Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – October 19, 2018

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By: Ben Wolfson, Ph.D.


Source: Pixabay

Climate Change


Climate Change prompts a rethink of Everglades management

The Florida Everglades is a large area of tropical wetlands that has received significant attention due to the degradation of its unique ecosystem by urban development. The Everglades were designated a World Heritage Sitein 1979 and Wetland Area of Global Importancein 1987, and in 2000 Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restorative Plan (CERP) to combat further decline and provide a framework for Everglades restoration.

For the past 18 years, these efforts have been directed towards curtailing damage from urbanization and pollution. However, as outlined in a congressionally mandated report released on October 16th by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, new strategies may be necessary. In the biennial progress report, an expert panel called for CERP managers to reassess their plans in light of new climate change models. The report focuses on the 7 centimeters of sea level rise seen since 2000, and points out that Southern Florida is especially at risk from climate change and is expected to experience a 0.8-meter rise in sea level by the year 2100.

It is clear that as more is learned about the realities of climate change, the goals and methods of conservation projects are shifting, and past strategies must be adapted to fit the realities of a warming world.

(Richard Blaustein, Science)

Animal Research

NIH announces plan for chimp retirement


In 2015, the NIH announced that it would no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees, two years after pledging to significantly reduce the numbers of chimpanzees used in research. These decisions were made based on a combination of reduced demand for chimpanzees in research and the designation of captured chimpanzees as an endangered species in 2015.

On Thursday October 18th, the NIH announced the next step in the process of retiring research chimps. While research was stopped in 2015, many of the chimpanzees had nowhere to go and remained housed at laboratories. One federal chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven, exists in Keithville, Louisiana, however lack of space and the difficulty of relocating some animals has slowed their transition to better habitats.

In the Thursday announcement NIH director Francis Collins outlined the guidelines for future chimpanzee relocation. These include streamlining medical records and determining whether chimpanzees are physical healthy enough to be relocated. Many of the chimpanzees are at an advanced age, meaning they have developed chronic illnesses similar to those experienced by humans. However, Collin’s emphasized that there must be a more acute medical problem for relocation not to take place. In addition both the research facility and Chimp Haven must agree that the former research chimpanzees are capable of being relocated, and disagreements will be mediated by a panel of outside veterinarians.

Collins additionally stressed that while transfer to Chimp Haven is the ideal outcome for all retired chimps, those housed at NIH-supported facilities do not live isolated in cages or in laboratories and are housed in social groups with appropriate species-specific accommodations.

The development of these clear guidelines will expediate chimpanzee relocation while emphasizing chimpanzee health and comfort.

(Ike Swetlitz, Statnews)

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October 19, 2018 at 3:25 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 16, 2018

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By: Sarah L. Hawes, Ph.D.


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AAAS CEO Defends Scientific Evidence, Urges EPA to Scrap “Transparency” Rule

On October 3, a Senate subcommittee heard support and opposition to the “Transparency Rule” initiative proposed to guide which scientific evidence could be considered when forming EPA policy. The House version of the rule passed in March 2017, and the context within which the rule would be implemented is discussed in the May 8, 2018 Science Policy for All linkpost EPA Cites “Replication Crisis” in Justifying Open Science Proposal by Saurav Seshadri, PhD.

During recent Senate hearings, the American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt testified that in his view a requirement that research make all data publicly available would eliminate specific types of research, and that this could be used to justify reliance on a subset of science supporting particular policy, and producing politically motivated results “in order to loosen regulations” rather than for the purpose of increasing independent evaluation and reproducibility. He testified that in many cases within EPA purview, such as analyses of the effects of natural disasters or accidental human and environmental toxin exposures, reproducing results is not realistic or relevant. Furthermore, making all collected data public would violate privacy rules where medical records are involved, and studies conducted under conditions of confidentiality would be unusable although data such as individual names are irrelevant to statistical outcomes.

