How this tiny beetle could help millions of allergy sufferers

How this tiny beetle could help millions of allergy sufferers

 

By Katie Hunt, CNN

 

Stuffy nose. Itchy eyes. Sneezing.

 

Ragweed plants packed with lightweight pollen that spreads easily are a common trigger for hay fever symptoms such as these.

 

It’s one of the most common weed allergies, affecting 23 million Americans and around 13.5 million people in Europe.
But a tiny leaf beetle that munches on the ragweed’s leaves and flowers can dramatically reduce the amount of pollen it produces, offering relief to hay fever sufferers — at least in some warmer parts of Europe, scientists say.

 

 

The beetle, officially known as Ophraella communa, is native to North America but was accidentally introduced in Europe around 2013. It was first recorded in southern Switzerland and northern Italy, likely hitching a ride on a plane and arriving at Milan international airport, said Heinz Müller-Schärer, a professor in the department of biology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and an author of the new research.

 

The study, which published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, estimates that the bug could reduce the number of people in Europe with ragweed-related allergy symptoms by approximately 2.3 million and the associated health costs by 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) a year.

 

Ragweed.

Feeding machine

 

Common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) is native to North America, but since the 1800s has invaded different parts of the world — and its spread and impact are thought likely to increase with climate change.
In northern Italy, where the beetle was first detected in Europe, the study said that most ragweed plants had been prevented from flowering by the leaf beetle, with field studies showing that the bug can reduce pollen production by 82%.

 

“A few beetles can defoliate a large Ambrosia plant in two to three days completely, then they regrow but are eaten up again. Ophraella is a feeding machine 24 hours a day,” Müller-Schärer said.
However, the beetle is likely to be less effective in reducing ragweed pollen in cooler parts of Europe, where the bug is likely to only produce one generation a year compared to up to four generations annually in Italy.
Besides northern Italy, where the beetle has already significantly reduced airborne pollen concentrations, the study suggested that people inBalkan countries that have a similar climate, such as Croatia, would benefit most if the leaf beetle was introduced to control ragweed.
The leaf beetle has been deliberately used elsewhere in the world to control the plant, although largely for agricultural reasons rather than to combat allergies. In China, the bug is mass-reproducedand actively distributed to control the spread of ragweed.

 

In North America, the beetle’s native home, the authors said the bug was less effective at reducing pollen because it has more predators there than its new ranges in East Asia and Europe.

 

“It is more difficult to build up high enough insect densities to control a weed in the native range,” said Urs Schaffner, co-author of the research and head of Ecosystems Management at CABI, a not-for-profit scientific research organization.
The authors said there was also a risk that the beetle could munch on and potentially harm other related plants like sunflowers, although there have been no reports of the bugs damaging sunflowers in the US.

 

“Under normal conditions, the risks associated with weed biological control agents are assessed prior to its release into the new range,” said Schaffner in an email. That wasn’t the case with the accidental introduction of the leaf beetle, but “results from the studies we have initiated so far indicate that the risks are (luckily enough) low.”
The authors said their work suggested that policy makers in “climatically suitable areas of Europe” should assess the risks and benefits of a “deliberate distribution” of the leaf beetle to help allergy sufferers.
Antibody tests key to ending COVID-19 lockdowns

Antibody tests key to ending COVID-19 lockdowns

Antibody tests key to ending COVID-19 lockdowns

By: Paul RICARD, AFP

 It’s the key that opens to door from total lockdown: serologic testing, which will show definitively who has contracted COVID-19 and is in theory safe to return to work.

“Everyone’s waiting for serologic testing, the whole world,” said France’s Health Minister Olivier Veran.

He said that the global research community was focussing on ways of perfecting the tests, which measure viral antibodies in a person’s blood that signal immunity.

Veran said that mass production of the tests could start within weeks.

“It’s a huge factor, especially when we’re trying to reduce confinement,” he said.

The World Health Organization said that serologic tests were still being developed but were yet to be properly evaluated.

– ‘Great interest’ –

Current diagnostic tests, known as RT-PCR, are invasive and use genetic analysis to see if a person is actively infected.

Serologic testing, which only requires a drop of blood to conduct, focuses instead on finding virus antibodies, the presence of which indicates that an individual has had COVID-19 and is now likely immune.

