When Mayor Mike Bloomberg raised New York city's tax on cigarettes from 8 cents a pack to $1.50 in 2002 (putting the total tax on a pack at about $3), a lot of my friends simply went out of state to buy cartons. But, faced with the prospect of $7 packs, a lot of them quit, too. Steep tax hikes on tobacco have always seemed to me to be the only way to depress smoking rates, a feat that smoking bans never really accomplish (though they do leave your clothes smelling far better at the end of an evening at the bar).
Bloomberg, a former smoker himself, has been a vocal anti-tobacco advocate since quitting more than two decades ago. He recently gave $2 million to finance the most comprehensive report on smoking around the world to date, which was unveiled by the WHO Thursday. He's also pledged $125 million more over the next two years for global anti-smoking efforts.
While progress has been made in many countries thanks to higher taxes and bans in public places (the unbelievable smoking ban in Paris cafes, for example), smoking is on the rise in the developing world. The WHO projects that one billion people, 80 percent of them in the developing world, will die of smoking-related illnesses by the end of the century if trends continue on their current trajectory.
Nearly two thirds of the world's smokers live in just 10 countries. In China, with about 30 percent of the world's smokers, perhaps 100 million men under the age of 30 will die of tobacco use unless they quit.
The excitement aroused by the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany in 2006 may have increased that country's birthrate as much as 15 percent nine months later. But the intensely emotional matches have now also been correlated with a spike in the number of cardiac emergencies.
A study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the number of cardiac emergencies in the greater Munich area in the summer of 2006. It compared that number with the numbers in similar periods in 2003 and 2005, and for several weeks before and after the 2006 World Cup.
On days when the German team played, the incidence of cardiac emergencies was 2.66 times higher than during the comparison periods. For men, the incidence was 3.26 times higher; for women, it was 1.82 times higher. People with a history of heart disease were particularly affected.
The study's authors say emotional stress was the main trigger, but they add that sleep deprivation, excessive consumption of junk food and alcohol, and smoking might also be contributing factors. They suggest that spectators with heart problems should take preventive measures, such as consulting their doctors about increased medication dosages during intense sports events.
It's reasonable to think that something quite similar might happen.
Though if the Vegas odds-makers have it right, the greater danger on Sunday may turn out to be irate New York Giants fans.
There's a sad new chapter in the sad story of the state of the U.S. military's mental health care, as I've been writing about here at Passport. Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, the 25-year-old Army reservist who was facing a court martial for pointing a gun at a superior, then shooting herself last year in Iraq, attempted suicide again on Monday, as reported by the Washington Post Thursday. Her mental health had been in better condition lately, as she went public with her story, but she began to deteriorate as her case dragged on. Ironically, she learned on Wednesday, as she was recovering in the hospital, that all the charges against her were dismissed.
Record numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide. Last year, 121 cases were recorded—20 percent more than 2006. Thankfully, Whiteside has not been added to those numbers. Let's hope she never is. And let's hope that any soldier who needs quality one-on-one care gets exactly what America owes him or her.
In previous posts, I've lamented the lack of proper health care (particularly mental health) for veterans returning from Iraq in Afghanistan, lauding both the Washington Post for its "Walter Reed and Beyond" series, and the New York Times for its "War Torn" series. The Post chose to tackle the story of vets from the beds of one hospital, whereas the NYT chose to report on veterans who had been charged with killing after returning home.
Now the NYT is under attack for its approach to the story. It is accused of more or less painting veterans as murderers and sensationalizing the plight of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Lt. Col. Bob Bateman, normally a staunch defender of journalists, says that the NYT is playing a dangerous game with statistics, overstating the 121 cases that the newspaper uncovered as a "quiet phenomenon," when there is a population of 700,000 returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, of those 121 cases, 22 were DUIs, two were speeding accidents, and five cases resulted in exonerations of the accused killers. Hardly a trend. Bateman parses more numbers and says one could make an equally faulty argument: that veterans of active combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are, in fact, less likely to commit homicide than the population at large. (With the likely reasoning being that military training teaches young men and women to become more responsible citizens.) Bateman accuses the Times of "sloppy thinking... that does not help anyone."
After much outcry, Clark Hoyt, the NYT public editor, basically agrees with the newspaper's critics in his Sunday column:
[T]he questionable statistics muddy the message. A handful of killings caused by the stresses of war would be too many and cause for action. Sometimes, trying to turn such stories into data — with implications of statistical proof and that old journalistic convention, the trend — harms rather than helps."
