Tuesday, 25 February 2014

First Day

This post is for the Save the Children First Day campaign, I wouldn't normally put up quite so many serious posts on my blog in one week, but this is a very important cause.

This is my eldest daughter, E on her first day at school last September:

Here she is on her first day as a big sister:

But those first days might never have happened.

E's birth was long and complicated, In the end, an instrumental delivery failed when her head became stuck in my pelvis and she was delivered by emergency caesarean. It was terrifying for me, but for the team of surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and midwives in the specialist obstetric operating theatre of a major London teaching hospital, it was all pretty routine.

Had I been in somewhere else in the world, it could have been very different. We would never have had all those other first days with E.

It took the full force of modern medicine to save us, but staggeringly, every year, 2.9 million babies die in their first month, and many of them could be saved if they just had access to a local midwife or some antibiotics.

Just have a think about that number for a minute. 2.9 million.

The good news is, things can and are getting better. In 1990 the total number of children dying each year was 12.6 million. Thanks to family planning, better treatments for childhood illness, and of course global vaccination programmes that number had fallen to 6.6 million by 2012. But there is a lot more that can be done, especially in those vulnerable first days.

Here's now you can help, in just a couple of minutes, without even getting up from your seat.

First - click here to sign the Save the Children petition to ask David Cameron to use his influence over governments and wealthy business people. Ask them to work together and commit to ensuring every mother has access to a trained midwife.

Then, instead of buying that next fancy coffee, donate £3 to Save the Children. That's enough to buy ten tubes of antiseptic cream, which could be all that's needed to save the life of a newborn baby.

Thank you, normal ranting will continue at a later date...

Monday, 24 February 2014

Response to BritMums Vaccination Post - By a ScienceMum

I'm writing this in response to a blog post on the BritMums site. In it a Dad declares himself pro-vaccination. Which is great, but for me the post doesn't go far enough and some of the comments that have followed have added to that feeling. So rather than respond to them all individually on the thread and look like I'm trying to high jack it entirely, I thought I would put up my own post here for those who are interested.

First up, If you are vehemently opposed to vaccinations, I know I have no hope of changing your mind so you may as well leave now  (or accuse me of being in the pay of Big Pharma* or something and then go, whatever) this post isn't for you.

This is for the many parents who just want to do the best for their kids, but have no previous experience in this area. Who try to do their own research and find they face a sea of contradictory information. I'm not a medical doctor and I'm not an expert in this field, but I am a scientist (and a Mum) and I have done a lot of research, over the years so I hope my opinions may be helpful to a few people.

(Also, I don't have a lot of time, so I'm just going to list a few of the comments on the post, and give my response, apologies if I don't link to evidence for what I say, I don't have time right now but if I can,I'll fill in the blanks later.)

Here, we go-

Some of the additives in vaccines are a bit "unsavoury":
There is a lot of talk about the additives in vaccines, much of it is plain nonsense. Either the "dangerous" ingredients are old ones not used any more or they may sound all chemical and scary but they have been used in millions of people for years without any real evidence of harm.
EDITED TO ADD: Often the additives are just used in such teeny tiny amounts that they pose no risk. For example, formaldehyde in vaccines sounds scary, but you'll get far far more of it from eating a pear then you will from a vaccine! As far as I know pears don't cause autism either.
 Here is a really helpful link to a more detailed explanation of additives in UK vaccines. 

Herd immunity:
This isn't really mentioned in the post but is touched on by a commenter. Choosing not to vaccinate your child doesn't just put them at risk. Yes if they are healthy then it's fairly unlikely that anything dreadful will happen to them without the jab. But they could pass a disease on to someone more vulnerable, a new born baby or anyone with certain medical conditions. If everyone eligible was vaccinated, the disease would simply disappear off the face of the earth as there wouldn't be enough hosts for it to keep going. We've already managed this with small pox and are very close with Polio. Diseases that used to kill and disable tens of thousands. Stuff the moon landings, this is one of man kinds greatest achievements.

Infographic by Leon Farrant data from CDC, 2011

The size of recent outbreaks means vaccinated kids must be getting sick too:
One commenter was worried about this, and it does seem to make sense if you assume the vast majority of kids are vaccinated. However, there are areas all over the UK where vaccination rates just aren't high enough. Take the recent Measles outbreak in Wales. Most babies are getting their MMR there, but a whole bunch of teenagers and young adults never had the jab as they got caught right in the middle of the (now utterly debunked) autism scare. Tragically, one of them died. You actually need a very high proportion of people to be vaccinated to get herd immunity. For Whooping cough, which has had a resurgence recently, and which can be fatal in newborns, you need up to 94% of the population to be vaccinated to keep those who are vulnerable safe.

Click here for an interactive map of vaccine preventable disease outbreaks

You shouldn't just blindly do as you're told - do your own research on vaccines:
Actually I agree, do do your own research. That's what science is all about after all, ask questions and look for evidence. But also question the evidence you get. Relying on scientific, peer reviewed papers isn't a perfect system. But it is by far the best system available. Anecdotes, magazine articles and yes - know it all blog posts are not the equal of a scientific paper. There are a lot of people who claim there is a conspiracy of government and big pharma, to hide the risks of vaccination, to make profits while cruelly endangering children. Yet often the people saying this stand to make a profit from you not vaccinating your child. Many have links to sales of alternative remedies or expensive private single vaccinations. Andrew Wakefield, who started the whole MMR scare was being paid huge amounts of money to produce evidence that would enable people to sue vaccine companies. He was also trying to develop and sell an alternative single vaccine. That someone would make false claims for personal profit is, to me, a more convincing story than that the NHS would conspire to pay for vaccines that would make loads of kids ill and cost them even more money!

