Category Archives: News

Increasing Organ Donations

As many will know, there is a major organ shortage currently (about 8000 people are on the waiting list) and encouraging a higher number of donations is a hot topic circulating around the news at the moment. This is because the government is attempting to come up with new ideas to encourage a larger number of people to donate organs.

The most recent possible incentive is that the NHS will pay for the funeral expenses (around £3000) of organ donors, portrayed to be like a “gift” for their generosity. A big cause of concern has been that this could open up trafficking of organs by people who are desperate financially; however, by paying for their funeral only, the government has tried to minimise this misapprehension as you will not be directly selling your organs individually for money.

The main argument against this is that people believe organ donation should be an entirely altruistic act – completely selfless, with no expectation of payment, and the funeral payment totally contradicts this. Many also believe that it won’t have a big effect as most people are not bothered about funeral expenses.

Personally, I believe the only way of increasing organs availability is by having an opt-out system (like Spain and Austria do), rather than an opt-in system, which England currently holds. This means that everyone is automatically signed up to donate their organs when they die but can choose not to participate, instead of the opposite. With this system, everyone will have to be educated thoroughly from a young age so that they can make the decision to pull out (but then again, what is the appropriate age for children to be able to make this decision?). They have thought about this system before but worry that the increase won’t be significant enough to combat the transplant demands and that it could possibly even reduce the number. Nonetheless, this would mean that organs of people who “never got around to” signing up aren’t wasted. It also considerably increases permission by family members who have the ability to veto a consent given initially by the donor when alive.

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The MMR Vaccine’s Rumoured Link To Autism

Upon carrying out work experience this summer at a local General Practice, something in particular which really interested me was how many people passed on the opportunity of giving their children the MMR vaccine, available on the NHS. The parents would say that it has a risk of causing autism and they would rather pay for the separate vaccinations to avoid this chance. Bearing in minds he separate vaccines are no longer available in the UK they tend to have to be specially imported from abroad in such cases. A nurse who I was shadowing was outraged by this and went on to explain to me how it all began…

 In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield caused a huge uproar upon suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  The MMR vaccine was developed in the late 1960s, it is a shot used for immunisation of measles, mumps and rubella. The injection is first given to children of around 1yr old and then at 4/5yrs old.  This vaccination works by containing the three live viruses and then injecting them into the body. This then allows for special cells called memory cells to recognise these viruses so that if the body is to ever come across them, a rapid response is carried out fighting off the virus preventing it from doing any harm.  Originally the 3 vaccinations were all given separately. However giving them all together as one vaccination had many benefits such as fewer injections for the child.

Wakefield was reportedly paid just under half a million pounds by the Legal Services Commission to build a case against the MMR vaccine.

Researchers have since been unable to confirm any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This one man has caused such a controversy in the UK from his false allegation.  The coverage of the alleged links with autism and the MMR vaccine has never fully been recovered even up until this day there are people who believe that their children should not be vaccinated. Although there are overwhelming amounts of scientific evidence that there are no links – people fail to dismiss the rumour.  We all know that for science to be proven, it must go through the long process of the experiment being carried out and repeated and then the same results being able to be found by other scientists too. This was not the case for Wakefield whatsoever. Unfortunately, as a result this has led to an increase in measles and the sad thing is that a disease, which could be avoided, is still a risk for many.

Just to show how this suggestion still affects people, I came across something whilst reading the book ‘In Stitches’ by Dr. Nick Edwards. He has a chapter on ‘A weird rash’ in which he talks of patients who have not had the MMR injection and therefore going into A&E when it is preventable. He says ‘The MMR vaccination is not this evil autism-inducing injection that the media sometimes make us think. There is no evidence that it causes autism. However, there is evidence that if your child doesn’t have the injection, they are at higher risk of getting these illnesses. Today I saw a child I shouldn’t have. Have a proper think before you refuse your health visitor’s advice.’

PS. I would recommend reading this book, highly entertaining and informative for those future medics. 

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Bad Science By Ben Goldacre – The Truth About Media Science Stories

“The media is game-like world of blurry truths, where the vague narrative shape of a story matters more than clarity, accuracy and evidence.”

In this book Ben Goldacre, doctor and author of the weekly Bad Science columns in The Guardian, extends his columns which criticise reports done on science and medicine in media nowadays. This book takes the reader through some of the aspects media misrepresentation of science which he disapproves of via clear-cut sections, making it very easy to understand.

Throughout the book, the most common theme noticeable will be Goldacre’s frustration at the lack of evidence-based science these days, commonly known as pseudoscience (collection of beliefs mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific methods). This means that the accounts reported as news don’t provide any substantial evidence for that result. Usually, the only people who are curious about these stories are those who have an interest in science of medicine and you can, therefore, presume that they’ll have the basic knowledge about the subject yet these articles are dumbed down to such an extent that it leaves out most of the crucial information, mostly because the journalists themselves don’t have any understanding of the matter.