Both Bateman and Hoyt acknowledge that PTSD is a serious problem. But, Bateman concludes, "fear-mongering and drawing specious conclusions from incomplete data is no help."
Indeed, it's unfortunate that the the NYT's "creative" use of statistics opened the story up to valid criticism such as Bateman's. In effect, it undermines the point that most people will draw from its series: that seeing combat has very real effects on the mental health of veterans, and that there simply needs to be more effort put into their care. Witness the State of the Union address on Monday. President Bush got the most sustained applause from both sides of Congress when he mentioned honoring veterans. A new study released today finds that PTSD, depression, and stress (but not brain injuries, as previously thought) are drivers behind symptoms afflicting returning vets. The stigma needs to be removed. The real health problems need to be addressed. And there needs to be no more sensationalizing about what it all means.
At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.
Apparently, dirt cookies are a traditional remedy used by pregnant women to combat hunger pangs. But with food prices on the rise, more Haitians are eating the cookies—which are made by mixing clay with salt, flour, and vegetable shortening—to fill their bellies. More at this AP video:
Last month I blogged about the case of Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, an Army reservist facing court martial because she tried to commit suicide while serving in Iraq. Her story was part of the Washington Post's outstanding series, "Walter Reed and Beyond," about the lives of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, the New York Times is doing its part to cover the care of vets, this time from a different angle. The Times' series, "War Torn," is about veterans who have been charged with killings after returning home. The first part of the series discussed the trend in general, noting that there have been 121 cases of such tragic incidents and touching on some of those cases. The second part of the series appeared on the front page of Sunday's paper. It tells the tragic tale of the killing of 22-year-old Nicole Marie Speirs by 21-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Walter Rollo Smith, the father of their infant twins, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his war experiences in Iraq.
Speirs's parents view the situation as a fatal incident of domestic violence. They worry that people are using her death to make a statement against the war. They hold Smith responsible for his actions. He doesn't disagree:
I can't completely, honestly say that, yes, PTSD was the sole cause of what I did. I don't want to use it as a crutch. I'd feel like I was copping out of something I claim responsibility for. But I know for a fact that before I went to Iraq, there's no way I would have taken somebody else's life.”
Reading his account, it's hard not to wonder if Speirs's death could indeed have been prevented, if only Smith hadn't fallen through the cracks. A formerly squeaky clean Mormon, Smith returned to Utah smoking, drinking, doubting God, and distraught over having killed civilians in Iraq. The Marines sent him to Quantico for a marksmanship course, and while on the firing range, he began to hallucinate about his experiences in Iraq. He had what can only be described as a breakdown. The Marines diagnosed him with PTSD, then discharged him, leaving him to seek treatment from veterans' hospitals.
But it's hard for someone who's having mental difficulties to have the wherewithal to manage his or her own treatment. After Smith's discharge, he intermittently sought help. He attended a group therapy session at a VA hospital, but never returned because none of the other attendees had similar war experiences to his. For awhile he took medication for anxiety, but stopped taking the pills when they didn't work. He attempted suicide. He once called the cops and asked for help because he was having homicidal thoughts. But ultimately, he was left to deal with his mental health on his own. And so one day he disconnected, and drowned the mother of his children.
Read the entire story to learn more of the compelling details. But the bottom line is that this is a senseless tragedy. A young man with no history of violence, not even old enough to buy a beer, was sent into a war zone to fight for his country. And when he returned, troubled, he didn't get the care that he needed. Now, a young mother is dead, and he's in prison. There are no winners here.
Countries around the world have banned smoking in public places, including France, where even lighting up in cafes and bars is now prohibited. China, which begins its 200-day countdown to the Olympics today, is committed to keeping the games "smoke-free." Along with cracking down on spitting and littering, the smoke-free promise is part of the country's effort to make a positive impression on the world.
In a country where 300 million men—equivalent to the size of the entire U.S. population—smoke, though, people have been putting up resistance in at least one location: Beijing's first smoke-free restaurant chain. Meizhou Dongpo, which sells spicy Sichuan food, banned smoking in October and since then, its occupancy rate has plunged to "about 80 percent of that enjoyed by other restaurants across the street," its manager told China Daily. Additionally, diners were locking themselves in private dining rooms so they could surreptitiously smoke. The restaurant now faces going out of business.
Few other restaurateurs are interested in following suit. When Beijing sent letters to 30,000 restaurants requesting that they ban smoking, not one chose to enforce a ban. They don't want their businesses to go up in smoke.
