Category Archives: Health

You Can Be a Vaccination Hero

SedonaAHThe United States is in the midst of a widespread flu epidemic. Every year, thousands die from the flu and flu-related complications, not to mention the millions of hours of lost productivity resulting from those who are ill from the flu.

Having lived through the Flu Pandemic of 1968-1969 (it knocked me out of school for two weeks and took many more weeks for me to fully recover; around 34,000 died in the US), I cannot understand why anyone would not get vaccinated against the flu.  Yes, it is not foolproof, but the probability is much higher that you will be able to avoid the flu if you are vaccinated than if you are not.

Last year, the CDC Report stated that “90 percent of children who died from flu this season [2013] [were] not vaccinated.”   The CDC reported that , as of January 18, 2014, 20 children had died of the flu, at least two of whom had not been vaccinated.  It is probable that the other children were not vaccinated, but that the parents were reluctant to admit that.

Perhaps many of those who do not get vaccinated are relying (consciously or not) on herd/community immunity: they hope that enough other people get vaccinated to reduce flu transmission so that they won’t get the flu.  However, herd/community immunity only works if most of the population is vaccinated.  Freeloading may get you ill or dead.  Freeloading may also mean that you cause illness (or even death) in individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to underlying health issues.  I suggest you view getting  vaccinated as something you can do to help your community.  Vaccination saves lives.   You will be a quiet hero.

International Day of the Girl

On October 11, 2012, we will celebrate the 1st International Day of the Girl.  This past week (10/1/12 and 10/2/12), PBS aired a two-night, four-hour documentary entitled “Half the Sky” which highlighted the work being done to help girls in several different countries.  This help includes escaping sex slavery, dealing with rape, obtaining an education, and improving healthcare.  As stated on the Half the Sky Movement website, their goal is “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” If you missed “Half the Sky” on PBS, you can view it online until October 8 (Part 1) and October 9 (Part 2).

Women and girls form 50% of the world’s population.  Ignoring their needs imperils the future of us all.  One of the biggest issues for girls is being forced into marriage when they are still children.  This ends their education, increases the probability that they and their children will be and will remain in poverty, and also exacerbates healthcare issues. President Bill Clinton has called child marriage a form of slavery. Another website that gets to the heart of the issue on why education for girls matters is The Girl Effect.

I hope that you will celebrate the International Day of the Girl by making sure that the girls in your lives have the full range of education and opportunities that they need to become successful women.

 

DNA and Race

I just finished reading DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes.  This is a very odd book.  I was expecting to read a major genetic analysis of population diversity in the US.  Instead, it is more a travel log of Sykes’ tour of American landmarks with a few, essentially random, meetings with individuals where their DNA was collected for analysis. This analysis is discussed in one, relatively brief, concluding chapter. The topic of the book was more genealogical than genetic.

It seems that Sykes may have been hoping to write a book about the US similar to those Bill Bryson has written about Britain and Australia.  DNA USA somewhat resembles Bryson’s book on Australia: In a Sunburned Country, but Sykes does not have Bryson’s comedic flare nor verbal virtuosity.

Having said that, once I got past the fact that the book was not what I expected, I did enjoy reading it, perhaps because I have been to most of the places Sykes visited. In addition, I am interested in the ways in which genetics can inform, but also misinform (or, more precisely, under-inform) genealogy.

Sykes is a geneticist who uses mtDNA (passed through the maternal line) and Y chromosome (passed through the paternal line) to tie genetic information to the past. Soon after he began this research, he began to be inundated with requests from the general public to have their DNA analyzed.  Sykes made the decision to create a business, Oxford Ancestors, designed to meet this need. A similar business model, African Ancestry, was set up in the US by Rick Kittles and Gina Paige.

While some interesting genetic information can be obtained from these methods, vast amounts of information are unavailable.  To simplify this, think about a woman who has one or more sons, but no daughters.  Her mtDNA will not show up in her grandchildren since the only material passed from the sperm to the egg is the nuclear DNA (nDNA), not any mtDNA.  If her granddaughter has her mtDNA analyzed, the granddaughter will learn about her mother’s genetic line, but nothing about her paternal grandmother’s line.  The grandson can learn about his paternal grandfather’s line (along with his maternal line), but, again, nothing about his paternal grandmother’s line.  A huge chunk of genetic knowledge is unavailable by these methods. Not to mention that the actual amount of genetic information in mtDNA and the Y chromosome is extremely tiny compared to nDNA. Making broad statements about anyone’s ancestry when so much information is missing is, at the least, highly problematic.  Yet, that is exactly what genetics researchers using these two methods claim.  These claims even extend to human origins. I don’t wish to get into that topic more deeply in this blog post.  However, given what I’ve just written, I hope readers will apply great caution towards accepting claims about human origins made on such limited mtDNA and Y chromosome data.

