Why the ice bucket challenge is different

Ice bucket challenge

From the University of Central Arkansas. Click for the story behind this one. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When something starts to show up enough on your Facebook or Twitter feed, you get sick of it. I get it. The ALS ice bucket challenge is now so big that TV news shows, while reading tweets to fill time on slow news days, can show footage of stadium-seated crowds dousing themselves. My Facebook feed now has posts like “I swear I can HEAR somebody doing an ice bucket challenge outside.”

So of course there is backlash: for example this Slate article reminding us you don’t need an ice bucket to donate to ALS research. Which is true, but privately donating is boring. Sharing something ridiculous with your friends is far more fun. And while the meme’s growth contributes to our fatigue, it also means we get to watch the likes of Bill Gates and Lady Gaga do it too.

Awareness is a dangerous word. You can spend a ton of effort to raise awareness with only minimal effect on research efforts and patients’ health. And that is how the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge can prove it is different: it has raised money—to date, $22.9 million compared to a typical year’s $1.9 million in the same timeframe.

Compare to the last few awareness memes that made it big:

  • No-makeup selfies to somehow fight cancer
  • Mamming, “embracing the awkwardness of mammograms” by taking pictures of your boobs smushed on surfaces (I swear I am not making this up)
  • Mysterious postings that supposedly have something to do with breast cancer awareness: this year it’s fruits representing your relationship status; in the past it was the color of your bra or where you like to keep your purse.

Now you see how the ice bucket challenge is different: It’s about a specific disease (not a broad category like “cancer”), and there is a clear call for donations. To pass on the meme without the mention of donations seems kind of selfish, and so far people seem to be passing it on. In the original challenge, a friend tags you to donate $100 OR dump ice water on your head. I’ve seen people saying they donated AND dumped water, or others say they couldn’t afford $100 but donated $10. Money talks: as a fundraiser, it worked.

We’ve covered awareness on this blog before: Atif wrote about men’s health & mustaches and I wrote about where cancer awareness can directly help patients.


Category: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Public health’s biggest weakness, as illustrated by e-cigarettes

Recently, I was sitting in a meeting with some people, and during a lull in the conversation, they asked me:

“Hey, you’re in public health. What is the biggest problem you face?”

I paused. That’s a tough question. The Western World is facing a number of issues ranging from social to political, and include areas such as increased inequality, an aging population, rising student debt and the issues associated with young people starting their careers already owing six figures to a bank or their government, among other things. However, while others might pick the more “sexy” health issues of the day such obesity or cancer, I’m going to go off the board. I think the biggest problem public health faces is Time. I’ll explain what I mean through e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes use battery powered vaporizers that turn a liquid solution into an aerosol that can be inhaled, similar to smoking. The solution can include a range of ingredients, but most importantly, do not (necessarily) include nicotine. Nicotine itself forms one of the addictive elements of conventional cigarettes, and so it has been proposed that these could be used as quitting aids by slowly reducing the dependence people have for nicotine. Plus, in addition to a chemical dependence, there’s also a behavioural element to smoking. My friends who have tried to quit struggle with behavioural cues associated with smoking – having a cigarette with coffee, or while driving to work, or after a long day to unwind. Those environmental cues can be as effective at creating a desire for smoking as the chemical component. For those trying to quit, there are thus multiple issues that need to be addressed. This can be where e-cigarettes become useful. As a quitting aid, e-cigarettes can help step people down from the chemical addiction with lower and lower doses of nicotine, ultimately culminating in no nicotine, as well as provide a way for them to get that feeling of smoking without “all the bad stuff.” Or at least, that’s the theory. However, since these devices are so new, there isn’t much, if any, research to substantiate this (yet).

EDIT: This systematic review  and this study were pointed out to me on Twitter, and reported reductions in conventional cigarette use when e-cigarettes were used. This is a promising finding, and this is something public health professionals can use to build programming and advocate for e-cigarette use (especially if more studies can confirm this experimentally, as well as evaluate them for long term ). However, both highlight the crux of this piece, and that is that these were both only published this year. That delay between the introduction of e-cigarettes, and data suggesting that they can be useful for cessation, is an important issue within public health.

Now, the liquid that gets vapourized comes in a number of different types, but the one that is the most concerning are the flavoured varieties. While the nicotine component could, potentially, help people, the flavouring is a completely separate concern and serves no purpose other than to make the product tastier and more enticing. This is a particular concern, especially among our youth. Dr Leia Minaker and colleagues did a study out of the University of Waterloo and found 52% of Canadian students who identified as smokers in Grades 9 through 12 used flavoured tobacco products. This was even higher among smokeless tobacco users (70%) (1). So not only do we know kids are drawn to these products, we know they’re likely to be using the flavoured versions of them if they do use them.

Flavours such as strawberry, "great grape" and juicy peach are all available for consumption

Flavours such as strawberry, “great grape” and juicy peach are all available for consumption

Now herein lies the problem. We know there are concerns with e-cigarettes. We know there are health problems that are a direct result of smoking, and we know that this is targeting children who will (most likely) become smokers as they grow up. However, we need evidence to make such claims. Tobacco companies follow the law – maybe not the spirit of it (that’s up for debate), but the, written down, carved in stone, law. So if you say you can only have a certain amount of nicotine in a product, they’ll put in less than that. They won’t open the floodgates to lawsuits and litigation. However, due to the lack of regulations on e-cigarettes, suddenly there is an open market available, and so they put energy into marketing them, and selling them to the market that can legally buy them (including children). On top of this, kids will market them to each other. Cigarettes have always had an allure to them, both in terms of making you seem “grown up,” as well as a “rebel.” Those are things that youth crave as they navigate the tempestuous waters of elementary and high school.

