Posts Tagged ‘media’

The battle against TB

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

The Guardian I have written a lot on MicrobiologyBytes about tuberculosis (TB) as a remerging disease, but the global TB situation is still poor, so it’s always worth bringing this issue to people’s attention again. Writing in The Guardian, Nick Herbert points out the painfully slow progress which has been made (The fight against TB is not over):

The rate of new cases of TB has been falling worldwide for about a decade, enough to hit a UN millennium development goal target, and deaths will have nearly halved since 1990. But a decline of 2% a year in the estimated incidence rate suggests that the disease is being beaten at a shamefully slower rate than when the west tackled it a century ago. On current progress it will take at least another 100 years. The latest World Health Organisation report, published last month, warned that 3 million people a year who develop TB are being missed by health programmes. Most worryingly, less than a quarter of drug-resistant cases are being detected and less than half of those that are detected are successfully treated.

So hats off to Mr Herbert for highlighting this important issue. But this is The Guardian, and the byline to this story includes the phrase “western leaders need to act now“. Mr Herbert points out that:

London has the highest rates of TB of any city in western Europe. The borough of Newham has rates equivalent to Nigeria.

All of which is true. Commenters on The Guardian article weren’t slow to mention that Nick Herbert is a serving Tory MP, who was previously director of public affairs at the British Field Sports Society for six years. While the editorial process at The Guardian has ensured that the facts in Mr Herbert’s article are correct, it’s hard to disentangle this piece from the Tory agenda on limiting immigration and the aftermath of the failed badger cull.

So yes, we need to do more about TB, as some of us have been pointing out for years. But we also need to be critical and questioning about where we acquire information and how we react to it. Politicians and science generally don’t mix. On the whole, that’s a good thing – there’s already too much politics in science.


What do you think a virus is?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Viruses Humans are exposed to viruses everywhere they live, play, and work. Yet people’s beliefs about viruses may be confused or inaccurate, potentially impairing their understanding of scientific information.

This study used semi-structured interviews to examine people’s beliefs about viruses, vaccines, and the causes of infectious disease. The authors compared people at different levels of science expertise: middle school students, teachers, and professional virologists. The virologists described more entities involved in microbiological processes, how these entities behaved, and why.

Quantitative and qualitative analyses revealed distinctions in the cognitive organization of several concepts, including infection and vaccination. For example, some students and teachers described viral replication in terms of cell division, independent of a host. Interestingly, most students held a mental model for vaccination in which the vaccine directly attacks a virus that is present in the body. The findings have immediate implications for how to communicate about infectious disease to young people.


Expert–novice differences in mental models of viruses, vaccines, and the causes of infectious disease.” Public Understanding of Science (2013) Public Understanding of Science 19 2013 doi: 0963662513496954

Silent mode on H7N9

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Bad news There’s some pretty worrying news coming out about influenza H7N9.

The problem is that the media has (justifiably) concentrated so much on influenza threat over the past five years that the public … doesn’t want to hear any more. So MicrobiologyBytes is going into silent mode over H7N9 until it (or whatever comes next in the never-ending sequence of influenza nasties) starts to get really bad. Then it will be time to start reporting on this story again.


Sequencing unculturable bacteria

Monday, July 15th, 2013

The birth of microbiology as we understand it arises from the ability to grow organisms under reasonably reproducible laboratory conditions – “culturing” them in the laboratory. If you can’t grow it, you can’t study it (Growing unculturable bacteria. (2012) Journal of Bacteriology, 194(16), 4151-4160).

The media today is reporting a new paper which describes single cell sequencing of 201 bacterial genomes from a range of environments, thus removing the need to be able to culture the organism before its genome can be sequenced:

Sequencing unculturable bacteria

This is good stuff. But the BBC News report of this story is dreadful – it makes it sound as if sequencing bacterial genomes is new in some way. Some credit to the BBC – for once the online item contains a direct link to the actual Nature paper (which you probably can’t read unless you work in a scientific organisation with a Nature subscription).

The Nature News report is a little better, but still fails to clarify the concept that many if not most bacterial species may be unculturable, reporting the article as Researchers glimpse microbial ‘dark matter, pissing at least one commenter off by over-dramatising the subject (Nature News items generate so few comments that if someone does comment, you know they’re angry).

So interesting science, bad media coverage. I guess you’ll have to read the paper for yourself (if you’re luck enough to have a a Nature subscription). And of course, keep reading specialist microbiology blogs if you want to really understand the significance of current scientific research in a larger context.


