Tag Archives: health

New Chinese coronavirus may have come from snakes, through food markets

The famous Asian wet markets, where shoppers can buy everything from poultry to snakes, might be responsible for helping the virus make the leap from snakes to humans.

A wet market such as the one above may be responsible for helping the coronavirus spread to humans. Image credits: Wikipedia.

A new, dangerous virus

In late 2019, a strange virus started making the headlines. It seemed to cause severe pneumonia-like symptoms, and its origin was a mystery. The virus originated in China, where it quickly spread to several cities. It has since made its way to several countries, including the US.

The pathogen was shown to be a coronavirus: a class that got its name from the physical appearance of viruses, which resemble a solar corona. It’s the same family of viruses as the well-known severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), both of which have caused dangerous outbreaks in the past two decades.

Coronaviruses are transmitted through the air and primarily infect the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract of mammals and birds. Most viruses cause relatively mild symptoms, but a few can cause life-threatening complications.

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.

This is also the case with the newly discovered virus, called 2019-nCoV. There’s no approved treatment yet, and researchers are still not sure how easily the virus can spread from human to human — or how it jumped to humans in the first place.

But thanks to the efforts of Chinese researchers, we’re getting one step closer to the truth.

A new study reports that most likely, the virus jumped from snakes to humans, and it did so in a food market in Wuhan, where live animals and meat are sold in cramped spaces.

“Our findings suggest that the snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir,” the team of scientists wrote in the paper.

From bats to snakes to humans

Previous genetic sequencing of the virus showed that it came from bats. But, while bats are also sold in Chinese markets such as Wuhan, they are unlikely to be the direct source, this study indicates. Instead, the newly discovered coronavirus likely jumped from snakes to humans — specifically, from the many-banded Chinese Krait or Chinese cobra.

The Chinese cobra (Naja atra) could have spread the virus to humans. Image credits: Briston/Wikimedia.

This route makes a lot of sense. For starters, both of these snakes hunt and eat bats. Secondly, they are also sold in wet markets, and are sometimes consumed as a delicacy or used in traditional medicine. This makes for a very plausible chain of events, where the virus jumped from bats to snakes, and from snakes to humans. This is important in tracking down the virus and understanding its evolution and controlling the outbreak.

It’s still a mystery how the virus could jump from warm-blooded to cold-blooded hosts, and then to warm-blooded again. Usually, this is a very challenging step for viruses and the fact that this coronavirus managed to make this leap suggests it is a very adaptable strain.

This outbreak is another reminder that people should limit the consumption of wild animals to prevent zoonotic infections. China has taken significant efforts to limit the spread of diseases through its animal markets, but these areas remain highly susceptible — particularly when it comes to wild animals. Preference for fresh meat from animals that aren’t properly quarantined or from the wild “does make China susceptible to the risk of new virus outbreaks through close animal and human contact,” said Wang Yuedan, a professor of immunology at Peking University’s School of Basic Medical Sciences.

For now, researchers call for further investigation to confirm that snakes are indeed the reservoir for the disease. Multiple teams are also working to assess how easily the virus can spread from human to human and to develop a potential treatment for the virus.

Unfortunately, as of now, there is no approved vaccine or antiviral treatment available for coronavirus infection. If you are suffering from pneumonia-like symptoms and have been in contact with someone that could have transmitted the disease, consult with your doctor immediately.

Better diets could save billions in U.S. health care costs

Healthier diets could save the US around $50 billion in healthcare costs annually, according to a new study.

Image credits Ylanite Koppens.

Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of poor health, as they promote the development of cardiometabolic diseases (CMDs) such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. A new study led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers estimates that unhealthy diets can account for 45% of all CMD-related deaths in the US, leading to a national healthcare burden of around $50 billion nationally.

Fooding the bill

“There is a lot to be gained in terms of reducing risk and cost associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by making relatively simple changes to one’s diet,” said corresponding author Thomas Gaziano, MD, MSc, of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Brigham. “Our study indicates that the foods we purchase at the grocery store can have a big impact. I was surprised to see a reduction of as much as 20 percent of the costs associated with these cardiometabolic diseases.”

In collaboration with researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the team looked at the impact of 10 dietary factors — fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, whole grains, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, seafood omega-3 fats, and sodium — on one’s diet on annual CMD-related health costs.

Towards this end, they used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), to create a representative U.S. population sample of individuals aged between 35 and 85 years old. Then, using a model they developed, the team analyzed how the individual risk of CMDs shift based on the dietary patterns of respondents to the NHANES study. Finally, they calculated what the overall CMD-related costs would be if everyone followed an optimal diet in relation to the 10 factors.

They conclude that suboptimal diets cost around $301 per person per year, for a total of over $50 billion nationally. The team explains that this sum represents 18% of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes costs in the United States. Costs were highest for those with Medicare ($481/person) and those who were eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid ($536/person).

The consumption of processed meats and low consumption of nuts, seeds, and omega-3 fat foodstuffs (such as seafood) were the highest drivers of CMD risks and additional costs, the team explains.

“We have accumulating evidence […] to support policy changes focused on improving health at a population level. One driver for those changes is identifying the exorbitant economic burden associated with chronic disease caused by our poor diets,” said co-senior author Renata Micha of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

“This study provides additional evidence that those costs are unacceptable. While individuals can and do make changes, we need innovative new solutions — incorporating policy makers, the agricultural and food industry, healthcare organizations, and advocacy/non-profit organizations — to implement changes to improve the health of all Americans.”

The results of this study may underestimate the total cost of unhealthy diets, the team explains, as it can contribute to other health complications aside from CMDs. Additionally, other factors beyond the 10 used in this study could drive health risks and costs, they add. Finally, the NHANES study relied on self-reported data — participants were asked to recall what they ate in the past 24 hours — which isn’t very reliable.

The paper “Cardiometabolic disease costs associated with suboptimal diet in the United States: A cost analysis based on a microsimulation model” has been published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

Leaf blowers are not only annoying but also bad for you (and the environment)

The seemingly-innocuous leaf blower may actually cause a lot more damage than you’d think — to both your health and the climate.

A groundskeeper blows autumn leaves in the Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh.
Image via Wikimedia.

It’s that time of the year: trees are shedding their leaves, and people are blowing them off the pavement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this quaint image actually hides several health concerns for operators and the public at large.

The inefficient gas engines typically used on leaf blowers generate large amounts of air pollution and particulate matter. The noise they generate can lead to serious hearing problems, including permanent hearing loss, according to the CDC.