For his American odyssey, Sykes decided to use a new, more informative genetic analysis developed by the company 23andMe. As described by Sykes, 23andMe uses nDNA and creates a colored portrait of an individual’s 22 autosomal chromosomes.  Prior nDNA researchers who analyzed the DNA of individuals from many different countries found genetic variants that are associated with particular groups.  For ease of analysis, these variants were lumped into three continental groups: Asian, European, and African.  For the purposes of analysis in the US, Asian is a proxy for Native American since genetic research has shown that these groups have a common origin. This method accesses information from both parents while also giving information on specific genes that have been identified on each chromosome.  In these respects, tying genetics to genealogy is more effective and complete than is the case with mtDNA or Y chromosome analyses. However, it is still incomplete.

The image below shows the process of genetic recombination during meiosis.  The orange and green represent one chromosome pair from the man while the pink and blue represent the same chromosome pair from the woman.  During meiosis, the chromosomes make a copy of themselves.  These copies line up close enough that chunks of DNA can be exchanged between the chromosomes.  Upon completion of meiosis, one chromosome each ends up in the sperm and egg.  These chromosomes passed on to their child represent only a small fraction of the DNA diversity in the parents.  As this process occurs in each generation, huge amounts of genetic information are lost over the generations.  If solid-color chromosomes were the ones in the egg and sperm, all genetic information for that chromosome from one paternal and one maternal grandparent would be lost in the child. Therefore, while nDNA is better for analyzing genetic history, it is by no means a complete picture of an individual’s genealogy.

Given these caveats, the method used by 23andMe does provide a great deal of useful information that is presented in the visually appealing format of chromosome painting. It is in the final chapter describing the genetic ‘portraits’ of the few individuals from whom Sykes obtained DNA that he makes observations that are particularly relevant to the subject of whether or not race is biological.  You might think that Sykes would support the idea of biological races given that these genetic methods divide the world into three groups: Asian/Native American, European, and African.  But Sykes recognizes that these are over-simplifications of actual diversity and views them more as geographical, rather than biological entities.

Americans are especially revealing in that most of them display genetic diversity rather than uniformity.  The only individuals Sykes analyzed that did not display diversity were the members of a genealogical society in Boston who could trace their ancestry in America back to the 17th and 18th centuries.  He found this quite surprising and concluded that any of their ancestors who inter-married with Native Americans became part of those cultural groups rather than the European-descent cultural group.  This is supported by the genetic analysis of individuals of Northeast Native American ancestry whose chromosome analyses show their genes to be almost entirely European derived.  European Americans with Southern ancestry showed some genetic evidence of African ancestry, while all African Americans showed European and Native American ancestry, although the percentages differed widely.  Sykes concluded that “…many whites with deep roots in the South have some black ancestors.” (p.313)  He mentions that he would like to have analyzed the DNA of a Ku Klux Klan member because he is pretty sure it would have sections indicating genes with African ancestry.  It would have been interesting to find out how that individual reacted to this knowledge.

Sykes notes that assuming because of someone’s appearance and/or culture that you can draw any conclusions about their genetics and health concerns demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the complexity of genetic inheritance.  As an example, Sykes points out that he has African ancestry for the tip of chromosome 11 while one of the African-American men he analyzed has European ancestry for that same region.  As this region includes the genes for beta-globin, Sykes states, contrary to what most physicians would conclude, that he, Sykes, could be a carrier for sickle cell anemia while the other man could not.

Another gene that showed diversity was P450 cytochromes found on chromosome 10.  This gene produces proteins which help to clear drugs and toxins from the liver.  Medical researchers have found that an African-derived form of the gene is less effective.  This led to different, lower dosing recommendations of drugs such as beta-blockers for African Americans.  However, since Americans have diverse genetic ancestry, simply assuming an individual African American should have a lower dose than an individual European American can lead to major errors.  Sykes states, “…that of my nine African American volunteers, only three have both copies of their P450 gene from African ancestors, three have one European and one African copy, and the genes of the remaining three are completely European.”  On the other hand, one of his southern European-American volunteers had the African form of the gene.  Racially categorizing these individuals would lead to medical errors.

