Some teachers are pricks, and then some

12 09 2010

A simple investigation experiment looking at the pH of blood at a Tasmanian high school has turned into a biohazard scare after teacher somehow thought sharing needles would be totally fine for adolescent boys. In some muddled form of defence the teacher did “attempt to sterilise the needle with methylated spirits between tests.” (Methylated spirits its not really suitable for sterilizing).

Pretty much any official is saying that this was a major balls up by the teacher, and I’m finding hard to believe that with all the red tape (in the for of occupational health and safety) present in Australian workplaces these days, that this investigation was ever approved. I have no problem with hands on experiments. In fact, I think these should be encouraged. On top of that, if we expect to have smart and scientifically literate graduates from high school, experiments involving potential biohazards should be allowed. However (or even because of that) it still very important to recognise that risks are involved and the appropriate precautions be taken.

Do read the comments on The Mercury article too.

There seems to be some sections of the world who are somehow thinking that the teacher has not done anything wrong, because there are no schoolboys in Tasmania with bloodborne infectious disease. Perhaps they could do well to investigate the Health and Ageing website which show that historically (prior to vaccinations) they have been one of the highest risk groups for Hepatitis (which is probably the largest worry in this instance, rather than HIV). Blood-borne transmission is probably the number one risk that health organisations try to minimize to prevent the spread of disease.





Taking the buzz out of life

28 07 2010

Nature has an interesting article exploring the ramifications of a world without mosquitoes.

Overall the benefits appear to outweigh the negatives – but they are still given their credence. Mosquitoes, and their larvae, may be physicaly miniscule, but they are big players in the scheme of things. Their removal would have effects on food chains containing birds and fish, plus wider ecological effects – such as plants losing pollinators and changes to deer migration, and also possibly cause over-population in already stretched human communities.

Image: mosquito by tanakawho (CC by A from Flickr)





Trends in internet influenza

20 06 2009

At the start of the month, Google announced it was expanding its search-engine-based epidemiology surveillance tool, Flu Trends, to process information originating from Australia and New Zealand (previously it was processing U.S. statistics and a beta Mexico version).

The tool is based on there being a correlation between the number of people typing in influenza-related keywords into Google and the actual number of cases of influenza in the country. Google claims it is supported by historical data. The concept does make sense: when you are your family are sick with flu-like symptoms, that would be the time you are more likely to search for information on possible causes – Thus people searching for “flu” could reflect the cases across the country.

But I was skeptical at how well it would work in a pandemic. Google’s data might hold up for its recorded history, but that does not extend back to 1968-9 – the last influenza pandemic. A pandemic not only involves the potential for an increased number of influenza cases and increased severity of those cases, it also means an increased amount of media coverage and public awareness. When I last looked at Google Trends and health searches, I saw a possible link between media coverage of Kylie Minogue and Australian searches for breast cancer. There is a good reason to suspect that the statistical relationship between search terms and disease cases will not hold up during pandemic conditions. This concern is not addressed appropriately in the Flu Trends FAQ.

 

Google Flu Trends Data, as of 20 June, 2009. Click for larger image. A - US 2008/09 search data c.f. historical B - Australia 2008/2009 data c.f. historical (2008/09 dark blue, historical light blue). C - Australia historical data (blue) compared with official epidemiological seasonal ILI (infleunza-like-illness) data (orange)

Google Flu Trends Data, as of 20 June, 2009. Click for larger image. A - US 2008/09 search data c.f. historical B - Australia 2008/2009 data c.f. historical (2008/09 dark blue, historical light blue). C - Australia historical search data (blue) compared with official historical epidemiological seasonal ILI (infleunza-like-illness) data (orange)

Looking at the U.S data, for this past season, it looks like it could be an accurate reflection. And if anything, rather than seeing a spike of search term activity this year, there was not much difference than previous years. In fact, the historic data contains several search spikes that do not exist in this years trends. All this information could either accurately reflect that the influenza pandemic thus far has been little more than out-of-season seasonal flu, or, just maybe, that the increased media activity and awareness have actually actively decreased usage of Google for health information.

Were people being directly channeled towards non-search websites, like flupandemic.gov.au? Were they getting enough influenza information from other websites they frequent, like news websites? Was there enough offline influenza resources that people did not feel the need to Google to find out more? Or were people just overloaded and desensitized by the mass media hysteria?

I still prefer the Rhiza Labs case-mapping tool. It is much more informative and accurate.





Pandemic is not a synonym for crisis

1 06 2009

…necessarily. In this case it’s more SNAFU.

I read this weekend’s Sunday Herald during lunch today. There was a double page spread on the growing “Swine Flu Crisis!” (251 Infected!*).

While I’m not sure if this graph is actually based on real figures, it does put the pandemic in perspective:
song chart memes
see more Funny Graphs

The threat of Mexican flu is quite relative. This strain may only turn out as bad as regular flu. But regular flu isn’t something to sniff at. Each year influenza occurs on a pandemic scale, this kills about 250,000 – 500,000 worldwide. So when the health authorities are saying “this is just like seasonal influenza”, they may be quite right to downplay the threat, but there is still a threat – SNAFU.

Was that enough mixed messages?

 

Hattip for GraphJam: Cheshire

*It’s now over 300, but didn’t reach 800. Either Mexican flu (or the testing labs) took the weekend off, or it’s possibly slowing down.