“Antibodies are one of the key immune response components. They start to be detectable around a week after initial infection,” said Andrew Preston, a reader in Microbial Pathogenesis at the University of Bath.

There are two types of antibodies associated with the COVID-19 immune response: IgM, which the body produces in the early stages of viral response, and IgG, which arrive later on during infection.

The tests being developed can identify both antibodies, key hallmarks of a patient’s auto-immune response to the virus.

“Thus there is great interest in the use of an antibody test to indicate immunity against disease for use in the lifting of lockdown restrictions,” said Preston.

– Supply problem –

Antibody testing is so crucial because of the large proportion of people with COVID-19 infections who may not show symptoms but can still pass the virus on to others.

Such tests already exist for other illnesses. And once they are perfected for the novel coronavirus the results can be analysed in labs using existing hardware.

Once widely available, they could be used to determine who gets to return to work and exit the lockdown currently being experienced by billions around the world.

“The main question is how to ensure everyone can return to work,” Francois Blanchecotte, president of the French Union of Biologists, told AFP.

In Italy, the president of the Venice region Luca Zaia, has proposed that returning workers carry a document after testing to prove they aren’t contagious.

Similar measures have been proposed in Germany.

“A GP told me yesterday that if I gave him a serologic test and it showed that he’s immune, he would offer his services to a neighbouring hospital’s COVID-19 unit in an flash,” said Philippe Herent, director of the Synlab Opale group of laboritories.

He however cautioned that global demand for the tests is likely to significantly outstrip demand, and production remains limited.

– Caveats –

The tests aren’t the perfect solution, however.

“They have to be used carefully. Used too early, the convalescent patient may still be carrying and shedding the virus, they may still be a risk to others,” said Michael Skinner, a reader in Virology at Imperial College London.

It’s due to this risk that countries are likely to continue producing and using RT-PCR tests and combine them with the serological versions.

“You might see a mix of the two: one diagnosis to see if you’re still contagious and a serological test to know if you have antibodies,” said Blanchecotte.

Another potential pitfall is that it not yet known for certain whether people who have recovered from COVID-19 are immune to reinfection.

“In a vast majority of infectious diseases, recovery from disease and evidence of a strong immune response would lead to a period of immunity from re-occurrence,” said Preston.

“(But) the caveat is that we don’t know for sure that a positive antibody test does imply someone is immune (from COVID-19).”

Most countries in lockdown still lack testing capacity, so it is not at all clear when restrictions on movement could be lifted, even with a widely available antibody test.

But serologic tests are the only way to know for sure what percentage of humanity has been infected with COVID-19, which will help inform a variety of current unknowns, not least mortality rates.

First US case of Wuhan coronavirus confirmed by CDC

First US case of Wuhan coronavirus confirmed by CDC

First US case of Wuhan coronavirus confirmed by CDC

The United States has its first confirmed case of a new virus that appeared in Wuhan, China, last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday. The coronavirus has already sickened hundreds and killed six people in Asia.

CDC officials said the United States will be more strict about health screenings of airplane passengers arriving from Wuhan.
The patient, who is not being named, is in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington. He is in his 30s and lives in Snohomish County, Washington, just north of Seattle. He had recently returned from Wuhan.

The United States has its first confirmed case of a new virus that appeared in Wuhan, China, last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday. The coronavirus has already sickened hundreds and killed six people in Asia.

CDC officials said the United States will be more strict about health screenings of airplane passengers arriving from Wuhan.
The patient, who is not being named, is in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington. He is in his 30s and lives in Snohomish County, Washington, just north of Seattle. He had recently returned from Wuhan.
He arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on January 15, before any health screenings for the Wuhan coronavirus began at US airports. He sought medical care on January 19. The CDC and Washington state are now tracing the people he was in contact with to see if he might have spread the disease to someone else.
“We believe the risk to the public is low,” said John Wiesman, secretary of health for the state of Washington.
The patient became ill four days after arriving in the United States and sought care. Based on the patient’s symptoms and travel history, doctors suspected the novel Wuhan coronavirus and sent specimens to the CDC in Atlanta, where tests Monday confirmed the virus.
The patient is faring well but is still being kept in isolation out of an abundance of caution, health officials said.