How do you provide healthcare to citizens in a country where nearly 75 percent of the population lives in the country, and more than 75 percent of the country's doctors live in cities? India's answer: telemedicine.
The Indian government has been investing in the technology to make healthcare accessible and affordable for the country's rural population, according to The Lancet. Telemedicine works like a regular medical consultation—except the doctor is on a computer screen peering through a webcam, and the patient's vitals are monitored by traditional equipment such as stethoscopes hooked up to computers (a more precise explanation can be found here and here). Sometimes a general physician is present, but the specialist reading and interpreting the information is located remotely.
The country's first telemedicine center was established in the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2000, and since then many analysts have come to believe that telemedicine "could be the future for health care in India." Today, there are about 500 telemedicine centers across the country, linked to about 50 specialist hospitals. So far the centers have provided "teleconsultations" to an estimated 150,000 patients—a drop in the ocean in a country of more than 1 billion. According to anecdotal accounts, however, initial skepticism about "impersonal" health consultations is waning and patients who have been treated through telemedicine appear satisfied with the care. Meanwhile, public-private partnerships are continuing to expand the size and the scope of telemedicine facilities.
Telemedicine, like the use of cellphones for health, could be a revolutionary step in medical provision for the poor. Rural residents won't need to travel as great a distance in order to access sophisticated medical treatment, and doctors won't need to move to rural areas. As of now, telemedicine consultations cost around $22—still beyond the reach of most Indians. But the government is promising to provide the consultations free of charge for the poor, though it's not clear if this is entirely feasible since many clinics are operated privately.
But as revolutionary as it might be, the growth of long-distance medicine raises some questions about accountability. What happens if a patient is misdiagnosed, or sent away with a clean bill of health when there is actually an underlying problem? Can anyone fairly be held responsible? Nonetheless, it does seem like the benefits at the moment outweigh the risks. As one surgeon and hospital director argues:
In terms of disease management, there is [a] 99% possibility that the person who is unwell does not require [an] operation. If you don't operate you don't need to touch the patient. And if you don't need to touch the patient, you don't need to be there.
Come to think of it, there's no reason to think Indian specialists and doctors couldn't start treating patients in this manner who hail from anywhere in the world, including the United States. Indeed, Indian doctors are already providing diagnostic interpretation of radiological images, including X-rays, CTs and MRIs, for American patients from hospitals in places as far away as Bangalore.
Today India's Tata Motors unveiled the $2,500 Tata Nano, a tiny four-door "People's Car." Some industry analysts say it could revolutionize Indian society the way the Ford Model T did in the United States 100 years ago. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Friedman has already warned Indians not to follow the first world and turn their country into one filled with even more traffic congestion and air pollution. We'll have to wait and see how many takers there are for the Nano, but meanwhile, here's a Nano vs. Model T comparison:
|Introductory Price||$2,500||$850 (about $19,000 in 2006)|
|Number of cylinders||2||4|
|Top speed||60 mph (97 km per hour)||45 mph (72 km per hour)|
|Fuel economy||50 miles per gallon (21 km per liter)||13-21 miles per gallon (5.5-9 km per liter)|
|Windshield wiper||Just 1||A vacuum-powered wiper could be added to the driver's side of the 1926 model for $3.50|
Photos: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images; INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
Last month, Christine noted the increase in "inverted sex tourism": wealthy foreign women heading to poor countries (for instance, Kenya) to purchase sex from younger and poorer men. But a BBC report on Kolkata in India reveals that it's not just rich foreign women who prey on male prostitutes. Indian women of means are also getting into the act:
[Male gigolos] offer some insight into the changing sexual mores of a growing number of Indian women who are ready to spend money on buying sex in a traditionally conservative society.
It is hardly a easy job to do - in the absence of male brothels, gigolos like Samrat cruise after dusk for prospective clients, mainly upper or middle-class and rich women who usually drive in their cars with dark tinted windows.
"It is not all fun and games as people think. Just as female sex workers face violence and get cheated, we face such situations from time to time too," says the son of a bank worker, who joined the sex trade after a short stint as an employee with a multi-national pharmaceutical firm in the capital, Delhi.
"I have often not been paid by clients, and when I have protested, they have threatened me with telling the police that I tried to rape them. And there are clients who love to stub out burning cigarettes on our bodies. These days I have begun to charge for a cigarette burn - 500 rupees ($11) per stub," he says.