Sounds bad

Some noise may not seem like much of an issue, but the dose can make it poison. The CDC explains that using your conventional, commercial (and gas-powered) leaf-blower for two hours has an adverse impact on your hearing. Some emit between 80 and 85 decibels (dB) while in use. Most cheap or mid-range leaf blowers, however, can expose users to up to 112 decibels (a plane taking off generates 105 decibels). At this level, they can cause instant “pain and ear injury,” with “hearing loss possible in less than [2 to] 5 minutes”.

The low-frequency sound they emit fades slowly over long distances or through building walls. Even at 800 meters away, a conventional leaf blower is still over the 55 dB limit considered safe by the World Health Organization, according to one 2017 study. Because they’re so loud, they can be heard “many homes away” from where they are being used, Quartz explains.

This ties into the greater issue of noise pollution. The 2016 Greater Boston Noise Report (link plays audio,) which surveyed 1,050 residents across the Boston area, found that most felt they “could not control noise or get away from it,” with leaf blowers being a major source of noise. Some 79% of responders said they believed no one cared that it bothered them. Leaf blowers are also seeing more use — in some cases becoming a daily occurrence. As homeowners and landscaping crews create an overlap of noise, these devices can be heard for several hours a day.

Image credits S. Hermann & F. Richter / Pixabay.

With over 11 million leaf blowers in the U.S. as of 2018, this adds up to a lot of annoyed people. Most cities don’t have legislation in place that deals with leaf blower noise specifically, and existing noise ordinances are practically unenforceable for these devices. However, there are cities across the U.S. that have some kind of leaf blower noise restrictions in place or going into effect.

Noisy environments can cause both mental and physical health complications, contributing to tinnitus, hypertension, and generating stress (which leads to annoyance and disturbed sleep).

Very polluting

A report published by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) in the year 2000 lists several potential hazards regarding air quality when using leaf blowers:

  • Particulate Matter (PM): “Particles of 10 Fm and smaller are inhalable and able to deposit and remain on airway surfaces,” the study explains, while “smaller particles (2.5 Fm or less) are able to penetrate deep into the lungs and move into intercellular spaces.” More on the health impact of PM here.
  • Carbon Monoxide: a gas that binds to the hemoglobin protein in our red blood cells. This prevents the cell from ‘loading’ oxygen or carbon dioxide — essentially preventing respiration.
  • Unburned fuel: toxic compounds from gasoline that leak in the air, either through evaporation or due to incomplete combustion in the engine. Several of these compounds are probable carcinogens and are known irritants for eyes, skin, and the respiratory tract.

To give you an idea of the levels of exposure involved here, the study explains that landscape workers running a leaf blower are exposed to ten times more ultra-fine particles than someone standing next to a busy road.

Additionally, these tools are important sources of smog-forming compounds. It’s not a serious issue right now, but as more people buy and use leaf blowers, lawnmowers, and other small gas-powered engines, these are expected to overtake cars as the leading cause of smog in the United States.

What to do about it

Well, the easiest option is to use a rake — or just leave the leaves where they are, which is healthier for the environment.

But leaf blowers didn’t get to where they are today because people like to rake. Electrical versions, either corded or battery-powered, would address the air quality and virtually all of the noise concerns (albeit in exchange for less power).

While government regulation might help with emission levels, noise concerns might best be dealt with using more social approaches. Establishing neighborhood-wide leaf blowing intervals, or limiting the activity to a single day per week, would help make our lives a little better. As an added benefit, this would also help people feel that their concerns are being heard, and foster a sense of community.

Electronic cigarettes aren’t good for you — in some respects, they’re worse than traditional cigarettes

E-cigarettes aren’t harmless. Although viewed as a healthier alternative, the study finds that e-cigarette smoking impacts heart health similar to the smoking of traditional cigarettes.

Image via Pixabay.

Several heart disease risk factors — cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels, as well as decreased blood flow in the heart — are negatively impacted by e-cigarette smoke. The findings will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019, later this month.

Not harmless by far

“There is no long-term safety data on e-cigarettes. However, there are decades of data for the safety of other nicotine replacement therapies,” explains Rose Marie Robertson, M.D., FAHA, the American Heart Association’s deputy chief science and medical officer.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the use of FDA-approved smoking cessation aids, which are proven safe and effective. Robertson says that people often choose e-cigarettes as an alternative to quitting (as it is perceived as being safer than traditional tobacco), or as a temporary solution while working to quit altogether. In the latter case, however, she warns that people should also plan how to subsequently stop using e-cigarettes. There is a striking lack of data on the long-term safety of such devices, and growing concerns over the physiological effects caused by the chemical cocktails therein.

One study used in this report — the Cardiovascular Injury due to Tobacco Use (CITU) Study — compared cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels in healthy adult nonsmokers, e-cigarette smokers, traditional cigarette smokers, and dual smokers (who use both traditional and e-cigarettes). Participants were aged 21-45, didn’t have any preexisting cardiovascular disease, and took no relevant medication. Out of the total of 467 participants, 94 were non-smokers, 52 were dual smokers, 45 were e-cigarette smokers, and 285 were traditional cigarette smokers.

After adjusting for age, race, and sex, the team reports that total cholesterol was lower for e-cig smokers, but their low-density lipoprotein (LDL, ‘bad’ cholesterol) levels were higher, compared to nonsmokers. High-density lipoprotein (HDL, ‘good’ cholesterol) was lower in dual smokers.

“Although primary care providers and patients may think that the use of e-cigarettes by cigarette smokers makes heart health sense, our study shows e-cigarette use is also related to differences in cholesterol levels. The best option is to use FDA-approved methods to aid in smoking cessation, along with behavioral counseling,” said study author Sana Majid, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in vascular biology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Another study looked at heart blood flow as a measure of coronary vascular function in 19 young adult smokers (ages 24-32) immediately before and after smoking either e-cigarettes or traditional cigarettes. The study looked at this metric both at rest and after performing a handgrip exercise (meant to simulate physiological stress).

For smokers of traditional cigarettes, the team saw a “modest” increase in blood flow after cigarette inhalation, which decreased with subsequent stress. E-cig smokers, however, saw blood flow decrease both at rest and after the handgrip exercises. All in all, e-cigarette use seems to be associated with coronary vascular dysfunction to a greater degree than seen in traditional cigarettes.

“These results indicate that e-cig use is associated with persistent coronary vascular dysfunction at rest, even in the absence of physiologic stress,” said study author Florian Rader, medical director of the Human Physiology Laboratory and assistant director of the Non-Invasive Laboratory, Smidt Heart Institute, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

“Providers counseling patients on the use of nicotine products will want to consider the possibility that e-cigs may confer as much and potentially even more harm to users and especially patients at risk for vascular disease,” added study co-author Susan Cheng, director of Public Health Research at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The studies were funded by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, and The California State Tobacco-related Disease Research Program High Impact Pilot Research Award. The American Heart Association Tobacco Center for Regulatory Science provided research materials for the first study.

