Sunday, December 31, 2006

The 'gay' sheep saga continues


I posted in the past a few items on the biological research on the sexual orientation of sheep at OHSU. Here's a link to an article in today's SUNDAY TIMES on the issue. Further reports were published here and here, particularly ridiculous was a commentary published in the NEW YORK SUN. The same nutter published the same commentary (well, more or less the same) in a Moonie owned rag called WASHINGTON TIMES (not to be confused with a serious paper, the WASHINGTON POST). In case you wonder why one should spend any time whatsoever discussing this matter, you might wish to check out this US based blog, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this and this for a UK based ranting (cheap shot, I know, but there's plenty more where that came from).
To give credit where credit is due, some are concerned about the potential abuse of such research, eg here, here and here. I must admit I began to wonder about the kind of institution that OHSU is when I read this piece :-) [just kiddin].

Another torturer down ...


Saddam Hussein, former Pres of Iraq and another torturer in chief was hanged yesterday. Frankly, even people usually opposed to capital punishment (like myself) should probably not give a toss one way or another. This guy has been responsible for terrible atrocities during his reign. Millions of Iraqi citizens left their country to protect their very lives from him and his thugs.

Having said that, the trial has of course been farcical. Set up essentially by the winners (if there is such a thing, given the mayhem in that country) of the war, the presiding judges were removed twice during the trial because the current powers that are in Iraq didn't like what they had to say. The actual execution was also a bit macabre. The executioners all wore hoods above their heads, not a great deal different to the way how Saddam's prisoners were executed I would imagine. If the new, 'democratic' Iraq can't do a great deal better than the old one... perhaps there is reason to be concerned for its future.

Here's a nice compilation of quotes from Arab papers on his execution.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Xmas and things


Quite amusing the kind of verbal acrobatic us atheists/secularists/agnostics engage in when we try to avoid Xmas in our email and other communications come December 24/25/26. Trying to avoid the obvious, namely Xmas, we go about it by wishing just about everything else, thereby nonetheless acknowledging the need to wish anything special at all. So we send 'Season's Greetings', wish a 'very early' HNY or a 'great holiday'. - All fair enough I guess. After all, we don't believe in Jesus Christ superstar and the rest of the trinitarian crowd. We should probably wish a 'Merry Christmas' to those who believe. I wonder, though, why we should spend a lot of time wishing anyone else anything else. A Christian friend sent her 'chrissie' greetings, while a colleague of unknown beliefs send 'happy holidays etc etc'. Another nice way of leaving the greetings matter open. After all, you'd substitute the 'etc' with 'Xmas' if you wish or wish 'lots of gifts' or indeed with 'and plenty more good sex'. In most non Xtian countries there are no holidays and Chinese NY falls on a different day than our Jesus Christ inspired NY. So, why bother wishing a HNY either?
Guess those of us who truly don't believe should just move on with their lives and stop wishing this and that just because it's the time of wishing things.
But that's just me, struggling every year about this time with the question of whether to wish, and if so, what to wish...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Oxford Dons refuse to hand control over to externally controlled Council

It seems that not all is lost in higher education. Oxford University's academics refused to hand over control of the institution's financial affairs to external Council members. Thereby they ensured that the self-governance of one of the world's premier universities remains a certainty. This ultimately will ensure a greater degree of academic freedom than would otherwise be the case. Congratulation to colleagues at Oxford for preventing ex-businessman turned Oxford Vice Chancellor John Hood from handing control over the university effectively to external business people.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Unethical HIV research

ACT UP Paris has been critical of currently ongoing clinical HIV trials in Uganda and Zimbabwe. Check out this link for further detailled information. The organisation is concerned about standards of care, informed consent issues and claims that patients in these trials are subjected to unnecessary risks.

Friday, December 15, 2006

UK arms sales corruption probe

The current UK Prime Minister entered office with the promise to deliver the cleanest government ever in the history of the country. True to form his Attorney General ended today a corruption probe investigating whether BAE had indeed used a 60 mio GBP slush fund to bribe Saudi officials in order to seal a major arms deal. Remarkably the investigation wasn't ended because it was all too obvious for anyone to see that the allegations were untrue. No, the investigation was ended due to it being considered a threat to 'national security'... - No wonder there is an ever growing lack of trust in politicians and politics in the country.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Primate experiments are 'morally required' say scientists

A report by a group of leading biomedical researchers, chaired by David Weatherall, has concluded, according to THE TIMES that 'Experiments with monkeys are “morally required” as the only way to answer scientific questions of crucial importance to human health, an expert inquiry said yesterday.' I am not qualified to evaluate the scientific claim herein, namely that 'scientific questions of crucial importance to human health' can only be answered by undertaking experiments involving primates. I have some doubts, as surely, experiments involving humans should yield even better results. Be that as it may, though, an ethical case for primate research could not possibly be made even if that statement was correct. It is not possible to derive a moral ought from this observation. To be fair, however, this conclusion was cooked up by a TIMES journalist. The actual report contains a reasonably sophisticated analysis of the ethical issues involved.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Che Guevara and today's students



Good (or bad) ol Che has become a Warhol like icon of modern consumerism. No doubt he would turn in his grave did he know. Alas, we don't turn in our graves when we are dead, because that is part of being dead (ie we don't move about anylonger).
What puzzles me about this current fashion is that seemingly most of those youngsters (well, being safely in my 40s now, folks in their 20s are youngsters on my books) have no clue whatsoever about Che Guevara's ideals, and much of his life. Just the other day I noticed in a very close friend's bedroom a huge Che poster (red background, the lot). Thing is, my friend is a deep adherent of modern capitalism, he shows open disdain for my 'public sector' work as an educator, wants to open up a business and be a successful entrepreneur. Now, surely my friend is entitled to his views. What is puzzling about this one, however, is that Che Guevara, had he come across my friend during the Cuban revolution, would have had him shot on sight.
Well, you'd argue that at a time when Milos Foreman's songs from his musical HAIR are being abused to sell shampoo, quite possibly we should accept that Che's face graces the bedroom walls of business students. I remain unconvinced. I still think that once we choose our heroes, we should know enough about them to explain why they are our heroes. But, that's just me

Steven Purcell is gay - who cares?



The papers reported yesterday that the leader of Glasgow City Council, a New Labour politician by the name Steven Purcell 'outed' himself. It seems he split up with his wife some time in summer and for some reason or other thought it worthwhile holding a press conference announcing that he is gay. What puzzled me about this case is that actually even the broadsheets reported this amazing amazing revelation. - I mean, really, this is the 21st century, who cares?

General Pinochet is dead ... finally



Yes, the old king of torture died today, aged 91. Sadly so he successfully managed to escape prosecution and eventual prison for the many crimes against Chilean and other citizens committed under his dictatorship. In case you want to know a bit more about this terrible character, visit the Guardian's website. The paper has an excellent Special Report on Pinochet.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Unethical research on pregnant women with herpes

PUBLIC CITIZEN PRESS RELEASE


Drug-Company Sponsored Research Trial Needlessly Put Indigent Pregnant
Women and Their Infants at Risk

Placebos Administered to Pregnant Women With Genital Herpes Simplex
Virus Resulted in Unnecessary Cesarean Deliveries

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Dozens of primarily indigent pregnant women
enrolled in a drug-company sponsored research trial were needlessly
put at risk by being treated with a placebo rather than a generic drug
proven to help them, according to a letter authored by Public Citizen
and two medical school professors and obstetricians published in the
December edition of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

The trial, funded by Glaxo-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline), measured
the efficacy of valacyclovir administered to pregnant women with a
history of genital herpes simplex virus (HSV) in reducing outbreaks of
genital HSV lesions at the time of labor. Women with HSV outbreaks
during pregnancy, especially those who experience a first episode, are
more likely to have another outbreak while in labor. When this occurs,
a Cesarean delivery is routinely performed to prevent HSV transmission
to the baby, which can result in sometimes-fatal neonatal HSV
infection.