Insights into the phylogeny and coding potential of microbial dark matter. (2013) Nature doi:10.1038/nature12352
Genome sequencing enhances our understanding of the biological world by providing blueprints for the evolutionary and functional diversity that shapes the biosphere. However, microbial genomes that are currently available are of limited phylogenetic breadth, owing to our historical inability to cultivate most microorganisms in the laboratory. We apply single-cell genomics to target and sequence 201 uncultivated archaeal and bacterial cells from nine diverse habitats belonging to 29 major mostly uncharted branches of the tree of life, so-called ‘microbial dark matter’. With this additional genomic information, we are able to resolve many intra- and inter-phylum-level relationships and to propose two new superphyla. We uncover unexpected metabolic features that extend our understanding of biology and challenge established boundaries between the three domains of life. These include a novel amino acid use for the opal stop codon, an archaeal-type purine synthesis in Bacteria and complete sigma factors in Archaea similar to those in Bacteria. The single-cell genomes also served to phylogenetically anchor up to 20% of metagenomic reads in some habitats, facilitating organism-level interpretation of ecosystem function. This study greatly expands the genomic representation of the tree of life and provides a systematic step towards a better understanding of biological evolution on our planet.


Measles, MMR and the Media

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Mail Fail “Scholars have argued that in risk communication a dilemma exists between the media functions of informing the media audience about rational risk behavior, and providing an arena for public deliberation about risk. Optimizing the information function would suggest that media provide clear, unanimous advice without creating confusion by reporting uncertainty and controversy. Optimizing the deliberative function, in contrast, would require media to include different (even contradictory) voices. A similar dilemma exists between incompatible expectations of different fractions of the audience. Part of the audience may trust the media to provide the best available advice. These audience members may be prepared to take the mediated advice at face value, not wanting to be unsettled by controversy and uncertainty. But another part of the audience may prefer to learn about the full spectrum of opinions, including outsider views, and may want to develop their own conclusions on whom to trust and whose advice to follow. Presenting only the mainstream view may motivate members of that part of the audience to seek information in alternative channels – such as blogs or rumors.”


Similar challenges but different responses: Media coverage of measles vaccination in the UK and China. (2012) Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662512445012
For several decades scholars have studied media reporting on scientific issues that involve controversy. Most studies so far have focused on the western world. This article tries to broaden the perspective by considering China and comparing it to a western country. A content analysis of newspaper coverage of vaccination issues in the UK and China shows, first, that the government-supported ‘mainstream position’ dominates the Chinese coverage while the British media frequently refer to criticism and controversy. Second, scientific expertise in the British coverage is represented by experts from the health and science sector but by experts from health agencies in the Chinese coverage. These results are discussed with respect to implications for risk communication and scientists’ involvement in public communication.


Zinc? Don’t make me laugh

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

zinc The media is buzzing today with the latest incarnation of the “Zinc cures common cold” story. This isn’t new. The first report to show that zinc might be a useful treatment for the common cold was published in 1984. Since then, 18 more trials of zinc for colds have been conducted: 11 of them showed zinc to be a useful treatment, while 7 other trials showed no benefit. The present flap comes about because of a new meta-analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Sadly, this meta-analysis has got its facts in a twist and obscured the truth. Why? Because there is no evidence that zinc is effective against any viruses other than human rhinoviruses (HRV). And, as I’ve been telling my students for the past few weeks – “the common cold” is not a disease, it’s a symptom, caused by at least five different kinds of virus. Four of which zinc does nothing to. (By the way BBC News, human rinovirus isn’t spread primarily by sneezes, it’s spread by people sticking contaminated fingers up their noses).

So don’t get too excited folks. The next time you get a cold, it won’t be common, you won’t know what virus has infected you and you won’t know whether it’s worth risking the toxic effects of zinc ingestion for a potential “cure” (or not). Nice story, shame about the facts.

Zinc for the common cold (Review). The Cochrane Library 2011, Issue 2


Growing doubts about HIV vaccine

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Growing doubts about HIV vaccine

BBC News

Doubts have been raised about the reliability of a trial suggesting success for a vaccine against HIV. In the large-scale trial in Thailand, a combination of vaccines seemed to give volunteers a protective effect of 31%. The US military and Thai government, who co-sponsored the trial, said the effect was not caused by random chance but was statistically significant. Allegedly, if one more person had been infected in the trial, the result would not have been statistically significant.


Media coverage affects how people perceive the threat of disease

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Cameraman Popular media coverage of infectious diseases greatly influences how people perceive those diseases, making them seem more dangerous, according to a new study. The research suggests diseases that show up frequently in the print media are considered more serious than similar diseases that do not receive the same kind of coverage, such as yellow fever. Researchers chose ten infectious diseases drawn from the Centre for Disease Control database. Five were medical disorders that have been highly prevalent in the recent print media – anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and avian flu – and five were medical disorders that have not often been present in current media: Tularemia, human babesiosis, yellow fever, Lassa fever and hantavirus. Two groups of students, undergraduate and medical students, were asked to rate how serious, how prevalent, and how “disease-like” various conditions were.

