After many calls for the replacement of the current lifetime ban from blood donation for men who have sex with men, in the light of newly disclosed research on ban-compliance rates, the government responded with new regulations, replacing the ban with a shorter deferral period.

Friday the 9th, the new regulations regarding bans and deferral periods for categories at higher risk of HIV have been released by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs. The new recommendations follow a study commissioned to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (published in the BMJ), led by Kaye Wellings, Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health Research. Continue reading

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Climate and Conflict

Science can be scary at times, and I am not referring to when it plays with genes or create artificial organs, none of that.

What I am talking about is when science tells us a bit more about ourselves, unveils parts of our behaviour that we believe have full control over and tells us that what we believe being free will, our decisions, might be dictated by an automatic response to our environment. Continue reading

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London Riots: a different approach could reveal the true causes

Could a public health approach help preventing the antisocial behaviour we have seen during last weeks` riots in London and other parts of the UK?

Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Professor Rosalind Raine, University College London, called for a change in the way society should deal with riots and public uprise. Many of the responses proposed by politicians are implausible, the authors comment, like using water cannons and plastic bullets when even senior police officials believe these measures would be ineffective against small, fast and spread out groups.

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Breakthrough in vaccine research?

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine developed the first totally synthetic, cell-free procedure to produce fully functional and replicating Bluetongue virus (BVT), a disease that affects livestock and kills about 70% of the individuals infected.

The discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has the potential to lead to the development of more efficient vaccines for Bluetongue and to a better understanding of the way viruses assemble themselves, positively influencing the research into other vaccines. Continue reading

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Churnalism or journalism – is PR taking over the news?

This is what has been discussed yesterday at the churnalism debate organised by the Media Standard Trusts at the National Statistical Society.

The debate was based on the motion “this house believes news articles based on press releases should be named advertorial” and sported four distinguished speakers, in favour of the motion were Chris Atkins (Director of StarSuckers, & Taking Liberties) and  James Randerson (Guardian Science/Environment Editor) while the “anti” movement was represented by David Higgerson (Head of Multimedia, Trinity Mirror) and Trevor Morris (former CEO of Chime Communications PR Group; author of ‘PR – A Persuasive Industry?’). Chairing the debate was Ms Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, an independent Press Office famous for dealing with controversial scientific news. Continue reading

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Fighting vaccine fears

The development of vaccines to combat disabling, deadly diseases have been one the most remarkable achievements of modern medicine and science. Thanks to the advances and the continuous research into preventive immunization, diseases like poliomyelitis, measles, pneumonia, smallpox, rubella, hepatitis and several others have lost, for some, the frightening sound they had in the past. Smallpox has been eradicated thanks to the mass vaccination of the population and the disease, with nowhere to survive, disappeared. With time and worldwide vaccination campaigns, many other will follow suit.

It sounds madness not wanting to protect ourselves and our children against potentially deadly diseases, but even where vaccines are widely available and free , here and there we see a periodical  drop in the number of immunisations and a consequential increase in the cases of the relative infections.

In the UK the most recent case was a massive drop in the number of children receiving the MMR jab after 1998, tendency that has since then reverted and it is advancing towards 90% coverage. France, in the same year, saw the Hepatitis B vaccine withdrawn by the government. In 2003 the immunizations against poliomyelitis was boycotted by the Nigerian authorities.

Although seemingly unrelated, these three events share a cause: fear of adverse effects of the vaccine.

The UK case sprung up after a medical researcher, Andrew Wakefield, published a piece of research that connected the MMR vaccine with the insurgence of autism in children. The claims were proven false shortly afterwards and the scientific paper was retracted, but the news had been around for long enough to cause extensive damage to the reputation of the vaccine and to make Wakefield a martyr of the anti MMR campaigners.

In France, the Hepatitis B vaccine had been linked to cases of Multiple Sclerosis, but even in this case the link was coincidental and not causal. The Government suspended the administration of the vaccine temporarily. Even after 10 years, and with the vaccine back on the shelves, the percentage of full immunization (3 doses) was still around 30% only.