The conclusion I draw from this book is one I have long held. Racial categories have little meaning whether they are assumed to be cultural or biological because genetics and culture have no necessary overlap.

 

 

Contraception is a Key Women’s Right

I find it amazing and deeply disturbing that in the 21st century state legislatures in the United States are being inundated with bills (many of which have passed and been signed into law) that seek to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body and well-being.  Without these rights, women will find it very difficult to partake fully in politics and in the economy.  Perhaps that is exactly the goal of this type of legislation: to drive women back into the home where they are trapped by unwanted pregnancy and under the control of their spouse.

We know that the best way for women and children to escape poverty is for the women to have control of their reproduction. Being able to decide if and when she has children provides a woman with the opportunity for education, which allows her to find better-paying work.  Wherever women have control of their reproduction, the birth rate has declined and economic well-being has improved.  Why would legislatures in the United States wish to reverse this trend?  The only reason I can think of is fear.  Fear that women will gain too much power.  Fear that men (particularly white men), will have less of a say in the future.  Fear that they will lose control. Fear is repressive and destructive.

As a counterpoint to fear, Melinda Gates gave a great TED talk this month about the need for contraception.  Granted, her talk primarily dealt with women in developing nations.  But it is clear that what she says also relates to the current political climate in the United States.  It will be quite ironic if NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are able to bring reproductive freedom to women in other nations while here in the United States those same freedoms are being whittled away.

Plundering the Deep

As I discussed previously, we humans are who we are in part because of a fish/shellfish diet that allowed for advanced brain development.  Without these items in our diet, I think it is doubtful that our hominin ancestors would have advanced much beyond the bonobos/chimps.  What will happen if we no longer have access to these food sources?

Given that we live on an ocean planet, this fear would seem pointless.  The world ocean is vast and immensely deep.  And yet, we are destroying its productivity at frightening speed.  The 1990s saw the total collapse of what had been one of the most productive fisheries on Earth: the cod fishery of the Georges Bank off Newfoundland.  Almost overnight, families who’d produced fishermen for generations were suddenly out of work.  A great book on the story of cod is Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.  Cod were once so large and numerous that they could be scooped from the sea with buckets.  Now they are so scarce and tiny, that fishing for them is under extremely strict regulation and management.  Without such management, cod have little chance of rebuilding a healthy, sustainable population.

But it isn’t just cod.  Factory ships are scraping the seabed clean of everything, whether they want it or not.  Unwanted sea life is dumped overboard becoming sea death.  These ships are devastating the seas and the livelihoods of traditional fishing groups, and destroying the life of the seabed.  They are also threatening the survival of seabirds who rely on these same sea food sources the factory ships are harvesting or destroying with abandon.  More information on the problems associated with overfishing can be found at Oceana.org.

Tuna and salmon are especially problematic fish whether wild caught or farmed.  Farmed salmon develop lice that spread to wild salmon.  Catching wild tuna and salmon with factory ships has all the problems mentioned above.  The best thing to do is to quit eating tuna and salmon.   Switch to sardines.   Get all the brain and health benefits of eating fatty fish without the problems associated with tuna and salmon.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed Seafood Watch which gives guidance on the best fish and seafood to eat and which should be avoided in order to preserve ocean productivity.

We still have so much to discover about the world ocean.  How can we continue to support activities that will destroy it before we are truly able to explore the Deep in all its glory?

 

 

 

 

Half the Sky

We ignore women, their needs, their rights, their abilities, at the peril of our future.  Their issues are not ‘women’s issues’, they are humanity’s issues. The attempts to marginalize and/or ignore women may well be major factors in why the world is in such trouble economically and politically.  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her recent TED talk points out that women are marginalized in financing: they get micro-loans rather than entrepreneurial loans.  Granted, a micro-loan is better than no loan, but her point is that when a woman creates a business it is viewed as less important and less economically valuable than when a man creates one.  Treating women as ‘less than’ negatively affects all aspects of not only their lives, but their children’s lives, and, although the men generally do not recognize it, the lives of men, too.  Simple reasoning makes this obvious: women make up half of humanity; or, as in the Chinese proverb that provided the title for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, “Women hold up half the sky.”

