Measles and Willful Ignorance

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

The super bowl will be played tomorrow and there is some concern that with so many people in one place, there is danger that the recent measles outbreak may lead to cases from those attending the game, particularly as there have been cases reported in Arizona. But wait, wasn’t measles declared eliminated in the U.S.? Yes, it was, back in 2000. The problem is not that the vaccine has stopped working; it’s that there are a substantial number of parents – especially in California – who refuse to have their children vaccinated. It’s bad enough that this endangers the children of these parents, but it also endangers others, particularly infants who are too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women, or people with immune problems that prevent them from being vaccinated. There was a story recently on NPR about such a child, recovering from leukemia, whose father it asking that the school in Marin County, California, his son attends bar students from attending who have not been vaccinated.

Why are the parents refusing to have their children vaccinated? Because they have bought in to the anti-vaccine movement which claims a link between vaccination and autism. This idea comes from an article by Andrew Wakefield published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998. The article has long since been discredited and Wakefield, based on evidence that the study was fraudulent and that Wakefield had a financial conflict of interest, has been bared from practicing medicine in Britain. All the available scientific evidence indicates that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. That evidence has not been enough to convince doubters, which include some politicians (Michele Bachmann) and TV personalities (Jenny McCarthy). In addition to citing the junk science represented by Wakefield, such voices also talk about parental rights. However, individual rights have to be seen within the context of social responsibility – no one has absolute rights to take actions that endanger others.

This phenomenon is one more case of willful ignorance, the refusal to accept evidence-based science. We continue to see this among evolution deniers and those who don’t believe in global warming. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates how large the gulf is between the views of scientists in the U.S. and non-scientists across a wide range of issues. The results confirm the importance of encouraging more attention in our schools to critical thinking and the process of scientific enquiry.

Coffee not soda

gulpArticle in today’s Wall Street Journal on the decline in consumption in the US of carbonated soda drinks, worrying companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Young Americans are increasingly drinking water, energy drinks and coffee. It’s of course not just a question of taste, but increasingly of health. Americans are becoming more conscious of the importance of a healthy diet and increasingly aware of how much the consumption of soft drinks is a factor in the obesity epidemic in the US.  High profile actions like the recent initiative from New York mayor Bloomberg’s to ban the sale of large sodas at restaurants and movie theaters help to spread the message.  The soda companies have been fighting back; Coke has a recent ad encouraging Americans to fight obesity, which has been received with considerable sardonic criticism.  Drinking soft drinks – and lots of them – has been culturally entrenched in the US for decades.  Tourists from abroad are often amazed by the size of American soft drinks (like 7-11’s Big Gulp) – the small size here is often equivalent to the largest size available in many other countries.  When I was hiking with my son in the Black Forest, he complained about the fact that my (standard size) beer was half a liter but his (standard size) soda was .3 or even .2 liter.  And no free refills! It must be that the move away from soft drinks is part of a communist conspiracy (probably from our Socialist president!) to undermine American culture, just like the sneaky move years ago to fluoridate our water (see Dr, Strangelove for the truth!).

Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that Americans are turning away from soda to something healthier.  Young Americans in particular are getting ever larger doses of caffeine.  A story recently on NPR discusses the trend on American campuses for students to drink more and more coffee, as well as caffeinated energy drinks. Besides the high cost on the wallet of this trend, the cost in terms of health is high as well.  High caffeine consumption interferes with getting a good night’s sleep.  This can have negative consequences in terms of academics.  A researcher cited in the study comments that high caffeine has been linked to decresed REM sleep, which is important for memory consolidation and learning.  Of course, that’s part of the conspiracy as well – trying to get us to dump our soft drinks and switch to drinks that make us dumber!