The clinical trial ran from April 1998 to November 2004 at Parkland
Hospital in Dallas, which serves a predominantly low-income
population. The results were published in the July 2006 edition of
Obstetrics & Gynecology, the official journal of the American College
of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Valacyclovir is a drug that is converted in the body into acyclovir.
Since 1999, acyclovir has been recommended by ACOG to be considered at
36 weeks of gestation for pregnant women with their first episode of
HSV during that pregnancy to prevent another outbreak at the time of
labor and the need for a Cesarean delivery. The authors of the study
ignored this guideline by including in the trial 62 women who had a
first episode of genital HSV during the pregnancy, most presumably
recruited after the ACOG guidelines were published.

In addition, four of the researchers who wrote the 2006 article
published a review article in 2003 that concluded that acyclovir
significantly reduced Cesarean rates for women with both first and
recurrent episodes of HSV compared to a placebo. Nonetheless, for more
than a year after submitting their findings, the researchers continued
to enroll women with both first and recurrent episodes, half of whom
received placebos.

"At the very same time these researchers were publishing their
conclusion that acyclovir could reduce Cesareans, they weren't
offering this drug to these indigent patients," said Dr. Adam Urato,
an obstetrician at the University of South Florida and one of the
letter's authors. "They were knowingly placing their patients at
higher risk. Did the patients understand that the researchers
themselves had concluded that acyclovir reduced the risk of Cesarean?"

As a result of this conduct by both the drug company and the
researchers, a significant number of the women assigned to receive the
placebo had an HSV outbreak that led to a Cesarean section – an
outbreak that likely could have been prevented if they had been
appropriately treated with acyclovir. The Declaration of Helsinki,
developed by the World Medical Association as a statement of ethical
principles in medical research involving human subjects, states that
any "new method should be tested against those of the best current
prophylactic, diagnostic, and therapeutic methods."

The authors of the letter called upon the University of Texas
Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, which authorized the study, to
issue a formal apology to the pregnant women enrolled and to perform a
full investigation as to what went wrong to allow such a trial to take
place. They also called for compensation for the women involved in the
trial who were not properly treated and underwent Cesarean sections.

In addition, they urged ACOG and the editors at Obstetrics &
Gynecology to initiate an inquiry as to how this study was handled by
the journal. The Declaration of Helsinki also implores journals that
"reports of experimentation not in accordance with the principles laid
down in this Declaration should not be accepted for publication."

"Indigent pregnant women represent a particularly vulnerable
population," said Dr. Aaron Caughey, an obstetrician at the University
of California, San Francisco, and the lead author of the letter. "That
a research trial could be performed that put pregnant women at risk
when an effective medication was available flies in the face of
responsible medical research."

Public Citizen has a long history of involvement in the debate over
the appropriate use of placebos in clinical trials, particularly in
developing countries. "We have long contended that if researchers and
drug companies could get away with administering placebos under
questionable conditions in developing countries, they would do the
same to poor people in the United States," said Dr. Peter Lurie,
deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "Now they
have."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

My little letter to the editor of Scottish daily newspapers

The background of the letter (ie the story) can be found here.

And this is my letter:

Perth SNP MSP Roseanna Cunningham's views on adoption of children by same sex couples are remarkable. They are remarkable because they are not even tainted by any attempt to provide sound reasons (harm to children, that sort of stuff) for her prejudices against gay people. Rather, according to her, adoption of children by same sex couples is 'against nature's design'. Feel free to substitute 'God', 'the Almighty' etc etc for 'nature' if you wish, it's the same type of 'reasoning'. Scottish and other philosophers will be deeply grateful to Ms Cunningham as this little piece of 'wisdom' makes for a nice hook to begin a Philosophy 101 module: 'How not to make your case' might be a good heading for that class. The types of ideologues peddling such 'wisdom' tried to convince us a few hundred years back that the earth is flat, among other things. Big surprise then that they have also discovered further moral guidance in nature, telling us that gay adoption is bad. We all know that some people hold prejudices against gay people, ethnic minorities, single parents and other easy targets. What is remarkable is that the Scottish parliament is abused as a venue to propagate such prejudices. I call on the SNP to tell us prior to the next elections what its considered stance on this issue is. Scotland is the most secular part of the UK, surely Scots will want to know whether they can expect from a potential future SNP government gutter driven policies such as those propagated by its MSP Roseanna Cunningham.

... and here... the latest from the US of A


a teenager got shot and killed for throwing eggs at SUVs... seems the driver of one such monster pursued him with his vehicle and shot him.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Car drivers must soon pay for road utilisation


The UK government received a report proposing that car drivers shoulod be charged for using public roads. The report indicates that up to 28 billion GBP could accrue to users of trains and busses per annum. Must say I much like this idea (declaration of potential conflict of interest: I would be a beneficiary of this policy if it came into being - I don't have a driver's license and do not know how to drive a car). This should result into measurable reductions in cars on roads. This in turn would reduce the continuing destruction of our environment as well as make road utilisation more efficient for those using them (they would be able to get faster from A to B as there should be less cars about).
The funny people at SKY news (Rupert Murdoch's 'news' outlet) wondered aloud this morning whether the money would be spend to build more roads...

Friday, November 24, 2006

Caring SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS style

I flew (torture class, don't ask) with South African Airways from London Heathrow to Johannesburg this week. Flight was pretty much unexceptional, the food was digestable, the inflight entertainment was OK, the seat was ... well, I got what I paid for. Even the service was pretty good.

Having said that, however, I want to share this story with you. Udo talks to SAA steward. Explains he has a very bad headache and requests a painkiller. Here's the SAA steward's response. No kidding: 'The person in charge of the painkillers is currently asleep. I can't wake her, as there would be a big fight. You have to wait until she is awake.'

It goes without saying that I went without painkillers as the stewardess 'in charge' of them slept during the night flight.

Cheers to the professional training SAA's stewards and stewardesses receive... makes me wonder whether their pilots also go to sleep and must not be awoken in case their services are needed during the flight...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kuwait democracy


Bit of a joke really... but anyway... go to the Kuwait news agency's website, scroll down the links on the left-hand side of the monitor and click 'Democracy in Kuwait'. Q E D I would think. -

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Patents versus Patients


Oxfam has issued a report today suggesting that rich countries continue to undermine the Doha Declaration (a ministerial agreement of the World Trade Organisation). The agreement was supposed to ensure that poor people living in the developing world will be able to access essential drugs in an affordable and sustainable manner. Oxfam concludes: 'Trade rules remain a major barrier to accessing affordable versions of patented medicines (generic medicines). The prevalence of debilitating and life-threatening diseases in poor countries is growing, but medicines are simply not available.'