As with female sex workers, technology such as mobile phones and the Internet has helped facilitate business. The men usually receive upwards of 1,000 rupees ($25) an hour from their clients, and when work from female clients slows, many of these workers sell sex to other men. Thankfully, the "gigolos," who constitute one of the highest risk groups for HIV/AIDS contraction, are beginning to bond together to speak out for HIV prevention. Whether that will be enough to curb the spread of the virus, of course, remains to be seen.
Another dispatch on the Freakonomics effect: University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt (Mr. Freakonomics himself) and his collaborator Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociologist who previously worked with Levitt to measure the average wages of street-level drug dealers (pdf), have teamed up to study the economics of street prostitutes in Chicago.
Their recent working paper (pdf), which they presented at this weekend's ASSA conference (the yearly get-together where social scientists from around the world preview their research) in New Orleans, is based on surveys conducted with prostitutes and pimps in Chicago neighborhoods and incident data from the Chicago Police Department. The findings? Street prostitution yields an average wage of $27 an hour, hardly worth it considering the extraordinary occupational hazards.
What's particularly interesting is the authors' section on bargaining and the law. They estimate that roughly 3 percent of all tricks performed by prostitutes who aren't working with pimps are freebies given to police to avoid arrest. In fact, prostitutes get officially arrested only once per 450 tricks or so, leading the authors to conclude that "a prostitute is more likely to have sex with a police officer than to get officially arrested by one." When freebies given to gang members are factored in, about one in 20 tricks go solely for protection and the "privilege" of plying their trade.
The most depressing news is the woeful lack of condom use. Just as with recent studies of Mexican and Indian prostitutes, Levitt and Venkatesh find that payments go up substantially when condoms aren't used. And plenty of johns are apparently happy to pay the premium: Condoms only get used about 20 percent of the time, the authors estimate. Some protection, it seems, is worth a freebie; others go out the window for a few extra dollars.
The United States acknowledges and accepts that it has a weight problem. Obesity has become a serious national issue, with a quarter of the U.S. population considered obese. Health professionals have even spoken out against stigmatizing obese people. It's surprising, then, that obese people—white women specifically—are discriminated against where it arguably hurts the most: in their paychecks.
According to a recent study by David Lempert of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a "statistically significant continual increase in the wage penalty for overweight and obese white women followed throughout two decades." And the trend has increased, even as more Americans have become obese. One way to look at it, the author of the study writes, is that "the increasing rarity of thinness has led to its rising premium."
Moreover, as overweight white women age, their wages suffer correspondingly more over time as they get passed over for promotions and raises. It's an alarming finding in a country that is supposedly all about non-discrimination in the workplace.
(Hat tip: New Economist)
Perhaps hoping to turn back time after last week's electoral defeat, Hugo Chávez has finally followed through on plans to set back Venezuela's official clock by half an hour. The move is being billed as a public health measure but, as far as I'm concerned, is basically just begging headline writers to come up with stupid puns. (Back to the future, anyone?)
The scheme was originally announced back in September, but was derailed by confusion over whether clocks were being set forward or back. (Chávez didn't seem too sure himself.) Now that the scheme has been made official, Venezuela joins Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Burma as countries that differ from Greenwich Mean Time by half-hour increments. Take that, imperialists!
The change is one of several initiatives in recent days that seem meant to show that Chávez is still capable of making policy after his constitutional changes were rejected by a close popular vote. If one of the only upsides of accepting defeat for Chávez was that it bolstered his credentials as a democrat, activities like hanging out with Belorussian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko and dedicating statues of Ho Chi Minh in Caracas don't really make it seem like he's trying to capitalize.
If you missed the front-page story in the Washington Post on Sunday about 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, read it now, pronto. I haven't been this outraged since the last time I read an entry in the newspaper's outstanding ongoing investigative series, "Walter Reed and Beyond," which is about the lives of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This time, reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull tell the tale of the 25-year-old Army reservist, a valedictorian of her high school who had earned nothing but accolades during her seven-year career in the military. She once worked as an officer, but faces a court martial because of an attempted suicide when she was serving in Iraq. If tried and convicted, she could face life in prison.
The short version of the story is this: Whiteside, who was nicknamed the "Trauma Mama" by the medics she supervised in Iraq, worked at the detainee prison where Saddam Hussein was held. While there, she and another female experienced tensions with a male superior officer. She ate only one meal a day and slept in shifts. There's no doubt the atmosphere was stressful. Whiteside began to have panic attacks. Then, when Saddam Hussein was taken from the prison to be executed, violent riots broke out inside the prison. Whiteside ushered doctors to safety, conducted triage, and performed exemplary service. The next day, she experienced what she calls a "psychotic break." In clear distress, she requested to see a mental health nurse. When the nurse checked in on her later in the day, Whiteside waved her gun and eventually shot herself in the stomach.
