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Shutdown plays chicken with public health as antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak spreads


"Women Hand sliced fresh chicken breast with a knife on the white desk," a photograph by Shutterstock.

As the US government stretches out into its second week, with federal food-safety and disease outbreak personnel sent home and prohibited from returning to work--even if they wanted to without pay!--a major foodborne-illness outbreak has begun. And it involves raw chicken meat.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture has announced that hundreds of illnesses in 18 or more states were caused by chicken contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg, traced to Big Poultry producer Foster Farms.

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Congress's private health club spared from shutdown by Boehner: "essential"

Congress's private gym -- whose budget is a closely held secret for "security" reasons -- has remained open during the shutdown. It was deemed an essential service. By John Boehner himself. (Possibly because so many Tea Party Congressmen live in their lavish tax-funded/tax-free offices and use the fancy club as their personal showers, rather than renting DC lodgings)

The staffers' gym was closed, however.

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Help Nebula Award winning author Eugie Foster meet her cancer bills

Nebula Award winning writer/editor Eugie Foster has aggressive cancer in her sinuses, and while she's insured, her insurance sucks. She's asking her friends and colleagues to help her make ends meet. She's got a ton of books and ebooks for sale -- or you can PayPal her at eugie@eugiefoster.com.

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Disney World extends hours for part timers so they get health-care


Walt Disney World is adding enough hours to its part time workers' rosters to allow them to qualify for Obamacare, helping their workers to get healthcare. They're hardly the only ones; a recent survey of CFOs at large firms shows that they've got a lot of company. But it's important to note because a) it's a good, honorable thing they're doing and b) it runs counter to the scare-stories that emphasize the tiny number of sleazy, greedy companies that are using Obamacare as justification to screw their workers by cutting hours and benefits.

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Blizzident: 3D printed whole-mouth-at-once toothbrush

Blizzident is a custom-made, 3D printed, whole-mouth-at-once toothbrush that claims to be able to clean your teeth in six seconds. It uses a mold of your teeth, lined with "a dense field of tailored bristles" that work with an integrated tongue-scraper and floss to conduct what appears to be a thorough scraping, brushing, and flossing of all the significant mouth-surfaces.

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Curiously vampiric teeth of untreated syphilis sufferers


This 1863 image from the Wellcome Trust illustrates a distinctly vampiric set of "Syphilitic malformations of the permanent teeth" -- makes you wonder if the visual image of the vampire was inspired by the widespread horrors of untreated syphilis (for an exceptionally visceral window into a society wracked by untreated syphilis, have a look at the Mutter Museum's display of syphilitic skulls).

L0021139 “Syphilitic malformations of the permanent teeth”. (via JWZ)

Wikiproject Medicine

You're feeling tired and achy. Everything tastes strange, and something deep within warns you not to sample the chip dip in the staff room. You're just not up for much at all, really, and the malaise only grows as the day drags on. Sounds like a case for Dr. Wikipedia! Julie Beck, at The Atlantic, covers an initiative that could supplant the dismal Dr. Google and his psychotic colleague, Dr. Yahoo Answers -- but wonders whether we should be getting health information from the Internet at all.

Through Wikiproject Medicine, some medical professionals (and other health-savvy Wikipedia editors) have taken it upon themselves to improve the quality of medical information available on the site. And, in the same spirit, the University of California, San Francisco will be offering a class this year that gives fourth-year medical students course credit in exchange for editing Wikipedia articles. I spoke with Dr. Amin Azzam, a health sciences associate clinical professor at UCSF, who will be teaching the course, about how it will be run, and the impact that Wikipedia has on public health.

Tragic rabies death in China

A 41-year-old Chinese man died from a rabies infection that he picked up in an attempt to save his son from the disease. The boy was bitten by a rabid dog. The father sucked blood out of the wound in hopes it would remove any poison. The family ended up taking the boy in for shots, anyway, but the father turned them down, largely because of the cost. Maggie 8

You can't vaccinate an octopus

In a piece on octopus farming, Katherine Harmon mentions a fascinating fact — octopuses don't have an adaptive immune system, the handy-dandy network of different immune-response cells that allow us vertebrates to more easily fight off infections our bodies have encountered before.

That's a problem if you're trying to raise a bunch of invertebrates in close quarters (as per a farm) because you can't immunize them against pathogens that could easily spread from one octopus to another. As a random biological tidbit, though, it's just damned fascinating. Check out this doctoral thesis for more information on how the octopus immune system does work. You should also read this story that looks at the evolution of the adaptive immune system and asks a key question — does having immune "memory" really make us that much better off than the animals that don't have it?

