fully understand about nutrition, but what we do know is that the total matters more than the sum of the parts. Some things are healthier than others, and it’s important to be careful with all aspects of your lifestyle.

However as Havard researchers have pointed out, even the dietary guidelines sometimes don’t take into consideration the risks that their very own analyses highlight.

But don’t you need red meat for protein?

As mentioned, pork can contain large amounts of protein, but the idea that you need to eat red meat to get your protein is a myth.

“We need nutrients, and we need amino acids that come from protein, but neither of these do we need from animal proteins,” Hunne explains.

Replacing red meat with plant protein has been found to increase longevity and improve overall health in a number of studies. While people who don’t eat much meat (or don’t eat meat at all) need to pay some attention to complementing their protein and vitamin intake, diets focused on plant rather than animal protein tend to be associated with better health outcomes.

Plant-based protein is associated with better health in several studies.

In 2006, a study compared plant with animal protein, concluding that “with a proper combination of sources, vegetable proteins may provide similar benefits as protein from animal sources.”

Results of a 2016 meta-analysis found that plant-based protein is associated with a lower risk of disease of all-cause mortality, and cardiovascular problems — a link that was especially prevalent for people who have at least one health risk factor.

“Substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially that from processed red meat, was associated with lower mortality, suggesting the importance of protein source.”

The bottom line

Consumption of meat, in any quantity, can be detrimental to your health in a number of ways, and generally speaking, the more you eat, the more you increase your risk.

Not all pork is made equal. Uncooked meat can carry pathogens, while processed meat tends to be worse. Meat that is high in saturated fats and trans fats causes the greatest risk to health.

Multiple conditions have been associated with pork consumption, including but not limited to diabetes, MS, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cirrhosis, and multiple types of cancer. The exact nature of this risk is still a matter of active research, but if you want to be on the safe side, no amount of pork is safe. If you just can’t give it up, the common recommendation is to not go over 500 g (1.1 pounds) per week and stick to lean, unprocessed meat.

Substituting red meat protein with plant protein is linked to a longer, healthier life, with multiple studies backing this up. Reducing pork consumption can also have a positive environmental impact, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption associated with our food. Ethically, slaughtering billions of animals every year (especially animals as — or even more — intelligent than dogs) is not the right thing to do.

Oh, and there’s another reason why avoiding pork might be wise, Hunnes notes.

“In the past couple of decades, a couple of disease epidemics (swine flus) have emerged from pigs. Just another reason not to raise animals in confinement.

In short, I do not recommend eating pork. Under any circumstances,” she concludes.

Air pollution can contaminate your heart cells with metal nanoparticles from infancy

Researchers are uncovering further evidence of the adverse health effects of air pollution.

Smog in Warsaw, 2015.
Image via Pixabay.

Toxic metallic nanoparticles from such pollution can find their way into the mitochondria of our hearts, a new paper reports, with a negative impact on our health. Mitochondria provide the power that keeps our cells going; damaging them will thus damage our cells.

This effect was seen in the hearts of people living in polluted cities and could be an important cause of cardiac stress, the team adds.

Poor air, poor health

“It’s been known for a long time that people with high exposure to particulate air pollution experience increased levels and severity of heart disease,” says Professor Barbara Maher of Lancaster University, lead author of the paper. “We found these metal particles inside the heart of even a three-year-old.”

“It’s really urgent to reduce emissions of ultrafine particles from our vehicles and from industry before we give heart disease to the next generation, too,” she adds.

The team analyzed the hearts retrieved from two young people who had died in accidents and lived in the Mexico City area. Air pollution levels here often exceed health guidelines, the authors explain.

They found metallic nanoparticles associated with air pollution (such as iron and titanium-rich particles) inside damaged heart cells of a 26- and 3-year-old, randomly selected from 63 previously-investigated children and young adults.

Dark-field scanning/transmission electron microscopy image of heart tissue in the left ventricle, with F showing the iron-rich particles highlighted in A and D.
Image credits B.A. Maher et al., (2020), Environmental Research.

Using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and X-ray analysis, they found that mitochondria containing iron-rich nanoparticles were damaged, showing ruptured membranes or deformities. Such particles were associated with the development of heart disease, as they cause oxidative stress which chemically damages cells, even in very young tissues.

The team found “abundant presence of rounded, electron-dense nanoparticles, mostly ~15–40 nanometers, most frequently inside mitochondria”. They note that the presence of iron inside mitochondria can alter their chemical mechanism to produce highly reactant oxygen species which attack proteins.