After being sent to Walter Reed, where ironically she had once worked as an officer, the Army's own psychiatrists diagnosed her with severe major depressive disorder and a personality disorder. Then, a new team stepped in: the Warrior Transition Brigade. Made up of officers with combat experience and whose ostensible aim was to help patient recovery, the team drew up criminal charges against Whiteside. They said she was using her mental illness as an excuse. Whiteside offered to resign, but would have to forfeit the benefits that she's earned in her military career. Her alternative is to face these charges, with the prospect of life in prison.
Her treatment by the Army right now is a total travesty. Combat is hard enough for someone without a predisposition to mental illness. And mental-health issues are hard enough to deal with in civilian life under ideal conditions, never mind in a war zone. Mental illness is a serious medical problem, just as serious as any physical medical condition, and Whiteside ought to be treated as any other wounded soldier. It would be a complete shame if this case is allowed to continue. Kudos to the Washington Post for bringing attention to this important issue.
These are the first two lines of a four-line riddle that's part of a media contest in India that aims to get men talking about sex. Launched in time for World AIDS Day on December 1, the campaign hopes the riddle is intriguing enough that it actually gets men to talk with their friends about topics that can be rather awkward to discuss.
Many HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns simply tell people to talk about sexual health, but this one actually stimulates people to do so. Additionally, to be eligible to win a prize, people have to call in and actually say the one-word answer to the riddle—no text-messaging the answer allowed! Prizes, such as mobile phones with free minutes, continue the theme of promoting talking.
The contest, sponsored by the BBC World Service Trust, targets men in four southern Indian states that have higher HIV rates. Why men? Research shows that if you can get men to talk about sex and condoms, they're more likely to be consistent condom users. (Did I just give away the answer to the riddle?)
Worldmapper is a cool Web site that resizes countries on world maps based on a variety of health and other statistics. It recently added 118 maps to its collection. Below is a new map in which countries are puffed up or shriveled down based on the absolute number of people murdered there in 2002. Colombia, Nigeria, and the Philippines are huge, while Australia looks like a deflated balloon (which makes sense since a relatively small number of Aussies are living on such a large piece of land).
Many people may fear getting murdered, but being on the roads is actually more dangerous in many parts of the world. Murder caused 1.0 percent of deaths worldwide in 2002, but road accidents—the subject of the map below—caused 2.1 percent of deaths that year. In India, riding in a motor vehicle can be a near-death experience, and China doesn't look like a very safe place for road travel either.
Starting tomorrow, the United States will experience "Movember," a month when men from all ages and walks of life will sport a distinctive mustache, ranging from a little fuzz to an outright walrus look. Don't worry, it's all for a good cause: to raise awareness about prostate cancer, a disease that affects one in six men in the United States.
Since it started in Australia in 2003, Movember—which combines the Australian slang for mustache (mo') with the designated mo-growing month of November—the annual event has raised more than $8 million. Participants, known as "Mo Bros," take donations in exchange for not shaving their upper lips for a month. The money then goes to the main prostate-cancer charity in the home country of the participant. Movember now has official Web sites for six countries, and people from other countries are still able to register and participate.
The Wall Street Journal's Sarah Needleman seems skeptical. She writes, "Convincing... business professionals... to grow mustaches -- even for a cause -- may be tough in the U.S., where mustaches aren't currently in vogue and facial hair runs afoul of corporate grooming norms." But, um, it's not exactly a fashion statement in Australia either—which, of course, is kind of the point. As Adam Garone, one of the three co-founders of Movember, puts it:
The mustache is a vehicle to get [men] talking... What we say is you're essentially donating your face for a month. You become a walking billboard because you walk into a meeting and you're forced to explain yourself."
Indeed, the success of Movember largely depends on men in the corporate world taking a risk to grow a mo'. During the past few years, the competitive spirit in the world of finance has translated into big bucks for prostate-cancer research—around 25 percent of the total Movember money raised, according to Garone. It will be interesting to see how Movember does in its first year in the United States. And it will be almost as interesting to see hordes of Wall Street bankers with their new looks. Good luck, Mo Bros!
UPDATE: Passport reader Arjew Tino writes in with a hard-hitting report from the Movember crowd in DC.
