Monday, December 25, 2006

New drugs 'could halve treatment'

A new generation of antibiotics could halve the length of time people need to take medication, scientists say. London researchers are developing what they hope will be the first of these - a compound to treat the hospital superbug MRSA in the nose. It tackles bacteria currently "left behind" because they are resistant to standard antibiotics. The anti-MRSA drug will be tested in humans next year and may be available in five years.

It is hoped similar compounds being examined by the team will also prove effective against Staphylococcus bacteria, which cause sore throats and tuberculosis. Developing a way of tackling antibiotic resistance is important because it could mean the antibiotics which already exist could be given a longer life. At the moment, years of work can be put into developing a conventional antibiotic but it may be possible to use it for around only 18 months before resistance develops.

HT61 is being developed as a cream to tackle persistent MRSA bacteria in the nose, the most important part of the body where it is carried. Many hospitals already test people before they come in for operations to see if they are carriers of MRSA. But, like all bacterial infections, it is made up of two forms of bacteria - the fast-dividing sort targeted by existing antibiotics - and non-multiplying, or persistent, bacteria. It is this latter form that lurks in the body and causes repeat infection, and can lead to resistance if it is exposed to medication. HT61, which has been tested in the lab and in "very successful" animal trials, is effective against persistent MRSA bacteria. It will be tested on around 60 people next year.

The team may later seek to tackle MRSA once it has got inside the body. Sir Anthony Coates, professor of medical microbiology at St George's Medical School, who is leading the research, said research so far showed it was "potent against MRSA". Clive Page, professor of pharmacology at King's College London, who is also working on the study, said the work opened up the possibility of a whole family of drugs which could treat persistent bacteria in a range of conditions. He said: "It may lead to us providing a combination of drugs - one to target the dividing bacteria and one to target the persistent form. "If you take something like penicillin, and put this with it, you might be able to get a treatment course which lasts one or two days, rather than the current five to seven."


There’s more to childhood than counting calories

The obsession with expanding waistlines is narrowing horizons for children - and replacing adult guidance with health tips.

Last week, in Britain, Sainsbury’s announced that it was financing a £3million programme to help 5,000 obese children and their families. In addition, ‘nutrition nannies’ will be treading the aisles to advise families on healthy eating and staying active. This week, the Chicago mayor asked restaurants with over $10million in annual sales to post calorie counts on their menus, so that kids can moderate their intake. This comes a year after Democratic and Republican heavyweights joined forces to announce a 10-year programme combating childhood obesity.

Increasingly everything that children do is assessed with reference to body mass index (BMI). Indeed, the obesity issue seems to be one of the few areas where adults feel they can give some moral guidance. Adults today have a hard time telling kids what is right and wrong, how they should develop themselves, or why they should exercise self-control. Good now equals active, low fat, and smaller waistline; bad equals inactive, full-fat and bulging belly.

Childhood obesity has become the bottom line justification for children’s activity. A few weeks ago, the government proposed that kids should go on school trips to help combat childhood obesity (see Who killed the school trip?, by Josie Appleton). The same justification is given for why children should also play sport, play outside with their friends, and walk to school on their own. The need to combat obesity apparently also means that they should eat good food, and eat with their family at mealtimes.

Conversely, it is said that children shouldn’t play video games too much, sit at home not doing anything, or eat on their own whenever they like, because that will make them fat.

This signifies a profound narrowing of vision. Questions of self-development and self-restraint are posed in one-dimensional terms of weights and measures. Children’s activity is judged in terms of narrow goals and ends, the numbers of calories that it burns, rather than being seen as simply a normal party of everyday life, or as useful as an end in itself. So long as their arms and legs are moving, it seems, that is okay.

Increasingly children are encouraged to engage in ‘active lifestyle programmes’. The Department of Heath gave some children pedometers to measure the numbers of steps that they take in a day. Schoolchildren in Denver received similar pedometers back in 2002, and have been counting their steps ever since. Experts try to work out what is an acceptable pedometer reading: ‘How many steps per day do children need?’, asks one article, plumping for 12,000 steps for girls and 15,000 for boys.

In Minnesota, an obesity researcher designed a classroom that encouraged children to fidget. An article reports: ‘all of the desks have been replaced with adjustable podiums. Instead of chairs, children stand, kneel or sit on big exercise balls while they work and they are actively encouraged to move about the space.’ The children are adorned with sensors to measure their every movement. Another US company designed a toy known as ‘Fizzees’ (Physical Electronic Energisers), digital pets that children care for by moving around. Lots of jumping makes for a happy Fizzee.

Here, the authorities are trying to attach meaning to children’s everyday mundane activities; government targets are being pursued through activities such as children walking to school or running down to the park, or even just fidgeting. Video games are okay, apparently, so long as they involve activity. Groby Community College in Leicestershire introduced the game Dance Dance Revolution to encourage reluctant girls to exercise. The Nintendo game Wii received cheers from some quarters because it increased kids’ activity levels. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is considering replacing play areas in some of its US restaurants with kiddie gyms, to help them burn off the calories.

Even the question of obesity itself is seen in very flat moral terms. Gluttony was a sin because it meant gorging the self at the expense of higher spiritual goals, such as praying and doing good works. The problem was not so much the kind or quantity of food that sinners ingested, but their motivation for doing so. It was a question of character and inner life, not just of digestion.

Although obesity is now the number one sin with which to scare children, it’s seen in peculiarly pragmatic terms. There is an obsession with measurement. The UK Department of Health released cutting edge advice on how to measure child obesity levels, and called on headteachers to carry out these measurements in primary schools. The problem with obesity reduced to bald statistics: it causes X amount of damage to children’s health, and costs the NHS Y million pounds per year and the economy as a whole Z.

Researchers are busily working out all the various ‘factors’ that influence childhood obesity. One Bristol researcher found that it was influenced by lack of sleep, while another academic found that it was caused by watching more than eight hours of TV a week at the age of three. There are lots of complicated programmes to encourage families to create a new environment for children, with all the correct factors in place. The question is not just that Johnny is greedy and needs to eat less. Instead, there is expert advice on micromanaging families’ every lifestyle choice, from food to mealtimes to weekend routines.

MEND - the charity financed by Sainsbury’s - aims at ‘involving the entire family in healthy eating and an active lifestyle programme’, including everything from ‘changing family attitudes towards healthy eating and physical activity’, recommending ‘practical ways to remove unhealthy food triggers’, and ‘learning to be a healthy role model’. All this is apparently about ‘empowering them with the knowledge and skills to overcome obesity’. This interfering jargon almost makes you miss the Ten Commandments.

These policies are in danger of breeding a new nation of self-obsessed gym goers, who are forever counting their steps and calorie intake. Kids shouldn’t be thinking about their weight, even - or perhaps especially - if they are fat. They should be thinking about winning a game of football, improving their tennis serve, playing games with their friends. They should be having fun, chilling out.

There is more to childhood than not being fat. School trips broaden the mind, sport is fun, walking to school teaches you independence, eating good food with your family is more satisfying and sociable than eating alone. Adults need to work out how to give kids more substantial guidance - on what it means to be a good person, how to develop yourself and exercise self-control - beyond waving your arms and legs around to reduce your BMI.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter? It is just about pure fat. Surely it should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.

The use of extreme quintiles to examine effects is in fact so common as to be almost universal but suggests to the experienced observer that the differences between the mean scores of the experimental and control groups were not statistically significant -- thus making the article concerned little more than an exercise in deception


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