The particles are “indistinguishable from the iron-rich nanoparticles so abundant and pervasive in urban and roadside air pollution”, the team notes.

The results show that such nanoparticles may jump-start heart disease in early life and cardiovascular illness later on. Air pollution can thus be responsible for the international “silent epidemic” of heart disease. It could also contribute to the high death rates from COVID-19 seen in areas with poor air quality.

Another point of concern is the magnetic properties of these particles. It’s possible that, should they build-up in the heart in large amounts, these will react to the magnetic fields produced by appliances and electronics. Exposure could cause cell damage and lead to heart dysfunction. People who work jobs that expose them to magnetic fields, such as welders or certain branches of engineering, could also be at risk.

The paper “Iron-rich air pollution nanoparticles: An unrecognized environmental risk factor for myocardial mitochondrial dysfunction and cardiac oxidative stress” has been published in the journal Environmental Research.

One in five people worldwide is at risk of severe COVID-19

An estimated 1,7 billion people (which represents 22% of the world’s population) have at least one underlying health condition that could put them in a coronavirus risk category — and this doesn’t even include factors such as poverty and obesity.

If infected, about 349 million of them would have to go to the hospital for treatment.

More than eight million people worldwide have already been diagnosed with COVID-19 and at least 434,000 have died. But the deaths haven’t been distributed evenly. Those with underlying health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, have been much more vulnerable.

In the new study, the researchers established 11 categories of underlying conditions that could raise the risk of severe COVID-19, a form of the symptomatic disease that requires hospitalization, using information from the World Health Organization and health agencies in the United States and Britain.

The list included patients who regularly take immunosuppressive drugs or are undergoing immunity-weakening treatments. But excluded healthy older individuals, at risk of coronavirus due to their age, as well as poverty and obesity, which can play a role in the susceptibility of the person to the disease and the access to health care.

Data from the Global Burden of Disease Study was used by the researchers, a global epidemiological survey done in 2017 to identify the number of individuals with high-risk conditions. Their analysis found than one-fifth of the world’s population may be at increased risk of more severe disease.

Nevertheless, increased risk is not the same as high risk. Not everyone that has a health condition will go to the hospital, the researchers explained. Only 4% of the world’s population would have to be hospitalized if they get infected, the study writes — but that’s still 349 million people.

But the level of risk actually depends on age, gender and geographical location. The risk goes from 1% of people under 20 to about 20% of those aged 70 or older and reaches more than 25% in males over 70. Twice the number of men as women would require hospitalization in all age groups under 65.

Parts of the world with younger populations, such as Africa, have a lower risk overall despite some spots where the prevalence of HIV and AIDS is high, the authors said. Meanwhile, other areas like Europe, where the average age is higher and a third of the people have at least one health condition, could be less resilient.

“The share of the population at increased risk of severe COVID-19 is generally lower in Africa than elsewhere due to much younger country populations, but a much higher proportion of severe cases could be fatal in Africa than elsewhere,” said in a statement Andrew Clark, co-author of the study.

The findings could help government officials focus containment efforts on people vulnerable to the virus’s most dangerous effects and eventually prioritize them for vaccination. When the pandemic started, researchers knew chronic conditions could worsen the disease. Now, there’s a better “understanding of the numbers involved,” Clark said.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.

The coronavirus infects our environments even before the onset of symptoms

Coronavirus carriers can infect their environment with the pathogen even before showing symptoms, according to a new study from the Cleveland Clinic.

The findings are based on an analysis of several surfaces in the hotel rooms of two presymptomatic Chinese students who were quarantined before being diagnosed with the disease. This study highlights the role and importance of quarantine in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and why it’s essential that we stick to isolation measures even if we’re ‘feeling fine’.

Hiding in plain sight

“The detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the surface samples of the sheet, duvet cover, and pillow cover highlights the importance of proper handling procedures when changing or laundering used linens of SARS-CoV-2 patients,” the authors explain.

“In summary, our study demonstrates that presymptomatic patients have high viral load shedding and can easily contaminate environments.”

The study looked at the hotel rooms of two students who returned to China from studying abroad on March 19 and March 20. They did not show any symptoms of viral infection initially, but were moved to the hotel for quarantine as a precautionary measure.