However, just because there isn’t evidence they can’t harm you, doesn’t mean they won’t. Indeed, the FDA initially came out against them, banning them back in 2010. However, this was overturned soon afterwards, ostensibly due to the lack of evidence saying they would cause harm (why wasn’t the fact that there was no evidence to the contrary a concern, I don’t know). Research is slowly coming out now that is highlighting the risks of e-cigarettes. In fact, increasing the voltage from 3.2V to 4.8V results in a 4 to 200 fold increase in the amount of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone – to levels comparable to that of a regular cigarette (2)

However, this all takes time. Performing these studies, following up users of these products and determining if they can be used as a quitting aid, this all is all required to determine whether or not this is a substantiated claim. And it’s not just the research that has to be performed – the law then has to be amended. The EU decided right off the bat to restrict sales to minors, well before research was available. Even then, it took a bill proposed on the 19th of December 2012 until February 2014 to finally be approved. Thus, e-cigarettes point out a massive flaw in public health, which is ironically its biggest strength. The fact that we take time to collect data before making a decision is essential, but it means we’re waiting months and even years to collect the evidence, analyze the data, write and publish the reports that we can then present to policymakers to say “hey! Fix this!” And it doesn’t stop there. We’re then waiting for policymakers to propose the idea, have them vote on it, fight any backlash from industry or the public (and there will be backlash from the $1.2 billion e-cigarette industry). On the flip side, it means that if there are benefits to use – maybe e-cigarettes can have benefits for those trying to quit – we can’t claim that either. We’re stuck in a holding pattern until the data comes back with an answer.

Currently, while there might be some good reasons to have e-cigarettes available for people, there’s no evidence to support that claim. There is, however, a growing body of research is showing that there are drawbacks to having them available. In the meantime, people are freely using them and suffering adverse health effects associated with their use. That time delay, between a product being introduced and public health being able to tackle it, is one of the biggest problems that public health faces.


1. Minaker LM, Ahmed R, Hammond D, Manske S. Flavored Tobacco Use Among Canadian Students in Grades 9 Through 12: Prevalence and Patterns From the 2010–2011 Youth Smoking Survey. Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:140094. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd11.140094

2. Kosmider, Leon, et al. “Carbonyl Compounds in Electronic Cigarette Vapors—Effects of Nicotine Solvent and Battery Output Voltage.” Nicotine & Tobacco Research (2014): ntu078. Available online at http://ntr.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/05/14/ntr.ntu078.full

Category: Cancer, Industry, Preventable Deaths, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

How much does a healthy diet actually cost?

Access to healthy food is a major source of social inequality

Access to healthy food is a major source of social inequality

We’re all told to eat 5 (or more!) servings of fruit & veg per day, to cut down on fatty red meat, eat lean proteins, and whole grains. We’re told to cut down on processed and packaged foods, and refined sugars. These are good things. However, clever marketing schemes have also added fashionable trends like gluten-free products, so-called ‘superfoods’, and organic products into the mix of an essential ‘healthy diet’. But, how much does it actually cost to eat in a truly healthful way? In a world where the food industry dictates the types of food available (or not) to people, where ‘food deserts’ are found impoverished pockets of urban centres, and where Western countries are, on the whole, over-fed and under-nutrified with many developing countries not far behind, you begin to wonder how money plays into the complex dietary landscape.

New research from a nutritional epidemiology group at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom has set out to answer this question (1). The researchers characterised six different types of eating patterns typical in the UK:

1. ‘Monotonous Low Quality Omnivore’: high in white bread, milk, and sugar; moderate in potatoes and meat; low in all other foods – low diet diversity and nutrient poor

2. ‘Traditional Meat, Chips, and Pudding Eater’: high in white bread, chips, meat, sugar, high-fat and creamy food, biscuits, cakes; low in wholemeal food, soya, vegetables, salad, and fruit – energy dense and nutrient poor

3. ‘Conservative Omnivore’: no foods eaten in high quantity; moderate quantities of a range of foods; low in cereals, chips, wholemeal foods, chocolates, biscuits, lower in red meat than the above two groups – a more diverse diet but has lower quantities of nutritious foods than recommended

4. ‘Low Diversity Vegetarian’: high in wholemeal bread, soya products, pulses, fruit, vegetables; low in butter, eggs, meat, and fish – close to dietary guidelines, but does not meet recommended nutrient intakes

5. ‘Higher Diversity Traditional Omnivore’: high in chips, white pasta and rice, high-fat and creamy food, eggs, meat, fish, chocolate, more diversity than the ‘Traditional Meat, Chips, and Pudding Eater’; moderate in vegetables, fruit, and alcohol; low in cakes and pudding – good dietary diversity and nutrient content, but still has fatty and refined foods

6. ‘High Diversity Vegetarian’: high in wholemeal bread, cereals, wholemeal pasta and rice, soya products, nuts, pulses, vegetables, fruit, herbal tea; low in white bread, meat, and fish – meets daily nutrient intake recommendations


Going down the list, the diets increase in healthiness according to the ‘Eatwell’ plate.