Health screenings at more US airports

Soon, passengers from Wuhan to the United States, whether on direct or indirect flights, will only be allowed to land at one of the five US airports doing health screenings. Screenings include a temperature check and observation for symptoms such as a cough and trouble breathing.

China is trying to stop the spread of a deadly new virus at the worst possible time of year

Last weekend, the CDC started health screenings for Wuhan passengers arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.
Starting this week, Wuhan passengers will also be screened at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
The CDC raised its travel notice for Wuhan, China, from level 1 to level 2 of three possible levels, according to its website. As of Tuesday afternoon, the agency advised travelers to “practice enhanced precautions.” The highest level, “Warning – Level 3,” advises travelers to “avoid nonessential travel.”

Person-to-person transmission of Wuhan virus

The Wuhan coronavirus is in the same family as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people in 2002 and 2003, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
To date, the Wuhan coronavirus has infected more than 300 people and killed six in an outbreak that has struck China, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and now the US.
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It’s not known how many of the cases became infected from animals and how many from another person.
On Tuesday, the CDC activated its emergency response system in response to the Wuhan coronavirus. The CDC activates this system on a temporary basis to centralize how the agency monitors, prepares for and responds to public health threats.
The outbreak started in late December at an animal market in Wuhan, about 700 miles south of Beijing. The virus can jump from animals to people.
While there’s much to learn about how easily the virus can be transmitted human-to-human, health officials said it appears that it’s not spread as easily as some other viruses.
“This isn’t anywhere near in the same category as measles or the flu,” Dr. Martin Cetron, director of CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine, told CNN.
3 steps to determine whether a medical study is newsworthy

3 steps to determine whether a medical study is newsworthy

3 steps to determine whether a medical study is newsworthy

Critics have long faulted U.S. medical education for being hidebound, imperious and out of touch with modern health-care needs. The core structure of medical school—two years of basic science followed by two years of clinical work—has been in place since 1910.

Now a wave of innovation is sweeping through medical schools, much of it aimed at producing young doctors who are better prepared to meet the demands of the nation’s changing health-care system.

This piece originally appeared here in Journalist’s Resource from the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Pubic Policy at Harvard University.

By 

Recently, Journalist’s Resource attended Health Journalism 2019, the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the sessions we attended, titled “Begin Mastering Medical Studies,” offered pointers for deciding which research is worth covering.

This tip sheet summarizes key points made by during the session by Tara Haelle, an independent health journalist and AHCJ topic leader for medical studies.

So many options, so little time.

With the amount of research published on a daily basis, journalists have to work to discern what’s worth covering. We’ve broken the process down into three steps as a general guide.

Step 1: Consider the category of the study.

As a starting point, Haelle suggested considering the category of the study you’re thinking of covering.

Generally, studies testing a medical intervention fall into one of the following categories:

  • Pre-clinical studies: This early phase of research precedes the clinical study phase. The research is not conducted with human subjects, so the findings are limited. There are two different kinds of pre-clinical studies:
    • In vitro: These studies are conducted on cells grown in a lab.
    • In vivo: These studies are conducted on non-human animals.
  • Clinical studies: If research shows promise in the pre-clinical phase, it might move onto clinical studies, which involve humans and examine their responses to the intervention. Clinical studies can take two forms:
    • Epidemiological/observational studies: Observational research, as the name suggests, involves observing ongoing behavior and assessing outcomes over time. These studies are not randomized. Think of a study that looks at the relationship between smoking and developing cancer. It’s a real-world experiment that hinges on long-term observation. Researchers can find correlations between variables but they cannot, on the basis of a single observational study alone, claim causation. That’s because there could be other variables that aren’t being controlled that could explain the outcomes, such as weight, other medical conditions, genetics, or environmental exposure. For these reasons, epidemiological/observational studies stand in contrast to another key type of clinical study: randomized, controlled trials.
    • Randomized, controlled trials: These are studies in which a new intervention is randomly assigned to some participants in a trial and tested against a control group, which receives a standard treatment or a placebo, to determine its effects. These studies can provide evidence of causation. Randomized, controlled trials generally proceed through a number of stages:
      • Phase 0: This phase involves giving human subjects small exposures to the intervention in question. It aims to answer whether the intervention works in humans. “Is it worth moving forward?” is how Haelle summarized this phase of research.
      • Phase I: This phase tests the intervention to make sure it is safely tolerated in humans. The intervention is typically tested in healthy people who do not have the condition the intervention might treat.
      • Phase II: This is a larger trial that tests for effectiveness as well as safety. This can take from months to years.
      • Phase III: The new intervention is compared against other pre-existing options.
      • Federal Drug Administration Approval: Generally, after phase III, the intervention being studied can be approved (or rejected) to be brought to market.
      • Phase IV: This phase looks at the long-term effects of an intervention after FDA approval.