Professor of toxicology, Edward Calabrese from the University of Massachusetts, and Robert Hahn of the Georgetown University Center for Business and Public Policy both testified in favor of the Transparency Rule. Professor Calabrese additionally urged all data initially considered in crafting policy be included in public documentation along with explanations of why any was discarded – potentially requiring a substantial burden during the policy formation process making development of new policies prohibitively difficult. Dr. Hahn urged the Transparency rule be applied across all federal agencies.

(Anne Q. Hoy, AAAS News)

Antibiotic Resistance

New study links common herbicides and antibiotic resistance

Executive Order 13676 established the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) which developed a five year (2015 – 2020) National Action Plan emphasizing surveillance, identification of resistant bacterial characteristics, resistance prevention, and development of new antibiotics. No reference to agriculture occurs outside of surveillance of antibiotic resistance within livestock, transmission of resistant pathogens to humans, and developing appropriate livestock practices. Despite thoroughly delineating the lines of inquiry expected of various agencies, nowhere does the plan mention agricultural crops or agricultural chemicals. However, a 2015 study found antibiotic resistance developed significantly faster in pathogens exposed to common herbicides in conjunction with antibiotics. According to the paper herbicides are routinely tested for toxicity “but not sublethal effects on microbes,” although it is known sublethal effects contribute substantially to antibiotic resistance.

A new study finds bacterial resistance to antibiotics increasing at rates up to 100,000 times faster in the presence of dicamba (Kamba) and glyphosate (Roundup) – herbicides commonly used worldwide. The earlier paper found the presence of herbicides increased the resistance of bacteria to the antibiotics or increased the effectiveness of the antibiotics against bacteria, depending on the combination of herbicide, bacteria type and antibiotic. The present study finds that even when the herbicide increased the lethality of the antibiotic, the rate at which the bacteria became resistant is also accelerated in the presence of herbicide. Informal peer comments note one of the antibiotics in the study (ciprofloxacin) has also been used recently as an herbicide, underscoring the importance of research into effects between these categories of chemicals.

It is becoming clear, as scientists pursue the goals of the National Action Plan to reduce antibiotic resistance, that the most carefully delineated 2015 plan cannot entirely encompass the scope of influences on antibiotic resistance. Continuing research shows that there is much we do not yet know.

(Margaret Agnew, University of Canterbury News)

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October 17, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 12, 2018

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By: Allison Dennis B.S.


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The power of genetics

We will find you: DNA search used to nab Golden State Killer can home in on about 60% of white Americans

In April, the worlds of law enforcement and personal DNA sequencing collided to forever change the game of forensics when detectives were able to identify a California man now charged with thirteen murders using a public database intended for connecting relatives through genetic ancestry. For almost 40 years, an unprocessed rape-kit from the case remained in storage, preserving the perpetrator’s DNA until forensic technology emerged that allowed investigators to profile thousands of DNA markers contained in the genetic material extracted from the kit. The markers used were part of the expansive panel usually included in direct to consumer DNA tests rather than those routinely included in law enforcement DNA databases. After submitting the complete DNA profile to the ancestry website GEDmatch, law enforcement agents found hits for several people genetically third-cousins to the killer, massively narrowing the list of suspects.

Since April, this so called “genetic genealogy” technique has been used by Parabon Nanolabs to identify about twenty other perpetrators from DNA queried from a hundred other cold cases using the 1 million profiles available through the GEDmatch database. While the science and methods behind this company’s success remain private, scientists have gotten curious about how realistic it is to use these types of searches.

Yaniv Elright, a computational geneticist at Columbia University, used a similar database of 1.28 million DNA profiles, MyHeritage, to find out. Searches revealed that for someone of European ancestry living in the United States the odds are as high as 60% that a genetic relative can be identified. This drops to 40% for someone of sub-Saharan ancestry, most likely due to 75% of the database being primarily of North European genetic background and therefore offering fewer potential matches.