The Eatwell Plate - UK National Health Service

The Eatwell Plate – UK National Health Service


The researchers then used a food cost database to estimate the daily price of each type of diet. The findings were striking: the cost of each type of eating pattern steadily increased with how healthy it was. The ‘Monotonous Low Quality Omnivore’ diet – the most nutrient poor – was estimated to cost £3.29 (approx. $5.56 USD) per day, while the ‘Health Conscious’ diet cost over double that, at £6.63 (approx. $11.21 USD) per day (1). Over the course of a year, that’s a difference of £1219.10, or $2061.50, for just one person. This difference has huge implications: it highlights the disparity between the rich and poor in accessing nutrient-rich and high-quality foods, even within wealthy countries.  A difference of £3.34 or $5.65 per day might not mean much a good proportion of the UK’s or America’s population, but it means a lot to the most vulnerable groups who can’t afford it.

Access to healthy food is a major source of social inequality, even in wealthy countries.

Another, larger investigation from the Harvard School of Public Health came out with similar figures using data from 10 countries, where they adjusted for inflation, World Bank purchasing power parity, and standardised prices to the international dollar ($1 USD) (2). For individual food items, they found the biggest price differences between healthy and unhealthy meats/proteins (e.g. lean vs. high-fat ground beef), at $0.29 per serving, or $0.47 per 200 kcal (2). The price differences per serving of healthy vs. unhealthy grains, dairy products, snacks/sweets, and fats/oils were smaller, but still statistically significant. Overall, having a more healthy diet (at 2000 kcal per day) was estimated to cost about $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy diet. Overall, that’s a difference of $547.50 in one year. Harvard Magazine interviewed the senior study author, Dariush Mozaffarian, stating,

‘The research shows that a healthy diet is affordable for most people, Mozaffarian says, given that “for 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans, $1.50 per day is not a big deal.” Nevertheless, he adds, it is a “big barrier” for the remaining 30 percent to 40 percent of the population – even though the economic costs of chronic diseases related to poor diet vastly exceed the higher price of healthy food.’ (2)

As long as food remains a consumer product, with many companies aiming to produce flavourful, nutrient-poor, and cheap-to-produce foods for profit, this problem is not going to go away. It’s not realistic. However, it isn’t necessary to exhaust your finances in order to eat well. For one thing, ‘superfoods’ are not essential, and the nutrients they provide can be found for much cheaper in other produce options. For example, broccoli contains chlorophyll, vitamins A, C, and E, iron, and calcium. Moreover, it is easy to find and it is cheap. I say this in almost every post, but educating yourself goes a long way in understanding the political/social/economic context in which you live your life, and how to best make even small daily decisions for yourself based on that context.

On a broad scale, one would hope that results from studies like these would help further investigations to understand why the price gap exists (a complex issue for another blog post!), and to push strategies to reduce the price gap between healthy and unhealthy foods. Do you think this is possible?



1. Morris MA, Hulme C, Clarke GP, Edwards KL, Cade JE. What is the cost of a healthy diet? Using diet data from the UK Women’s Cohort Study. J Epidemiol Community Health 2014 Published Online First on 22 July 2014. doi: 10.1136/jech-2014-204039.

2. Rao M, Afshi A, Singh G, Mozaffarian D. Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2013;3: e004277. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277


Image sources

Image 1: Newcastle University

Image 2: National Health Service ‘Eatwell’ plate

Category: Epidemiology, Food industry, Industry, Preventable Deaths, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Why there’s no Ebola treatment or vaccine yet, in one chart

This is the second of two posts this week on Ebola. Read yesterday’s here: Why here, why now, and why so deadly?

I didn’t make a mistake in the chart above. Ebola’s 1,323 cases barely register when lined up next to killers like AIDS and cancer.

Drugs and vaccines have been in the works for a while, but drug companies aren’t interested in something that infects a handful of people each year in poor countries. (They, like the fictional Samuel Gall, are perhaps happiest specializing in “diseases of the rich”).

Treatments and vaccines in the pipeline

A better source of funding would be governments concerned about Ebola being used as a bioterror weapon. That’s how BioCryst is positioning its antiviral drug, currently known as BCX4430, which seems to be effective in monkeys but hasn’t been tested in humans yet. A Canadian company, Tekmira, is taking a similar approach with their RNA-based treatment; their studies were funded by the US Department of Defense.

Antibody treatments are another possible option, and Kent Brantly, a doctor who contracted Ebola, is reportedly being given antibodies from a boy he treated, who survived the disease.

Inspired by the recent outbreaks, the US’s NIH and FDA are working together to fast-track a Phase 1 clinical trial of an Ebola vaccine that works in animals and could be given to humans as soon as next month.

What we’re doing in the meantime

Ebola patients receive basic supportive care, for example to maintain hydration, but there’s no treatment that can make the disease go away. Antibiotics don’t work because it’s a virus; the antiviral treatment Ribavirin that works on some other hemorrhagic fevers isn’t effective against Ebola.

The only public health tools we have to prevent spread of the disease are good old fashioned isolation (for sick people) and quarantine (for those who have been exposed and may be sick). To find people who have been exposed, health workers track down people who have been in contact with someone who has the disease.

“None of us would be thrilled about the prospect of being admitted to an isolation ward,” says Daniel Bausch, the Ebola expert I spoke with for yesterday’s post. NPR reports that some families are choosing to hide a loved one’s infection rather than risking the “panic and ostracism” that may come from seeking treatment.

Health workers are seeing serious resistance to medical care in some areas. Another NPR report explains:

A plague hits, and then a bunch of foreigners in spacesuits come and whisk away the corpses in shiny white body bags. There have been stories that this is all a scheme to harvest organs from the locals. … Dr. Tim Jagatic of Doctors Without Borders says the misperceptions are understandable: “We created a hospital, and a lot of people started to get sick and die.”

Bausch says that a good treatment or vaccine could reverse that trend: instead of tracking down patients and contacts who believe they have a good reason to hide from health workers, people “would be knocking on the door: ‘I think I have Ebola, could you please give me that treatment?’”