So which categories are worth covering?

Haelle provided some general guidelines: Later-phase, randomized, controlled clinical trials are often considered the gold standard of medical studies. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever cover other kinds of research, like pre-clinical studies.

Haelle offered the example of environmental exposures. An animal study of a certain chemical exposure and the associated effects could be worth covering if there’s human epidemiological evidence (like studies of people exposed to the chemical in drinking water) you could pair it with, too.

“I don’t ever report on it just by itself,” Haelle explained. “I report on it in context, with other research.”

(And don’t forget to specify “in mice!” if the study was conducted in mice!)

Step 2: Assess newsworthiness.

  • Compared with existing research, how new are these findings? “That’s important to know, because if you’re reporting something for the 70th time, then it’s not news,” Haelle said. Remember, the findings don’t have to be positive to be newsworthy — Haelle emphasized that there can be value in covering negative results (i.e., a failed intervention), too. Another question to consider: how different is this intervention from others?
  • How strong are the findings?
    • Are they clinically significant? That is, do they have a practical, noticeable effect in daily life?
    • What is the effect size? That is, how much of an effect does the intervention have? For context, you might compare the effect size of the intervention to that of the standard treatment.
    • Are the findings statistically significant? Statistical significance is generally determined by the p-value of the data. (A brief primer from an earlier JR tip sheet on statistics: “P-values quantify the consistency of the collected data as compared to a default model which assumes no relationship between the variables in question. If the data is consistent with the default model, a high p-value will result. A low p-value indicates that the data provides strong evidence against the default model. In this case, researchers can accept their alternative, or experimental, model. A result with a p-value of less than .05 often triggers this. Lower p-values can indicate statistically significant results, but they don’t provide definitive proof of the veracity of a finding.”)
    • Ideally, findings are both clinically and statistically significant, but depending on the sample size, an intervention could be clinically but not statistically significant. “You really need to consider not just whether it’s statistically significant — not whether the findings are real just as a result of coincidence but whether they actually have clinical relevance, whether this is going to change practice,” Haelle advised.

Step 3: Evaluate the methodology.

  • How big was the study? In a smaller sample, outliers — extreme data points at either end of the spectrum — have a bigger effect on the overall results. For example, an 11-foot beanstalk in a patch with two two-foot beanstalks would yield an average height of 5 feet per beanstalk. But if the 11-foot beanstalk is in a bigger patch of 20 two-foot beanstalks, the average height is 2.14 feet. Suddenly Jack’s patch of beanstalks is cut down to size.
  • How long did the study last? “If it’s a diet study and it only lasted five days, don’t even bother,” Haelle said.
  • How were effects measured? Haelle gave the example of a study measuring the effects of an intervention on stress levels – there are a number of measures that one could look at to gauge effects, such as blood pressure, cortisol levels and self-reported stress levels. Consider the nuances of the different measures and what they may or may not convey. “You want to think about when they say a drug is improving something or decreasing something, think about whether they’re actually measuring what’s important,” Haelle said.
  • Who participated in the study? Was there a control group? Were the groups randomized?
  • Who funded the study? Is a study claiming pasta helps people lose weight funded by a pasta manufacturer, for example? While industry-funded research can be unbiased, some studies have found that pharmaceutical industry-funded clinical trials were likely to have pro-industry results. So keep that in mind, and be sure note the funding sources in your writing if there could be conflicts.

If you think you’ve found a winner, get reporting! And if you’d like more guidance, check out our tip sheets on how to write about health research and how to conquer your fear of statistics. Also, we’ll spare you the learning curve with these 10 things we wish we’d known earlier about research.

