30 October 2007

Horse accident 'avoidable, inexcusable'

"This accident was completely avoidable and inexcusable," said Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran. "I say this because you had 59 Belgium draft horses, which is an extremely large horse, being transported in one truck with one driver on one of the busiest highways in the nation."

15 young horses died either on the scene or were euthanasized, more might have to be put down. This is just sad. Its not clear where the horses were going or at this point who has legal rights to them. I've read that they were bound for a slaughter house in Canada, to an Amish community, and vaguely to Minnesota. The news paper on the kitchen table (can't find an online reference) thought that the horses, mostly yearlings, were from a farm that harvests hormones from the urine of pregnant horses for use in hormone replacement therapy. Sounds appetizing doesn't it.

My question, which might be a little cold, is what if this were a double deck trailer full of beef cattle? Or hogs? What if it were something more exotic, llamas or camels? I seriously doubt that there would be such a pull at our hearts if the animals in this accident were cattle bound for slaughter anyway. Or if they were animals that we aren't as attached to. I'm not making a judgment, I'm not anti-meat, but PETA and other groups have a point when they say that we base our rules about how animals are treated on our emotions about animals.

I'm not a horse person (I'm a city girl, I've ridden more transit systems than horses) but a dear friend is a horse nerd and future large animal vet. I can tell how much people get attached to horses. Maybe cows just aren't as friendly or it isn't as easy to see a personality in them. Hrmm.

27 October 2007

SCHIP and Timing

House Passes Revised Children's Health Bill, but Timing Irks GOP

But Republican leaders rallied their wavering troops around a new issue, whether the vote should have taken place when much of Southern California was on fire and nine House members were touring the disaster zone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted she had no choice but to move forward and give the Senate a chance to send the measure to Bush next week.

You know, this is exactly what I mean by Inside the Beltway Drama. Seizing upon the little things like timing to bitch. Really the Republicans would rather spend their time antagonizing other nations than spend money on keeping children healthy or people who lost their houses to the combination of drought due to global warming and arson. Should the California fires have gotten time before this version of SCHIP? Yeah probably, but if the Republicans had just shut up about waisting time and they had all just voted, maybe they could have done both. As someone who has lived (for a couple months) in a co-op, and has been my share of house meetings, sometimes you just have to shut up and vote in order to move on to the next topic.

Busy Saturday so I'm keeping it short.

26 October 2007


First off, part of keeping this blog is the self discipline to do it everyday. Still working on that part. Yeah. Anyway, on to scary things that kill people.

Dead Student Had Infection, Officials Say

If you don't know what MRSA is, you should. Its one of those infections that is getting a lot of press now because of some recent deaths in populations not generally considered high risk. (High risk would be people with compromised immune systems or in long term health care facilities.) In this case the victim was a child in Brooklyn.

New York City health officials said yesterday that a Brooklyn middle school student who died on Oct. 14 had become infected with a virulent, drug-resistant strain of bacteria that is primarily spread in hospitals but that in recent years has surfaced increasingly in schools, gyms and other nonhospital settings.

Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacteria present on many people's skin and in the noses of about 30% of people. About 2.6% of people have the MRSA variant, but even then that doesn't mean that that person is sick. Its not enough to simply have the bacteria around, it has to get into you somehow to do damage. Really, your skin does a pretty damn good job of protecting you from infection. When S. aureus causes an infection, its called a staph infection and the relative danger of the infection is dependent upon where it is; in the skin its ugly, but not as deadly as if it was in the valves of the heart or the blood.

So this MRSA is around, and it isn't bothered by methicillin or other beta-lactam antibiotics. For most bacteria there is a protein needed to correctly produce cell walls and it will bind with penicillin (and similar antibiotics) and not do its job. The cell wall becomes difficult to maintain and the cell lyses (breaks open, dies and spills its guts out). Well, these guys have a mutated form of that protein that doesn't bind these antibiotics and the cell just keeps on doing its thing. Which is no good for you if that thing its doing happens to be inside your blood.

I remember reading an article on the microbiology bulletin board Brandon Noble. A Washington Redskins defensive tackle, he lost a bunch of muscle in his leg after a MRSA infection got into his rebuilt left knee. Scary shit.

Read more about MRSA at the Mayo Clinic's website

I'll try to make the next post not about things that can kill you. No promises though.

23 October 2007

The hospital bills are always more than you think.