Monday, November 13, 2006

Church of England coming out in favour of letting die

As a follow-up to the post below. The medical specialist body of the Church of England supports the view that it may be acceptable under certain circumstances to allow severely disabled newborns to die. It seems the organisation is continuing to think that active euthanasia for such newborns is wrong, but passive euthanasia (with the same consequence but possibly longer agony on the newborns' part) is acceptable.
Here's a remarkable (by Church standards) quote from one of its bishops (ie reasonably senior management type personnel): 'There may be occasions where, for a Christian, compassion will override the 'rule' that life should inevitably be preserved'.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Doctors' Society Asks to Consider Infantizide

Quite remarkable the news item in today's SUNDAY TIMES. The paper discovered a position statement (*pdf file!) the Royal Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology submitted in response to a consultation the Nuffield Council on Bioethics started some time ago. Nothing unusual about this, you might say. Well, the unusual, in fact, the unusually brave, thing about the society's statement is that it asks us to consider whether or not under certain circumstances active euthanasia of very severely disabled newborns is something that we should permit physicians to do. Here's the crucial part from the statement: "We would like the working party to think more radically about non-resuscitation, withdrawal of treatment decisions, the best interests test and active euthanasia as they are ways of widening the management options available to the sickest of newborns." The ethical rationale, as proposed time and again by moral philosophers such as Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and others is that it can be in the best interest of such newborns to get actively killed (in a painless manner that is not causing any distress to these newborns), instead of being kept alive to live a short life of a very low quality.
Quite interesting that this statement was overshadowed by a truly less important event, namely the death penalty for Saddam Hussein, the former ruling dictator of Iraq. To my mind the importance of a mainstream medical association suggesting that we ought to have a discussion about the question of whether active euthanasia for some severely disabled newborns might not the way to go, cannot be overestimated.
Let's hope this discussion will ever take place and changes will be implemented. It seems difficult to accept a status quo in which quality of life is subordinate to mere existence (at whatever cost in terms of life quality. Not all lives are worth living. It seems the Royal Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has come to realise this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

El dia de muertos

The German National Ethics Council will be abolished, long live the German Ethics Council. The old National Ethics Council was an institution essentially stacked with government appointees (much like the various incarnations of its US equivalent). It is proposed that the new German Ethics Council be stacked jointly with appointees by the government and the parliament.
Some have argued that there is a danger that democracy is eventually being replaced by expertocracy. The thing is, though, that the main problem with both outfits is that government has any role at all in appointing its members. Equally, it seems a misconception of the role and function of such advisory bodies that they could ever replace democratic decision making. The buck stops with the elected representatives of the people, and not with some eggheads, appointed by government or government and parliament.It's as simple as that.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Child slavery in Africa


Excellent article in today's New York Times on child slavery in Africa and other developing countries. It highlights the issue also from the perspective of families frequently selling their children into slavery in order to survive.

Germany plans to punish cancer patients who failed to undergo timely screening

The BMJ reports that Germany plans to penalise cancer patients who failed to undergo regular screening. That's very much in line with the country's policy to charge dental patients higher rates who failed to have regular check-ups.
The argument is obviously that these patients had a good chance to prevent getting seriously ill, yet they chose not to do so by omitting to undergo screening. Timely detection of early stage cancer and early intervention dramatically reduce serious illness and death.
Invariably such a drastic policy has its critics. Hazel Thornton writes on BMJ.com that such a policy
'intrudes on an individual`s right to refuse an imperfect intervention that can result in false negative and false positive diagnoses; can lead to gross over-treatment; to psychological harm and false categorisation as `cancer patient`.'
Thornton's argument misses the obvious point that the harmful effects of some false negative and false positive diagnoses are by far outweighed by the majority of correct diagnoses resulting into early treatment. Of course, patients are entitled to refuse such testing, but surely if they do, it is not unreasonable to ask them to compensate other tax payers for the additional cost their behaviour is causing.

post scriptum: Given that this blog has no discussion forum, I have decided to post the below reply to this blog (with permission by the person posting it).
Udo,
Your post on screening seem to imply that it is always cost-effective. Yet I haven't seen any numbers from you other than vague statements of how risks can justify the benefits. Have you done any calculations? You have to factor in that
1) cost of screening of millions of people
2) cost of false positives and invasive tests
3) cost of overdiagnosis - i.e. cost of treatment of people whose cancer wouldn't have caused any problems in their lifetime
4) cost of longer treatment for aggressive cases that are not helped by the treatment other than increase the time after diagnosis (at the expense of time before) (read up on lead-time bias if you don't understand what I am talking about here).
Do you know statistics at least a little bit? Do you understand the difference between relative risk and absolute risk reduction? Do you have a clue about how many people need to be tested for one person to benefit? Do you know that for every person whose life is prolonged, several are treated unnecessarily and may have life shortened as a result?

Do you know that you have a higher chance of being diagnised with some cancers if you are screened? Are you aware that because of false positives and overdiagnosis lots of popular screenings are not even remotely cost-effective because cost of screening+cost of treatment for overdiagnosed cases+ cost of false positives is significantly greater than the savings on less treatment for few?

You can take mammograms as one example and do your math. You can use numbers from this article ( http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/330/7497/936) which many consider overly optimistic - the mortality reduction listed in this article is way higher that what USPSTF used and about 4 times more optimistic than more recent Cochrane review (from October this year). If German government is using cost to justify their plans - they are way off. Insurance companies had to be forced to pay for screening because unlike German government they can do their math.

The balance of benefit and harm for most screening tests is not as clear cut as you think it is. Few peolple benefit tremendously from it, but some are hurt. It'd be nice to have some proof of cost effectiveness before you start penalizing people for not doing it.

M




Tuesday, October 24, 2006

More on 'gay sheep' research


I have finally made a decision re PETA's request to support their quest to have 'gay sheep' research at Oregon State University stopped. Here's the background of the story. On October 19, 2006 I wrote this letter to the Principal of the institution...

Dear Dr Ray:

PETA contacted me some time ago with regard to research undertaken by your Dr Roselli and colleagues. This, I assume, is primarily due to
the fact that I am reasonably well-known in the field of bioethics and
also perhaps due to my outspoken views on biological research on
sexual orientation.

I have since contacted Dr Roselli with questions pertaining to his
research. He chose not to respond. Assuming that his mail bag has
grown a bit since PETA's campaign, I won't fault him for that.

Having said that, based on my understanding of his research, he seems
interested in questions pertaining to the sexual orientation (and
their alterability) of higher mammals, with the main focus of his
research being sheep.

I should be honest, unless I misunderstand the research in question, I
think Dr Roselli's serves no health related purpose. Once his
questions have been answered one way or another, there are no health
benefits flowing either to sheep or any other higher mammals,
including humans. I do think that it is highly ethically questionable
whether it is acceptable to subject higher mammals to pain and
suffering in the course of research the outcome of which has not the
well-being and health of higher mammals in mind.

Equally, while I do not subscribe to the view that Dr Roselli himself
is driven by any kind of homophobic agenda, I cannot see how any
research results he might come up with would not be seized upon by
people with precisely such an agenda.

This brings me to the question of whether or not such research ought
to be undertaken. For better or worse, I have spend five years
working in a leading Southern African medical school. Considering the
health problems the world is facing, it seems remarkable to me that a
leading scientist such as Dr Roselli should concern himself with
frankly irrelevant questions. That the pursuit of these research
questions should result into pain, suffering and death for higher
mammals makes his endeavour all the more questionable.

