Sunday, May 15, 2011

Big brother is a food freak

Texas School Camera Program to Monitor Schoolchildrens' Eating Habits

Smile, Texas schoolchildren. You're on calorie camera. That's the idea behind a $2 million project being unveiled Wednesday in the lunchroom of a San Antonio elementary school, where high-tech cameras installed in the cafeteria will begin photographing what foods children pile onto their trays — and later capture what they don't finish eating.

Digital imaging analysis of the snapshots will then calculate how many calories each student scarfed down. Local health officials said the program, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, is the first of its kind in a U.S. school, and will be so precise that the technology can identify a half-eaten pear left on a lunch tray.

"This is very sophisticated," said Dr. Roberto Trevino, director of the San Antonio-based Social & Health Research Center, which will oversee the program.

Parents will be required to give consent for their children to participate, and receive regular reports showing what foods their kids are filling up on at lunch. Trevino said only the trays, and not students, will be photographed.

Here's how it works: students are assigned lunch trays with a unique bar code. After the children load up their plates down the line — mashed potatoes or green beans? french fries or fruit? — a camera above the cashier takes a picture of each tray.

When lunch is over and the kids return their plates to the kitchen, another camera takes a snapshot of what's left on the tray. Software then analyzes the before and after photos to calculate calories consumed and, according to Trevino, a report of nutrients in the foods.

Researchers hope parents will change eating habits at home once they see what their kids are choosing in schools. The data also will be used to study what foods children are likely to choose and how much of if they're eating.

Five San Antonio elementary schools will take part in the program. Researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and students at risk for diabetes are higher.

The grant from the USDA will fund the study for four years. Trevino said the coming school year will be very experimental, with programmers fine-tuning the cameras and imaging software to accurately identify what's a pear and what's an apple. He expects the "prototype" to be in place by the second year.


New arthritis drug given green light in Britain

Hundreds of thousands of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferers could benefit from a new treatment after the drugs spending watchdog changed its mind about prescribing it on the NHS.

Those with moderate to severe RA will now be able to get Simponi, the brand name of the drug golimumab, in some situations where similar treatments have not worked.

Ailsa Bosworth, chief executive of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS), described it as "excellent news". "It is vital that we have options when it comes to biologic therapies as people react differently to drugs even within the same class," she said.

Simponi is what is known as a tumour necrosis factor inhibitor, or anti-TNF, drug. These work by blocking the action of TNF, a naturally occurring chemical, which plays an important role in triggering inflammation and tissue damage. Others in this class have already been given the green light by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), including Humira, Endrel, Remicade and Cimzia. However, sometimes they stop working in patients.

Last October, Nice turned down Simponi but, in final draft guidance published today (FRI), the body has changed its mind. A Nice spokesman said the decision was due to new clinical and cost evidence put forward by the manufacturer, Merck. He emphasised that final guidance was still to come.

Almost 700,000 people in Britain suffer from RA, making it the second most common form of rheumatic disease after osteoarthritis. Of those, some 400,000 suffer from moderate or severe symptoms.

Three quarters are diagnosed while still of working age. More than one in four of them have to give up employment within a year of diagnosis. The NRAS has calculated it costs the economy £8 billion a year due to lost productivity.

Exactly how RA is treated depends on its severity: those with mild arthritis are often advised to start by taking paracetamol, and move on to ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Exercise is also essential to keeping joints mobile.

However, the disease tends to be progressive. As it gets worse more powerful medicines including disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and anti-TNFs come into play.

Neil Betteridge, chief executive of the charity Arthritis Care, welcomed Nice's change of tune. He said: "Rheumatoid arthritis is an awful disease affecting people of all ages which clinicians often compare with having cancer of the joints.

"Unless treated and managed effectively it invariably leads to great pain and can render people immobile and unable to work. Having another treatment option available, therefore, is terrific."

One benefit of Simponi is that patients can self-inject the drug, and need only do so once a month. However, it "can lower your ability to fight infections", warns Merck, and there have been reports of "serious infections" including tuberculosis, some of which have been fatal.

Peter Taylor, professor of experimental rheumatology at Imperial College, London, said: "I am excited by the launch of ‘Simponi’ as it represents a valuable additional choice for the treatment of these debilitating rheumatoid conditions, and any new therapy that improves quality of life for patients is most welcome.

"Early and effective management is important in reducing disease progression and the extensive joint damage associated with it, but it's also important for patients to have a say in the choice of treatment they receive."


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