On the second day in quarantine, they both tested positive for COVID-19 — they were still asymptomatic at this time — and were hospitalized for monitoring and treatment.

Their rooms were closed off after they tested positive, and various surfaces throughout were sampled about three hours after the tests. The team took swabs from door handles, light switches, faucet handles, thermometers, television remotes, pillow covers, duvet covers, sheets, towels, bathroom door handles, toilet seats, and toilet flushing buttons, among other frequently-touched areas.

A total of 22 samples were collected from the two rooms. Eight of them tested positive for COVID-19. Six were from the same patient, identified as Patient A, and were harvested from the light switch, bathroom door handle, sheet, duvet cover, pillow cover, and towel. In Patient B’s room, positive samples were detected on a faucet and pillowcase.

The team notes that they saw larger viral loads after prolonged contact with sheets and pillow covers, suggesting that the pathogens found this environment particularly cozy. However, overall, the main take-away from this study is how carriers, even presymptomatic ones, can cause “extensive environmental contamination of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in a relatively short time.”

Such findings come to fill in the puzzle of how the coronavirus behaves in the environment. Previous studies have recorded its ability to survive on various surfaces, which varied between three hours and seven days, depending on the material. The present study comes to show how it can get there in the first place, and at which parts of its life cycle.

All in all, the coronavirus seems to easily spread to our environments, even before we know we have it. It’s also content to survive there for quite a long time, too, ready to hitch a ride on our hands towards our face. These two factors contribute to making it such a contagious virus, and they’re why the 14-day quarantine measures were instituted in the first place.

It’s also why such measures are still one of our most effective ways in curbing its spread.

The paper “Detection of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 RNA on Surfaces in Quarantine Rooms” has been published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

If you think the coronavirus crisis will be over by summertime, you’re wrong

After weeks and weeks of heavy lockdown, European countries are working to relax the quarantine. New York seems to have passed the worst hump, and some areas have not been heavily hit by a coronavirus outbreak.

But this is just the first step, and we have a marathon ahead of us.

The world has been turned upside down. It will stay that way for a while. Image credits: Malcolm Lightbody.

Second wave of infections

When Japan and Singapore were reacting to the coronavirus outbreak in January and February, the world showered them with praise — and rightfully so. But after a remarkable initial stage, they let their guard down and are now suffering a second wave of severe intentions.

If countries that got everything right in the first place and then relaxed too quickly are suffering greatly, what does this mean for places that never got it right in the first place?

Dozens of US states have announced plans to relax social distancing restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. The state of Georgia has set in motion aggressive plans to ease stay-at-home restrictions, despite protests from scientists and even some local officials. Relaxing the lockdown without having access to robust and reliable mass testing, and without a transmission monitoring program set in place sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Wishful thinking

We all want restaurants to open and be full. We all want to carry on with our city breaks, our projects, our work, our partiers — our normal lives, in a nutshell. But this kind of wishful thinking will get us nowhere.

The scenario that President Trump, for instance, has been pushing at his daily press briefings have constantly been overly optimistic, downplaying the real risks. The “we have it all under control” from January, the “infections are going down not up” from March, and the recent touting of unproven (and potentially dangerous treatments) all go to show that if we ignore the evidence and project too optimistic of a scenario, it will come back to bite us.

There is strong scientific evidence that a lockdown works to reduce the spread of infection and that if social distancing measures are not taken the number of cases will spike and hospitals will almost certainly be overrun, leading to a devastating loss of lives. A lockdown, however, is only meant as a temporary measure. The idea is to control the spread of the virus and prepare a return to society with social distancing measures and with a reliable system in place to test and detect the spread of infections.

Image credits: Jordan Hopkins.

Lessons from Europe: a lockdown works, but it’s slow

However, a lockdown takes at least 2-3 weeks just for the first effects to be seen. Essentially, whenever a lockdown is imposed, you still expect the number of detected cases to rise because more people already have the virus without knowing it yet, and it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear.

Then, as we’ve seen in Europe, the number of cases is quick to rise and slow to drop. For instance, Italy’s new cases peaked on 22 March at 6,500, and have slowly been dropping since. But now, over a month later, they’re still at 2,300 new cases every day.

The bottom line: it’s a slow and tedious process. Staying at home for 2 weeks won’t cause everything to go away.