The book takes you through 16 features of what’s thought to be “bad science”, starting off with detoxification processes which can be proved to be rubbish by some simple experiments (what I liked was that he would show you how to do the experiment at home so you get your own results, rather than taking his word for it). The more serious issues in the book comprise of homeopathy, where it is thought that a person can be cured by small doses of the substance that caused that disease, the placebo effect and the MMR vaccine deception, all of which is has the underlying message of how statistical facts to back up the hypothesis is lacking.

What I found particularly funny was how Gillian McKeith had her own personal chapter where Goldacre just completely tore her down with his ridicule (he really is not fond of nutritionists). An amusing quote which he’s used many times in any talks he gives is how she believes that dark-leaved vegetables, as they have a lot of chlorophyll in them, will “reoxygenate your blood”. I’m hoping that anyone with the basic GCSE education doesn’t need any explanation (watch the video above if you do but be warned, he speaks extremely fast).

What I’ve mentioned above is only some of the things talked about, read this book which reached #1 in the UK non-fiction charts to find out the rest!

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Are We Losing The Fight Against Superbugs?

First of all, let us define the word ‘superbug’. More scientifically known as multi-resistant bacteria, superbugs are bacteria that contain several resistance genes. These genes can code either for enzymes which destroy or alter the antibiotic, or for the production of the efflux pump which can transport antibiotic compounds out of the cell. The genes tend to be found in the plasmids (rings of DNA) in the bacterial cells. This makes it easier for lateral gene transfer to occur, whereby genes have the ability to jump from species to species within the bacterial kingdom, and is one of the reasons that superbugs arise in the first place. Lateral gene transfer takes place via three different mechanisms: conjugation, transformation, and transduction. However, we shall not go into the details, as they do not concern us. It also allows antibiotic resistant genes to spread at an alarmingly fast rate, making it hard for scientists and researchers to find the appropriate drugs to kill off the bacteria quickly enough.

A specific type of bacteria will have many different strains, each carrying very subtle genetic mutations. This makes some of them more resistant to an antibiotic than others, and hence natural selective breeding between the bacterial colonies in the infected organism occurs, leading to increased germ resistance. This concept is known as survival of the fittest (one of the basic principles of Darwinian evolution). For example, if MRSA was present in a patient, and the patient was treated with the penicillin antibiotic, some of the bacteria would be destroyed, while other strains would be more able to cope with the drug and create resistance to it. These strains would then reproduce and spread, so that a new antibiotic would be needed in order to kill the bacterium.

The problem nowadays is that antibiotics are being overused and prescribed without being needed. This is as a result of the majority of the public who are under the false impression that all viral infections should be treated with antibiotics. Some doctors who feel they do not have the time to explain why and how it would not help may just prescribe it to the patient despite the consequences. So what are the consequences? In what way could a useless antibiotic prescription be harmful and potentially dangerous? Well, instead of killing off the bacteria present in the organism, the antibiotic would be solely helping it become resistant, in many cases leading to the development of the infamous superbugs. Day-to-day commodities such as antibacterial hand wash are essentially doing the same thing and making it more difficult for us to win this so-called fight against multi-resistant bacteria.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 10 million people die each year as a result of antibiotics that no longer work. 10 years ago, the pneumococcus bacterium – the cause of most cases of pneumonia, meningitis and ear infections – could be treated using any of 10 antibiotics. Nowadays, 1 or 2 of these antibiotics is left fully functioning. Even more recent, NDM-1 bacteria – a new superbug – is becoming of increasing concern. Even though there have only been 50 cases in the UK, scientists fear that it will become global. Why? NDM-1 bacteria carry a gene, which encodes an enzyme called NDM-1. This enzyme can fight and destroy the antibiotic(s) working against it, making it resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics (namely carbapenems). It can exist inside different bacteria, and so we fear that lateral gene transfer will occur. Consequently, this would allow bacteria that are already resistant to certain antibiotics to carry the gene for NDM-1 enzyme. In other words, the antibiotics that could be effective against these NDM-1 superbugs would decrease hugely as the gene spread and more NDM-1 bacterial communities formed.

So, are we losing the fight against superbugs? Well, as it is today, our only solution to the problem also seems to be one of its principal causes – antibiotics. Although their aim is essentially to fight the infection and kill off the bacteria, they are also unintentionally strengthening the resistance of many bacterial communities. To make matters worse, bacterial genes are constantly mutating, creating many different strains of just one type of bacterium. Not only does this mean that different antibiotics are needed for different strains, this also means that the naturally more resistant strains will survive the antibiotic course, thereby spreading and reproducing. And once the antibiotic made to fight off that particular strain has been put into practise, yet another strain may have been produced as a result of these subtle genetic mutations. Lastly, as you might already know, bacteria love to divide and replicate, and are very efficient at doing so. They can double their numbers in just 20 minutes. Meanwhile, lateral gene transfer may be occurring and causing other types of bacteria to become a threat too.