Image: Octopus, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from alicecai's photostream

The One True Cause of all disease (All 52 of them)

A few years ago, Harriet Hall googled "The One True Cause of all disease", just to see what the Internet would come up with. She counted 67 One True Causes before she got bored (52 of them made it into the handy chart above).

Besides making for an amusing anecdote, this little exercise also helps illustrate why there's a problem with ideologically driven medical treatments — the sort that comes from people who are pushing a lifestyle or a philosophy along with ostensible healthcare. It's both intriguing and convenient to think that, if we just open the right secret door, we can find the thing that's actually causing all our problems. The truth, unfortunately, seems to be that our bodies and the world they inhabit are complicated and messy and that lots of of things can lead to disease (doctors typically learn to divide these things into nine different categories, Hall says). In fact, a disease we think of as a single entity can have its roots in more than one thing. All of this is pretty obvious but it's the kind of obvious that's worth rubbing our noses in on occasion. If somebody tells you that everything from obesity to bipolar disorder to allergies to cancer all stem from the same root and can be treated or prevented with the exact same treatment, there's probably good reason to question what they're telling you.

No detectable association between frequency of cannabis use and health or healthcare utilization

Researchers from Boston Medical Center (BMC) and Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) "studied 589 adults who screened positive for drug use at a primary care visit." They found "no differences between daily marijuana users and those using no marijuana in their use of the emergency room, in hospitalizations, medical diagnoses or their health status." Mark 24

With new health moonshot venture 'Calico,' it's 'Google vs. Death'


Anna Kuperberg / Google, via TIME.com

Today, Google announced the launch of Calico, a new company that will "focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases."

Former Genentech CEO Arthur D. Levinson, who is Chairman of the Board at both Genentech and Apple, is CEO and a founding investor of the new Google spinoff venture.

Noted Google+ user Larry Page posts this morning:

OK … so you’re probably thinking wow! That’s a lot different from what Google does today. And you’re right. But as we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives. So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses. And please remember that new investments like this are very small by comparison to our core business. Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.
Hey, none of this health and wellness stuff should come as a surprise to internet old-timers who recall when the "web crawler" was named "BackRub."

Time has an exclusive, in this week's cover story at the magazine. The short version: "the company behind YouTube and Google+ is gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human lifespan."

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Bruce Alexander's Rat Park: a ratty paradise that challenges our assumptions about addiction


This article from Garry Tan reminded me of the tremendous work of Bruce K Alexander, a psychology professor who retired from teaching at Simon Fraser University in 2005. I read Alexander's first book, Peaceful Measures: Canada's Way Out of the 'War on Drugs' when it was published in 1990, and it had a profound effect on my outlook and critical thinking about drugs and the way that drug addiction is reported and discussed.

Alexander is well known for his Rat Park experiment, which hypothesized that heroin-addicted lab rats were being driven to drugs by the emisseration of life in a tiny cage, tethered to a heroin-dispensing injection machine. Other experimenters had caged rats with heroin-injecting apparatus and concluded that the rats' compulsive use of the drug proved that their brains had been rewired by addiction ("A rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin (actually morphine, to which heroin is converted in the body) on its brain.").

Alexander's Rat Park was a rat's paradise -- spacious, with plenty of intellectual stimulus and other rats to play with. He moved heroin-addicted rats into the park and found that the compulsive behavior abated to the point of disappearance -- in other words, whatever "rewiring" had taken place could be unwired by the improvement of their living conditions.

Alexander's work appears in Drugs Without the Hot Air, one of the best books on drug policy I've ever read, written by former UK drugs czar David Nutt. Both men are scientists who make the case that the our drug policy is more the product of political grandstanding than scientific evidence.

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The history of zits

These are the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that are thought to refer to acne. They're part of a nifty piece by Hilda Bastian that looks at the history of our understanding about zits — where people thought they came from before we knew about their relationship to hormones and bacteria. And how some of the myths that originated in that pre-scientific understanding still affect our cultural attitudes about acne and the way anti-acne products are marketed to us today.

Don't listen to Mom (or observational data): Breakfast isn't necessarily the most important meal of the day

Here's a great piece by Anahad O'Connor that looks at the dozens of studies that are supposed to link the act of eating breakfast with weight loss — and the problems that very quickly arise when you look at them closely. The biggest issue: Most of the advice you get telling you to eat breakfast if you want to lose weight is based on observational studies — large collections of information about people's lives and health that scientists then comb through looking for correlations. Like any correlation, those associations should be thought of as jumping-off points for more research, not proof of how you should live your life. With breakfast and weight loss, the truth seems to be that the two things may not be connected at all. For every study that shows them inextricably linked, another found no relationship at all ... or even an inverse relationship, where skipping breakfast led to weight loss. Maggie 19