As a further exercise, the researchers sought to use this approach to explore the feasibility of re-identify an anonymous DNA donor included in a public collection. While the process took a full day and was “time consuming and not trivial” according to the authors of the study, they were able to re-identify the individual. This finding calls into question the assumption baked into US federal research rules that removing identifying information is enough to anonymize DNA profiles. Just this week, half a million de-identified genomic profiles were made publicly available through the UK Biobank resource, which could be queried by “genetic genealogy.”

It is clear that DNA profiles when combined with genetically defined family trees represent a tremendous opportunity for identification. Already, ethicists and law experts are calling for legislative bodies to draw the line defining in what types of criminal cases these techniques can reasonably be used.

(Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)


Dietary Supplements

Dietary Supplements Can Contain Viagra, Steroids, or Worse

More than half of the adults living in the US report taking dietary supplements, an industry that is only regulated once products hit the shelves. It has been estimated that supplement use is responsible for more than 23,000 emergency room visits each year in the US, stemming from symptoms including heart palpitations, chest pain, and choking. The FDA maintains a list of Tainted Products Marketed as Dietary Supplements, whose disclaimer warns that it “only includes a small fraction of the potentially hazardous products with hidden ingredients marketed to consumers.” Testing is usually only pursued by the FDA once a consumer or physician has issued an alert.

Between 2007 and 2016, the FDA discovered that 776 tested dietary supplements contained unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients. Of these, 360 were voluntarily recalled by the manufacturer. For others on the list, the FDA issued warnings about 342, news releases for 58, consumer updates for eight, direct warning letters for seven, and a suggestion to the US Justice Department to investigate one for criminal wrongdoing. Although the FDA was granted the power to do so as early as 2011, the only mandatory recall that has been issued by the agency came in April of 2018 when a batch of Kratom capsules was discovered to contain salmonella, a known bacterial cause of diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.

Sexual enhancement, weight loss, and muscle building seem to be the common ailments targeted by the adulterated supplements, which were laced with sildenafil, sibutramine, and synthetic steroids. Sildenafil is the active pharmaceutical ingredient in Viagra, which is closely regulated by the FDA and requires a prescription. Sibutramine, which has been used for the medical treatment of obesity, was withdrawn from use in 2010 due to an increase risk of cardiovascular events. Short-term synthetic steroid use can lead to mental problems including paranoid jealousy, irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment. Long-term, they can lead to kidney problems, liver damage, and high blood pressure.

To what extent consumers perceive these over-the-counter supplements to be safer than regulated pharmaceuticals is unknown. Advocates for visible regulation, suggest that firms register all supplements before they are sold, which would give the FDA the opportunity to step in before customers risk injury.

(Emily Dreyfuss, Wired Magazine)

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October 12, 2018 at 4:19 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 5, 2018

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By: Cindo O. Nicholson, Ph.D.


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Food & Nutrition

More evidence that nutrition studies don’t always add up

Nutrition studies are important to public health because incidences of cardiovascular and other physiological diseases can be minimized by educating the public on what foods to eat in their correct proportions. For example, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey state that in 2015-2016 the prevalence of obesity in adults and children were 39.8% and 18.5% respectively. Among the causes of obesity is an improper diet that includes mostly high calorie foods that are low in nutrients. These examples highlight why nutrition studies are needed and important for improving public health.

Despite their importance, nutrition studies have been plagued by inconsistencies. Most recently, a prominent a food scientist from Cornell University (Dr. Brian Wansink) has resigned due to investigations that have found him guilty of “academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data.” The verdict of Dr. Brian Wansink may create a substantial ripple-effect because of his prominence in the food sciences field. Dr. Wansink’s prominence in the food and nutrition sciences filed lead to his 14-month appointment as executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in 2007. Dr. Wansink’s research also lead to $20 million being spent by the government to re-designing school cafeterias.