The findings will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019 conference, November 16-18 in Philadelphia, USA (sessions Mo3106, Sa3199).

Running, even just a little, can reduce your risk of death

You can’t run away from your problems — unless, it turns out, that problem is death.

Image via Pixabay.

Any amount of running is linked to a significantly lower risk of death from any cause, a new metastudy on the subject reports. If more people took up running, the authors add, we could see substantial improvements in population health and longevity.

Run, Forest, run

That physical exercise is good for you isn’t exactly news. However, the exact details on running are a bit fuzzy. The full extent of its benefits on our health is not exactly clear, even if we know that it does protect us from cardiovascular diseases, for example. It’s not clear how much a person should run to see the potential benefits, or whether running more frequently, for longer, or at a certain pace brings certain benefits over other styles of running.

In a bid to find out, the team performed a systematic review of all relevant published studies, conference presentations, doctoral theses, and dissertations. The team was on the lookout for research into the link between running, jogging, and the risk of death from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

The team whittled the databases down to 14 suitable studies involving 232,149 people. The participants of the studies used were tracked for periods ranging from 5.5 years up to 35 years. The team also reports that 25,951 of the study participants died as their respective studies were ongoing. After the data was pooled together, they showed that any amount of running was associated with a 27% lower risk of death from all causes for both sexes compared to no running. Running was also associated with a 30% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 23% lower risk of death from cancer.

The team further explains that even casual running — for example once per week or less, lasting less than 50 minutes each time, even at speeds under 6 mi (8 km) an hour — was still associated with significant health benefits and longevity. That’s 25 minutes less than the recommended weekly amount of vigorous exercise.

All in all, this suggests running is a very good option for people whose main obstacle to exercising is a lack of time. On the flip side, however, the team reports that more running (above the threshold mentioned above) didn’t lead to greater reductions in the risk of death from any cause.

Please keep in mind that this is an observational study — it can find a link between two factors, but it cannot establish any cause-effect relationships between them. More plainly, while the study finds that people who run have better odds of not dying, it can’t say whether running is the cause and ‘not dying’ the effect. It may simply be that people who engage in running are more health-conscious overall, which makes them less likely to die from any cause. Alternatively, it can be that people who run tend to be more self-conscious overall, taking better care of themselves, which makes them less likely to die from any cause. Still, the team says that even a little running is better than no running.

“Increased rates of participation in running, regardless of its dose, would probably lead to substantial improvements in population health and longevity,” the study concludes

The paper “Systematic review: Is running associated with a lower risk of all-cause cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and is the more the better? A systematic review and meta-analysis” has been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Immune system could be altered for years after a wildfire

Exposure to wildfire smoke may alter the immune system for years, new research found, as the tiny particulate matter in the smoke that penetrates into the lungs and into the bloodstream could linger for a long time.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

When exposed to wildfires, people are also inhaling noxious fine particles measuring less than 2.5 microns, or a fifth the size of a particle of dust or pollen. Researchers have had a hard time quantifying exposure to those tiny particles.

A new study, published in the journal Allergy, found exposure to high levels of that tiny particulate matter, abbreviated as PM2.5, impairs the immune system of children. The researchers tested the blood of 36 children exposed to wildfire smoke blown into Fresno in 2015.

In their results, they found changes in a gene involved in the development and function of T cells, an important component of the immune system. The alteration made the gene less capable of producing T regulatory cells, potentially putting the children at greater risk of developing allergies or infection.

“T regulatory cells act as peacekeepers in your immune system and keep everything on an even keel,”Mary Prunicki, an allergy researcher and lead author, told WIRED. “You have fewer of these good, healthy immune cells around when you’re exposed to a lot of air pollution.”

As with wildfires, controlled fires to clear out underbrush, known as prescribed burns, also can cause health effects. Thirty-two children exposed to smoke from prescribed burns had immune changes, too, but the effect wasn’t as strong as it was for children exposed to wildfire smoke, the study showed.

The research did not follow those children to see if their altered immune systems led to worse health outcomes, but an ongoing study at the University of California, Davis, raises some similar concerns. This one focused on rhesus macaques that live in an outdoor enclosure at the California National Primate Research Center and were exposed to 10 days of PM2.5

At three years of age, researchers examined 50 monkeys that had been exposed to wildfire smoke. They produced less of an immune-related protein as compared to monkeys not exposed to smoke as babies. That protein triggers inflammation to fight pathogens. A closer examination o revealed immune-related genetic changes as well.

“Clearly, the toxicants in air pollution are having a permanent effect on the DNA of immune cells,” Lisa A. Miller, principal investigator, told WIRED. “It’s a change that stays with that cell for its entire life.”

The National Interagency Fire Center predicts an “above normal” potential for wildfires this summer for Northern California. People can take precautions to limit their exposure when wildfire smoke blankets their area. Some cities provide “clear air centers” like a wildfire version of the evacuation shelters used during hurricanes.

The healthiest food may also be the most sustainable one

Having a climate-friendly lifestyle not only means recycling, consuming fewer resources and using public transportation but also changing our diets, according to a new study, which showed that wider use of healthier diets could reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture and food production.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, establishes a link between diet, health, and sustainability, and shows that foods with positive health outcomes have a low environmental impact, while other foods, such as red meat, can be especially harmful to both.

“The foods making up our diets have a large impact on both ourselves and our environment. This study shows that eating healthier also means eating more sustainably,” said David Tilman, co-author of the study. “Normally, if a food product is good for one aspect of a person’s health, it’s better for other health outcomes, as well. The same holds for environmental outcomes.”

Tilman and the group of researchers explored how consuming 15 different food groups is, on average, associated with five different health outcomes and five aspects of environmental degradation. They concluded that transitioning diets toward greater consumption of healthier foods would also improve environmental sustainability.

Red meat had the strongest association with a heightened risk of mortality, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. Producing red meat was also ten to 100 times worse for the environment than producing plant-sourced foods due to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, acidification, and eutrophication.

At the same time, consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and fruit juice, was also found bad for your health but with a low environmental cost. Adding an extra serving of dairy products, eggs, or chicken was not associated with upping or lowering disease risk and with a moderate environmental impact.

“Overcoming current environmental and health challenges may seem overwhelming, but there is much that we as individuals can do,” Michael A. Clark, co-author, told Inverse. “Choosing to purchase and consume foods that are win-wins for health and environment will be key in reversing the growing health and environmental harms that societies globally are experiencing.”