Americans have many stereotypes about British people, but one misconception that has become particularly widespread in recent years is that Brits have bad teeth. Not so, as this map of "Decayed, missing or filled teeth at age 12 (DMFT-12 index)" in European Union countries shows. It's Eastern Europeans who need to brush and visit the dentist more often.
You can check out the British public health study from which this map is taken here. And you may be surprised to learn that the United Kingdom scores better than the United States on the DMFT Index: Brits best American 12-year-olds by a score of 1.1 to 1.4 (lower is better), according to the World Health Organization.
Since 2005, 69 Nigerian kids have been paralyzed by polio, and, surprising to many, these kids indirectly contracted the disease from the vaccine itself.
How? The oral polio vaccine contains a weakened form of the polio virus. Vaccinated kids pass the virus into the water, where unvaccinated kids can pick up the virus by playing in or drinking the water. Normally, this exposure gives unvaccinated kids some protection against polio. But in very rare circumstances, the virus can mutate into a dangerous form, causing the actual disease in unvaccinated kids.
Since this manner of contracting polio only happens when not enough kids are vaccinated, the solution is to vaccinate an even higher fraction of youngsters. But that could prove to be very challenging in Nigeria.
In 2003, there was a boycott of vaccination programs for nearly a year—which caused polio to jump to 12 new countries in 18 months—because some Muslim leaders in Nigeria said that the polio vaccine was a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. The belief reflects a general mistrust and skepticism of Western medicine that exists in many developing countries, where many believe that vaccines and drugs will sterilize people or infect them with HIV as part of a Western conspiracy to reduce the populations of certain races or religions. An earlier FP List, "The World's Stupidest Fatwas," mentions how some rural Pakistani mullahs have issued fatwas against the polio vaccine.
Stupid is still the right word. As the Nigeria case shows, the latest polio outbreak proved how these fatwas can be self-fulfilling prophecies: By boycotting the "dangerous" vaccine, some kids actually got sick from it, proving how "dangerous" the vaccine indeed is.
The only thing sadder may be health officials' delayed response. The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control have known about the Nigerian outbreak since last year, but they kept silent about it until now. One specialist has said that the delayed reporting may have delayed a medical response.
Over the weekend, people in a Peruvian town near Lake Titicaca saw a fireball fall from the sky. When they went to investigate, they found what appears to be a crater that is 65 feet wide and 22 feet deep. Check out the video:
They also found themselves becoming ill with vomiting, headaches, irritated throats, and itchy noses. Around 600 people sought medical help, and animals have reportedly become sick as well.
The supposed crater, which may have been created by a meteorite, seems to be passing some fetid, noxious gases. One geologist said a chemical reaction between a meteorite and elements in the Earth's surface could have unleashed noxious gases.
Geologists from Peru's Geophysics Institute are planning to present a report about the mystery meteor later today, but meanwhile, Peruvians near the apparent crater are crying foul.
Nine months from today—June 12, 2008—is Russia Day, the country's national day. And the Russian region of Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, is hoping to celebrate by having lots of women "give birth to a patriot" on that day to bring up birthrates and reverse the country's population decline.
To help couples produce a baby on the national holiday, the region has declared today—Sept. 12—as the "Day of Conception" and is giving couples a half day off work to do what it takes to conceive a baby. Couples who produce a baby on June 12, when everyone is out celebrating patriotism, win prizes such as money, automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, TVs, and video cameras. The grand-prize winning couple is selected by a committee based on their fitness to be parents. This year's (June 2007) grand-prize winning couple won a UAZ Patriot SUV.
This year is the third year that Conception Day is being held, and since the beginning of the campaign, birthrates in the region have increased. One has to wonder, though, if in the long run, Conception Days will just cause births to be concentrated in June rather than being more evenly dispersed throughout the 12 months of the year, resulting in little overall increase in annual birthrates.
Whether it's suspicious spinach, suicidal snack foods, or, most recently, fatal fish, this has been the summer of food scares. Not even your pet is safe. Fido's Kibbles are just as deadly as the salad you're about to eat for lunch.
But is our food supply as deadly as news reports suggest, or have food attacks simply replaced shark attacks as cable news' filler of choice on slow news days? I'm not trying to minimize the seriousness of food-borne illness here. As stats (pdf) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest show, it's a real threat, particularly to developing nations. Contaminated food contributes to 1.5 billion cases of diarrhea in kids each year, resulting in more than 3 million unnecessary deaths.