For I-35W bridge collapse victims, how much compensation is enough?
Yet the state's liability for the entire collapse is capped at $300,000 per individual and $1 million total. If divided among the 100 injured and relatives of the 13 killed Aug. 1, the money won't go too far.

That just about sums it up.

One hundred people splitting one million dollars is ten thousand dollars each. I think that might pay for the first surgery. That doesn't help much when you need physical therapy, more than one surgery, nursing help and the medicine. Since many of the injuries are back injuries, I think its safe to say that these injuries are not going to heal simply. There is no way the people injured are going to be able to pay for this, its simply too much.

The idea of starting a fund in the style of the 9/11 fund is being floated. Rather sue the state, the victims would get money from the state without taxes and without having to wind through the courts. Also without having to have that pesky discovery phase of the law suite. But that phase of the litigation might be a good reason to have at least one or two people sue. I really don't think that any commission set up by the NTSB, the governor or the legislature is going to really dig into all this the way a lawyer suing the state would. Nothing could be set up in Minnesota that would produce anything as thorough as the 9/11 Commision Report.

Getting back to the money, this is another example where we wouldn't even be having this discussion if there was a universal single payer health care system in place. Think about all the law suits that wouldn't take place if no one had to sue some one else to pay for health care after an accident. I see reasons for universal health care every time I load the NYT website, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong about it.

Let me just get this out there now since the 35-W Bridge will probably come up again and again here:
I was in St. Paul when the bridge collapsed, I was watching the Tastee bread truck burn next to the school bus before CNN knew what was up. I frantically called my parents before the cell phone system was overloaded. This is not something that is going to be over for the people of the Twin Cities anytime soon. There are several things that seem fishy about all this;
  1. The Collapse
  2. The Bidding for the new bridge
  3. What was going on at MNDOT under Molnau
That said there were somethings that worked really well. First Responders, EMTs and the hospital staff all worked very well together. And the WiFi they used when the cell system was over loaded, that worked just as planned.

22 October 2007

Another hypothesis for the crime drop in the late 90's

Idea Lab: Criminal Element
Reyes found that the rise and fall of lead-exposure rates seemed to match the arc of violent crime, but with a 20-year lag — just long enough for children exposed to the highest levels of lead in 1973 to reach their most violence-prone years in the early ’90s, when crime rates hit their peak.

Many, many reasons have been floated as to why crime dropped in the late 90's. The one I remember best was the one put forth in Freakonomics by Steven Levitt. His hypothesis had to do with thousands of unwanted children not being born to mothers who couldn't provide for them thanks to the legalization of abortion. This hypothesis is based upon another absence. Not of people this time but the absence of toxic lead.

Now this idea doesn't usurp Levitt's idea, in fact the two might fit together well. Together, the two predict the birth of children who are more likely to be wanted, more likely to be fully provided for and healthier. More than just the levels of lead in the air have improved since the mid-seventies. There is little doubt in my mind that the formation of the EPA and the implementation of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts has improved the lives of those born since then. But how much can you blame the criminality of past generations on the amount of lead they were breathing? Rather quickly we reach a broader discussion about nature, nurture and the free will of the criminal. But thats not where I want to take this. I want to talk about the science, this is Science Monday after all.

To understand why people put lead in their gasoline in the first place, you have to understand a little about how a internal combustion engine works. The best animation is this one, the 4-stroke at Wikipedia. Lead reduced "knocking" which is premature ignition, the gasoline ignites during compression in the second stroke rather than at the boundary between the second and third stroke. The form of lead used was tetra-ethyl lead. Thats lead with four two-carbon ethyl groups. In the engine, the TEL was combusted to CO2, H2O and lead oxide, which was picked up by a chlorine based scavenging compounds. So out the tailpipe came lead (II) chloride.

In the end it doesn't really matter what form the lead takes when it enters your body, lead oxide, lead acetate, or lead chloride. Your body has no use for lead and the lead will replace other metal atoms that form the active sites in many enzymes in your body. So what does that have to do with crime levels here? Well thats an interesting question.

Lead exposure early in life has been shown to have a link to learning disabilities later in life. Having a learning disability alone doesn't make one a criminal. But if you didn't learn in school, couldn't sit still, and no one was trying to help you learn, what are the chances you would be able to make it through high school untouched by violence?

In the end the really science-y part of this article isn't about the chemistry of lead, the biology of lead poisoning or the psychology of learning disabilities. The really science-y part comes near the end.