While meat is bad for your health and the environment, there’s a wide range of products that are completely the opposite. Eating more nuts, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish every day is quite positive, as well as implementing plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean diet.

The study also showed certain nuances can make the environmental or health impacts stronger or weaker. Leafy greens are better for reducing type 2 diabetes risk than some other vegetables, while frying fish can negate its positive health effects. Wild-caught fish is much better for the earth than farm-raised.

“This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment,” said Jason Hill, co-author. “It’s important that all of us think about the health impacts of the foods we eat. We now know that making our nutrition a priority will pay dividends for the Earth, as well.”

The study highlighted recent recommendations from the United Nations and others about the environmental impacts of human diets. A report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August said eating more plant-based foods helped adapt to and limit climate change.

New flame retardants are as toxic as the ones they intended to replace

Escaping from TVs, electrical and electronic products and children’s car seats, new flame retardants are actually are just as toxic as the flame retardants they’re intended to replace, according to a new study, which found the new chemicals can be associated with serious health harms.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Flame retardant chemicals aren’t necessary, or even effective, for reducing fire hazard in many products. These chemicals are added to meet flammability regulations. But research shows they often delay ignition only a few seconds and make fires more dangerous.

Dangerous flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were phased out of use in furniture foam, electronics, and children’s products. While this was initially celebrated as a victory for human health, PBDEs have been swapped out with organophosphate flame retardants in many products.

The new flame retardants migrate out of products and drop into the dust. When dust contaminated with flame retardants gets on your hands, you can end up eating the flame retardants along with your sandwich. Levels of the new flame retardants are often 10 to 100 times higher in air, dust, and water than the previous flame retardants.

“These results show the danger of the whack-a-mole approach to chemical policy,” said Dr. Marta Venier, an Associate Scientist at Indiana University. “When manufacturers have to stop using a toxic chemical, they often replace it with a similar chemical with similar harms. In the case of flame retardants, we’re jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

The investigators reviewed nearly one hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers on flame retardants. They compared research findings on the health effects, environmental harms, and chemical properties of the older PBDEs and newer organophosphates.

They found that the replacement chemicals are carried by wind and water far from their origin — even to the ocean depths, icy mountain tops, and Earth’s poles. Based on the results, they called manufacturers to increase fire safety in furniture, electronics, and children’s products with creative designs and inherently fire-resistant materials.

“It’s disheartening that after years of health harm to our children from PBDE flame retardants, the most widely used replacements appear to be just as bad,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “To protect future generations, manufacturers can and must stop the cycle of toxic substitutions and avoid unneeded flame retardants altogether.”

Air pollution can increase violent crime rates, study finds

Air pollution is considered a severe health problem across the globe, causing millions of deaths every year due to exposure to a mix of particles and gases. But breathing dirty air doesn’t only make you sick but also more aggressive, according to research.

A set of studies by researchers at Colorado State University found strong links between short-term exposure to air pollution and aggressive behavior, in the form of aggravated assaults and other violent crimes across the continental United States.

The team cross-analyzed three highly detailed datasets: daily criminal activity from the National Incident-Based Reporting System managed by the FBI; daily, county-level air pollution from 2006-2013 collected by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors; and daily data on wildfire smoke plumes from satellite imagery.

Rates of pollution are usually measured through concentrations of ozone, as well as of “PM2.5,” or breathable particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, which has documented associations with health effects.

The research showed a 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in same-day exposure to PM2.5 is associated with a 1.4% increase in violent crimes, nearly all of which is driven by crimes categorized as assaults. Researchers also found that a 0.01 parts-per-million increase in same-day exposure to ozone is associated with a 0.97% increase in violent crime or a 1.15% increase in assaults.

“We’re talking about crimes that might not even be physical – you can assault someone verbally,” co-author Jude Bayham said. “The story is, when you’re exposed to more pollution, you become marginally more aggressive, so those altercations – some things that may not have escalated – do escalate.”

The researchers made no claims on the physiological, mechanistic relationship of how exposure to pollution leads someone to become more aggressive. The results only show a strong correlative relationship between such crimes and levels of air pollution, not looking at other possible explanations.

“The results are fascinating, and also scary,” Jeff Pierce said. “When you have more air pollution, this specific type of crime, domestic violent crime in particular, increases quite significantly.”

Air pollution

The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections.

More than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the World Health Organization guideline level of 10µg/m3, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.

The major outdoor pollution sources include vehicles, power generation, building heating systems, agriculture/waste incineration and industry. In addition, more than 3 billion people worldwide rely on polluting technologies and fuels (including biomass, coal, and kerosene) for household cooking, heating and lighting, releasing smoke into the home and leaching pollutants outdoors.

Black carbon pollution can reach the placenta, new study shows

Early-life development is critical for a healthy development, and any exposure to pollutants or contaminants can be extremely dangerous. Now, a new study has found that black carbon particles can reach the fetal side of the placenta if women are exposed to pollution during pregnancy.

Black carbon is an air pollutant produced by gas and diesel engines, coal-fired power plants, and other sources that burn fossil fuel. It’s basically pure carbon — a component of fine particulate matter (PM ≤ 2.5 µm in aerodynamic diameter) — one of the most dangerous types of pollution.

In 2015, alone, small particulate matter was estimated to cause 4.2 million of deaths worldwide — of which 202,000 children younger than 5 years. Children are at much higher risk from pollution because their immune systems are not fully developed yet. During the in utero phase, the organism is even more vulnerable to the effects of pollution. This is why the discovery of black carbon in the placenta is so concerning.

The placenta provides oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby. It also helps with removing waste products from the baby’s blood. It’s not clear whether the carbon particles have reached the fetus — it’s quite plausible, but the exact exposure remains to be addressed in future studies.

Evidence of black carbon particles in the placenta. The boxes cells (green, emission 450–650 nm) are simultaneously detected. In this image, the carbon particles are white and further indicated using arrowheads. The emission fingerprints of the carbon particles inside the placental tissue sections
were collected under femtosecond pulsed illumination. Scale bar is 100 µm.

Tim Nawrot, a researcher working at Hasselt University and Leuven University, wanted to assess whether black carbon can reach the placenta. Along with colleagues, they used high-resolution imaging on placental samples from 28 women, five of which had given birth pre-term. The presence of BC particles could be identified in all the sampled placentas. Furthermore, the mothers who had been exposed to higher levels of pollution also had more black carbon particles in their placenta.

“Our results demonstrate that the human placental barrier is not
impenetrable for particles. Our observation based on exposure
conditions in real-life is in agreement with previously reported
ex vivo and in vivo studies studying the placental transfer of
various nanoparticles,” the authors write.