In the United States, food-borne diseases result in 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths annually. These numbers sound large—until you put them in perspective. Influenza and pneumonia, for instance, together kill more than 61,000 Americans a year. But unless that flu is of the bird variety, we don't hear much about it. Food threats make for good news copy because they almost always emanate from the developing world.Wealthy nations have become so far removed from their food supplies that it's easy to shock people with stories of sketchy Chinese catfish farmers and uncouth Thai salmon brokers.
But the real dangers inherent in our global food chain are far more quiet, and potentially more deadly, than headline-grabbing cases of E. coli. Consider obesity. Not that long ago, people everywhere ate with the seasons and with tastes that were dictated by regional conditions. But as it has become possible to eat anything, anywhere, at any time, the world has grown fatter. "Who cares?," you might say—it's nice to have fresh strawberries in the dead of winter.
Well, chew on this:
Global increases in the incidence and prevalence of obesity are grounded in the globalization of Western post-industrial food systems," writes Cornell University's Jeffrey Sobal. "Global corporations are establishing industrialized agro-food systems in almost all nations that will provide constant 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week/365 days a year consumer access to virtually unlimited volumes of relatively inexpensive calorifically dense foods to all people in all places at all times.... Global food systems and global vehicles, appliances, and mass media are the underlying causes of increases in global obesity."
Apparently, a flat world is a fat world.
Five years ago, Botswana was an HIV/AIDS basket case. It had the highest incidence of the disease in the world. Almost 40 percent of its adult population was infected. Average life expectancy had fallen below 40 years. Botswana was battling against "extinction."
In response, the government, with help from international agencies, embarked upon a campaign to contain the spread of the virus. The results are now beginning to show, and they suggest that Africa's troubles aren't always insurmountable.
Botswana has reduced the rate of HIV transmission from mother to child to below 4 percent through vigilant testing programs followed by drug treatments for mothers who are infected. Thirty-four percent of Botwana's pregnant women—around 14,000 people—are HIV-positive, and the chances of passing on HIV to a baby is between 30 and 35 percent when there's no intervention. In other words, Botswana's effective response has saved thousands of babies from contracting the virus every year. Botswana is now within the range of the United States and Europe, where less than 2 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers have the virus.
Botswana is also looking up in terms of other indicators. The adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate has dropped to around 24 percent (it's still high, but significantly better than five years ago), and life expectancy has increased 10 years, to over 50. Obviously, there's still a long way to go. But it just goes to show that smart interventions can make an enormous difference in a very short time.
Anyone who has lived in a big city knows what it's like when those inconsiderate neighbors decide to crank up their stereo at two in the morning. Or when rush hour traffic fills your apartment with jarring sounds of honking and cursing. But what we shrug off as the price of living in a cosmopolitan town may be deadlier than we thought.
A new study of European cities by the WHO has found that the emotional distress caused by noise pollution is responsible for three out of every 100 deaths typically blamed on heart disease. This could translate to as many as 210,000 deaths in Europe each year due to lack of peace and quiet. The unwanted raucous increases levels of stress hormones, even while we sleep, which can then lead to heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure, and immune problems if present in the bloodstream for extended periods of time.
EU regulators have already sprung into action: By the end of this year, cities with populations exceeding 250,000 will be required by law to produce digitized noise maps marking the noise hotspots (which would really come in handy while apartment hunting). Over on this side of the Atlantic, residents of the "city that never sleeps" might finally be getting some beauty rest thanks to Major Bloomberg's recent hardening of the city's noise pollution codes. Under the new rules, music polluters in New York City will be slapped with heavier fines and cars whose alarms go off for more than three minutes at night will be towed.
The WHO study looked only at European cities, so I shudder to think what researchers would find in Cairo, Mumbai, or Beijing. But perhaps those cities can work on clearing the air first before they start going after horn-happy drivers. The air pollution in those place will probably kill you before the noise does.
With all the media attention focused on Mattel's recent toy recalls, homegrown health threats can slip under the radar. In a fascinating piece for Slate, Dr. Darshak Sanghavi says to forget about tainted Batman action figures from China—there's already way too much lead in the United States.
(micrograms per deciliter) are well below the "level of concern." But recent medical evidence has shown that even with lead levels less than 10 mcg/dl, a child can lose roughly seven IQ points. And once these points vanish, they don't come back. A population-wide average loss of seven points, Sanghavi observes, would place tens of thousands of kids below the general threshold for mental retardation. As a solution, Sanghavi proposes "zero-tolerance lead policies, which would mean nationwide de-leading of unsafe homes."