So far, thirteen of Dr. Wansink’s papers have been retracted due to questions about their scientific validity. Dr. Wansink’s lab has been accused of practicing exhaustive statistical analyses like “data-dredging” or “p-hacking” in order to detect any interesting relationships in their studies that would create a “big splash” in the public. Unfortunately, data-dredging in the food and nutrition sciences is fairly widespread. What is happening with Dr. Wansink and the field of food and nutrition sciences should be a wake-up call to all fields of health sciences research due to their findings being used as rationale for implementing public policies. Striving for consistency in research is necessary for the public to have faith in scientific evaluations being used in public policy.

(Anahad O’Connor, The New York Times)


Human Fetal Tissue Research

Trump administration launches sweeping review of fetal-tissue research

The U.S. government has cancelled a contract with the non-profit, tissue supplier Advanced Biosciences Resources (ABR, Alameda CA) where ABR would provide the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) with human fetal-tissue samples. The human fetal-tissue samples were going to be implanted into mice to create humanized mice. These humanized mice could then be used in experimental tests to approximate how humans would respond to drug treatments. In a letter to the FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, 85 members of the U.S. House of Representatives claimed that ABR might have violated federal law by profiting from the sale of the “body parts of children”. This letter prompted the Department of Human Health Services (HHS) to cancel the contract with ABR. Furthermore, the HHS is auditing “all acquisitions of human fetal-tissues” to ensure that all tissue providers are adhering to federal regulations.

Though researchers support the regulations that are in place for the use of fetal-tissues, some wonder if this federal audit is a result of politicizing research done with human fetal-tissues. Strongly emotive language was by members of the House of Representatives describing the sale of “body parts of children”. In addition, the language used inaccurately portrays the human fetal-tissues used in research. As one researcher pointed out, the fetal-tissues used in research are non-viable and otherwise would have been discarded. This engenders the question would you rather discard these tissues or use them to benefit human health? The use of human fetal tissues are indispensable for studying organ development, tissue regeneration, and human development on the whole. The regulation of human fetal-tissue use in research should be fair, sensible, and non-politically motivated.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)

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October 5, 2018 at 9:08 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 28, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, Ph.D


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The Environment

Long-banned toxin may wipe out many killer whales

“The past can come back to haunt, or hurt, you,” one adage forewarns. If “the world” replaces “you” in this line, then the saying aptly describes recent findings regarding the enduring effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on marine species, namely killer whales (Orcinus orca), or orcas. In the 1970s, the United States banned PCBs, organic constituents in mediums, such as flame-resistant insulation and hydraulic fluids. According to research studies, these compounds led to immune- and reproductive-compromised conditions, along with cancer, in organisms including humans. However, it took nearly half a century after PCBs went into commercial use for the country to halt using them. Other countries followed suit banning PCBs, with the latest enactment to go into effect at least a decade ago.

From a Science report published last month, we learned one harrowing fact: although most nations eschewed PCBs, the negative impacts on the endangered killer whale populations live on. PCBs take a long time to break down, and, consequently, these pollutants can amass in prey species and the predators that eat them over time. The levels are especially high in the killer whale, an apex predator at the top of the food-chain. PCB concentrations increase exponentially from lower to upper trophic levels through a process known as biomagnification. Killer whales’ prey—ranging from seals, sea lions, penguins, dolphins, sharks, smaller fish, and even whales—accumulate PCBs as they digest the microorganisms that absorb PCBs as a consequence of runoff from industrial plants or insecure dumping sites near water ways.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Desforges and his team, the aforementioned study’s authors, constructed statistical models based on global killer whales’ PCB concentrations in blubber (mg/kg lipid weight) and PCB concentrations corresponding to mortality from immune- and reproductive-related disorders. From surveying 19 killer whale populations around the planet, the research group predicted declines in population sizes stemming from PCB-induced reproductive and immune complications for the next century (100 years). Overall results revealed that health complications arising from PCBs will contribute to the decline of more than half (> 50%) of killer whale populations. For killer whales comprising the highest PCB exposure groups, those living near the United Kingdom, Brazil, Japan, Strait of Gibraltar, and the Northeast Pacific (Bigg’s), Desforges and colleagues predict a “complete collapse.”