“In conclusion, our study provides compelling evidence for the
presence of BC particles originating from ambient air pollution in
human placenta and suggests the direct fetal exposure to those
particles during the most susceptible period of life.”

It’s not the first time the negative effects of pollution on pregnancy have been detailed. Previous research has found that carbon pollution is associated with pre-term births or low birth weights, as well as a swarm of long-term health issues.

“Numerous studies have indisputably demonstrated that particulate inhalation results in health problems far beyond the lungs,” the researchers emphasize in the study.

Drinking tea may improve your brain health, study shows

Drinking tea on a regular basis improves brain health, according to a new study, which examined neuroimaging data and concluded tea drinkers have better-organized brain regions – associated with a healthy cognitive function.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Assistant Professor Feng Lei from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine’s Department of Psychological Medicine led the research alongside collaborators from the University of Essex and the University of Cambridge. The findings were published in the journal Aging.

“Our results offer the first evidence of the positive contribution of tea drinking to brain structure and suggest that drinking tea regularly has a protective effect against age-related decline in brain organization,” explained Asst Prof Feng Lei.

Previous studies showed drinking tea is beneficial for human health, with positive effects such as mood improvement and cardiovascular disease prevention. A study by Feng Lei in 2017 showed that daily consumption of tea can reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older persons by 50%.

Now, the research recruited 36 adults aged 60 and above and gathered data about their health, lifestyle, and psychological well-being. The elderly participants also had to undergo neuropsychological tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The study was carried out from 2015 to 2018.

The team analyzed the participants’ cognitive performance and imaging results and found that individuals who consumed either green tea, oolong tea, or black tea at least four times a week for about 25 years had brain regions that were interconnected in a more efficient way.

“We have shown in our previous studies that tea drinkers had a better cognitive function as compared to non-tea drinkers. Our current results relating to brain network indirectly support our previous findings by showing that the positive effects of regular tea drinking are the result of improved brain organization brought about by preventing disruption to interregional connections,” said Feng Lei.

Thinking about the future, Feng Lei and the team argued more research is needed to better understand how functions like memory emerge from brain circuits, and the possible interventions to better preserve cognition during the aging process. They plan to look at the effects of tea as well as the bioactive compounds in tea can have on cognitive decline.

Eat more plant protein for a longer and healthier life, new study concludes

In recent times, the human diet has changed substantially. We have access to an unprecedented variety of foods, yet meat consumption has increased dramatically: from 20 kilograms a year in 1961, to around 43 kilograms in 2014. However, recent studies have increasingly found that meat consumption can have negative health effects, and substitute meat for plant protein can provide important benefits.

The latest study followed almost 71,000 middle-aged Japanese adults for an average of almost two decades. They split the people into five groups based on how much plant protein they ate. People who ate the most plants were 13% less likely to die during the study and 16% less likely to die of cardiovascular causes than people who ate the least amount of plants.

Furthermore, when people replaced just 4% of processed meat in their diet with plant protein, they were 46% less likely to die of any cause and 50% less likely to die of cancer.

This is hardly the first study to come up with these conclusions. Numerous previous studies have found that higher consumption of animal protein is associated with chronic diseases and mortality and higher consumption of plant protein reduces this risk. However, most of these studies were conducted on people in the Western World, where consumption of animal protein is much higher. This study, carried on people with a high plant protein consumption, showcases that more plant protein is always helpful.

Leaner meat, such as fish, is also a decent alternative, researchers say.

“Our study suggests that plant protein may provide beneficial health effects and that replacement of red and processed meat protein with plant or fish protein may increase longevity,” the researchers write.

Contrary to popular belief, many plants are protein-rich — up to the point where they rival and even surpass meat. Lean beef contains around 26 grams of protein per 100 grams, comparable to lean pork (although fatter meats have way less protein). Meanwhile, kidney beans and chickpeas have around 24 grams of protein per 100 grams — and plenty of other plants can serve as excellent alternatives.

Furthermore, it’s not just the proteins — these plants are also rich in fiber and other important nutrients which meat is lacking. Fiber, in particular, has been shown to provide important health benefits and is often lacking from meat-rich diets.

There’s also a shortcoming to this study: the participants’ diets were only assessed once, at the start of the study. It’s possible that along the road, some of their dietary patterns changed. However, this adds to the growing body of evidence regarding the negative effects of a meat-rich diet. The science is in: if you want to live a healthy life, eat less meat and more plants.

The study has been published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Binge drinking ranks high among older adults, research shows

Binge drinking, the practice of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a single session, is surprisingly common in adults age 65 and older: 1 in 10 binge drink once a month, putting them at risk for a wide range of health problems, according to new research.

Image Credits: Flickr.

 

Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and AlcoholismExternal defines binge drinking as drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. This commonly means 5 drinks for men and 4 for women over the course of 2 hours.

“Binge drinking, even episodically or infrequently, may negatively affect other health conditions by exacerbating disease, interacting with prescribed medications, and complicating disease management,” Benjamin Han, MD, the study’s lead author, said.

Binge drinkers were more likely to be male, current tobacco and/or cannabis users, African American, and have less than high school education. They were also more likely to visit the emergency room in the past year.

Particularly for older adults, binge drinking is considered a risky practice because of aging-related physical changes, such as an increased risk of falling, and the likelihood of having chronic health issues. Nevertheless, research hasn’t been much focused on binge drinking among older adults.

Han and the research team examined data from US adults age 65 and older to determine the current prevalence and factors that may increase the risk of binge drinking. They looked at the prevalence of current binge alcohol use and compared demographic and health factors of binge drinkers with people who drank less.

The results showed 10.6% older adults have binge drank in the past month–an increase compared to earlier studies. In the decade leading up to the data used in this study (2005-2014), binge drinking among adults 65 and older was between 7.7 and 9%.

The study, also found that factors such as using cannabis can be associated with an increase in binge drinking in older adults.

“The association of binge drinking with cannabis use has important health implications. Using both may lead to higher impairment effects. This is particularly important as cannabis use is becoming more prevalent among older adults, and older adults may not be aware of the possible dangers of using cannabis with alcohol,” said researcher Joseph Palamar, the study’s senior author.

The study also revealed that binge drinkers had a lower prevalence of two or more chronic diseases compared to non-binge drinkers. The most common chronic disease among them was hypertension (41.4%), followed by cardiovascular disease (23.1%) and diabetes (17.7%).

“Our results underscore the importance of educating, screening, and intervening to prevent alcohol-related harms in older adults, who may not be aware of their heightened risk for injuries and how alcohol can exacerbate chronic diseases,” said Han.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

App.