It sounds like a no-brainer. So why the stall in taking action? Well, first there is the lead lobby. Then there is cost of de-leading paint in older houses nationwide, which works out to an estimated $58 billion, or about $8,000 for each IQ point saved. Apparently this is too much for Washington, since no progress has been made towards lowering allowable lead limits since 2000. But if we ignore the problem, it'll go away, right?
Simon Romero reports on the latest developments in the Bolívaran Revolution:
Moved by claims that it will help the metabolism and productivity of his fellow citizens, President Hugo Chávez said clocks would be moved forward by half an hour at the start of 2008. He announced the change on his Sunday television program, accompanied by his highest-ranking science adviser, Héctor Navarro, the minister of science and technology. "This is about the metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight," Mr. Navarro said in comments reported by Venezuela’s official news agency. Mr. Chávez said he was "certain" that the time change, which would be accompanied by a move to a six-hour workday, would be accepted.
(Thanks to KH for sending this in.)
Millions of overweight and obese people all over the world have tried and tried to lose weight, but with no success. Will paying them to shed fat give them the extra motivation to adopt a healthier lifestyle? The overweight mayor of the Italian town of Varallo thinks so, and he's put the community on a "group diet" with monetary rewards:
Meanwhile, in the United States—where $1 of every $6 spent is on healthcare—employers and health insurance companies are using both carrots and sticks to get workers to slim down. In Benton County, Ark., county employees' insurance deductibles can be reduced from $2,500 to $500 if they meet low height-to-weight ratios. Employees at the hospital chain Clarian Health Partners will be "fined" up to $60 a month if they can't meet weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure standards.
It seems odd that people might be more motivated by money than by a desire to be healthier, but with healthcare costs for obesity rising, governments, insurance companies, and employers are increasingly willing to try almost anything to get people to shape up.
In keeping with Passport's tradition of updating our readers about toilets in China, we have the latest news: There will be no more food stalls attached to public toilets in Beijing. The Beijing Municipal Commission has decided that "It is not proper to sell soft drinks or snacks right at the toilets," which up till now had been permitted. The city government is also planning to publish a toilet guide and offer telephone and Internet services containing information to help toilet users.
What's the motivation for these efforts? The 2008 Beijing Olympics, of course. China is making a huge effort to crack down on poor public hygiene and improve social etiquette. Earlier this year, China initiated an effort to curb public spitting, cursing and littering, and promote orderly queues. Even poorly-translated English signs in China are getting the boot. But for all the cosmetic changes, it seems that some things aren't changing so quickly: press freedoms and protection for human rights.
According to the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development, only three places—Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco—remain on its list of "uncooperative tax havens" now that the Marshall Islands and Liberia have made certain reforms. (This doesn't mean that the Marshall Islands and Liberia are not tax havens anymore; it just means they aren't evil tax havens.)
One interesting thing about Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco is that all three countries boast extraordinarily high life expectancy rates. Indeed, Andorra's, at nearly 84 years at birth, is the highest in the world. San Marino, Hong Kong, Guernsey, Gibraltar, and the Cayman Islands are also in the top 20, with Jersey not far behind at #22.
Granted, correlation does not, ipso facto, imply causation—Sweden, Japan, and Norway, also in the top 20, are hardly libertarian paradises, and Liberia and the Marshall Islands aren't exactly great places to raise your child—but it's a curious coincidence nonetheless.
UPDATE: Some informed comments here from British tax researcher Richard Murphy.
It has been many years since rival kingdoms sent each other messages via homing pigeon, but the latest development in the killer-export dispute between the United States and China offers a new take on that old-fashioned method of communication.
According to a Chinese government website, officials recently seized a shipment of 41 pigeons and executed every last one of them. The pigeons, which originated in the United States, were destined for use as both pets and gourmet food. Chinese inspectors, however, cited a litany of problems with the shipment, including an infestation of "parrot fever," a bird-disease that can cause mild symptoms in humans. So the birds were slaughtered and incinerated.
I have, in the past, defended the Chinese from allegations that they're out to poison us; I still think Americans tend to overreact when it comes to China. On the flip side, this pigeon business is utter silliness. It's clearly just tit-for-tat escalation of a dispute that need not cause any serious trouble. If China wants to keep an open, friendly market for their exports, they're better off acknowledging problems and working to promote safety, rather than going on the offensive to find flaws with U.S. exports.
Plus, think of the innocent pigeons.
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