Summer won’t kill the virus — autumn will make it worse

This idea has been floating around since January, but there is simply no reason to believe the virus will go away in the summertime. We’ve seen in places like Singapore that it can spread at temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

It is possible that heat slightly slows down the virus, but we don’t know if this is the case and to what extent this might happen. Simply put, it’s unrealistic to expect summer to save us. “[W]e will have coronavirus in the fall,” Anthony Fauci (and many other experts) warned.

This means that the virus will almost certainly be around in autumn and winter when the health burden of other respiratory diseases is expected to increase. This means that there will be even more pressure on the health system, and even more health threats to go alongside the coronavirus.

Changes will last many months

Bars will take a long time to resume their normal activity. Image credits: Victor He.

As much as we’d like to see restaurants buzzing and tourism booming once again, doing this prematurely will only spell more problems in the long-run. Even as some businesses resume activity, social distancing will still need to be enforced if we want to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Even under the best scenarios, if restaurants do open up, they will need to reduce the number of tables and ensure some distancing between patrons — and since most restaurants operate at razor-thin profit margins, it’s unclear how this can work out.

Sports will also not be the same for the rest of the year, and maybe even beyond that. Anthony Fauci sketched for Snapchat a best-case vision of stadiums without spectators. Whole teams would be quarantined in hotels, undergoing frequent testing throughout the season. Full stadiums, bars, and concert gigs will probably be the last signs of our return to the previous normal — but we’re a long way from being able to safely do that.

Meanwhile, the prospect of long-term remote working (and even remote learning) is becoming more and more likely. Schools are pondering the risks of kids picking the virus in schools and passing it to their families at home, and whether publicly or privately, most schools are preparing some alternative to this. Companies are doing the same thing for their employees. Obviously, some jobs can’t be done remotely but for the others, working online is becoming an increasingly likely possibility.

A vaccine is at least a year away

When Anthony Fauci said a vaccine is “at least 12 or 18 months away”, many people got that as “we’ll have a vaccine within a year”.

That’s not true — things rarely go exactly as planned, and although we are seeing unprecedented efforts, most experts believe that Fauci’s timeline was optimistic. The mumps vaccine, the fastest ever approved vaccine, took four years from collecting samples to producing a vaccine.

Then, it’s not like once we have a vaccine everyone can take it at once. Producing hundreds of millions of doses and distributing them to the population will be a major challenge in itself. All in all, we’ll be in this bumpy ride for a long time

Growing CO2 emissions could alter human cognition

From fossil fuel production to extensive agriculture, human activities are increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels unprecedented in history. The global average amount of carbon dioxide hit a new record high in 2019, with 414 parts per million (ppm).

Credit Wikipedia Commons

This is causing a wide array of consequences, including alterations to our basic decision-making ability and complex strategic thinking, according to a new study, which warned people could be exposed to indoor CO2 levels up to 1400 parts per million by the end of the century.

“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces,” said in a statement Kris Karnauskas, lead-author. “It affects everybody — from little kids packed into classrooms to scientists, business people and decision makers to regular folks in their houses and apartments.”

When we breathe air with high CO2 levels, the CO2 levels in our blood rise, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches our brains. This can increase sleepiness, anxiety, and impair cognitive function, previous studies showed. Building ventilation can help but not always if there are too many people.

In general, CO2 concentrations are higher indoors than outdoors, the authors wrote. And outdoor CO2 in urban areas is higher than in pristine locations. The CO2 concentrations in buildings are a result of both the gas that is otherwise in equilibrium with outdoor conditions, as well as the CO2 generated by building occupants as they exhale.

In the ongoing scenario — in which people on Earth do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts outdoor CO2 levels could rise to 930 ppm by 2100. Urban areas typically have around 100 ppm higher CO2 levels than this background value.

The researchers created an approach that considers predicted future outdoor CO2 concentrations and the impact of localized urban emission. They found that if the outdoor CO2 concentrations do rise to 930 ppm, that would nudge the indoor concentrations to a harmful level of 1400 ppm.

“At this level, some studies have demonstrated compelling evidence for significant cognitive impairment,” said Anna Schapiro, coauthor. “Though the literature contains some conflicting findings, it appears that high level cognitive domains like decision-making and planning are especially susceptible to increasing CO2 concentrations.”

The study found that CO2 concentrations may cut our basic decision-making ability by 25% and complex strategic thinking by around 50% in a 1400 ppm scenario. The cognitive impacts of rising CO2 levels represent what scientists call a “direct” effect of the gas’ concentration, much like ocean acidification.