A single incident reported in the media can cause great public concern if it is interpreted to mean that the potential risk is difficult to control, as with the possibility of a pandemic like in the case of avian flu, and bioterrorism, as in the case of anthrax infection. Conversely, when participants were presented with the descriptions of the disease, without the name, they actually thought that the diseases which received infrequent media coverage – the control group – were actually worse. Another interesting aspect of the study is when factual information about the diseases is presented along with the names, the media effect wasn’t nearly as strong. This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical. Equally surprising is the fact that the medical students – who should have more factual knowledge about these diseases – were just as influenced by the media, despite their background.

Medicine in the Popular Press: The Influence of the Media on Perceptions of Disease. 2008 PLoS ONE 3(10): e3552
In an age of increasing globalization and discussion of the possibility of global pandemics, increasing rates of reporting of these events may influence public perception of risk. The present studies investigate the impact of high levels of media reporting on the perceptions of disease. Undergraduate psychology and medical students were asked to rate the severity, future prevalence and disease status of both frequently reported diseases (e.g. avian flu) and infrequently reported diseases (e.g. yellow fever). Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively ‘worse’ by a separate group of participants. Estimates of severity also positively correlated with popular print media frequency in both student populations. However, we also see that the concurrent presentation of objective information about the diseases can mitigate this effect. It is clear from these data that the media can bias our perceptions of disease.

Can you have confidence in the news?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Norovirus infections

BBC news

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It was widely reported in the media that three million people went down last winter with Norovirus infection – winter vomiting disease. In truth, health authorities don’t know how many had it. They don’t even know how many went to the doctor with it. All they know is the 2,000 cases in the peak months that were confirmed in by laboratory diagnosis (you can’t be sure that someone is infected with Norovirus by looking at them). It is generally assumed that for every lab-confirmed case there are about 1,500 in the community, a ratio of 1:1,500. (Hence: 2,000 lab cases x 1,500 = three million). But how do the authorities know that? They don’t. Lurking beneath many statistics is a factor that changes everything, but is seldom admitted: doubt. Good statisticians admit the extent of their doubt. Journalists almost never do.

Here’s a technical term, the confidence interval – how sure you can be about data. If an estimate is based on a relatively small sample, the true number could be higher or lower. How much higher or lower? That is the confidence interval, the range of possibilities within which the true answer might lie. (Try it for yourself here)

What are the confidence intervals around the 1:1,500 ratio for Norovirus infections? The low end of the confidence interval is a lot lower, 1:140. That is, each lab case could equal 140 in the community. The high end is an astonishing 1:17,000. This implies that there could have been between 280,000 cases of winter vomiting (2,000 confirmed lab cases x 140 = 280,000) or 34 million. Thirty-four million people in the UK vomiting? Don’t you think we might have noticed?

Why so much doubt? Because researchers arrived at this imprecise ratio by looking at what happened years ago in a small town. They tried to find everyone with gastro-intestinal problems, whether they had been to the doctor or not. Then they found out how many cases were laboratory-confirmed and did their sums to find the all important ratio. And in that small town, how many laboratory-confirmed cases were there? One. And you can imagine that whether a single lab case turns up from a particular town is pretty much a matter of luck. Does a GP there send samples for lab analysis every time? Or do they ever bother? The result can be hugely affected by chance. Hence the enormous confidence intervals: they couldn’t be sure if this – the benchmark town – was typical or odd. That’s why the authorities concede that when the 1:1,500 ratio was applied to last winter’s lab cases, the resulting total (three million) could have been about 11 times too high, or 11 times too low. They even warned journalists that it was unreliable.

Interestingly, a recent study suggests that noroviruses may be more infectious to humans than any other virus ever studied (Norwalk virus: how infectious is it? J Med Virol 2008 80: 1468-1476). This conclusion was drawn from a study involving 22 human volunteers – not the biggest ever clinical study, but better and more controlled than the epidemiological study on which the official estimates are based. The researchers found that infected subjects had a dose-dependent probability of becoming ill, ranging from 0.1 at a dose of 1000 Norwalk virus genomes, to 0.7 with 100 million virus genomes. Out of 22 infected subjects, 15 (68%) developed acute symptoms of gastroenteritis. Preventing and controlling Norovirus transmission is a major challenge – especially in institutional settings, such as healthcare facilities, nursing homes, schools, hotels, cruise ships, military facilities and summer camps. Careful handwashing is probably the most effective way to prevent most Norovirus infections.