Epilogue: The three big questions

I asked Daniel Bausch what big questions still remain in Ebola research. He named three broad areas:

  1. As reported above, we don’t know any good treatments to offer patients and their contacts–just supportive care, quarantine and isolation.
  2. We don’t know enough about how the virus works in the human body. There are animal models that provide some glimpses, but to study humans you have to be able to do research in the middle of a raging outbreak of a rare disease. That’s tough. We have recently learned, for example, that it doesn’t always cause extensive bleeding. That’s why its name was changed from “Ebola hemorrhagic fever” to the simpler “Ebola virus disease.”
  3. We don’t know enough about how the virus spreads. Probably it circulates in bats and is occasionally transmitted to other animals, including humans, as a dead-end host–but the disease is so rare we don’t have a good way of studying it in the wild. Bausch says that while he was in Guinea recently, a group of ecologists started collecting bats from the local population, but their results are not yet published.
Category: Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Ebola: Why here, why now, and why so deadly?

This is the first of two posts on Ebola this week. Tune in tomorrow for a look at the big questions facing Ebola researchers.

You’ve probably heard that the current outbreak of Ebola virus is the largest ever, and thus the deadliest. Today’s death toll is 729 out of 1,323 infected since the outbreak began late last year.

Unlike other diseases, Ebola is not always around. Measles infects twenty million people a year; Ebola, outside of outbreaks, infects (as far as we know) zero. Before the current outbreak, the previous infection was more than a year earlier. In between outbreaks, the disease doesn’t exist at a baseline level in the population; it is simply gone.

So why is a huge outbreak occurring now? Why in western Africa, thousands of miles from the place this strain of virus was last seen, in 2009? And why has it gotten so large? Those are the questions Daniel Bausch discusses in an article published today in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Bausch is an expert in infectious tropical diseases who has been part of the response to the current outbreak, treating patients and training medical staff.

Doctors and scientists know precious little about Ebola virus: how it travels, how it kills, why it emerges when it does. Ebola is suspected to circulate among fruit bats, but nobody has yet isolated the virus in a wild bat.

What’s a deadly little virus like you doing in a place like this?

There’s more than one kind of Ebola virus. Analysis of the genome of the virus in the current outbreak shows that it isn’t related to the Tai Forest virus from nearby Cote d’Ivoire, but rather to the Zaire ebolavirus whose stomping grounds are half a continent away.

How did the virus travel so far without any human cases detected in the meantime? Bausch thinks it wasn’t due to a human traveler. Getting to Gueckedou, where the outbreak seems to have started, requires 12 hours of driving just for the last leg of the trip from any of the nearby capital cities, hardly something you’d do if you were suffering from Ebola. I asked Bausch if an asymptomatic carrier could be the culprit in a Typhoid Mary-like situation, but he says that a person’s ability to shed the virus seems to correlate strongly with how severe their symptoms are. “The likelihood of this being introduced by a sick human is very low,” he says, and by an asymptomatic human even lower.

That leaves the bats. Bats do migrate, and if the virus is in regular circulation among bats it may be less severe, letting a sick bat make the trip more easily than a sick person.

When did the virus make its trip? A recent analysis of blood samples collected from the area over the last 18 years (when they were collected from patients suspected of having Lassa fever) shows that years before the current outbreak, the Ebola virus may have been popping up occasionally in humans in this part of Africa.

Why now?

The current outbreak started in December 2013, at the beginning of the dry season; based on previous outbreaks Bausch believes there may be a connection with the weather, but without knowing more about the ecology of the virus, it’s hard to say if that’s a factor or just a coincidence.

We don’t know how many places in Africa may have Ebola virus circulating in bat populations and occasional Ebola cases in humans that miss diagnosis. But the key factor that sustains an outbreak may not be biological at all.

Why is this outbreak so bad?

Bausch traveled to Guinea every year for a decade while investigating other diseases in the area, and writes that every time he traveled from the capital Conakry to the forest region, “the once-paved road was worse, the public services less, the prices higher, the forest thinner.”

That area where the outbreak started, around Guéckédou, is in a pocket of forest where the borders of three countries converge: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. They rank 174, 177, and 178, respectively, on the UN’s Human Development Index; in other words, they are three of the poorest countries in the world. Sierra Leone and Liberia were embroiled in civil war until the early 2000s; Guinea has suffered from a devastatingly corrupt government. None of the countries are in a good position to respond quickly and efficiently to a disease outbreak, and health centers in the region are not always equipped with necessities like gloves and clean needles.

Another complication is that the outbreak area covers three countries. In this area, Bausch says, people identify more with their ethnic group than with their country; borders aren’t much of a dividing line in everyday life. If you live in the area you might cross a border to go to the market or attend school, and you may speak your local language rather than the national language of French (Guinea) or English (Liberia and Sierra Leone).

This all adds up to a situation where a health worker in one country can’t just call up the other side to say hey, this patient had contacts on your side of the border, can you follow up? Even when language is not a barrier, there may not be a phone line to deliver that message nor the organization and resources to do the job.

As the virus spreads–it’s now in Nigeria–socio-economic factors like these will likely determine where an outbreak will catch fire and where it will fizzle out. “I think a military analogy is appropriate here,” Bausch says. “How many fronts can you fight on?”

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Liberia and Sierra Leone were “embroiled in civil war.” This isn’t currently true, and I’ve corrected the statement above. Thanks to Adia Benton for pointing out the error.

