Explaining Ebola

Most of what the media is reporting about the epidemic is incorrect. Ebola is not airborne. It is transmitted by close contact with blood and bodily fluids and secretions. This is why Ebola is spreading in developing regions in Western Africa that have inadequate healthcare.

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and I speak with virology expert Professor  Vincent Racaniello and Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Dr Tara C. Smith. They talk about what Ebola is, how it’s transmitted, how the current epidemic might be contained, and we also talk about some of of the media-driven misconceptions about the virus. We discuss why an outbreak in developed nations is unlikely and we cover the socio-economic factors sustaining the epidemic in poorer nations. 

Vincent is a professor of virology at the University of Columbia and is a fantastic science communicator. Tara is an epidemiologist at Kent State University who has written numerous articles debunking some of the myths surrounding Ebola.

Women’s Mental Health and Celebrity Culture

Last time, I talked about the problem with holding up celebrity lifestyle habits as reasonable health advice. A popular young American actress had reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She shared this information during an interview, saying she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media jovially shared this story, especially when a writer decided to try it out and recommend the practice, not bothering to investigate whether the health claim was true. This is my second in-depth case study showing why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.

Today let’s look at why the so-called “Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” is scientifically invalid. This is a marketing term coined by a self-described “holistic nutrition specialist” who argues that women who feel emotionally overwhelmed and who show other signs of mental illness are abnormal. She argues their emotional issues boil down to a busy lifestyle and hormone imbalance. A celebrity athlete and parts of the Australian media ran with this term, giving the impression that women’s emotions need “biochemical” intervention (at the cost of $600 a pop). This narrative grossly penalises women’s expression of their emotional wellbeing and serves only to stigmatise both women as “moody bitches” (quote used by celebrity Lisa Curry) and it further stigmatises mental illness.

Vulnerable women who are suffering depression or who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements. Continue reading Women’s Mental Health and Celebrity Culture

Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.

First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.

Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.

Let's talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.
Let’s talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.

Continue reading Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

Science Media Hype: Scaremongering Over Viral Research

I first wrote this post for Science on Google+ and the response has been highly emotional and very far removed from the evidence presented. My interest in this story is on the epidemiology of disease, given my work on the sociology of health. Misinformation on the spread and management of infection can severely impede public health campaigns. While bioethics is an important issue to openly debate, the fact is that this particular story about virology research has been hyped up by journalists. The media created a moral panic using doomsday scenarios about what might happen if this research “escaped the lab,” without seriously reviewing the researcher’s body of work, as discussed in the post below. 

I’ve previously written that when people think about scientific risks regarding a topic they are uninformed about, they are less likely to support such risks if they have vested interests such as political or personal biases. I’ve also shown how public trust in science is also influenced by education and belief systems. Bad science reporting only serves to complicate things by presenting sensationalist views (see my post http://goo.gl/mcqxWY).

Science Scaremongering

You may have seen the media circulating a sensationalised story about the research by Professor of Virology, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka studies influenza viruses, specifically the “molecular mechanism of interspecies transmission of the virus leading to influenza pandemics in humans. His previous research explores genetic compatibility between swine-origin influenza virus (S-OIV), a contemporary avian flu (H5N1 virus) and human influenza viruses. He also examines why, in rare cases, viruses such as avian H5N1, H7, and H9N2 become transmitted across animals species to humans even though they do not spread efficiently from person to person.

Kawaoka has published various studies to determine how different types of influenza viruses work their way from species to species through various modes of transmission. This includes a comparison of duck and quail flu transmission to humans (the latter is a potential point of transmission to humans; swine influenza in macaques (closely mimicking influenza in humans; and the spread of H5N1 influenza viruses in mammals in a study of ferrets and hamsters.

His work is also important in understanding why some influenza viruses affect some groups of people more than others, such as in a study comparing swine-origin H1N1 influenza virus in mouse models from Norway, Osaka and California (see images). The study showed the that pathogenic strains possibly develop in response to aberrant immune responses in some people, leading to lethal results in a minority of humans. Vaccines are imperative but they have limited viability, and so combined therapies appear to be more effective.

Sites like The Independent, The Daily Mail, Gizmodo and others have run scaremongering headlines such as – “Scientist creates new flu virus that can kill all of humanity.” These news reports emphasise that Kawaoka’s ongoing research is unpublished but they claim that his work is reckless and divisive amongst the scientific community. The fact is that all research remains unpublished until it’s gone through peer-review; there’s nothing under-handed about this, it’s simply the scientific process.  These news stories make it seem like Kawaoka is manufacturing viruses that might easily escape into the public. This fear is unfounded as there have been no reported breaches of protocol. This is nothing more than irresponsible reporting. Research labs are closely monitored. There is enough of Kawaoka’s research available in the public domain to demonstrate its scientific rigour and value.

Social science research shows that media hype shapes public responses to disease. Misinformation about the epidemiology of illness – the spread, causes and social dynamics of disease, can severely impact how the public responds to both epidemics and pandemics. Kawaoka’s research evaluates the transmission and generation of pandemic viruses across various species and to people. This work is important because influenza viruses do not spread consistently across populations. We need to better understand these patterns in order to plan and prevent pandemics that might otherwise severely impact public health. Poor science reporting serves to spread fear, rather than educate and ultimately undermines public health efforts.

As our Science on Google+ Moderator, Professor Rajini Rao, points out:

there is no truth to the claim that the scientific community is split over this research. The news sites do not provide credible links to substantiate this claim because it’s not true. This sort of viral research is not unusual and it is the basis for making anti-viral therapy. Unfortunately, this sort of media hype  comes up at regular intervals.