New app could bring cognitive therapy to your pocket

Researchers at the McLean Hospital are working to make it so that individuals with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions receive on-demand cognitive bias modification for interpretation (CBM-I) through a simple app. It is a way to change mental habits without visiting a therapist.

App.

Image credits Jan Vašek.

CBM-I is a class of interventions that are used to shift an individual’s perception of certain situations. In effect, it plays on our own perception biases, which are linked to several different types of mental disorders. The team behind this study analyzed the viability of combining CBM-I with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for the treatment of psychiatric disorders and whether or not this approach can be used outside a hospital setting.

We have an app for that

“CBM-I tries to address […] a mental habit that is implicated in many mental disorders,” says Courtney Beard, Ph.D., director of McLean’s Cognition and Affect Research and Education (CARE) Laboratory and lead author of the paper. It is comprised of “a class of interventions designed to shift people’s interpretations of ambiguous situations in either a more positive or more negative way.”

One of the approaches involved in CBM-I treatments is presenting patients with a series of word association questions regarding everyday scenarios. For example, a patient could be presented with a conversation in which one person was yawning, then asked if that individual was “tired” or “bored”. If they pick “tired”, they are told they are correct; if they say “bored,” they are told they’re incorrect. Through repetition, this type of CBM-I therapy helps the person reframe or reassess these daily ambiguous situations.

“People face countless interactions like this every day in their lives,” Beard said. “If you have a tendency to jump to a threatening or negative conclusion, it can have a huge impact on how you’re feeling and on what you do and how you react. You can get stuck in a cycle that can maintain anxiety or depression.”

For their study, Beard and her colleagues implemented and mixed the two treatment types together in a partial hospital setting. They presented patients with word-sentence associations that encouraged patients to endorse positive interpretations and reject negative interpretations. The results showed that CBM-I was well received by acute psychiatric patients and that it improved their response to treatment. Many of the patients, the team explains, stated that CBM-I helped bolster their primary (CBT-based) care. The word association exercises also helped the patients reframe (and thus better manage) negative situations.

Based on these results, Beard and her team are moving forward with a National Institute of Mental Health-backed study to develop a smartphone version of the treatment.

“With the smartphone app, we can offer CBM-I to many more people at one time,” Beard said. “They can practice new skills, create healthy mental habits, and stop automatically jumping to negative conclusions. And they can do it on demand.”

This app could be particularly helpful for people who have just been discharged from a treatment program, she adds.

“They can use it during the month transition period after they leave the hospital, which is a risky and challenging time for them,” she said. “It quickly shows people what their brain is doing. The patient sees hundreds of situations in a short amount of time.”

“So, they see how often they jumped to a negative conclusion, and that can be very powerful. It’s kind of like cognitive therapy in your pocket — but a little different and a lot faster,” she concludes.

The paper “Translating CBM-I Into Real-World Settings: Augmenting a CBT-Based Psychiatric Hospital Program” has been published in the journal Behavior Therapy.

Philadelphia’s sugary drink tax worked: one year later, consumption dropped by 38%

In January 2017, Philadelphia became the second city in the United States to implement a tax on the distribution of sugary and artificially sweetened beverages. Two years later, the tax is believed to have taken 83 million cans of soda off the streets — the equivalent of 28 million kgs of sugar (62 million pounds).

The world is facing an unprecedented health crisis: obesity. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, with more than 1.9 billion adults being overweight, and over 650 million being obese. Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight, and although obesity is preventable through healthy nutrition and lifestyle, it shows no sign of slowing down.

Sugar is one of the main culprits in the current obesity crisis. There’s sugar in everything, from foods and sauces to sugary drinks, and the world just can’t seem to have enough of it. We’re eating too much sugar and it’s high time to stop this unless we want to deal with absolutely catastrophic consequences.

Sugary drinks are around 5-15% sugar, and contain essentially no nutrients. In other words, when you’re having this type of drink, you’re ingesting water and sugar, with no benefits. There is a mountain of science connecting sugary drink consumption to long-term health issues such as obesity and diabetes.

Health scientists and economists have long advocated for a sugary drink tax and, in 2017, Philadelphia took action.

“Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the most effective policy strategies to reduce the purchase of these unhealthy drinks. It is a public health no-brainer and a policy win-win,” said first author Christina A. Roberto, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s likely to improve the long-term health of Philadelphians, while generating revenue for education programs in the city of Philadelphia.”

The city implemented a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax (50 cents per liter). The rationale behind the tax was twofold: on one hand, the tax would raise money which would be used for educational and health projects and, on the other hand, the consumption of sugary drinks would drop.

It worked.

According to Penn Medicine researchers, the consumption of sugary and artificially sweetened beverages dropped by 38% in chain food retailers, one year after the tax was introduced. This was projected to happen, but now there is official confirmation. Overall, between January 2016 and December 2017, there was a 59% reduction in taxed beverage sales at supermarkets, a 40% reduction at mass merchandisers, and a 13%reduction at pharmacies. This wasn’t caused by any external factor —  when researchers looked at sales just outside of Pennsylvania (where the tax was not applied), they found that sales actually increased. In a separate study, researchers also report that unemployment was not affected by the beverage tax, something which the sugary drinks industry claimed would happen.

“Philadelphia’s tax on sweetened drinks led to a huge reduction in sales of these unhealthy drinks one year after it was implemented and generated revenue for thousands of pre-k slots. That’s great news for the well-being of the people of Philly,” Roberto said.

Philadelphia isn’t alone in this endeavor. Several cities in the US (including San Francisco and Boulder) have implemented similar taxes, with similar positive results. However, at the national level, there is still no talk of such a tax in the US. Meanwhile, countries such as Mexico and the UK have implemented a sugar tax and have also reported reduced consumption after the tax.

Although there are some concerns regarding such a tax and there may be significant geographical variations, the overwhelming scientific consensus seems to be that taxing sugary drinks has a positive impact.

Results were published this week in JAMA,

New ‘brain training’ game could help you wean off of excess added sugar

Researchers at Drexel University, Pennsylvania want to help you cut down on excessive sugar consumption by playing a game.

Cheesecake.

Image via Pixabay.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over half of American adults consume excessive amounts of added sugars, with detrimental effects to their health. A new study led by Evan Forman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, reports that computer games can be used to train players to wean off this sugar and help them to improve their health and manage their weight more easily.

Too sweet

“Added sugar is one of the biggest culprits of excess calories and is also associated with several health risks including cancer,” said Forman, who also leads the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) at Drexel.

“For these reasons, eliminating added sugar from a person’s diet results in weight loss and reduced risk of disease.”