Exercise & Politics

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Student during a yoga class at elementary school in Encinitas, Calif (NY Times)

A recent article in the NY Times discusses the protests by some parents in a California school district where first graders are having 30-minute yoga classes.  This would seem to be a beneficial program for small children, doing something positive in the area of physical education, just as art and music classes do, as well as foreign language classes. In the age of strictly controlled and standardized curricula, it’s refreshing to see something creative happening, even if on a small scale. According to the article, the yoga sessions have a noticeably calming effect on the 6- and 7-year olds.  So what’s the reason for the protests?  Religious indoctrination, specifically the protesters “were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs”.  This need to protect children from knowledge has had the unfortunate result in American schools of discouraging teaching about world religions, with a by-product being a wide-spread lack of knowledge about Islam (as well as of other non-Christian religions). In the absence of knowledge, stereotypes replace reality.

The intersection of religion, physical exercise, and politics has had some interesting case histories.  Recently, the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China, combining slow-moving exercises with meditation and a basic moral philosophy, after gaining widespread popularity in the 1990’s, was suppressed by the Chinese government, fearful that such a large movement could threaten state control.  In 19th-century Germany, Friedrich “Turnvater” Jahn (Father of Gymnastics Jahn), who had studied theology, wanted to encourage greater physical fitness among the Prussian youth, after seeing the humiliation of Germany’s defeat by Napoleon.  What started out as gymnastics (he invented the parallel bars, the balance beam, horizontal bar, and the vaulting horse) turned nationalistic and was seen as a threat by the authorities, leading to his arrest.

Non-freedom fries

Chip Butty – not at the Olympics!

Big bucks win over cultural preferences. There’s a ruckus in England over food at the 2012 Olympics, specifically the well-beloved Chips (French Fries). Seems that McDonald’s as an official sponsor has exclusive rights to sell fries at the Olympics. Only approved exception is fish and chips, no luck if you feel like sausage and chips, egg and chips, lasagna and chips, steak and chips or even the famous chip sandwich (Chip Butty, popular in York). Part of the problem is that the skinny McD’s fries are not the style the Brits like – they prefer fat and greasy.

Reminds me of the uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when originally only Budweiser (an official sponsor) was allowed to be served at the games being played in Germany, quite a slap in the face to German beer drinkers. There is actually an excellent Budweiser beer, however it’s not the Anheuser-Busch brew but rather the original Budweiser from Budvar, in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for beer drinkers, the relationship between the FIFA, which puts on the World Cup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev recently was extended to 2022. It remains to be seen, however, if beer will even be served at the 2014 championship in Brazil, since beer at soccer stadiums there has been banned since 2003 (too much alcohol-fueled violence). Same ban applies in Russia, the sponsor for 2018.

Side note:  There will be a new world’s largest McDonald’s for the London Olympics, taking over from the McDonald’s in Pushkin Square,  Moscow.  I visited that McD’s a couple of years ago – quite an operation there.  I went to have an American breakfast – which I have to say I enjoyed immensely, as a break from Russian food.  I have to admit as well that I have also visited the second busiest McD’s world-wide – at the Karlstor in Munich.  I enjoyed the chance to have a beer with my “Royale with Cheese”.

Are French women worried about getting fat?

Interesting article in the New York Times on efforts by a weight-loss company (Jenny Craig) to see their products and services in France, a cuture not big on pre-packaged cooked foods, especially if they come from a company associated with the home of the Big Mac: “Selling an American-style weight-loss program to France would seem an absurd business proposition: from a French point of view, Americans might appear better equipped to give pointers on how to gain weight than how to lose it. The obesity rate in the United States is around 35 percent, compared with 14.5 percent in France.” But the obesity rate has been rising in France lately as well, although not nearly at the rate of the US.

The article points out that the many people in France believe that the traditional French food and eating culture is the answer to obesity.  Valérie Bignon, the director of corporate communications for Nestlé France comments:  “The solution to America’s weight problem lies in what I call the French food model, a model that is very social, as opposed to the individualist approach of the Americans.”  She points to the importance of placing high value on everyone getting together at the same time, eating the same thing, and making meals into a social event, thus discouraging between-meal snacking.  She is down not only on American fast food but also on self-serve restaurants (le Self)  – which move away from the “French food model”.  I have to admit that when I was a student in France, I often ate at self-serve restaurants – they were cheap.