Humans, too, are at risk for PCB contamination and subsequent health complications or cancer. A proportion of countries are prominent consumers of dolphins, sharks, other fish species, and whale species—all higher trophic level organisms with elevated PCB concentrations. Garbage and contaminants in the environment, the world, cycle back as garbage and contaminants in wildlife species and people’s bodies.

(Elizabeth Pennisi, Science)

Wildlife Conservation

Discovery of vibrant deep-sea life prompts new worries over seabed mining

September’s Deep-Sea Biology Symposium, highlighted the biotic treasure trove that the underwater Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). The CCZ, a six million km2 plot of sea floor in the Pacific Ocean, which harbors a series of ecosystems—thriving “Atlantises.” As testament to its biodiversity, Dr. Craig Smith’s team uncovered 154 marine worm species (most unknown), gummy squirrels (wispy-looking sea cucumbers), and squid-like worms. Another biologist, Dr. Adrian Glover, ran into rare, miniscule invertebrates (including Porifera), and xenophyophores (organisms whose running moniker may well be “slimeballs”). Dr. Diva Amon, at the symposium, discussed images of whale skull fossils adorned with metal remnants; these fossils may be 1 – 16 million years old and represent six different whale species. The noted metal on the skull fossils hint that these mammals may consume trace metals to upkeep buoyancy mechanisms.

Although researchers are steadily unearthing the eastern CCZ’s biological secrets many companies wish perform massive mining of the zone’s seabeds for economic profit, which are thought to contain precious metal elements (manganese and cobalt). The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the regulatory entity whose jurisdiction is underwater mining, allowed 29 companies 17 years ago to investigate mining in seabeds—17 of which are part of the CCZ. The year 2020 is the anticipated deadline for the ISA to issue definite regulations on global sea mining. Even though companies must conduct evaluations on the environmental impact mining might have on deep-sea life, outside scientists are relentless in advocating for the establishment of wildlife preserves in the eastern CCZ.

With the life and fossil record that have and are yet to be surveyed, the eastern CCZ presents an opportunity for nations, researchers, and companies to work together. Dr. Amon champions policies directing companies to disclose fossil discoveries in mining sites for future scientific analyses with proposed candidate United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Meanwhile, Dr. Smith is coaxing the ISA to promote monitoring of pollutants, which can have unforeseen ecological impacts, in open waters above CCZ areas that companies are testing mining or planning to mine.

(Amy Maxmen, Nature News)

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October 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 28, 2018

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By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D


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Healthcare Coverage

Why Chinese medicine is heading for clinics around the world

The World Health Organization (WHO) has an agenda to expand access to healthcare across the globe. Western medicine is often too expensive and inaccessible for people in underdeveloped countries. These factors combined with a global distrust of pharmaceutical companies and products sets the stage for a new wave of medical diagnoses and treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The World Health Assembly recently updated the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) for the 11th edition to include TCM. This document is used by doctors, insurance companies and epidemiologists to make healthcare and reimbursement decisions.

Included in the ICD-11are over 3,000 terms to standardize TCM diagnoses and treatments, and contains information from Asian countries including China, South Korea and Japan. Proponents of TCM argue that the low costs and increased availability make it an effective and sustainable medical treatment option. Occasionally the plants used in TCM have been discovered to contain molecules which make treatments effective – the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Youyou Tu for the discovery of an antimalaria treatment based on TCM. Critics maintain that large, randomized clinical trials often find that TCM is ineffective at treating illnesses, and can often lead to adverse effects like kidney failure or even cancer. In the middle of the debate are researchers like those at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who agree that while some treatments may be effective, more careful trials must be performed. For example, Catherine Bushnell’s group at NCCIH has published evidence that people who practice yoga have higher pain tolerances. The hope is that the updated ICD-11 will standardize TCM descriptions of disease nomenclature, symptoms, and treatments. This in turn can create the basis for reproducible clinical trials to test efficiency to satisfy critics.