The team developed and tested the efficiency of a “brain training game” that targets the brain area which inhibits our impulses. The aim was to train people to better resist the lure of foods with added sugars, specifically to decrease the consumption of sweets and sweet foods. Such systems have shown their efficiency in helping people quit other unhealthy habits, such as smoking. Forman says that this study is the first to look at how “highly personalized and/or gamified inhibitory control training” can help with weight loss using repeated, at-home training sessions.

In collaboration with Michael Wagner, a professor and head of the Digital Media department in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and a group of digital media students, the team developed a game they named “Diet DASH”.

Diet DASH is built to integrate with each player’s particular habits. It automatically customized itself to focus on the sweets each participant tended to eat and adjusted its difficulty according to how well each player was resisting the temptation to eat said sweets. To test how well it worked, the team collaborated with a randomized group of 109 participants who were overweight and reported to over-enjoy sweets. Prior to starting the game, each participant took part in a workshop to help them understand why sugar is detrimental to their health and to learn which foods to avoid and methods for doing so.

“Prior to randomization, all participants attended a 2-h workshop in which they were provided with a dietary prescription (to eat only foods without added sugar or with very low amounts of added sugar, such as certain low-sugar breakfast cereals) as well as guidance in making dietary
modifications (e.g., reading food labels, shopping and cooking substitutions). Explanatory text, figures, and tables that allowed participants to easily identify targeted foods with added sugar were distributed,” the paper explains.

“The workshop helped give participants strategies for following a no-sugar diet. However, we hypothesized that participants would need an extra tool to help manage sweets cravings,” said Forman. “The daily trainings could make or break a person’s ability to follow the no-added sugar diet. They strengthen the part of your brain to not react to the impulse for sweets.”

Game screenshot.

Image credits Evan M. Forman et al., (2019), JoBM.

Each participant played the game for a few minutes every day for six weeks and then once a week for two weeks. The game itself places players in a grocery store, with the goal of putting the correct (healthy) food in a grocery cart as fast as possible while refraining from choosing incorrect food (their preferred sweets). Players were awarded points for correct items placed in carts.

Participants were randomly assigned to a highly-gamified version of the game (with better graphics and sounds) or a less-gamified version. The team reports that the gamification level didn’t seem to matter much as far as weight loss was concerned. However, the (few) male participants in the study reacted better to the highly gamified version than the women in the study.

Over half the participants in the study showed higher preferences toward sweets. For this group, the game helped them lose as much as 3.1% of their total body weight over eight weeks. Participants also rated how satisfactory they found the daily training, whether or not it became part of their daily routine, and whether they wished to continue with the training if it becomes publicly available.

“The study’s findings offer qualified support for the use of a computerized cognitive training to facilitate weight loss,” said Forman.

The WELL Center is now conducting a new trial with the highly gamified version of this training program specifically for men and is actively recruiting participants.

The paper “Computerized neurocognitive training for improving dietary health and facilitating weight loss” has been published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Central Park.

Go to the park, it’s good for you — and makes you happier

New research shows that a 20-minute long visit to the park can make you happier, whether you exercise or not.

Central Park.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Occupational Therapy says that urban parks are great for our emotional and mental wellbeing. Visiting an urban park for as little as 20 minutes will make you feel happier, they say, no matter what you do during that time.

Parking space for your stress

“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” says main author Hon K. Yuen. “However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”

The study points to urban parks as key neighborhood elements, providing residents with the opportunity to enjoy nature and engage in physical activity. Contact with nature and health-promoting and/or social and recreational activities in parks let people reap benefits such as stress reduction and recovery from mental fatigue.

Data for the study was recorded in three urban parks — Overton, Jemison, and Cahaba River Walk Parks — in Mountain Brook, Alabama. These three parks were selected as they were the main three public parks in the town and saw a large volume of visitors each day. The team collected feedback from 98 park visitors, although four reported twice during the study and their second responses were excluded — thus, the team worked with data from 94 participant testimonies.

The findings suggest that everybody can benefit from some park-time. You don’t need to be physically active during your time there, so individuals can gain the health benefits of spending time in an urban park regardless of any disability or limitation they may be struggling with.

Yuen says that the study definitely has its limitations — these include the lack of objective data (as it was self-reported) pertaining to the visit’s effect on health and emotional well-being, and the study’s limited scope, both in number of participants and geographic spread. Still, the findings are exciting, he says, and point to the need for more urban parks and better conservation work on those already in place.

“There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” said Jenkins. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is an increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”

The paper “Factors associated with changes in subjective well-being immediately after urban park visit” has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Unvaccinated French child brings measles back to Costa Rica

Costa Rica has been measles-free since 2014 — until now. A five-year-old French child who was on vacation with his family has been diagnosed with the disease, becoming the first case the country has had in almost five years.

A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of a single virus particle, or “virion”, of measles virus. Image credits: Cynthia S. Goldsmith / CDC.

Since the introduction of vaccines, the number of measles cases worldwide has been dramatically reduced. But in recent years, measles has made a small but worrying resurgence in the developed world, riding the waves of non-scientific antivaxxing trends. Just a few weeks ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about the dangers of preventable diseases making a comeback, calling “vaccine hesitancy” among the 10 most serious threats to human health.

“Some countries that were close to eliminating measles have seen a resurgence,” the WHO warned.

As if to illustrate that point, Costa Rican authorities have now reported that a family of French tourists, the parents 30 and 35 years of age and their 5-year-old child, have been placed in isolation at the Puntarenas Hospital, close to where the family was on vacation. The boy presented a measles-like rash, and blood tests have confirmed that he does have measles (Costa Rican doctors also found that other children at the boy’s kindergarten also had measles).

This didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to Costa Rican authorities, who were on alert for measles being reintroduced from other countries. Costa Rica didn’t have any native measles cases since 2006, but imported cases have been reported up until 2014.

“An increase in cases of measles was first reported last year in Europe and some areas of the United States, but recently, several countries in Latin America have also raised the alarm; for this reason, health authorities in Costa Rica are on alert and have began promoting a vaccination campaign that will take place in August,” a recent local news report stated.

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. It has very unpleasant symptoms and can lead to dangerous and potentially fatal complications. Vaccination is 97% effective against the measles virus, which has been instrumental in reducing measles cases around the world. In the developing world, access to vaccination is still a problem, the WHO says.

“Measles vaccination resulted in a 80% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2017 worldwide. Even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available, in 2017, there were 110 000 measles deaths globally, mostly among children under the age of five,” the WHO reports. Before the introduction of measles vaccine, major epidemics occurred approximately every 2–3 years and measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.

