Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reporting Cases of Food Poisoning

You and your friends go to a restaurant together, and the next day all of you are sick with what appears to be food poisoning. To whom should you report it?

You can start by contacting the restaurant if you wish. If it’s a responsible restaurant they should want to hear from you so that it can do its best to correct the problem. But don’t expect the restaurant to go any farther than that. In most states, the restaurant is not required to report incidences of food poisoning to any regulatory authority. Nor is the restaurant required to warn the public. Reporting is entirely voluntary.

So there’s the message. If you want your suspected case of food poisoning to be noted officially, you should report it to your local or state health department. They may, depending on the nature of your complaint, follow through with an investigation, and if they find that the restaurant is not in compliance with food preparation and handling regulations, they can take corrective action. At the very least, your report will become part of their disease surveillance statistics.

Just don’t count on the restaurant to do it for you. It’s not in their best interest.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Taking a Stand Against Self-harm Blogs

The rapid growth of social networking technologies enables us to interact with people anywhere in the world on virtually any subject. But that may not always be a good thing. Did you know, for example, that there are blogs devoted almost entirely to glorifying, encouraging, or promoting eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia? Like-minded individuals identify each other with certain key words such as “thinspiration” and “thinspo”.

At least one social networking site and blog platform (Tumblr) is taking a stand against blogs that encourage or support self-harm, saying that “Tumblr sometimes gets used for things that are just wrong”. So starting next week, Tumblr plans to ban blog content that “actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm”, including techniques for self-starvation. In addition, Tumbler plans to start posting public service announcements whenever a user searches for specific tags such as “pro-ana”, “thinspiration”, “thinspo”, “bulimia”, or “purge”. The announcement is likely to read, “Eating disorders can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. Please contact the [resource organization] at [helpline number] or [website].”

Tumblr hasn’t identified the resource organization or organizations that will be referenced in the public service announcement, but presumably by the time they institute the new policy they will.

It’s good to see a social networking website with a strong social conscience and a willingness to take a stand.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bisphenol A (BPA) in Canned Soup

In a simple but elegant experiment, researchers at Harvard University demonstrated recently that a potential endocrine disruptor called Bisphenol A (BPA) is present in significant amounts in canned foods (or at least in one brand of canned soup). The researchers employed a randomized, single-blinded, 2x2 crossover design. From a group of volunteers they randomly assigned half of the members to consume 12 ounces of canned Progresso brand vegetarian soup each day for five days. The other half of the group consumed freshly made vegetarian soup for the same five days. Subjects were free to eat whatever else they wished. At the end of the five days they measured urinary BPA levels. Then after a two-day washout period they reversed the soup diets of the members of the group, again measuring BPA levels after five days. Thus the study design gave them paired data, “canned soup” versus “fresh soup”, for each member of the group.

The results surprised even the researchers. After just five days of consuming the canned soup, the urinary concentrations of BPA were over 10 times higher than when the same individuals consumed fresh soup.

BPA is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics. It is found in hard plastic water bottles and in the epoxy resin used to coat the inside of food cans to prevent the cans from corroding. BPA is detectable of in the urine of 92% of all people over six years of age, according to the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It’s not uncommon to find BPA in humans, in other words.

We don’t know yet whether BPA is safe at the levels being found in humans, and perhaps more importantly, what its effects might be in children. So what should we do - ban it from food and beverage containers now, or wait and see?

REFERENCE: Carwile, J.L et al. Canned Soup Consumption and Urinary Bisphenol A: A Randomized Crossover Trial. JAMA 306:2218-2220, Nov. 23/30, 2011.

(Sorry; this paper is not available free online. Check your school’s library.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Running Form Affect Running Injuries?

Competitive distance runners train hard, sometimes to the point of injury. Does a runner’s running form affect the likelihood of injury? In an interesting study just published online, researchers say yes – at least in terms of how the runner’s foot strikes the ground. The researchers analyzed data for mileage run, running pace, and injuries sustained by the members of Harvard University’s men’s and women’s distance running teams over a four-year period. They also videotaped each runner to determine their predominant “foot-strike style” – either heel-first or toe-first.

Nearly 3/4 of the group was injured each year. And when the researchers analyzed who was getting injured and what type of injuries were sustained, they found that the predominantly heel-strikers were twice as likely to suffer from repetitive stress injuries than were the predominantly toe-strikers. Interestingly, the type of shoe worn (well-padded versus minimal racing flats) didn’t seem to matter.

The researchers say they don’t know why the heel-strikers suffer more repetitive stress injuries, but they speculate that it may be because of a greater peak of impact energy when the heel strikes the ground first than when the toes strike first. And they’re not suggesting that heel-runners switch their running style unless they’re getting injured frequently, and then only if they’re willing to retrain slowly. After all, doing something unnatural and different could make matters worse.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

State Laws Governing Cell Phone Use

Want to know whether texting while driving is illegal in your home state, and if so, whether it's a primary or secondary offense? Do you know whether it’s okay to use your hand-held cell phone to make calls? Does it make a difference in your state how old you are? Go to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association’s (GHSA) website to find out.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bird Flu Research Halted Temporarily

The H5N1 virus, also known as the bird flu virus, is highly contagious and deadly in birds. On rare occasions it infects humans, where it is also deadly. What saves us from a pandemic is that it is not yet highly transmissible between humans. The big worry is that the virus will undergo a change that makes it more transmissible between humans, leading to a human pandemic.

Recently, scientists who were studying the H5N1 virus managed to modify it, making it more contagious to humans. They were surprised, in fact, with how easy it was to do. Now they have voluntarily agreed to suspend the research and to hold back some of the details of how they did it, to give the scientific community time to debate the value of the research and to discuss how to disseminate the important findings of the research without giving out too much information to the wrong people. The researchers explain their decision in a letter published in several scientific journals.

The danger of such research is that the modified virus could escape from the laboratory and infect humans. Even worse is the possibility that it could find its way into the hands of terrorists, or that publication of the details of the research would open the way for terrorists to duplicate the feat – like providing the recipe for a bomb online. On the other hand, clearly there is potential value in such research; understanding how viruses make the transition from infecting animals to infecting humans may help us identify and contain viruses that are in the process of doing so. It might even help us find ways to stop them before they make the transition.

Both points of view are valid, of course. And while there are several sides to this issue, it’s encouraging that scientists seem to be working together to come to grips with it. Both have the same goal – to protect humans from an H5N1 pandemic. The question is how best to do that.