Seventy percent of healthcare spending is reimbursed by insurance or social healthcare networks based on information contained in the ICD. It is likely that TCM will be readily adopted by insurance because the costs are generally low compared to western medicine. Already in China a national strategy has been developed to deliver TCM to the entire population by 2020. In addition, TCM tourism has caused an industry boom in China, where tens of thousands of patients arrive to centers designed to cater to these patients. The monetary gain for those practicing TCM is hard to ignore: $295million was spent between 2016-2017 for herbal medicine and related products alone.

The endorsement of WHO for TCM is not universally welcomed by western doctors and scientists, but hopefully a standardized document can improve knowledge about its effectiveness. If TCM treatments are equally effective and dramatically cheaper, this could benefit people in poverty. On the other hand, if TCM is untested or dangerous, snake oil salesmen just got a green light from the WHO to expand their market.

(David Cyranoski, Nature)

Public Safety

Hurricane Florence is gone, water is contaminated, and scientists are looking for improvements in water testing

Hurricane Florence dumped billions of gallons of rain onto the south eastern US. Floodwaters are making their way to the coast; taking with them contaminants from agriculture and industry – effectively bringing hazardous drinking water to all who are downstream. Agricultural hazards include lagoons of livestock waste or enclosures full of dead chickens and hogs. Industrial hazards like coal ash in ponds and petroleum plant waste have also been affected, bringing hazardous bacteria and pollutants into municipal water supplies and the 9,000,000 private wells.

As towns, farms, and factories attempt to pump flood waters out of their locations, downstream and coastal water become contaminated. During times like these, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sends On-Scene Coordinators to State Emergency Operation Centers to assist responses to hazardous substance environmental exposures. This requires testing drinking water systems for contaminants; last week 23 drinking water stations in North Carolina had halted operations, while another 21 were operating with boil water advisories.

The way water is currently tested for microbial contaminants requires a multiple day delay before results are obtained because they require bacteria to be grown in an incubator. A microbiologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Rachel Noble, is developing new ways to test for contaminants with a significantly shorter delay for results. Her group is testing water directly for DNA related to pathogenic bacteria like E. coli, or salmonella or viruses like Norovirus and adenovirus. Testing for DNA cuts the time from 1-2 days to 2 hours or less. Although her tests are conclusive, getting federal agency approval for test efficacy may take more time. Once contaminants are detected, water treatment facilities usually decontaminate by letting chlorine sit in the system for 24 hours. Dr. Noble emphasizes that there are other contaminants, notably pathogens from hog farms or industrial waste, that are not well understood, and this strategy may not be effective.

For the next hurricane, improvements to industrial and agricultural waste processing could reduce the risk of exposure, but there are no (monetary) incentives to do so. However, improvements to testing water safety are now being improved by scientists like Dr. Noble.

(Jennifer Allen, Kirk Ross, and Mark Hibbs, North Carolina Health News;

Frankie Schembri, Science)

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September 28, 2018 at 6:12 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 21, 2018

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By: Mohor Sengupta, Ph.D

Heart Colorful Sharpened Rainbow Colored Pencils

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Inclusion in healthcare

India’s Anti-Gay Law Is History. Next Challenge: Treat LGBTQ Patients With Respect

On September 6 this year, in a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court of India officially decriminalized gay sex. It was a much-awaited move that toppled the archaic, colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which was used to criminalize sexual activities “against the order of nature”. In 2009 Section 377 was provisionally invalidated, prompting more Indians to come out. But in 2013, the law was reinstated, as it was “a miniscule fraction” of the population that was in question. Although the country has made a decisive and progressive leap catapulting itself into the international arena of contemporary sexual norms, a big change is still needed in its healthcare sector to accommodate the repeal.

Till this date, reporting to clinics or hospitals is an ordeal for the LGBTQ community. Routine prescriptions like the preventive post-exposure prophylaxis for homosexual men is still met with confusion and dilemma at the clinic. Situations have changed from the time when HIV infection was a social stigma, but it isn’t quite at a place where a transgender or homosexual person can talk freely about their medical problems with healthcare personnel. Many doctors view different sexual orientations as something that can be “cured”. Such attitudes have caused a large section of the LGBTQ community to avoid seeing a doctor altogether. Most visit clinics recommended by others in the community.