Category: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Immigrant youth to Canada are less active than Canadians, but only for a little bit

Regular readers of the blog and my Twitter profile will know that my PhD dissertation is focused on the health of young people to Canada. In particular, I’m interested in how their health changes over time – does it get better? Does it get worse? Does it stay the same? And in particular, I’m interested in how they compare to peers born in Canada, and whether this is the same between different ethnic groups.

So, for example, if you took two South Asian kids, one born in Canada and one born abroad, what happens to their health? Is the one born abroad healthier? The same? What about after they move to Canada – if the one born abroad starts off healthier, does that persist, or does that benefit disappear with time?

I did a few interviews for this study with the media, and I’ve embedded them throughout the piece. So if you don’t want to read anymore, just hit play on the video below.

(Note: The video should be 16:9, but Vimeo made it 4:3 and I can’t figure out how to change it. Sorry about that).

Now, there’s been a lot of research on this in the US. But the research in the US has focused on the ethnic groups that are of interest to the US – Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans. In Canada though, the major immigrant groups are from East and South East Asia and South Asia. Combine that with two different views on immigration (melting pot vs multiculturalism), and there’s not much evidence out there for what happens to kids once they move to Canada in terms of their physical health.

And that’s where I come in.

We just had a study published in PLOS ONE that looked specifically at the physical activity of young immigrants to Canada, and how their physical activity changes over time.

What did we do?
The Health Behaviour in School Aged Children Survey (HBSC) is an international survey coordinated by the World Health Organization in 43 countries in Europe and North America. We used data from Cycle 6 of the Canadian HBSC, which had data on approximately 26,000 youth in all provinces and territories in Canada, except PEI and New Brunswick. We categorized kids by ethnic group: Canadian, Arab, African, South Asian, East and South East Asian, Latin American and Other. We also categorized them by how long it had been since they moved to Canada: “1 to 2 years,” “3 to 5 years” “6+ years” and then “born in Canada.”

We then were interested in their physical activity levels, and put them into one of three groups based on the number of days of 60+ minutes of physical activity they reported. The first group was 1-3 days, the second was 4-6 days, and the third was 7 days a week. Only the last group met the Canada Physical Activity Guidelines, but then we were also interested in kids who were close (the 4-6 days a week group).

I was interviewed by Wei Chen for CBC Ontario Morning – take a listen here!

What did we find?
As we expected, kids born outside of Canada were less active than those born in Canada. In fact, only 11% of those born abroad got 7 days a week of 60+ minutes of physical activity compared to 15% among those born in Canada. However, the longer you were in Canada, the higher your physical activity was. For example, while kids who moved here 1-2 years before were much less likely to meet the physical activity guidelines, those who moved here 3-5 or 6+ years ago were just as likely as those born in Canada to meet the guidelines. This is a really positive finding – while their initial levels of physical activity might be low, they correct this really soon after immigrating.

But here’s where things got interesting. When you start looking at this by ethnic group, certain trends emerge. We found that East and South-East Asian youth were less active, regardless of time since immigration. They were less likely to be active on 4–6 days/week (0.67; 0.58–0.79) and 7 days/week (0.37; 0.29–0.48), compared to (White) Canadian peers. So whether they were born in Canada, or whether they just moved here, their physical activity levels were consistently lower than other kids.

What is the take home message?
There a few things you can take from this. We found that immigrant kids were less active than Canadian-born peers, although this difference disappears over time. However, this is impacted by ethnicity, with some groups reporting higher levels of physical activity than others. Perhaps most interesting was how East and South East Asian youth have lower levels of physical activity levels regardless of where they were born or how long they have lived in Canada.

Below is an interview that I did with Philip Till from CKNW Radio in Vancouver.

Throughout the piece, I’ve embedded clips of me talking about the study. Take a listen, and I’d love to hear your thoughts! Does this resonate with your experiences/what you’ve seen? And for my international readers, how does this compare to your countries?

Finally, this study wouldn’t be possible with our funders and the respondents to the HBSC Survey. Thank you all for your support!

Kukaswadia, Atif, William Pickett, and Ian Janssen. “Time Since Immigration and Ethnicity as Predictors of Physical Activity among Canadian Youth: A Cross-Sectional Study.” PloS one 9.2 (2014): e89509. Link: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0089509

Category: Determinants of health, Epidemiology, Nutrition, Running, Time trends | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Oh no! What happened?” “W220.2XD: Walked into lamppost, subsequent encounter.”

Last week, I ran across this very entertaining piece over in Healthcare Dive about the new ICD-10 codes. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is an incredibly useful tool in public health that basically can reduce an injury to a series of numbers. As you can imagine, this is very powerful when it comes to determining if something is on the rise. Researchers can easily count the number of times something occurs, and if it’s up from previous years, there might be something there.

Part of the beauty of the ICD-10 codes is how specific they are. The previous system, ICD-9 (creative, I know) wasn’t nearly as specific as they only had 13,000 codes compared to the 68,000 in ICD10. With the advent of ICD-10, The Powers That Be have gone into painstaking detail breaking down injuries, diseases and other maladies into incredible precise codes that can be used by researchers and public health professionals.

Today, we’re going to go through my favourite ones.

Do you know what code it is if you get hit by a Macaw? Because one exists. | Photo via National Geographic

Do you know what code it is if you get hit by a Macaw? Because one exists. | Photo via National Geographic

W55.89XA: Other contact with other mammals
There are many codes for contact with mammals. Raccoons, cows, pigs and cats are all represented. However, the mighty seal is not covered, which made Buster Bluth very sad. He would have suffered from W55.89XA.