As I write this, it is reported in the news that an Afghani women was strangled by her mother-in-law because she gave birth to a third daughter and not a son.  Her husband also appears to have been involved in her murder.  Sons are valued so much more than daughters that failure to give birth to one can lead to a woman’s death.  A woman can destroy her family’s honor by being raped.  The ‘solution’ is for her to marry her rapist, or to be put to death.  Being jailed for being raped actually protects the woman from abuse and/or death.  The girl’s hymen is no longer intact, so she no longer has value and has thus dishonored her family. As Kristof and WuDunn state, “The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.” (p. 82)

Young girls are ‘sold’ into marriages where they become virtual slaves.  Choosing your own boyfriend can result in your death. These examples all involve Afghanis, but any culture that does not value woman equally with men will find ways to demean, mistreat, and abuse women.  For instance, a judge in Canada (and he is not alone in this, as similar views have been expressed by judges in the United States) gave a mild (no jail time) sentence to a rapist because he, the judge, felt the woman had asked for it. These actions are done to keep women in their place, a place that is well below that of men.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a moving book highlighting the many, many ways women suffer from oppression throughout the world.  But they have also written about the women who have fought back against oppression and who are making better lives for themselves and other women.  For this to happen, the women must see themselves as valuable and as equal to men.  Education is the key.  Cultures that oppress women seek to deny girls access to education.  But cultures can change.  This is something that is too often ignored.  Simply because it has ‘always’ been done this way does not mean that it always will be done that way.  Holding back girls and women results in holding back the future.  Clinging to the culture of the past not only marginalizes women, but marginalizes that culture in an interconnected and globalized world.  Cultures can and do change.  Education is the first, vital step.

Education gives girls knowledge and with knowledge they begin to realize that they should have a voice in their lives; a say in what happens to them. With knowledge comes the power to fight back against injustice.  The first girls and women in their communities to come to this realization are very courageous.  They frequently must endure great abuse and hardship.  But they and their stories, as told by Kristof and WuDunn, serve as examples to other women and girls that change is possible, and change begins to happen.

Enmeshed with education are the healthcare needs of girls and women.  Girls who do manage to attend grade school often disappear from school when they begin to menstruate because the schools lack the facilities the girls need during their period.  A husband and brother in India realized just obtaining pads for menstruating girls and women was a problem, so he set out to solve this.  Girls are also often forced into marriage at that time, which also ends their education.  They need a way to manage their menstrual cycle and to obtain birth control so that they can continue their education.  Denying birth control to girls and women because of religious reasons (as has been done with US foreign aid) in effect denies them a future of their own choice.

When a large percentage of women in a particular country are educated and enfranchised, their political power is harder to ignore.  Issues that had been ignored, such as public health and children’s health, move to the political mainstream.  When women become the majority in the government, massive cultural change is certain.  In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a bloody genocide.  When peace was restored, a new government decreed that women had to hold at least 30% of the seats in all legislative bodies.  Women now hold 56% of the seats in Parliament.  Rwandan culture has changed dramatically.  Rwanda is leap-frogging into the 21st century because the country realized that women are as valuable as men.

China has a long history of valuing sons more than daughters, so much so that with the one child policy and elective abortion, the country now has an unbalanced male/female ratio.  However, the government now realizes that a better policy is to educate girls and women.  When women are well-educated, they want to use their skills in the workplace.  This delays marriage and child-bearing while also improving the economy. Parents now realize that daughters can be just as valuable as sons. A win-win for China: slowed population growth along with rapid growth in gross domestic product. India also sees the value of educating women.  Bunker Roy created the Barefoot College which educates the poor to become technicians and engineers, among other occupations.  According to Roy, men are untrainable.  Instead, the Barefoot College trains grandmothers.

In the 21st century, women in all cultures must be equal participants in all aspects of life and business if we are to deal with the challenges the world will face.  Corporations are discovering that those boards of directors with a higher percentage of women are significantly more profitable than those with the lowest number of women on their boards.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide should be read by anyone who cares about the future.  The tales the authors have collected in their journeys around the world are moving, enlightening, and uplifting.  While oppression is common and severe, it is possible for change to occur.  The book concludes with a plan of action and a long list of things that the reader can do to contribute to the change that must occur.  The website (linked to above) also provides opportunities for action.  “Women are half the sky.”  We cannot succeed in the 21st century without equality for all women and men.