In April 2014, the Supreme Court of India officially recognized the transgender community as a third gender and granted them the same fundamental rights that the Indian Constitution grants all citizens. Gender-reassignment surgeries were legalized. Yet, in most government hospitals, patients are segregated into a male or a female ward. Arnav Srinivasan, a transgender person and almost approaching menopause, has never visited a gynecologist even though it is necessary. Government directive to construct more gender-neutral public toilets hasn’t seen the light of the day.

Indians and people all over the world are rejoicing the recent Supreme Court repeal of IPC Section 377, and rightfully so. But now the major problem grappling the government is how to educate healthcare personnel about LGBTQ-specific health issues and disseminate appropriate instructions to law enforcement agencies, where harassment of LGBTQ people has been common. The Supreme Court did mandate sensitization programs for schools and the police and some non-profit organizations are planning to offer anti-discrimination workshops to district courts and law enforcement agencies.

In an ethnically, financially, and educationally diverse and sometimes disjointed community like India, repeal of IPC Section 377 is only the tip of the iceberg. It has heralded a new age of public health policy. Attitudes towards sexuality and sexual health needs a systematic and major re-orientation.

(Sushmita Pathak & Furkan Latif Khan, NPR)


Florence, Mangkhut bring data and destruction to coastal scientists

Two violent weather systems rocked two opposite ends of the world recently. Hurricane Florence originated from a strong tropical wave off the African west coast and it steadily intensified into a Category-4 hurricane en route to North America. Subsequently weakened, it made landfall just south of Wrightsville Beach, NC on September 14. Typhoon Mangkhut arose from a tropical depression near the International Dateline and rapidly intensified in strength as it moved westwards. It made landfall as a Category-5 equivalent super typhoon in the Cagayan province of Philippines on September 15. Both storms have caused significant damage to life and property, mostly in USA, Philippines and Hong Kong.

Meteorologists in USA have noted that recent tropical storms here have caused more floods than damaging winds. They attributed this observation to rising atmospheric temperatures, which make these storms hold on to greater amount of moisture. Overall warmer weather also diminishes the temperature differences between land and ocean, making the storm hover on the land for longer durations. Although wind speeds were as high as 215 km/hr, it was sustained winds that drove large volumes of water on land and caused widespread flooding in affected areas.

Typhoon Mangkhut, on the other hand, brought damaging winds with gusts of up to 228 km/hr in Hong Kong. Tall buildings in the city caused wind tunneling, that shattered its walls. We are all familiar with photographs of skeletonized buildings left in the wake of the storm.

In all this havoc, weather scientists have gained valuable information about overtures of a changing climate pattern. Giant waves off the coast of Wilmington, NC, dragged out a buoy equipped with sensors that measure wind speeds, wave heights and other storm conditions. All data management and web services connected to these sensors had been migrated to Amazon cloud services and provided that the buoys remained functional through the storm, data collected from the sensors could be invaluable. Earlier this week it was still transmitting data and Debra Hernandez, executive director of the buoy’s operator, the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association in Charleston, SC is waiting to see if that data can be tapped. Two automated submarine gliders, also known as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), equipped with sensors to detect water temperature, chlorophyll a, salinity etc, have been deployed along the American continental shelf. These could throw more light on specifics. Ocean researchers at The Swire Institute of Marine Science, The University of Hong Kong (HKU) are beginning to comb through the data collected on Mangkhut. They learned that the storm had passed over relatively cooler surface waters before it made landfall, and this took away some of its power.

Climate change is very real, and its tangible effects are already showing. At most we can brace ourselves from such extreme weather, but it is of utmost importance to gather as many facts as possible and get to “know” these storms, to brace ourselves better.

(Frankie Schembri, with reporting by Dennis Normile and Paul Voosen, Science)

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September 21, 2018 at 3:48 pm