W61.12XA: Struck by macaw, initial encounter. ​

Look like our patient
*puts on sunglasses*
Is a little Macaw-struck

(The other option here was for an AC/DC reference…)


V97.33XD: Sucked into jet engine, subsequent encounter.
Now, I’m not an MD. But, if you are getting sucked into a jet engine on more than one occasion, you may want to re-evaluate your life choices.

Lamp posts are sneaky, and when you're not looking will clock you over the head. | Photo via Wikipedia

Lamp posts are sneaky, and when you’re not looking will clock you over the head. | Photo via Wikipedia


W22.02XD: Walked into lamppost, subsequent encounter.
I don’t really know if going to see a doctor is the best solution here, or just looking where you’re going. I do imagine this being on the rise as the epidemic of texting and walking continues to rise.

(Ed note: Subsequent encounter here means they have seen the doctor previously for the same complaint, not that they have done it several times, even though the latter does make it funnier).


Y93.44: Activity, trampolining
When searching for “trampoline fail” yields a 5 minute montage on YouTube, you know this is a necessary code.


I also looked at some and realized they could be for superheroes…

T63.301A: Toxic effect of unspecified spider venom, accidental (unintentional), initial encounter
Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a T-63-301-A can!


T75.01XA: Shock due to being struck by lightning, initial encounter
When he was hit by lightning, Barry Allen turned from a police scientist to become The Flash! One of the greatest superheroes of the Silver Age!


W88.1: Exposure to ionizing radiation


And my favourite code in the ICD10 manual:

V91.07XA: Burn due to water-skis on fire, initial encounter
Frankly, if you manage to set water-skis on fire, I’m not sure whether I want to give you a hi-five, a Darwin award, or video the whole thing for YouTube. I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.



While I make fun of the codes, they’re incredibly useful for public health and for collecting data. Knowing person, place and time, i.e. this idea of who is getting injured, where they’re hurting themselves and how can make all the difference when it comes to analyzing data and creating programs to prevent these injuries and illnesses from occurring. Whenever you present to a doctor, if they record the information that will allow for your ailments to be categorized using the ICD10 system, it goes a long way to helping researchers figure out what is going on at a macro, population level.

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

1 weird tip to not die of smallpox

Cartoon about vaccination ("The Cow Pock") from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_cow_pock.jpg

How weird is vaccination? So weird they’re putting cow disease juice under your skin. Ew.

Sawbones is a hilarious podcast about the ways medicine has, historically, gone wrong. On long drives with nerdy friends, I whip out my phone and we consider which episode to listen to and laugh at: Leprosy? Trepanation? Bloodletting? Plague?

The hosts, Justin and Sydnee McElroy, offer a “marital tour of misguided medicine.” Dr. Sydnee, who is an actual doctor, provides the medical and historical knowledge. Meanwhile her husband, Justin, plays dumb—for example, thinking he’s got leprosy, or positing that menstruation is a disease that needs to be cured.

But last week, Sawbones released a Very Special Episode about vaccines. It was their most requested topic, the hosts said, and they really, really didn’t want to do it. The show is supposed to be light entertainment, and they’ve avoided taking sides on any controversy—even, in the episode on homeopathy, going easy on modern-day adherents of the practice. What made them jump into the fray for vaccines? In Justin’s words: “It’s 2014, and kids are getting the measles.”

You can listen to the episode here:

The other problem with featuring vaccines on Sawbones was simply that medicine got it right. While most of the treatments they lampoon on the show are ones that sort of sound plausible, but were wrong, vaccines sound totally weird (give my kid a sick person’s pus?!) but actually work. So it’s not a history of mistakes, but for the most part a string of successes.

It is also, touchingly, at many times a story of parents trying to save their children from death. I saw in the story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu a reflection of today’s “mommy wars” over vaccines. She was a young mom who had lost her brother to smallpox. Her husband was the English ambassador to Turkey, and while she lived there she learned about variolation, in which a healthy person is given liquid from a smallpox pustule. (If the virus involved is Variola minor, you’ll gain immunity to both that and the more serious Variola major.)

Lady Mary had her 5-year-old son inoculated in Turkey, and after returning to England, had her daughter inoculated in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. She encouraged others to try variolation, but it didn’t catch on (too foreign) until Princess Caroline allowed it for her children. And she didn’t try it until after it had been tested, first on a group of death row prisoners, and later (for good measure) on a half-dozen orphans.

OK, so they got the science right, but the ethics way, way wrong. Several times.

When Edward Jenner famously made the first vaccine—from vacca for cow—he gave it to James Phipps, the son of a poor worker. Dr. Sydnee and Justin speculate that money may have changed hands (would YOU volunteer your son to catch a cow disease?), but there’s no record of a payoff at the time (he did give Phipps a free lease on a house, later in life). Jenner then attempted to infect the child with smallpox twenty more times in his life. Fortunately for the kid, the vaccine had worked.

Worse yet, to provide colonies with the vaccine, cowpox was given to five orphans who were then shipped across the ocean.

Throughout the story, our Sawbones hosts marvel at how weird the techniques were. And yet, they worked. Weirder still, they caught on. Vaccination was such a success that smallpox was, in 1977, officially eradicated. Dr. Sydnee recalls learning the progression of smallpox lesions in medical school: “macule to papule to vesicle to pustule,” she recites, and adds that, fingers crossed, she should never have to use that knowledge.

But you know what comes next. As soon as they released that episode, mentioning in an offhand way that smallpox now only exists in two labs in the world (one in the US, one in what is now Russia), a third stash of smallpox virus was found in the back of a fridge in Bethesda.