Measles cases reported in the US, 1944-2007. Other countries where vaccines were widely implemented display similar trends. Credits: CDC.

Worryingly, even in countries which had all but eradicated measles, the disease is making a comeback as a result of reduced vaccination. Antivaxxing trends and complacency are stopping some parents from getting their children vaccinated. People opting not to have their kids vaccinated are posing great threats not only to themselves, but also to others.

In France, vaccinations against measles and 11 other diseases compulsory for children, as the current health ministry has made vaccination one of its top priorities. It’s not currently clear why the boy has not yet been vaccinated.

Thankfully, the boy is now in safe hands, and there are good odds that the quarantine will be successful. The family will be held for at least a week at the hospital, and authorities are trying to figure out who the boy was in contact with.

Costa Rica provides universal health care to all its citizens and is constantly ranked as the country with the best health care in Latin America, and one of the best in the world. A recent WHO report ranked Costa Rica just ahead of the US in terms of healthcare efficiency.

The CDC advises all travelers to take their vaccines before traveling to Costa Rica: “Make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines before every trip. These vaccines include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot,” the CDC page reads.

Two or more diet sodas a day may increase risk of stroke

A comprehensive study of women over 50 shows that dieting done wrong can lead to unwanted healthy outcomes. Drinking two or more Diet Cokes a day was associated with a 16% increase in the risk of early death, researchers reported.

Although many well-intended people use low-calorie sweetened drinks to lose weight, this may put their health at risk. According to the researchers, such beverages are associated with a higher risk for stroke and heart disease.

The research team, led by Dr. Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, analyzed data on 81,714 post-menopausal women, whose average age was 50 to 79 at the start of the study. The participants were tracked for an average of 12 years.

Women who consumed two or more artificially sweetened diet beverages were 31% more likely to have a clot-based stroke and 29% more likely to have heart disease. Among the participants, African-American women formed the most vulnerable group.

“Many well-meaning people, especially those who are overweight or obese, drink low-calorie sweetened drinks to cut calories in their diet. Our research and other observational studies have shown that artificially sweetened beverages may not be harmless and high consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease,” said Mossavar-Rahmani.

The study, performed by the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, was observational, meaning that the researchers could not directly prove that sweetened drinks cause stroke and heart problems through a causal link. We also don’t yet know which artificial sweeteners may be harmful and which may be harmless. Previously, studies established a link between diet beverages and stroke, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, suggesting that zero-calorie drink may be just as bad as sugary ones. A 2017 study found that diet soda might even hurt the brain.

“Unfortunately, current research simply does not provide enough evidence to distinguish between the effects of different low-calorie sweeteners on heart and brain health. This study adds to the evidence that limiting use of diet beverages is the most prudent thing to do for your health,” said Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutrition emeritus

There is still much research to be done in order to investigate the effects of low-calorie sweetened beverages on our health. In the meantime, evidence so far suggests that the most prudent thing to do is to avoid them. Perhaps the best choice for a non-calorie drink is water.

The findings were reported in the journal Stroke

Anopheles Gambiae.

We can eradicate malaria — but we need to use new tricks

Malaria can be eradicated completely, according to new research. The study goes on to analyze why previous efforts fell short of this goal and takes a look at what new strategies could help continue our fight against this terrible parasite.

Anopheles Gambiae.

A feeding female Anopheles gambiae mosquito. A. gambiae is a known malaria vector.
Image credits CDC / James Gathany.

The early years of this new millennium were fraught with malaria. Several outbreaks of unprecedented size moved the world as a whole to take action. By 2015 the disease’s spreading rate was halved, and such efforts ground to a standstill. Countries like Zanzibar continued to deal with the disease — however, it was never completely wiped out.

A new study led by Professor Anders Björkman at the Department of Microbiology, Tumour and Cell Biology, Karolinska Institutet takes a look at why our efforts fell short in the past — some key issues being changes in mosquito behavior and natural selection of the parasites making them more drug resistant.

Malari-no

“But after [2015], the decline tailed off,” says Professor Björkman who has been running the Karolinska Institutet’s eponymous malaria project for 18 years. “Except for in Zanzibar, where the action taken for its 1.4 million citizens has led to approximately a 96 per cent decline in the incidence of malaria.”

“We’ve optimised these measures with the Zanzibar Malaria Control Programme and can now explain why malaria has not yet been fully eliminated.”

The world-wide anti-malaria offensive was carried largely by the development of new drugs, and the widespread distribution of anti-mosquito sprays and insecticide-infused nets. While definitely successful, such measures are lackluster today at best.

Björkman’s team has been monitoring roughly 100,000 residents from two districts in Zanzibar since 2002. Their study shows that malaria-carrying species of mosquitoes now predominantly bite people outdoors instead of indoors, as used to be the case. The insects also seem to have developed a resistance, or at least a tolerance, to modern pesticides. Finally, Plasmodium, the protozoan parasite that causes malaria, has been undergoing a process of forced natural selection at the hands of our medicine. The current form of Plasmodium is much more difficult to detect and treat but spreads with the same virulence as before.

“Both the mosquitoes and the parasites have found ways to avoid control measures,” says Professor Björkman. “We now need to develop new strategies to overcome this if we’re to attain the goal of eliminating the disease from Zanzibar, an endeavour that can prove a model for the entire continent.”

There’s a lot at stake, too. One of the findings that surprised the team most (and not in a good way) was the sheer decline in child mortality experienced in Zanzibar. Malaria control measures, they note, led to a 70% drop in overall child mortality rates. It’s an immense percentage, given that the highest estimation of malaria-related child deaths in Africa previous to this study was of only 20%. Sub-Saharan Africa currently has the highest rate of newborn deaths in the world (34 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011) and the highest rate of date for children under five (1 in 9 children) according to the United States Agency for International Development.

This tidbit suggests that malaria has a much more dramatic and chronic effect on general infant health than we dared assume. The disease overtaxes a baby’s immune system, spreading it too thinly to defend against other pathogens. Professor Björkman considers malaria to still be “the greatest obstacle to a healthy childhood in Africa” because of this.

“If you ask African women today, their greatest concern is usually that malaria doesn’t affect their pregnancy and their babies. The global community must continue the fight for improved strategies and control measures. If this happens, I think we’ll be able to reach the goal of ultimate elimination.”

Zanzibar was chosen for this study as the country has made huge efforts to put global anti-malaria initiatives in place, and actively works to control the disease to this day. The researchers hope that their findings can guide anti-malaria strategies throughout Africa.

The paper “From high to low malaria transmission in Zanzibar – challenges and opportunities to achieve elimination” has been published in the journal BMC Medicine.