There may be ways to adapt to higher indoor CO2 levels, the researchers argued. Nevertheless, the best way to prevent levels from reaching harmful levels is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. This would require further climate action, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement.

The study was published in the journal Advancing Earth and Space Science.

Japan announces state of emergency, gives 100,000 yen ($920) to all citizens for virus relief

Japan’s coronavirus reaction has been somewhat inconsistent, with periods of remarkable action and inexplicable delays. Now, Japan is pushing the pedal on economic support.

Japan’s coronavirus developments have been unusual. At first, the country seemed exposed to the risks of the virus, due to its proximity to China. Fears were confirmed as Japan was one of the first countries outside of China to report COVID-19 cases, but Japan seemed to have things under control — for a while. They tested a lot, traced chains of infections, and the number of cases dropped to a low level.

But then, things started to change.

Unlike South Korea, which continued to focus on mass testing and contact tracing, Japan relaxed. After weeks of keeping things under control, the virus seems to finally get a foothold in Japan, especially in Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis.

At the moment, Japan reports less than 1,000 new cases per day, but this is the critical phase in which the infections can explode in a very short time. The Japanese government delayed action for a while. According to one poll, 75% of people think the government waited too long to declare a state of emergency and measures should have been taken earlier. But now that the state of emergency has been declared, Japan is expected to take serious action.

Among the decisions announced as an economic stimulus, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans for a one-time payment to all citizens of 100,000 yen, the rough equivalent of $920

“I will ask the ruling parties to consider giving 100,000 yen each to all people affected by the emergency declaration as they will be asked to refrain from outings and other activities will be restricted” following the expansion of the state of emergency, Abe told a government panel tasked with coronavirus responses.

It’s a similar cash handout to the one in the US, which announced a $1,200 payout to citizens (currently delayed for adding Trump’s name to the checks). However, Japan’s plan comes at an earlier stage than the one in the US, which is currently reporting over new 30,000 coronavirus cases a day.

However, Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said that the speed of the government’s decision-making is “inferior to that of other countries.” Nevertheless, Nagahama praised the 100,000 yen distribution as it gives a “less unfair feeling as long as people with a relatively high income partially pay back (what they have received) through taxation.”

“If the supplementary budget is reworked, some consideration will be needed for public finance, such as bringing money from other policies to the blanket handout, including that allocated to stimulate consumption after the virus infections are contained, and from the initial budget’s reserve fund,” Nagahama said.

This map predicts where coronavirus might strike next

We already have an interactive map showing where coronavirus cases are happening — now, a new model tries to predict where the virus might strike next.

A model showing the probable routes the coronavirus could take to spread from the Beijing airport. The bigger the bubble, the greater the risk. Image credits: Dirk Brockman.

There are currently over 40,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, with over 1,000 fatalities. The outbreak is increasingly looking like a pandemic and health officials are concerned that the disease might start to spread globally. Currently, around 99% of all cases have been reported in China and there is no indication that the virus is reproducing in other countries — but if this does happen, the results could be disastrous.

With this in mind, a team of researchers from the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Robert Koch Institute devised a model to predict relative risk for coronavirus spread (the computational model is presented in detail here). Aside from confirmed cases, the model is based on international air transport trends, including 4000 airports with more than 50000 flight routes.

The spread of the virus on an international scale is dominated by air travel — in China, the virus had spread to several provinces before Wuhan (the city where the outbreak originated) was quarantined. This is why air traffic is so significant here.

Asian countries are most at risk, though the US and Australia also are also at significant risk. Beyond China, Thailand is the most likely to have infected people arrive at its airports.

The interactive chart shows the most at-risk airports from different countries. Here, the airports from Japan are highlighted. Image credits: Dirk Brockman.

After Thailand, Japan is the most at-risk country — but interestingly, Osaka’s international airport is more at risk than Tokyo’s airport, due to the travel patterns from infected areas — the interactive chart shows individual risks when you click a country.

However, it’s important to note that by far, most cases have occurred in China — as researchers also illustrate.

Image credits: Dirk Brockman.

How should we deal with this model?

Bear in mind that this is not an absolute prediction or a tool that should be used to make quantitative assessments — it shows relative risks more than anything else.

This is particularly useful to enable health workers to gain an intuitive understanding of where the virus might be spreading to next. The main focus of the model is “Ro” — which represents how many people each infected person can infect without external intervention (such as face masks or quarantines). The model also considers the incubation period, as well as other parameters affecting the disease spread.