Still, the World Health Organization keeps stockpiles of smallpox vaccine and recommends that the existing virus stocks not be destroyed, an idea that is floated from time to time. We don’t know what other refrigerators smallpox might lurk in; best to be prepared.

Category: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why young Americans aren’t using Obamacare


You’re going to need insurance if you break your neck doing a keg stand…

The first open enrolment period for Obamacare ended this March. Despite the cringe-worthy ads, it was a success. 9.5 million Americans now have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act – a huge step forward for President Obama’s vision of universal healthcare for the country. The rate of uninsured adults has dropped from 20% last year to 15% this year (1).  Given the disastrous roll-out phase of the program, this surge in enrolment is encouraging to those who view Obamacare with a glass half-full attitude. However, there are still roadblocks on the path to equitable and affordable health care for Americans. One of these is the fact that young Americans simply aren’t signing up for health insurance as much as they should.

According to the just-released Commonwealth Fund poll, 18% of young adults (ages 19-34) are currently uninsured (1). This figure is much lower than last year, but is still higher than the nationwide-average of 15%. It’s strange, because the idea of universal healthcare was likely a big draw for young democratically-minded Americans hoping for a more equal society under Barack Obama. So why aren’t we buying in?

Being young, we feel invincible. And rightly so – young people enjoy the best health.  In fact, as a young person, it can be more expensive to visit the ER if you are insured versus not. A recent study estimated that an uninsured young adult visiting the ER once in 2014 will pay an average of $2,022 in out-of-pocket costs (2). On the other hand, the average insured young adult visiting the ER once will pay $2,791 in the 2014 year for their insurance premium and the remaining out-of-pocket cost of the ER visit.  This example is a bit extreme, since it assumes that the only healthcare used in one year would be one ER visit. More realistically, the insured person would win out in the end if he or she uses other healthcare services as well.  But, it exemplifies how you wouldn’t necessarily save money as a young person if you have a medical emergency. Even with the cost of the penalty for not buying insurance (which will go significantly up in future!), it can still be cheaper to go uninsured.

The question of whether or not to buy health insurance as a young person is a game of risk, and how much of it we’re willing to bear.

Another issue is that we don’t bother to educate ourselves about health insurance, and the government doesn’t do much to help us. Over one-quarter of Americans aged 19 to 29 didn’t even know that the ‘Health Insurance Marketplace’ – the online portal for getting information, comparing plans, and purchasing health insurance – even exists. That’s a huge problem. But, it’s not entirely our fault. Even for highly educated young adults, the HealthCare.gov website can be remarkably difficult to navigate. A study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine recorded the following problems with the website (3):

-          Poor explanations of technical health insurance terms

-          An overwhelming amount of information

-          It’s not clear that preventive health services like cancer screenings are always free (they are!)

-          It’s difficult to figure out which plan is best suited to you and your needs

-          The ‘catastrophic’ insurance category sounds scary

If young, highly-educated people encounter these seemingly basic problems, then that’s a scary thing. Think about how older adults with lower education, or whose first language isn’t English might do when trying to make a good decision when buying health insurance. It’s really difficult to communicate complex risk information, and as a result most people (even young, highly educated people!) have low ‘risk literacy’. Check out this 3-minute Risk Literacy to see how well you do – you might be surprised.


So, what’s the take-home message? As always, no matter whether you are old or young, or whether you have health insurance or not, take the time to educate yourself so that you can make the best decisions and be in control of your own health and how it’s taken care of. The benefit of Obamacare to the country is obvious now after this open enrolment period. The new Commonwealth Fund report states that:

By June [2014], six of 10 adults with new marketplace or Medicaid coverage said they had used their insurance to go to a doctor or hospital or to fill a prescription. A majority said they would not have been able to access or afford this care before enrolling.

If you are a young American and don’t have health insurance, you really should look into getting some. You might find that it’s not worth it for you, and that’s fine. It’s a politicized issue too, so it’s good to decide what stance you take on it. Every citizen plays a role in the future of Obamacare, and be extension, the future of equality and the welfare state in America. And, the penalty fee is going to be quite hefty in the next few years if you don’t sign up (4).

Image source: http://doyougotinsurance.com/


1)      Collins SR, Rasmussen PW, Doty MM. Gaining Ground: American’s health insurance coverage and access to care after the Affordable Care Act’s first open enrolment period. Commonwealth Fund. Report number: 1670, 2014.

2)      Pratini N. The $1000 mistake? Why getting insured is 5x more costly for healthy young adults in 2014. http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/health/2014/01/14/cost-health-insurance-young-adults/ (accessed 13 July 2014).

3)      Wong CA, Asch DA, Vinoya CM, Ford CA, Baker T, Town R, et al. The experience of young adults on HealthCare.gov: suggestions for improvement: a case report. Ann Intern Med 2014; doi:10.7326/L14-0287

4)      Patton M. Obamacare: Penalties and exemptions. http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikepatton/2013/10/28/obamacare-penalties-and-exemptions/ (accessed 13 July 2014).

Category: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The worm turns no more…

Public Health Perspectives is pleased to welcome Charles Ebikeme to the blog this week. For more information about Charles, see the end of this post.

Bandaged children read about the guinea worm.

Bandaged children read about the guinea worm.

John Stavely, age 24 and unassuming, arrived at Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana in June of 1842. He spent no more than 65 days on the gold coast, stowing and moving palm oil casks in the holds of the sailing ladies that came and went.