Haelle recommended other resources, including the Association of Health Care Journalists’ resources for covering medical research, Health News Review’s toolkitThe Open Notebook, and Christie Aschwanden’s “Science Isn’t Broken” feature for FiveThirtyEight.

What Is Mindful Working, And How Can It Boost Your Mental Health And Your Career?

What Is Mindful Working, And How Can It Boost Your Mental Health And Your Career?

Contributor

May is mental health awareness month. One in five people will be affected by mental illness over the course of their lifetime. And some of you reading this piece have struggled with anxiety and/or depression in the workplace. Addressing the stigma of mental illness is important, and mental health awareness month is the perfect time to do it.

The so-called Royal Fab Four (William, Kate, Harry and Meghan) took advantage of this month to launch a mental health service to those suffering, using texting as a modality to offer free help. Princes William and Harry have been open about their own mental struggles over the death of their mother, Princess Diana. I’m not a royal, and I don’t have the funds to offer a worldwide service, but in hopes of eliminating the stigma of mental illness, I would like to do my small part by sharing my own work struggles and how I overcame them.

My Story

After years of defining myself by my accomplishments and allowing my career to consume me, the flying buttress of work ceased to prop me up, and I fell apart. Mentally exhausted and spiritually dead, I slumped in my airplane seat. When the flight attendant asked if I needed anything, I waved her away. I had lost so much weight I looked like a refugee from Dachau. During liftoff, I didn’t care if the plane crashed. Nothing mattered. At the lowest point in my life, I had booked a sunny week in Jamaica to escape the pain of emotional stress and burnout. When you live mainly in the external world like I did—immersing yourself into your career, ignoring your inner Self—you’re bound to hit a bottom at some point. I call this “mindless working.” At my lowest point, I got help, stumbled into yoga and meditation and started my own mindful practices. I began the climb out of the work fog into a saner life. Today when I work, I’m constantly attuned to what’s going on inside me as I pace myself in the present moment throughout the workday. Without an internal compass, you rely on outer conditions to fix an internal feeling, and your spirits die. Could you be one of the spiritually dead in desperate search of an outside cure for your mental health work woes?

Mindless Working: The Real American Idol

In a society based on mindless working, my old unhealthy work habits had plenty of camouflage. Flextime, 24-hour Walmart’s, smartphones and Wi-Fi have vaporized the line that once kept the office from engulfing the sacred hours of Shabbat, Sunday and the family dinnertime. In a rapidly changing, turbulent world you, too, might be struggling to hold that line between calm and frantic work activity. The fast-paced, clever work gadgets infiltrate personal time, and a technologically driven work culture has spun our lives into a blur of constant doing and eclipsed our ability to be. According to Harvard researchers, if you’re like the average person, you’re lost in thought 47% of the time. And multitasking keeps you stuck there.

If you’re a mindless worker, you face the risk of losing touch with yourself, the present moment and the people around you. You see work as a haven in a dangerous, emotionally unpredictable world. You’re on automatic pilot and allow work tasks to engulf you, eclipsing other quarters of life. Commitments to self-care, spiritual life, family responsibilities, friends, partners and children are frequently made and broken to meet work pressures. Chances are, you seek an emotional and neurophysiological payoff from frantic working and get an adrenaline rush from meeting impossible deadlines. You’re preoccupied with work even when walking hand-in-hand at the seashore, playing catch with a child or fishing with a friend. Any kind of inner awareness is little more than a vague, if pleasant, backdrop. Work is the central connection of your life—the place where “life” really takes place, the secret repository of drama and emotion, as compelling as the one addicts experience with booze or cocaine.

Mindful Working And Your Mental Health

The practice of mindfulness brings about change from the inside out—not outside in—regardless of workplace circumstances or the nature of job problems. I call this simple solution to the mental health problems facing the American workforce mindful working—the intentional, moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening inside you and immediately around you with self-attuned compassion as you move through daily work schedules and routines. It involves bringing your full non-judgmental attention to body sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise while working or thinking about your job. Instead of attacking yourself when things fall apart, a mindful, self-compassionate attunement eases you through work stress and burnout, business failures, job loss or worry and anxiety about career goals.