Sincerely,

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sack Manto - What a Brilliant Idea

What a brilliant idea! South Africa'sMinister for Health (Prevention), Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has finally got her own fan club, a website calling for her to be sacked ASAP. Tshabalala-Msimang, dutifully carrying out the painfully idiotic views of her boss, the country's President, Thabo Mbeki (who thinks HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that there is no AIDS epidemic in his country), should have been sacked a long time ago, along with Thabo Mbeki.
So, make sure to leave your vote and support the campaign to get Tshabalala-Msimang sacked.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Faith schools - another anachronism


Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, went on public record demanding that faith schools become less exclusive and take in up to 25% pupils coming from other faiths or none. Funny man he is. Can't he see that the whole point of faith schools is segregation and the fostering of secterianism. Otherwise we would have only public schools in which all pupils received the same education. Faith at best entered the school by way of explaining what faiths are out there to adopt by those inclined to believe in a good omniscient 'God', 'Allah' or some creation like em.
Faith schools primary objective is to indoctrinate kids to ensure they stick with a particular religious ideology throughout their lives, thereby guaranteeing to the leaders of these religions influence in public life that they wouldn't have if they had to rely on the power of their arguments.
It is somewhat amusing that we have at this point in time a big debate about Muslim teachers wearing the Ninja turtle outfit during class, while the much larger moral evil is the very existence of faith schools. They clearly are designed to rob future generations of the opportunity to enter the world of adulthood without having been indoctrinated for many many years. A good colleague of mine calls this 'child abuse'.

Monday, October 16, 2006

madonna's children


So it's 'amtlich', Madonna is trying to adopt a boy in Malawi. Should she be allowed to do so? A whole bunch of professional do-gooders believe she shouldn't. Mostly children's charities operating in Malawi and the perhaps inescapable church groups. They're currently going to court in Malawai to prevent the adoption from going ahead.

This leads to various interesting questions, chief among them whether Madonna's course of action was the best she could have taken under the circumstances. This question is being asked by lots of commentators and the opinion of most is that Madonna is doing something wrong. Their main rationale is that she could help more orphans in Malawai if she sponsored instead schools or sponsored a much larger number of children thru a charity.

The critics clearly have a point here. However, that taking legal action in order to prevent the adoption from going ahead is the right response is doubtful. Imagine if it became a universal rule that unless you undertook a particular course of altruistic action some charity or other would sue you and demand that you do what it believes is the best thing (usually probably sponsor the charity and its staff...). In Madonna's case, it seems somewhat clear that everyone is better off (the child will have a fairly comfortable upbringing together with Madonna's other pampered off-spring; Madonna got the additional child that she wanted, the kid's biological father is supportive because he doesn't have to worry anylonger abbout the child's welfare).

So, while we're probably entitled to snigger at Madonna's action, clearly the actual outcome is desireable. There certainly is no reason to take legal action to prevent the adoption from going ahead.

A second question that puzzles me a bit is this: If the charities are really so concerned about children in need, is it acceptable to put a lot of stress on a little child in order to pursue a legal (and, let's face it, political) case against Madonna. After all, while the kid is getting used to seeing Madonna and her other half as his parents, there are these children's charities trying to bring this process to an end. How would the kid feel if they succeeded? Surely it's not better off returning to an impoverished African orphanage. The point I am trying to make is that the legal case is surely not in the child's best interest, quite to the contrary.

This, again, makes me wonder about the charities' motives.

I can't help thinking that this adoption is also a fairly powerfulstatement against racism...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Crime in South Africa


While I whinge (just below) about my stolen bike... one should never forget, that everything in this regard is relative. JUst check out the most recent (official, as in: not entirely credible) crime stats from the rainbow nation (aka South Africa).
Here's Cape Town's ex Archbishop Desmond Tutu's take on this matter.

Stolen Bikes and People





Check it out ... I got myself a new bike... yet again. It's the white Diamondback. The black Trek 4300 is the most recently stolen one. Beautiful bike... had it less than a year. - There is something odd about the UK and my bikes. I have lived over the years in quite a number of different countries, some of which with a substantially higher crime rate than the UK (think Joburg, South Africa). Thing is though, I have nowhere lost as many bicycles to theft as I have in the UK. It's truly belief defying. I guess during the last 18 months or so I lost bikes worth close to 2000 GBP to theft.
What particulary irks me is that there doesn't seem to be any culture of watching out for one's neighbours in this country. Most recently I had a bike stolen outside Tesco's in Argyle street. Now, that's an innercity food store. There's is substantial 24 hour pedestrian traffic. Yet, someone cutting thru my chain in order to steal the bike while I did my food shopping, didn't motivate any of the passers-by to call the police or even the security guard responsible for ensuring nobody steals Tesco's yoghurts. Not that the company seems to care about the perils its customers vehicles are in while their owners are shopping at Tesco's.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Organ 'donations' Chinese style


There have long been rumours that the organs of executed prisoners in the PR of China are available for sale to the highest foreign bidder. The UK's BBC managed to provide evidence for this. Its undercover journalist went into one of the largest organ transplant specialist hospitals in the PR of China and posed as a buyer (supposedly looking to buy an organ for his father). A doctor and a special marketing person from the hospital explained the deal to him (all on the tape from the hidden camera). Interesting anecdote on the side, the doctor advised that this is a particularly good time to buy organs as they have a surplus of executed prisoners' organs due to the fact that there is a wave of executions prior to an upcoming national holiday... nuff said, check the story out here According to news reports the country executed approximately 1770 people in 2005.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Researching 'gay' sheep


Weird story. I received a message from PETA asking whether I would support their campaign to have research involving 'gay' sheep at Oregon Health and Science's University stopped. From what I gather researchers there investigate the question of what leads some male-oriented rams to be male-oriented as opposed to female-oriented. They also experimented with changing hormone levels in sheep fetuses. The ethical questions with re to this research are really two fold: one certainly is whether this research interest is ethically justifiable, seeing that some animal suffering and death is involved (given that once the answer is found, there would be no health benefits for either sheep or humans or any other higher mammals), the other is whether this type of research ought to be undertaken in homophobic societies?
It will be interesting to see how these scientists will respond to public criticism of their work.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why do we admire people doing silly and risky things?

It's kinda weird, a few weeks ago this Australian guy died who had a habit of fighting with crocodiles in front of cameras. He died in a freak accident, swimming too close to a sting ray. The frightened sting ray stung him with its tail in his heart. He died nearly instantly. Big drama in Down Under, the PM giving a speech celebrating the dead guy, stuff like one would expect in that part of the world.
Last night a presenter on a show usually propagating highly expensive, outrageously oversized gaz guzzling cars nearly killed himself while trying to set a new land speed record while riding a rocket driven vehicle. He crashed at something like 280-300 MPH. Since then the UK is in crisis mode much like Down Under for its hero.
The UK NHS is, of course, paid for by our taxes. I'm truly surprised that not more people are really upset that massive resources are spent on keeping this rocket car riding TV presenter alive. Why should we spent money to cover him for follies that he committed? To my mind, such people ought to be forced to take out private health insurance that is covering such risk behaviour. Thereby the general public (not usually prone to engage in similarly nonsensical activities!) can focus on spending its health care tax monies in other areas.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Burning the Pope's image


So, there we go again, someone criticises Islam and a few hours later the speaker's effigy is burned all over the Islamic world. There's something slightly contradictory about this peace loving ideology and too many of its proponents and 'representatives'. Particularly ironic is that the Pope (a rightwing ideologue by most people's standards) agrees with those currently burning his effigy on just about everything from opposition to reproductive health rights to gay equality to funny ideas about evolution. Putting these natural allies noses out of joint is kinda intriguing.
Here's what he had to say (quoting an obscure Christian character who died hundreds of years back): 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' Invariably accusations form those burning the effigy suggest that the Pope got it all wrong, yet their very reaction makes one wonder (one being someone like me who is not a scholar on anything Muhammad or Jesus or Dianetics).
What irritates me so very much about this affair is that these people don't seem to realise that their convictions are all man-made. They are chosen by their adherents in a manner similar to other ideologies. It is entirely unclear why their leaders think that somehow they should be above criticism and ridicule anymore then, say, the Labour Party in the UK or the Rpublicans in the US. My gut feeling is that they know about the inellectual poverty of their enterprise. It is probably in direct response to their inability to defend their ideology that they quickly resort to the silencing of critics by various civilised and uncivilised means.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Proper role of Applied Ethics


There has been some argument in recent years about the proper role of Applied Ethics. Should the types of questions people in Applied Ethics confront be determined by the number of sentient beings currently (or potentially in future) affected by a given problem? Or should we aim to resolve particularly theoretically challenging questions, even if the answers to these questions would, if implemented, affect only very few sentient beings? Well... I have argued in a number of articles and editorials for an affirmative stance on the first as opposed to the latter proposition. Surely there is little utility in calling something applied ethics if it isn't applied to a real-world practical problem. What are your views?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Test picture: Scottish Highlands


Picture 165
Originally uploaded by udo schuklenk.

Just testing whether Flickr gamma and blogger beta talk to each other. Ignore this posting and/or enjoy the picture :).
udo

Friday, September 08, 2006

Consciousness in PVS - Bollocks...

The Scotsman reports in today's edition that some people in persistent vegetative state might be conscious to a certain extent and capable of responding for instance to sentences spoken to them. Steve Miles, MD, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota comments: '1. This woman had suffered a traumatic, not ischemic, brain injury five months before the testing. 2. The MRI showed that the frontal cortex was damaged from the trauma and post accident surgery but that the cortex and white matter were essential intact.
3. The PVS was diagnosed with the Royal College of Physicians 2003 guidelines. http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/pubs/wp_vegetativestate.pdf However, those guidelines do not allow the diagnosis of post traumatic PVS until one year after the trauma because of the 20% prognosis for recovery in such persons. The clinical exam at 11.5 months showed recovery to Minimal Conscious State thus moving her outside the diagnosis of PVS as defined by the Royal College. 4. She was asked to imagine herself touring her house and playing tennis and appropriate areas of the brain showed metabolic activity. The researchers interpreted this as intentional cooperation rather than as word association responsiveness. She was not given a neutral stimulus such as “tennis” to test this difference.'

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Go Zoe Go!

Zoe Williams comments in today's GUARDIAN newspaper that we all should take a much stronger stance against what she describes as 'deranged opponents of a vaccine against cervical cancer'. The main thing about a cervical cancer vaccine is that for it to act successfully against the HPV (which causes cervical cancer) it must be administered before women start having sex (with men). Once you got the bug, the vaccine can't help you.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Christian Right is busily agitating against the vaccine saying that it would encourage young girls to have sex before they should. Of course, they are also quietly saying that girls should only have sex in marriage. Knowing, however, that this doesn't go down too well in modern societies they aim to prevent young girls from access to this potentially life saving vaccine.
Read Zoe Williams fairly sharp but to the point analysis is here.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Good news on the organ transplantion front

Today at midnight new regulations will come into effect in the UK. On current estimates they will prevent approximately 1200 unnecessary deaths p/a. Under the current regime relatives of a deceased person can prevent the NHS from utilising the deceased's organs for transplantation purposes. This results every year into what I would call unnecessary deaths of people on transplant waiting lists who are unable to access life-preserving donor organs in time. Under the new regime the relatives won't be able to stop this process. In other words, the state assumes as of midnight today that a deceased person would want to preserve a fellow citizen's life by means of permitting her organs to be utilised for transplantation purposes. Anyone objecting to this can carry on him a note saying that in case of death he would not wish to see his organs utilised in such a manner. The result of this policy changes is estimated to prevent 1200 premature deaths per year.
Good news indeed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

UK National Health Service IVF rules criticised


The British Fertility Sociey has issued a document arguing that obese women (and others where the expensive, tax payer funded IVF treatment that is provided free of charge, is less likely to be successful) should be denied access to fertility treatment within the NHS.
I think, if the objective of providing free IVF treatment is to maximise the number of new babies born per GBP invested, this probably is a very sensible policy. Indeed, the Society argues that healthy singles and lesbian couples should not be discriminated against in terms of IVF access.
This is all very sensible if one accepts a fairly questionable premise, namely the idea that people are somehow entitled for other taxpayers to pay so that their urges to have a genetically linked child are satisfied. About this I have serious doubts. Our planet remains seriously overpopulated, a couple of hours flying time away hundred thousands of children have become orphans due to the ravages of HIV/AIDS, yet in this country tax monies are being wasted so that people can have their 'own' children instead of taking care of any number of children in need of parents that they could also care for.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Friday, August 25, 2006

AIDS babble


Stephen Lewis (picture to the left), a left-liberal Canadian AIDS activist, and currently the UN special envoy to AIDS, is a good man. A good man simply by virtue of the fact that the South African government wanted him removed for his trenchant criticisms of its genozidal policies on AIDS. The country's health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is these days widely referred to as DR Beetroot due to her continuing insistence that people with HIV/AIDS should take to African remedies such as beet root, garlic and other goodies instead of anti-retroviral medicines.
In any case, Lewis, in a clear sign of succumbing to that sometimes dreadful illness of political correctness suggested in his parting speech to the World AIDS Congress (a large inconsequential talkfest attracting in excess of 10,000 AIDS activists, reporters and a few scientists), suggested that the next AIDS special envoy on AIDS should be a black woman.
Seeing that blackness and biological gender seem to be his only selection criteria, one wonders whether Manto is going to throw her hat in the ring, seeing that at home there is a growing campaign of civil disobedience by people with HIV/AIDS against her continuing tenure.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What's wrong GM?


General Motors, the dying dinosaur of US car making is attempting a come-back with a car truly appropriate to the age of global warming and depleted oil resources. It's a state-of-the-art product. - They re-invented the Camaro, a car, reportedly taking 1 litre of petrol to transport two people for one kilometre. A car (for the retiring baby boomers, they say), running on something like 400+ horse power.

One can only hope GM dies sooner rather than later, seeing that otherwise its products will kill us sooner rather than later.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

South African health minister acts against people with HIV/AIDS


Incredibly as it may sound, South Africa's health minister asked her department to display a stall during the currently ongoing AIDS talk fest in Toronto. The stall displayed prominently her favourite remedies against the retrovirus, namely garlic, lemon and similar household remedies that have never been demonstrated to have any serious effect on the virus and/or disease progression. Her continuing ethical failure to ensure access to known and tested treatment has cost hundred thousands of South Africans their lives.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Racism in Glasgow


I attended a court case in Glasgow today. A bloke working at Glasgow University as a physicist chose to hurl racial abuse at me last year because I chained my bike against his metal fence. I reported the matter to police to see how well legislation works that aims to prevent such incidents from happening or repeating themselves. Honestly, I was genuinely distressed for about two days, because of those 15 min of non-stop verbal abuse that I was subjected to by this character. Well, after nearly 4 hours of trial, with the prosecutor and the defense lawyer questioning me, another witness and the accused, the court found the accused guilty.
What fascinated me was the accused's brazen lying under oath. Without flinching he lied like there's no tomorrow about the incident in question. In the end the presiding judge didn't believe him.
Still, being not a lawyer, I wonder whether he didn't commit perjury, given that he was under oath?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Conferencing


I am going this week to a European Summer Academy on Bioethics in Ludwigshafen in Germany. Look me up in case you're around town :).

Friday, August 04, 2006

Medical Professionalism - some Indian doctors' version


Something not requiring any commentary... according to a report issued today by news agency Reuters:
Three Indian doctors caught on camera apparently agreeing to amputate the healthy limbs of beggars are to be questioned by the Indian Medical Council, an official said on Tuesday.

Secretly-filmed footage taken by the CNN-IBN news channel and broadcast on Saturday showed one of the doctors asking for 10 000 rupees (about $215) to amputate a lower leg, leaving a stump that may draw sympathy -- and a few rupees -- from passersby.

He then suggests chopping off three fingers from the man's left hand.

Police said one of the three doctors had been questioned and denied the allegations, but that no arrests had been made.

The doctor, from Ghaziabad in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and a satellite town of the capital, New Delhi, explains how he can stitch up blood vessels in a healthy limb, causing it to blacken with gangrene over a few days.


Post scriptum:
Dena Seiden added this: 'I was in India for four months in the winter of 1983-1984. At that time, I encountered many children who had limbs amputated at the direction of their parents as they would be more effective beggars. I can attest that it is quite effective when one is traveling fourth class on Indian trains and a child thrusts his/her stump into your half asleep face. I was in 16 different health care centers during those months, but I never found a physician who admitted to the procedure. My impression was more that the parents did it themselves or found a local person who was known for doing amputations of children's limbs.'

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Middle East wars


We hear a lot on TV about innocent people dying in Lebanon as a consequence of Israel's attacks against Hizbullah. I found this little video on tube, featuring Iran's Ahmad Katami. It's quite revealing I should think...

Here's a piece featuring young Palestinian girls aiming to die for their God and Islamic causes. Truly boggles the mind, but also makes one doubt about any serious possibility for peace in the foreseeable future.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Archbishop of Glasgow on Stem Cell Research

Mario Conti, currently employed in senior management of the Catholic Church as an Archbishop declares in today's The Herald his allegiance to The Pope (the CEO equivalent of the organisation he is working for). His boss stated some time ago that we should not undertake destructive stem cell research (ie where stem cells are derived from the human embryonic cell mass, in the process of which the embryo is destroyed). The main reason given is that we should 'respect the dignity of each and every human being.' Of course, the accumulation of a few hundred cells (ie up to 14 days after conception) is cleverly and arguably question beggingly defined as a human being by the CEO and his senior management colleague in Glasgow.

Comes Mr Conti, saying that this kind of rhetoric is 'reason, not rhetoric... it is where I stand and where the Catholic Church stands.' Truly tempting to say Amen to that.

Friday, July 28, 2006

George Michael on gay cruising

George Michael is quoted as saying:
'I don't know anybody who actually goes to Hampstead Heath at two o'clock in the morning for anything other than the reason of playing about with another member of the human race. If they are there, then they are a little bit strange or they just don't know the local area. A very large part of the male population, gay or straight, totally understands the idea of anonymous and no-strings sex. The fact that I choose to do that on a warm night in the best cruising ground in London - which happens to be about half a mile from my home - I don't think would be that shocking to that many gay people.'

Fairly upfront statement... which then is followed by this...

'Until such time as the straight world is not attacking people for cruising, I'd say the gay world could actually keep that to themselves, just for a little bit longer.'

Looks a bit odd to say such a thing after making the statement quoted above... - Bit disingenious perhaps.

Talking about disingenious, the guy who claimed he had sex with Michael, offered these thoughts to the Daily Mail 'I admit I was there for sex. But I'm astonished a man as famous as George should even think about doing it. It's potentially so dangerous.'

I mean, if it is potentially so dangerous, why did he venture there in the first place?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Preparing for flu pandemic


The English Chief Medical Officer has published his 2005 report. The report contains a whole chapter on England's preparation for an upcoming flu pandemic. It addresses briefly the relevant isssues, such as limits on individual freedom of movement, allocation of scarce resources, and other such issues. The report strongly advises that there be a public discussion about the country's policy response to such a challenge. I am attending a panel discussion of biochemists tomorrow that will discuss the issue. Among the speakers is a regular contributor to the LANCET, a leading medical journal. A scientist will evaluate the likelihood of such a pandemic happening. It should be an interesting discussion. In case you're around, it's on Wednesday at 4 pm in the city's congress centre.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Racism in the absence of races...



An East Asian lad was killed during racial upheaval in Preston, a truly dreadful town in the Northwest of the UK. People usually know Preston for its train station as many have to change trains there. Initially the Lancashire constabulary insisted that there was no evidence of a racial motive, but eventually corrected that claim. After all, that a fight between white kids and kids whose skin shows other colours would not be motivated by racism isn't overly plausible. The usual brawls between 'white' and 'ethnic minority' folks (or, in Birmingham, between Blacks and East Asians) does seem to know no end.
It is weird that in the absence of scientific evidence for distinct races, racism itself continues unabated, with dreadful consequences all over the world.
The 21st century this might be, but in evolutionary terms we have not done too well, or have we?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bill's at it again


Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft (the company controlling most of our computers), has announced that his charitable foundation will invest several hundred million US$ in the development of an AIDS vaccine. This has been lauded by some who are not usually among the fans of Gates and his company. Surely, from many vantage points Gates' initiative is laudable. Yet, some questions should reasonably be asked. For instance, if the same amount of money was poured into primary care and treatment of currently treatable illnesses killing millions of lives in developing countries, many lives could right now be preserved. Is his spending strategy the most efficient way to spend money in this area? Another question that can also reasonably be asked is this: what is this investment telling us about the lack of other players' investments (other developed countries, the international community) in major killer diseases prevalent amongst the world's poor? Is it a morally acceptable status quo that without major private donors no serious R&D investment dealing with such diseases would be available? Probably not.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Thoughtful bioethicist in the news

Check out this most readable piece about my good friend and colleague Richard Ashcroft. He is the Queen Mary Hospital, University of London's new biomedical ethics professor. Quite an indictment that the Imperial College's medical school, since his departure, has closed their bioethics unit altogether. Together with Glasgow University's medical school, it might well be one of only very few medical schools in the western world these days without serious biomedical ethics programme.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Clowning with Cloning

Not exactly a brilliant insight, but nontheless interesting. Social scientists in the UK and Austria interviewed genetic twins and discovered - surprise, surprise - that the twins developed different personalities. The researchers' conclusion: reproductive cloning would not result into cloned personalities. This surprising discovery was reported today on the BBC News website. Others noted similar things many years back, without generating the same media excitement. But then, hey, it's the mass media's silly season. Nothing much else is happening (well, the usual self-destructive wars in the Middle East continue).... so cloning is back in business.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Saturday, July 15, 2006

World Congress of Bioethics


In case you have not booked your summer vacation yet and you fancy something a tad bit more unusual, you'd consider attending the World Congress of Bioethics held in Beijing, PR China from 06-09, 2006. The programme covers, as us usual, a mix of people presenting their government or otherwise sponsored bioethics activities in round-table discussions, as well as individual presentations by people able to pay their own way to the meeting.
Truth be told, it's a mixed bag of themes. There will be plenty more research ethics (US government funding for that kind of activity is probably at an all-time high, hence there's going to be plenty of forth and back on all sorts of matters research ethics). Thomas Pogge from Australia's CAPPE is organising a most interesting stream on issues surrounding drug R&D, the 10/90 gap, IPR and access to essential drugs. For those more high-tech inclined, no doubt there should be sufficient first worlders going on about nano-technologies, face transplants and other more or less esoteric technological frontier issues.
As always the Feminist Association of Bioethics, an official network of the IAB, will run a 3 day satellite conference prior to the main event. Attendance should be a must for anyone going to Beijjing. I have found often their offerings in the past more interesting and relevant than the main event.
Delegates will have a great opportunity to mingle with participants from most other parts of the world, and, hopefully with many Chinese delegates. Bioethics is growing in leaps and bounds in the PR of China and this Congress hopefully will provide a welcome boost to the development of the field in that country.
Find out more details here.
Bioethics, the journal I co-edit, will run, as always a special issue featuring some time in 2007 the best contributions form the Congress.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Apology but no regret


A second posting in a row on soccer - anyone who knows me must think something has gone seriously wrong in my life. After all, a few weeks ago I would not have even known that the soccer world cup was on its way. - For better or worse I watched the final and saw Zinedine Zidane (left) headbutting Italian defender Marco Materazzi.
Since the incident Zidane declared that he considered his own behaviour 'inexcusable', and he considered it necessary to 'apologise', but not without adding that he nad no regrets. The Italian, he claimed, had uttered nasty insults about his mother and sister.
I would be the first to accept that the spoken word can be as hurtful (even more hurtful) than a headbutt, and that a dividing line between words and actions often isn't sensible. People can be driven into suicide simply by the word.
In any case, what really puzzles me about this episode is the idea that I could apologise to someone without regretting what I did. This seems impossible to me. An apology seems to require some sense of regret culminating into an apology to the offended/injured.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Different Realities - the soccer world according to the media


By pure coincidence I have been reading today two different news items, one from South Africa's Mail and Guardian (the country's only quality weekly news magazine) and one from Der Spiegel (Germany's only quality weekly news magazine). Both report about the upcoming FIFA soccer world cup in South Africa. Der Spiegel discusses the likelihood that South Africa might lose the world cup to another country because it's allegedly far behind schedule in terms of building the promised venues and other infrastructure required. Doubts have been raised with regard to the competence of the South African organising committee.
That's one reported reality then.
Another reported reality is that published in the Mail and Guardian today. Donwald Pressly reports that the main issue currently pre-occupying the sports ministry is legislation designed to ensure that the old South African flag (ie the apartheid state's flag) is proscribed during the soccer world cup. This probably is a kind of Quixotian activity, given that soccer in the country is a predominantly black kinda event. Whites tend to stick to other types of sports including rugby and golf.
If Der Spiegel is correct, of course, one has to wonder whether the country has its priorities right as far as the world cup is concerned. Whether a country with the type of social problems South Africa faces should invest into massive sports infrastructure developments such as those required to host the soccer world cup, is probably a question worth pondering.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Age and Just Punishment


A variety of tinpot dictators have since been held accountable for their crimes. Some, like Chile's Mr Pinochet, will probably get away with murder and torture. Currently Mexico is witnessing a court case against Mr Echeverria (picture top left), a former President of the country. As it happens, Mr Echeverria was also Interior Minister at the time when PRI government agents shot at unarmed, protesting students. Mr Ignacio Carrillo is a special prosecutor filing charges against Mr Echeverria. No doubt, the former Interior Minister is innocent until proven guilty. While I have little doubt about his role in the student massacre, my views are neither here nor there by way of proof.
What is of interest to me is an entirely different issue. Mr Echeverria's legal team announced that even if he was found guilty he would not go to jail, because of his age (he is 83).
This is what puzzles me a bit. I could see why he might not be prosecuted and go to jail if his memory was failing, or his intellectual capacities were faulty, yet this is not the case made by his legal team. Rather they suggest that age as such is a sufficient reason to rule out prosecution and a jail sentence for someone found guilty of murder.
I wonder what their rationale for this proposition might be...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fundraising to feed AIDS orphans

Let me tell you something about an AIDS charity worthy probably also of your support. It's a (really - trust me) community based project in Southern Africa. What they do, in a nutshell, is to try to keep AIDS orphans in some kind of family unit (most likely relatives or neighbours). In order to ease the burdens on those usually impoverished families, however, the initiative provides 2 meals per day per child through community based food kitchens. Phedisang's approach to the problem is two-fold: It aims to move as many of the kids it feeds as is feasible on to the state grants that these kids are entitled to (but that they would never receive if it wasn't for the logistical support from Phedisang). So, basically, the first step is to keep kids properly fed, the second step is to move them on to state support in order to free donor money for other children in similar need.
To my mind it's a very clever system because it is sustainable in the longterm, because it's small and doesn't rely on massive administrative operations (gobbling up much of the donor money), and reassuringly, there are no overseas concultants on obscene international salaries that need to be 'fed', too. Check it out and consider supporting them!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bioterrorism and Academic Freedom


We had an interesting speaker today at the Centre for Ethics in Public Policy and Corporate Governance. Mike Selgelid from the Australian National University spoke on the question of whether or not we can leave to scientists' self-regulation the types of issues that they may legitimately research about and publish on. His conclusion was that there are good reasons for government regulations of certain types of research that may be used for good as well as evil. We discussed the problem today on BBC Radio, and were joined by the Liberal Democrats spokesperson on the issue in the House of Lords.
Most interesting - to the interested observer - was certainly Selgelid's observation that many countries place tight restrictions on nuclear research, for obvious security reasons. Equally as obviously biochemical weapons today are capable of causing as much - if not more - damage than nuclear weapons, yet there seem precious little regulations of such research in place in most parts of the world.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Against Bioethics


'Against Bioethics' by Jonathan Baron is a book worth buying - probably a strange verdict, coming from one of the editors of Bioethics, you might think. The truth though, is that Baron is not actually against bioethics. His book provides an excellent exposition of how a utilitarian would approach particular issues in bioethics. Among the issues he covers are drug R&D, research allocation issues and similar topics of current concern. Baron is quite critical of deontological or principle based thinking that is fairly common in the field.
Peter Singer, on the book cover, 'Ignore the title. Baron doesn't want to get rid of bioethics, but to show us how we can do it better. His acute diagnosis of the pervasive errors of deontological approaches to bioethics deserves a wide readership.'
Nuff said, buy and read this book. While you read chapter 8, have in mind that there are good consequentialist arguments against placebo controls even in countries where people have no alternative acess to life extending drugs. This is the only part of the book that I found disappointing. Disappointing not because I disagree with Baron - I do, very strongly so - disappointing because he chose to ignore widely available (ie PubMed listed articles) consquentialist arguments in favour of criticising not so sophisticated deontological arguments put forward by the that time Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Marcia Angell.
Another great book in the MIT Press's series 'Basic Bioethics'. The field ought to be grateful to Glenn McGee and Art Caplan for continuing to choose challenging topics for inclusion in their series.

Monday, July 03, 2006

AIDS tonic promoter suspended by University of Cape Town


South Africa's papers report today that a herbal tonic promoted by Girish Kotwal, a senior biomedical scientist at the University of Cape Town may have led to deaths of patients who stopped simultaneously taking their antiretroviral drugs. The university suspended the scientist in question. The university reportedly stated that 'the remedy had not been properly tested for safety and efficacy and the limited patient research conducted had not been approved by the university'. The potion sells in South African shops for about 200 ZAR (a bit less than 20 GBP), and according to the newspaper reports the university earns royalties from its sale.
Kotwal organised a conference on traditional African remedies in the end of 2005 that attracted - unsurprisingly to South African observers, the South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who stated the following: It provides an opportunity to reclaim our scientific and socio-cultural heritage, which was stigmatised and discredited as primitive rituals and witchcraft during many years of colonialism and apartheid ... This forum should expose the false dichotomy that had arisen between natural medicine and allopathic medicine, a division fostered by the need to make money from patented drugs through discrediting the use of natural products. Of course, as usual with Russia trained doctor Tshabalala-Msimang, she got it ever so slightly wrong. The issue has nothing whatsoever to do with patents but with drugs that have been tested in methodologically sound scientific clinical trials vs concoctions the supposed efficacy relies on hear-say. Nothing would prevent anyone from running clinical trials with any number of traditional African concoctions. Those that pass succcessfully the hurdles of phase 1 to 3 clinical trials would eventually get patented and join the ranks of other clinical proven medicines. Tshabalala-Msimang's African nationalism (again) readily sacrifices the survival interests of African people for the sake of a cheap propaganda exercise. - What's new you might ask. Very little indeed.
Update: 05 July 2006: Here are further details about the case from the Cape Times newspaper, including statements about the negative health consequences AIDS patients suffered who took the potion Kotwal advertised, as well as some verbatim comments from Nature, the leading science journal that first broke the story.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

US Supreme Court Justice


The conservative dominated US Supreme Court is working hard to redefine the meaning of justice, and mental competence. In a recent verdict (Clark vs Arizona, June 30, 2006) a 17 year old paranoid schizophrenic who believed that aliens from outerspace were after him to kill him, killed a police officer, believing that the officer was one such alien. Both defence and prosecution agreed on his psychosis and the nature of his delusions, yet he was denied the right to enter information about his mental illness in order to support his insanity defence. After much forth and back (ie lower courts) the US Supreme Court ruled that psychiatrists' evidence was indeed inadmissible because it could not be relied upon to make accurate and noncontroversial diagnoses of mental illness or evaluations of capacity. The Supreme Court practically denied psychiatrists' capacity to provide reliable judgments on the question of whether a defendant had mens rea at the time of the crime.

This is quite remarkable obviously, as it suggests that the medically untrained Supreme Court judges made judgments on a profession that isn't their own, in this case psychiatry. While it may or may not be true that psychiatrists' judgments cannot be relied upon, surely the members of the US Supreme Court are not qualified themselves to decide this issue one way or another.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Smokers' and alcoholics' health care costs

More and more doctors in the UK's NHS believe that those subjecting themselves to unnecessarily high health risks by means of smoking, drinking or eating a lot ought to cover the costs for their health care (as far as their illness is related to their lifestyle choices) themselves. The Guardian reports that 4 out of 10 NHS doctors believe smokers who need heart bypasses and alcoholics who need liver transplants should not get them free of charge through the NHS.
33% believe that procedures such as IVF should be covered by patients themselves.
Here are the details.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Initiation ceremonies - the butchery continues


It's that time of the year again. As in every good year young men die in South Africa as a consequence of 'initiation ceremonies' - supposedly marking their coming into being as adults. Well, a short-lived adulthood it was for one boy who was successfully starved to death by his local traditional healer. Amusingly, the provincial health departmental spokesman in the Eastern Cape (the province notorious even in the country for this sort of thing) describes the bloke as someone 'posing' as a traditional healer, as if there was such a thing as a bona fide professional traditional healer.
Anyway, check out this link to the BBC news website for the full story, especially the 'See also' links, reporting deaths in July 2003 and May 2004, as the summer butchery going under the euphemism of 'initiation ceremony' continues.
One wonders what the cultural relativism crowd's stance on this issue would be like.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Philosophers’ Summer Jobs and Food Ethics


Had a pleasant flight back from Canada to the UK tonight. I managed to have a stimulating conversation with a female flight attendant. – No, not that kind of conversation... – Initially we tried in vain to figure out the time difference between St John’s (Canada) and London (UK), and eventually she managed to explain that ‘I’m a philosopher’, clearly suggesting that philosophers quite possibly can’t do maths all that well. I usually use that excuse when I fail to fix flat tyres and the like. In any case, inquiring whether she was serious (not about the maths claim but about her studies), I learned that she is reading philosophy at McGill University, and that she is working for that airline the name of which we shall not speak, during her semester breaks. She is currently fascinated with Gadamer’s work – Gadamer, of all philosophers. I think it is an encouraging sign if young people wanting to become philosophers, do not by default venture into the 'sexy' bits of philosophy.
Just finished reading the New York Times (June 27, 2006). It carries a review of Peter Singer’s most recent book. The ever reliable campaigner, he has co-authored a book looking at the ethical implications of the choices we make with regard to food stuffs we consume. He argues that we should not eat meat and other animal products generated by causing animal suffering, and suggests that we ought to consume ideally organic produce.
Now, here is an interesting challenge: Each time I go to my local supermarket, invariably I end up having to choose between organic OR fair-trade produce. So, it seems (at least on Glaswegian supermarket choices) I either support the environment or the developing world. I tend to settle usually for the fair-trade bananas instead of the organic ones. I am quite certain the supermarket managers deliberately set us customers up for these sort of choices in order to train our ethical critical decision-making skills. It has to be one big conspiracy of ethics teachers and supermarket chains. - Why else, I wonder, would a chain with massive purchasing power buy either fair-trade or organic produce instead of requiring its buyers to purchase produce that satisfies both requirements. You know if you buy organic, the developing world originating produce won’t have been bought at decent prices from the producers. Equally, you know that the fair-trade stuff isn’t truly environmentally friendly.
A Kingston (Canada) neighbourhood festival I bumped into proposed that we ought to buy only produce from local farmers. It all seemed very politically correct, and certainly makes sense in environmental terms (eg the produce is fresh, it doesn’t have to be shipped around the globe etc), but I wonder what farmers in Puerto Rico, Mexico and places like that will make of this kind of protectionism, and how they would survive if their products would no longer be bought by us in … yes, our much maligned local supermarkets?