It was not until May of the next year that he began to suspect something was seriously wrong – a sore on his left instep. It caused him little pain at the time. After a while his sore had grown – a worm the width of a violin string was searching for its way out, migrating through his subcutaneous tissue. His leg became inflamed and many abscesses formed. It turned out that there were three of those little worms – or filaria – wriggling inside his body; one in his left leg, one in his left forearm, and the other in his right foot. All were over two feet long. The disease was Dracunculiasis, and is caused by the parasitic worm Dracunculus medinensis.

It took two weeks for his physician to finally take out the worm in his foot, extracting it, little by little, wrapping it around a small piece of rag.

John Stavely’s case of guinea worm was an early documented case of dracunculiasis, but was in no way the earliest. The Ghanaians that worked with him on the ships bound their legs with leaves to cover the marks, blisters and ulcers caused by the worms. Guinea worm has been documented in Egyptian medical texts as early as the 15th century BC. In the book of Numbers, when the Israelites spoke out against their god, the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, biting and killing them. These “fiery serpents” referenced are thought to be guinea worm.

The case of guinea worm eradication is one of the more under-reported global health stories. A completely non-revolutionary tale made even more remarkable if you think that there is no treatment or vaccine for the disease.

The only way to eliminate the disease is to avoid its playground: sources of water that are contaminated with the tiny crustaceans that act as hosts for the worm’s larvae.

From an estimated 3.5 million cases in 1986, there has been a dramatic reduction, with only 1058 cases reported in 2011. The majority of these cases occurred in South Sudan, and a few cases in Mali, Ethiopia and Chad. It is very probable that zero cases will be achieved in the coming years.

Eradication programmes have been multi-pronged and old-fashioned, a far cry from the technological revolution that inspired much of the global health revolution with former US President Jimmy Carter leading the charge. Eradication depends almost entirely on education – teaching people how to avoid contaminating water sources and how to avoid infection. This together with filtering drinking water with straws with cloth filters and treating water sources with larvicide, form a concerted eradication effort.

In many remote villages in Mali, people get their water from rivers and ponds nearby. Water potentially contaminated with the larvae of the guinea worm. It is usually the children’s job to fetch the water. If a child who is infected is in charge of collecting the water, as is often the case, they could go on to transmit the disease and contaminate a further 300 people. In Mali, UNICEF go to great lengths to isolate those already infected – placing them in makeshift clinics for the duration of their treatment. Local health authorities financially reward anyone who informs them of the presence of infected cases and those infected are also rewarded for coming in for treatment.

The safe and effective solution comes from the provision of safe supplies of water, ensuring that villagers are able to filter the water they collect. If no filter is present then people simply pour water through large pieces of clothing or fabric (another low-tech solution).

When an eradication effort comes down to the last quarter of an inch — from a global agreement across countries, fierce political will, and from an effort that spans many decades — the last remaining piece of the puzzle is that you need to be able to get to people (and to that last individual). This often proves a huge logistical challenge, and has seen some efforts fall at the final stage (the global effort to eradicate malaria is one example). But the signs of progress are in the numbers.

In January of this year, the Carter Center announced that only 148 cases of guinea worm disease remain worldwide, with South Sudan reporting 76% of total cases in 2013.

Very early on, global disease eradication campaigners understood that Sudan would likely be a last bastion of dracunculiasis. From independence in 2011, South Sudan has continued to face deteriorating humanitarian and health conditions.

With South Sudan a pastoralist community, population movements in cattle camps and continued low safe water coverage in endemic villages posed daunting operational challenges for the country eradication programme coordinated by the WHO. The WHO South Sudan report wrote in 2012 that ”there are also uncertainty and concerns in achieving good surveillance in parts of Jonglei because of poor road network and high insecurity.” Former US President Jimmy Carter said,

“As we near the finish line in this eradication campaign, The Carter Center and its partners remain committed to ending the devastating suffering caused by Guinea worm disease, recognizing that the final cases of any eradication campaign are the most challenging and most expensive to eliminate,”

Countries only enter the WHO precertification stage of eradication after completing one full calendar year of reporting no cases. South Sudan is currently some way off from this (2 new cases were reported in April) although it is a much improved situation compared to last year when 31 cases were reported during the same period.

The one year incubation period leaves little room for mistakes, and makes declaration of elimination tricky. Currently, there are nine people walking around with the little worms wriggling inside. Perhaps the worms are in the leg, the foot, or the forearm; all probably quite large. But most certainly, this will definitely be the last of the disease.

About Charles

charles_ebikeme (1)

Charles Ebikeme is a science journalist with a PhD in parisitology who serves as a Science Officer with the International Social Science Council of UNESCO and writes frequently on global health, health policy, neglected tropical diseases and infectious diseases for The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Scientific American, and Think Africa Press. He is based in Paris. You can find him on Twitter @CEbikeme.


Image Credit: The Carter Center/L. Gubb



Case of Filaria Medinensis, or Guinea Worm.

Oke WS.

Prov Med J Retrosp Med Sci. 1843 Aug 26;6(152):446-7.


Logistics of Guinea Worm Disease Eradication in South Sudan

Alexander H. Jones et al.

Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 90(3), 2014, pp. 393–401



Dracunculiasis eradication – Finishing the job before surprises arise

Benjamin Jelle Visser

Asian Pac J Trop Med. 2012 Jul;5(7):505-10. doi: 10.1016/S1995-7645(12)60088-1.


Dracunculiasis eradication and the legacy of the smallpox campaign: What’s new and innovative? What’s old and principled?

Frank O Richards et al.

Vaccine. 2011 Dec 30;29 Suppl 4:D86-90. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2011.07.115.

Category: Epidemiology, Guest Posts, Health systems, History of Public Health, Infectious disease | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment