Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Nuns, hookers and blind alleys

An interesting article in today's New York Times provides some insights into the on-going success of modern medical science, and the dangers of the obsession with health and lifestyle.

Two new vaccines have recently been approved in the United States to protect women against human papillomavirus (HPV) which in recent years has been confirmed as the cause of the vast majority of cases of cervical cancer. However, the search for the cause of cervical cancer has taken many twists along the way. As early as 1842, apparently, a doctor in Florence noted that prostitutes and married women died of cervical cancer, but nuns very rarely did. The logical answer was that the disease was in some way sexually-transmitted, but unfortunately the doctor was sidetracked by the observation that nuns died of breast cancer instead and concluded it was a problem with nuns' corsets being too tight.

In the 1970s, the disease was linked to genital herpes. Obviously, people who are prone to one sexually-transmitted disease are frequently exposed to others, but this only goes to reinforce the old lesson that correlation does not equal causation. The link between herpes and cancer was pure coincidence. The observation that women who have more sex are more likely to get cervical cancer is correct - but it is not the sex itself that is causing the cancer, any more than gay sex per se causes AIDS. Sex merely makes transmission more likely for particular infections. While a typical response to such observations has been to moralise about the lifestyles of the victims of these diseases, a better approach is to provide a vaccine that frees people from the danger of contracting a deadly disease and allows them to have sex without fear.

There are parallels between the story of cervical cancer and ulcers. After years of being told to avoid spicy food, alcohol, stress and myriad other lifestyle risks, it was discovered that most peptic and duodenal ulcers were caused by an infection, helicobacter pylori, which can be simply treated with antibiotics.

Which begs the question: when health authorities and researchers focus so much on gleaning correlations between behaviour and illness, are we proceeding up yet more blind alleys? Will people remain ill, even die, because avenues for investigation are frequently ignored in favour of lectures about how we should eat, drink, smoke and shag?

How a Vaccine Search Ended in Triumph, New York Times, 29 August 2006

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Jamie Oliver rides again

Like a fat man diving into a swimming pool, Jamie Oliver made a big splash today across the papers today. In a piece of classic photo PR, the Saviour of British Children dressed up in a latex 'fat suit' to make a trailer for a one-off follow-up to his campaigning TV series Jamie's School Dinners. The trailer apparently shows Oliver's trademark scooter 'collapsing' under his weight. The implication was that if we didn't change the diet in school canteens, more and more kids would become obese adults.

There's nothing wrong with suggesting that school food could be improved - though they were never exactly haute cuisine. But an alarmist television programme that guilt-trips us into spending more on school meals - possibly at the expense of other areas of the education budget - is not conducive to a balanced debate about where to spend our money. This is particularly true when the TV programme in question makes sensationalist claims about the dangers of current meal provision. Feeding children burgers, chips and beans on a regular basis is hardly going to be the determining factor in how children eat as adults but inculcating the message from a tender age that your diet will kill you is a particularly insidious piece of food poisoning.

Ironically, the effect Jamie's School Dinners has been to cut the number of children taking hot meals each day, as parents avoid the apparently lethal cocktail of processed food offered, while catering staff are stewing over increased workloads with inadequate rewards. Which begs the question: do such crusades benefit the celebrities more than the supposed recipients of their assistance? It's food for thought.

Are packed lunches the 'biggest evil'?, by Rob Lyons

Hard to swallow, by Rob Lyons

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The real Damilola verdict

After six years of investigations, trials and re-trials, a jury at the Old Bailey in London found two brothers guilty of the manslaughter of Damilola Taylor. How the tragic death of a 10 year-old boy on a council estate in south London came to be an epic tale of national importance says a lot about the state of British society today.

Little Damilola was found bleeding heavily in a stairwell in Peckham in November 2000 and died despite efforts to save him. Four boys stood trial in 2002 for his murder but were acquitted when it became obvious that the main witness, a 14 year-old girl referred to as 'Witness Bromley', had constantly changed her story and been induced to present a certain version of events by the police. Meanwhile, the two boys that were convicted on Wednesday had been arrested as early as December 2000 but important forensic evidence linking them to the crime was overlooked and they were not charged until January 2006.

The case is an important one in illustrating two themes. The first is the maudlin obsession with death, best illustrated by the reaction to Princess Diana's death, but repeated by one high-profile case after another ever since. We have all been encouraged to share the pain of those bereaved in a manner that has become narcissistic and unhealthy. Living in Peckham, I often cycle past the Damilola Taylor Centre. When it was opened in 2001, Tony Blair said, in an echo of his post-Diana 'People's Princess' comments: 'Damilola Taylor lived briefly and died needlessly but in his short life and in the manner of his death he touched many people's hearts.' It is unclear to me why a 10 year-old, whose only claim to fame was an untimely death, should warrant having a local landmark named after him - except to show what a screwed-up sense of memorial we have today. The death of an innocent like Damilola Taylor was perfect fodder for such an outlook, with politicians happy to leap on the emotional reaction to it to further their own agendas from the need to tackle thuggery and 'lad culture', to the dangers of the 'me first' generation and the importance of community.

The other theme in the case was the panic amongst police officers desperate to be seen to be taking the death of a black person seriously after the fiasco of the Stephen Lawrence case. Having been branded as 'institutionally racist' by the Macpherson Inquiry, the Metropolitan Police were determined to be seen to be acting - to the point where basic rules of investigation were bent and broken.

The lesson to be learned is that turning the death of a little boy into a circus can only draw out the agony of the parents and compromise the possibility of a fair trial.

Trials and tribulations, by Jennie Bristow

Damilola: a boy-meets-ghoul story, by Mick Hume

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The high price of solar power

The UK's number one electrical retailer, Currys, is dipping its toe into the waters of eco-friendly micro-generation. From today, shoppers will be able to buy solar panel equipment from three of their stores in the south-east. However, it won't be cheap - a typical installation will cost around £9,000. Given that such a set-up would only produce about half of the power required for a home, purchasers can apparently expect to wait between seven and 18 years to recoup their outlay - even with a generous government grant to offset the cost (ie, the rest of the country pays for the solar panels of the few).

Perhaps those who splash out on solar power are being far-sighted, knowing that in decades to come they will save a considerable sum on their bills. Maybe we will all be doing it in a few years' time once the panels come down in price. However, there is little chance of that in the short-term. What is good about covering your roof in panels is that (a) you get to salve your conscience about your impact on the environment and (b) everyone else will see that you're doing your bit. It'll be the biggest thing since the Toyota Prius, another pointless exercise in showing off your environmental credentials.

Currys to stock solar panels, Guardian, 31 July 2006

Being seen to be green, by Rob Lyons