In Nigeria, claims that the vaccine was infected with the HIV virus caused public distrust, a drop in vaccinations and a surge in the cases of poliomyelitis, outbreak that affected the surrounding countries as well.

For as harsh as it may seem, deciding not to receive the vaccination can put other people`s life at danger too.

That vaccines are not always 100% safe it is a fact, especially for patients with compromised immune systems, where they can cause complications and in some isolate cases, the disease they are supposed to protect from. But is also true that vaccines are possibly the best regulated and monitored area of public health. Research to check and  improve their safety and efficacy is constantly undergoing, and the side effects or adverse reactions closely looked at, ready to take the most opportune action. The oral poliomyelitis vaccine that caused the disease in a few infants has been substituted by a different formulation using the inactivated virus for increased safety. And when these ameliorations happen, often they are not communicated to the public but just a few health professionals.

But it is the health of children we are talking about, and the publication and display of hard scientific data will not be enough to rebuild their parents` confidence.

The key to win the public trust and to reinstate confidence are transparency, honesty and openness about the research, the production, the risks and benefits of vaccines.

The first point of contact of parents with the immunization process are nurses and GPs, and it is in these categories that is ever more important to make sure the risks and benefits of vaccines are clear, of what is scientifically proven and what is just unfounded rumors. Let`s not forget they are likely to be parents themselves.

Other useful actions are information campaigns and encounters with opposing groups to hear their concerns and to reply with facts. Limiting the action to ignore or criticise their views will just strengthen the doubt that something is being hidden to the public. Useful would be to reach out for parents and be the first to ask what is scaring them and reply to their questions, honestly, and presenting the facts as they are.

Defeating some of the most fearful diseases is possible and we do have the weapons to fight them.

A few references

The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 9 June 2011
doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60678-8Cite or Link Using DOI
Addressing the vaccine confidence gap
Dr Heidi J Larson PhD a Corresponding AuthorEmail Address, Prof Louis Z Cooper MD b, Juhani Eskola MD c, Prof Samuel L Katz MD d, Scott Ratzan MD e f

Nature 473, 436-438 (2011) | doi:10.1038/473436a
Vaccines: The real issues in vaccine safety
Roberta Kwok

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Deleting our carbon footprints with UV light!

The most recent scientific advances give us enough confidence to expect, in the not-so-distant future, a world powered by clean, renewable and more sustainable energy sources, like hydrogen engines, fuel cells, artificial photosynthesis, biofuels, wind and solar energy to mention a few.

Most of these technologies, though, have just passed the proof of concept stage; prototypes are being produced, but in most cases it will not be before a decade that we will see them implemented in everyday life.

In the meantime, while part of the scientific community keeps its gaze steadily to the future, another focuses on minimising the adverse effects of burning fossil fuels while the new discoveries mature. Part of this process involves research into techniques to trap or decompose the most dangerous by-products of burning coal, petrol and gas such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Wang, Park and Biswas, of the Washington University in St. Louis are among the latter. Their research efforts focused in developing an efficient photochemical process to transform CO2 into CO, which can be easily converted into methanol.
The group developed a synthetic process to produce nanostructured Cu-TiO2-SiO2 composites that catalyse the photoreduction of CO2. Using a furnace aerosol reactor (FuAR), the synthesis of composite particles required only seconds and allowed for great reproducibility and structural control over the resulting material. The porous nanoparticles, with an average diameter of 20 nm, were constituted of TiO2 nanocrystals doped with copper for an increased photochemical efficiency.

The activity of the system was tested in a reactor where a mixture of CO2 and water vapour were present, operating at the gas-solid interface rather than in an aqueous environment. Controlling the percentage of TiO2 and copper in the particles, the group finely tuned the reactivity of the catalyst to achieve a conversion of about 20 µmol/g TiO2/h. All using only cheap precursors and UV light as the source of energy.

Read the full paper here (access to the journal is free)
Rapid synthesis of nanostructured Cu–TiO2–SiO2 composites for CO2 photoreduction by evaporation driven self-assembly
Wei-Ning Wang, Jinho Park and Pratim Biswas
Catal. Sci. Technol., 2011, Advance Article, DOI: 10.1039/C0CY00091

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