If lead poisoning is a factor in the development of criminal behavior, then countries that didn’t switch to unleaded fuel until the 1980s, like Britain and Australia, should soon see a dip in crime as the last lead-damaged children outgrow their most violent years.

The theory will be put to the test as children grow up in Indonesia, Venezuela and sub-Saharan Africa, where leaded gasoline has just recently been phased out. Meanwhile, the list of countries that still use lead in gas — Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq, as well as much of North Africa and Central Asia — does not rule out a connection with violence.

That right there is the most science-y part of the whole thing. It makes a prediction. It says "hey, I have this data and this really neat conclusion, plus I have a way to test this!" In a few decades we'll be able to see if Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, the economist at Amherst College who's research is the basis for the article, found a correlation that holds up to its own prediction. That ladies and gentlemen, is science!

Reyes working paper is available as a pdf here. Page 69 has a very nice graph of violent crime and kilos of lead with a 22 year delay. Its really a pretty graph, as far as graphs go.

19 October 2007

How this is going to work.

This blog is just me reading the news and trying to say something interesting about it. Now, my friend over at Public Masturbation says blogging is some sort of intellectual exhibitionism. I don't know how true that is for me, but he's clearly a wanker.

For me this is more of a project in critical thinking and current events. Its not enough to just read the news and absorb the information, you need to know some of the back story. Sometimes this means understanding some of the post-colonial history of countries in Africa, sometimes it means understanding the physiology of a pathogen. Either way, this blog is about keeping my critical thinking skills sharp. Every day is going to have a different topic.

  • Monday: SCIENCE! Something for me to look forward to.
  • Tuesday: Regional, in this case, the American Midwest.
  • Wednesday: National, some other region or something that affects all of the US
  • Thursday: International, hopefully not Iraq all the time.
  • Friday: Health and Medicine
  • Saturday: Inside the Beltway, aka Political Drama/Fluff.
  • Sunday: ?? I'm not sure yet.
I'll update this list once I have a more solid idea about what I want for Sunday and Wednesday.
I'll be starting the regular schedule on Monday, 22 October 2007.
This isn't a personal blog, it wont be about my life much at all. I have a LiveJournal for that.

17 October 2007

Malaria vaccine and a first post

Malaria vaccine!
At least 9 malaria vaccine candidates are in development, but Mosquirix is the farthest along. Glaxo has been refining it for 20 years, and expects to have spent up to $600 million on it by the time it comes to market. About $100 million has been paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

This is really a test post, but that doesn't mean it can't have something interesting in it.

Malaria is one of the largest pathogenic killers in the world. Unlike AIDS it isn't much of a killer in the developed world, and unlike avian flu its not something new and exciting. Its one of those killers thats been around for a long time. Many of the deaths are in children under the age of five. This leads to a higher birthrate to make up for the death of children. When you're not sure how many of your children are going to make it to adulthood to take care of you in your old age, you're going to have more in order to increase your odds.

So onto this article, a New York Times write up of an article published in Lancet. Lancet, in case you don't know is a UK based medical journal and very well respected, it is however published by Elsevier, who is notorious in scientific circles for charging several arms and legs for a subscription. So the authors have given a little over 200 babies a shot of a protein from the membrane of Plasmodium falciparum which was fused with some hepatitis protein and a "booster." This lead to an immune reaction, the production of antibodies, and gave 45% of the children protection from malaria. The article notes that in the West this would be unacceptably low, but in Africa every little bit helps.

So while this is an imperfect vaccine, its really very amazing. Vaccines for these malaria causing parasites are hard because they spend so much time inside cells, away from those white blood cells and other forces in the human immune system. So how do you make a vaccine for something that doesn't normally produce an immune reaction? We can now artificially make proteins that are found on the outside of the pathogen and use those to induce the immune system.

At least 9 malaria vaccine candidates are in development, but Mosquirix[the vaccine] is the farthest along. Glaxo has been refining it for 20 years, and expects to have spent up to $600 million on it by the time it comes to market. About $100 million has been paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

And here we have the part that makes me (and many others) squirm just a little. The $600 million bill for the R&D is part of what leads to the outrageous cost of Grandma's medicine and all those Flonase and Valtrex ads on TV. I seriously doubt that Glaxo will be making the $600 mil back from those who need this vaccine most, so the cost that Bill and Melinda don't pick up will be passed on to us. (Plus some interest so the CEO can make some mortgage payments I'm sure.)

For more about malaria I recommend the World Health Organization's Malaria page.