This Ro number (pronounced “R zero”) does not change during an outbreak: it is a fixed contagiousness factor. In the case of the novel coronavirus, most models estimate that Ro is between 2 and 3 — meaning that an infected person, on average, will infect 2-3 others.

But this is just an average. Some people won’t infect anyone else, whereas others will infect more, and it’s hard to model who will spread the virus more.

How much an outbreak spreads is an interplay between Ro, incubation conditions, and travel conditions. Although the model is qualitative and not quantitative, it can offer important insights and help direct policy.

For instance, quarantining Wuhan is unlikely to make a significant difference at this point. But the quarantine poses an important social and economic stress, making it difficult to bring goods in and out of town, and threatening many citizens’ livelihoods.

Several other models have been presented in preprint servers and peer-reviewed journals, some more ambitious than others. With enough quality and robust data, models can start to forecast how the outbreak will take shape. The bad news is that this is still a relatively new situation, and gathering robust data is a challenge. The good news, however, is that researchers can ground-proof their models every single day, by seeing how the situation escalates.

Most models seem to suggest that outside of China, the risk is relatively low — and China has a good chance of containing the outbreak, a remarkable achievement.

Coronaviruses: what they are, and should you worry

Following an outbreak in Wuhan, China in December, hundreds have already been infected with a new Chinese coronavirus. Cases have already been found in the US, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, with people also being tested in the UK.

Image Credits: Wiki Commons.

Experts over the world are on high alert but the World Health Organization (WHO) said it’s too early yet to declare an international public health emergency. As doubts and misinformation are all over the place, here’s a clear guide on everything you should know on the coronaviruses.

This is a guide to coronaviruses in general, not necessarily restricted to the new virus.

What are the coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are of the group of viruses that cause a wide array of illnesses that go from a common cold to more severe problems such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

They are common among animals and in rare cases, which scientists call zoonotic, they can be transmitted from animals to humans. SARS, for example, was believed to have been transmitted from civet cats to humans.

Electron microscopic image of a coronavirus, revealing its sun-like structure. This image is of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Image credits: NIAID.

The actual name coronavirus originates from the Latin word corona, which means crown or halo. When looking at it through an electron microscope, the virus resembles a solar corona. Now, a novel coronavirus was identified by Chinese authorities, which hadn’t been previously identified in humans.

What are the symptoms of coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses can make people sick with a mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illness, similar to a common cold. The symptoms usually include cough, sore throat, headache, runny nose and a fever that can last for a few days.

The virus can cause much more serious respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia in individuals with a weakened immune system such as the elderly and the very young. A handful of human coronaviruses are also known to be deadly.

The MERS virus was first reported in the Middle East in 2012 and caused respiratory problems with severe symptoms, with three to four out of every 10 patients with MERS have died. Meanwhile, SARS has also caused severe symptoms such as diarrhea and kidney failure.

How do the coronaviruses spread?

Coronaviruses can spread from human contact with animals. While MERS started with camels and SARS with civet cats, officials don’t know yet what animal may have caused the current outbreak in China.

Human-to-human transmission of the viruses happens when someone comes into contact with the secretions of an infected person. A sneeze, a handshake or a cough can cause exposure, depending on how virulent the virus is.

At the same time, the coronavirus can also be transmitted by touching something that an infected person has touched and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. In the case of the Wuhan coronavirus, human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, with experts now studying who is transmitting the most.

The new Chinese coronavirus is thought to have originated in a Wuhan market.

Is there a treatment for coronaviruses?

There isn’t, but there’s research underway. Usually, symptoms just go away on their own, with experts suggesting seeking care early. If the symptoms feel worse than just a normal cold, it is advisable to go to a doctor, who can help with pain or fever medication.

Can the coronaviruses be prevented?

There’s no vaccine to protect against this family of viruses, but there are trials for one underway. The United States National Institute of Health is now working on a vaccine against the new virus, but it will take at least a year until it might become available.

The risk of infection could be reduced by avoiding people who are sick and not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds can also help.

What about pregnancy and coronaviruses?

The more severe versions of the MERS and SARS coronaviruses have proved to be serious. There were cases in which a woman infected with MERS had a stillbirth, a study from 2014 showed. Illnesses associated with SARS were also linked to cases of spontaneous abortion and maternal death, according to a 2004 study.