We are trapped in a vicious cycle, which at present, does not seem to be coming to an end.

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Stop Crying, That’s Why You’re Still Single

Everyone knows how men can’t bear a woman crying but actual evidence was found a few months ago to prove there is a special chemical in tears that result in men actually being “turned off”.

I read an article which described a study carried out which proved the theory that men are less sexually aroused when women shed tears when upset. Six women who could cry with ease watched films like Terms Of Endearment and My Sister’s Keeper (the usual chick flicks, I’m surprised The Notebook wasn’t on here) which, as expected, caused them to weep uncontrollably and these tears were then preserved by absorbing them with pads. Young men then sniffed these pads whilst looking at arousing pictures of women but there was also a control (anyone who does biology should be familiar with this) in the form of a saline solution (water and salt) being inhaled for comparison. The sexual excitement was measured by their heart rate, skin and brain responses and testosterone levels. The results, as you can guess, were that the emotional tears triggered a decrease in all of the criteria. One of the researchers (Israel Weizmann Institute) stated “Basically what we’ve found is the chemo-signaling word for ‘no’ — or at least ‘not now’.”

The message behind this type of behaviour that the tears induce is unclear at the moment. One hypothesis is an evolutionary protection against rape or deterring men from sex when PMSing/menstruating.

Don’t you think the experiment’s a bit biased? Only testing the effects women’s tears have on men? What about the other side? Well, it was initially going to both but the reply to the advertisement searching for male criers was too low. One.

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Trust Me, I’m A (Junior) Doctor By Max Pemberton – The Truth About The Medical Career

“I think of how a year ago I could only have imagined the things I’d see, the situations I’d find myself in, and the incredible array of people I’d met. Would I go through it again? Not on your life.”

Max Pemberton is a doctor, journalist and writer. He is a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, writing weekly on news events concerning culture, social and ethical issues, the politics of health care and the NHS.

I first heard about Max Pemberton when he came to our school to give a talk on his career; working in the NHS, transitioning to being a newspaper columnist and his books: Trust Me, I’m A (Junior) Doctor and Where Does It Hurt?

His award-winning weekly columns in the newspaper are the basis for his first book: it’s a mixture of fiction and truth which tells behind-the-scenes account of his first year on the wards in the NHS as a doctor, along with a few others that made up the group. It’s written in the style of a diary which makes which allows the reader to relate with him on personal level.

What I enjoyed the most about it was its bittersweet undertone and gut-wrenching honesty complimented by humour. The medical career is not sugar-coated with any of those overrated phrases such as “what a rewarding career it is”, “saving lives” or “the grateful look on the patient’s face made it all worthwhile” etc. On the contrary, the junior doctors couldn’t wait to get away from the place but the fear of one device haunted them incessantly: their pager. Not only did the gang of medics have to endure rude and unappreciative patients, but cruel and sadistic senior doctors as well.

Containing numerous stories of individual patients (eg. the man with a hairbrush up his backside), it illustrates how death is perceived as a bother for the doctor attending to it (As I stare at Mr Clarke, all I can think is why does he have to be dying during my shift? Couldn’t he have waited?”) and everyone going through a period of doubt, wondering if they made the correct decision entering this profession, considering whether the never-ending hours were worth it in the end.

It’s an eye-opener to the world of medicine for people, like me, who’d been previously sheltered from the realities and was only familiar with the illusions fed to me by naive, wishful parents. I’d recommend the book to anyone thinking about this career.

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Bipolar Disorder Being Excessively Diagnosed?

This chronic mental illness, also known as manic-depressive disorder, has been getting recent media attention due to Catherine Zeta Jones being diagnosed with it (along with many other celebrities, including Stephen Fry and Russel Brand, already having it) and Charlie Sheen denying allegations that he’s bipolar, claiming he’s “bi-winning”:

Manic Depression entails a period of elevated mood swinging unexpectedly to a period of depression. The cause can be due to physical damage to the brain but is usually genetic; Lita and her 5 children have the illness – she explains how it is to deal with the everyday-struggle.

A recent article in the New Scientist told the story of Rebecca Riley, a 4-year-old who had bipolar disorder, overdosing on her medications and dying. It’s not known whether this was due to the parents giving too much to her deliberately or accidentally. This just added fuel to the already raised issues about the disorder being diagnosed too frequently, especially in children.

Mostly, the reason for overdiagnosis is because the symptoms, such as angst, low mood, deflated confidence, can be mistaken for the disorder. Though these are some of the symptoms, they need to go along with symptoms from the other end of the spectrum: elation, feeling important, being overactive. Another cause is the medicine for treating bipolar disorder is in high abundance which makes doctors more comfortable – they feel at ease with a problem they can solve.

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