Learn More

Check out these past debunking posts that delve into misinformation about similar research, by Prof Rao and Dr Tommy Leung.

See more of Kawaoka’s research: http://goo.gl/URT8tQ

If you still have questions after reading this post read this analysis of the unfounded critiques of the virology research in question.

Notes

All cited research has been conducted by teams of researchers, with Prof Kawaoka being one of several authors, and not necessarily the lead investigator.

Image Credit Ryuta Uraki et. al., 2013 “Virulence Determinants of Pandemic A(H1N1)2009 Influenza Virus in a Mouse Model,” Journal of Virology, vol. 87 no. 4. Notes in images are direct quotes from the paper.

 

Myth of Domestic and Family Violence

Sociologist & public health researcher, Sara Shoener, critiques the dangerous narrative that positions two-parent households as a protection for women and children from domestic abuse. The Washington Post ran a reckless piece of social science by a conservative sociologist who made this claim based on poor use of statistics. This researcher, writing for The New York Times, has conducted ethnographic research on how the criminal justice system handles domestic abuse cases. Her data illustrate the damage of the two parent myth. Continue reading Myth of Domestic and Family Violence

Italian-Australian Migrant Women

Italian-Australian activist Anna Moo talks about her attraction to social justice and how she worked with a group of migrant women in the 1970s to achieve policy changes on migrant women’s reproductive health. Moo says:

We really wanted to connect back with the women that we were advocating with. They were not aware of health services that might have been available to them. The W.I.C.H. [Women in Industry Contraception and Health] education project was developed in conjunction with Australian women and women from many different backgrounds with the support of a number of organisations.

And the fantastic aspect of that education kit is the fact that it was taken to the factories by women who were themselves from multicultural backgrounds. Each worker spoke a language, a community language, whereby women could actually ask questions and be supported through the discussions. You know, what’s really amazing is that we still have Women in Industry Contraception and Health, it’s called a different name but it’s still that organisation…

It’s really a testament to what women can do together.

Source: Immigration Museum.

Sudanese Australians Use Music Rehab

Sudanese Australians use music to reflect on their war experiences. This group performed for the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) in Western Sydney. One performer says:

When you’re happy, you sing it out; when you’re sad, you sing it out… You talk to people, you make an announcement – anything at all, you make a song.

Another singer says:

It looks like fun, but it’s not fun… I’m not a young woman, I’m an old woman. I can’t come if it’s [just] fun. We want the people that doesn’t know what happened a long time in the past, and that is why we are here.

STARTTS Chief Executive says:

Dance brings people together, but also brings people together in a way that turns thoughts and feelings into action, and that’s tremendously therapeutic.

Source: SBS News.

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
The internet is filled with many science blogs and websites holding themselves up as experts on all sorts of research topics. It’s frustrating to see the high volume of articles where non-experts feel qualified to dismiss social science research. The damage is worse when it’s journalists and scientists without social science training, because the public doesn’t always know that these people aren’t qualified to write about social science. I will demonstrate this through a case study of the sociology of diabetes.

With increased media attention on diabetes, the public has come to expect certain behaviours from people who have this condition. While some people understand that there are some differences between the two broad types of Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2), there are many misconceptions about what causes diabetes and how this condition should be treated. With these misconceptions comes judgements about the people who get diabetes, and why this may be the case.

I am not an expert on the biology of diabetes. I can however speak to the sociological aspects of this disease. As an applied researcher, I have worked on projects in the sociology of health, such as examining the influence of organisational practices on health outcomes. I’ve also researched socio-economic disadvantage amongst minority and vulnerable groups and the impact this has on social integration, help-seeking behaviour and wellbeing. Social disadvantage will be the focus of my analysis here. I use my discussion on the socio-economics of diabetes to explore the problems that arise when non-experts wade into social science issues using individual explanations (such as personal experience and opinion) rather than scientific evidence about societal processes. I call this “arm chair” social science because it does not adhere to the social theories and methods for analysing social issues.

My post begins with the social science research on diabetes, centred on the research of Hilary Seligman. Her team’s work was refuted by a science blogger who is not a social scientist, and who subsequently posted this critique to Science on Google+, a large multidisciplinary Community that I help moderate. Below I discuss Seligman’s longitudinal research on how poverty affects the experience and management of diabetes. Seligman uses the concept of “food insecurity” to situate her research. I draw on other studies that lend further support to this concept. I discuss the influence of social location on the management of diabetes. That is, I will examine the socio-economics of where people live as a key factor in diabetes care. I end with a discussion of the exchange on the Science on Google+ Community and the problems of viewing diabetes from an individual perspective.

Exhaustion of food budgets is a driver of health inequality - The Other Sociologist
“Exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities” – Hilary Seligman and colleagues

Continue reading Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

Kabul Disability Health Centre

This disability health and support centre in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, is staffed almost exclusively by disabled care workers. They produce prosthetic limbs and provide  rehabilitation and social support in a country where public healthcare is negliable.

Video: Al Jazeera.

Autism Research and Policy

Today, our community, Science on Google+, is co-hosting an event with Autism Brainstorm. The Hangout includes autism experts who will speak about educational, policy and biological research into autism.  

Read my notes of the discussion below, plus links on the research discussed, as well as biographies of our guests. I focus on the research and policy developments highlighted by the speakers. I hope these notes might also facilitate our visually impaired community members.

In order to set the background for my Hangout notes, I begin by summarising the key research and policy recommendations on autism made by The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. The scientific focus on biology, social science and research practices are of interest to our multidisciplinary community.

Continue reading Autism Research and Policy