Image is part of a great cartoon explanation of the Wakefield affair - Take a look at the rest here, it's well worth it

All drugs, including vaccines have side effects:
Yes they do. There are very few proven side effects to vaccination, but everything in life carries a risk so it's a matter of weighing up those risks. The question is - which is more likely to result in serious, long term damage to your child - a vaccination or an vaccine preventable disease? For the vast majority the risk of disease is far far greater.

My kids are healthy, why should I vaccinate them just to protect others?
It's a tricky question. Is vaccination an option or also a responsibility? In some other countries they take the latter approach and unvaccinated children are not allowed to attend government funded schools. Personally I'm uneasy with that but I am glad my children's jabs are also helping out others. Sure your healthy unvaccinated kid probably won't go deaf as a result of measles, but what if in a few years time they aren't so healthy? What if it's your best friend's, fully vaccinated child who needs to have chemo, looses all immunity and then gets measles? The outcome could be devastating. What if it's your own newborn who gets whooping cough from their otherwise healthy older sister? What if your kid is just one of the unlucky few who gets really sick even though they were fine otherwise. Just like kids used to all the time, before we had vaccinations?

There are plenty more common confusions over vaccination, and having read so much about it on the internet I can see why. If more comments come up on the Britmums post I may add them.

There is a whole blogging community devoted to trying to dispel these kind of myths, but it's one that rarely overlaps with the parent blogging world of Britmums etc. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm in the process of making a few changes here and one of my main aims to to try and provide a link between these two blogging communities. There is a lot of nonsense out there, at best it is well meaning but inaccurate, at worst it endangers lives and preys financially and emotionally on the fears of loving parents. It assumes mums and dads are too stupid, too afraid or just have too little time (/sleep) to see through it. But I believe that "mummy bloggers" (and parents in general) aren't idiots, if we can only get at accurate information we can and will make sound, rational, decisions.


*I actually was employed, as a contractor, by big pharma for one year after I graduated. I didn't much like it and left to take up a less lucrative career with a charity. I have no remaining ties to pharma as far as I know.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Feeling Old? Shove A Magnet Down Your Pants!

Great, so it seems the world is conspiring to make me feel old at the moment.

Last week I went to see my GP and asked about going back on the pill. He told me I was getting on a bit for that**.


I went home and moaned to my husband that basically my biological glory days were waning and all I had left to look forward to was the slow, inevitable, decline towards the menopause. Now, I'm assuming the Twitter Ads department aren't yet desperate enough to have bugged my house, but a few days later I started getting promoted posts (adverts) in my timeline for "LadyCare". Which is, apparently, a "Natural" and "Drug free" treatment for the symptoms of, yes, the menopause.

F$%^ing Great

I tried to ignore it, but they just keep on coming, so in the end, I looked it up. LadyCare (and I'm not alone in finding that name just a little, creepy? right?) is a magnetic devise that you put inside your knickers and which supposedly relieves menopause symptoms. Now, I'm not entirely sure what is so "natural" about shoving a plastic coated magnet down your under crackers, and I can think of no possible mechanism by which it could work, but HRT is problematic for many women and I hear very few good things about the menopause so it could be really great if it worked. Right?

Fortunately, the LadyCare website has a page on "Surveys and Trials" to prove just how great it is. This page gives us:

Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) trial with British Women's Police (I'm not entirely sure what the Women's police is, presumably they are only available to assist or perhaps arrest women? *shudder* actually that reminds me of a really unpleasant male stripper I once saw...aaaanyway)

Survey To Determine the Effect of the Static Magnetic Device, LadyCare, onMenopause Symptoms 

Let's deal with the latter of those first. They put an ad in that bastion of reason and sound medical advice- The Daily Mail, offering women a free trial of the device. They then asked them if they thought it worked and some of them said yes. So basically, of the 508 women who liked the idea of the treatment and were given it as a free gift, quite a few thought it made a difference to various subjective symptoms (such as "feelings of doom"), from an intermittent condition, that always disappears in the end. Unsurprisingly this doesn't appear to have been published in any major, peer reviewed, medical journal. Actually, as far as I can tell it hasn't been published at all. In science terms I'd put it up there with "56% of women thought our mascara made their lashes fuller".

But the first link sounds more promising, more sciencey. Autonomic Nervous System and all! Weirdly, the website doesn't actually give much information on this trial. It says that sweating is "under the control of the Autonomic nervous system (ANS)" and that it's therefore "plausible" that "symptoms were related to an ANS imbalance".  The doctor in charge "proposed" that "this was a likely target for the LadyCare mechanism of action" I'm not sure if this "plausible" explanation means that all the symptoms of the menopause are due to an ANS imbalance, but then I don't have nearly so many letters after my name as the doctor in charge, so what do I know?! I stupidly thought hormones were involved somewhere. I also don't understand exactly what the mechanism is of the mechanism of action, how does clipping a magnet to your lady garments re-balance your ANS?

Anyway, to the science bit. Since sweating is the crucial thing here I was expecting the study to measure that, instead it measured variation in heart rate as we're told this is also related to ANS activity. Now again, I'm no expert but surely lots of things alter your heart rate? If you want to test sweating why not, er, test sweating? I guess I'll have to live in ignorance as it's not really explained on the website and there is no link to where I can read the full, published, peer reviewed paper. It just says that 70% of the 35 women who took part said the device helped and this "coincided with the data" from the heart rate monitor.

The page is summed up thus:
We now know how LadyCare may help.

*raises hand* actually, I still don't get it?!

The thing is you could easily do a properly controlled, double blinded trial on this. Get your 508 daily mail readers, give half of them the real device and half a fake with no magnet, making sure none of them know if they have the real thing. Have them all clip it to their drawers and if it works, those with the real device will show far more improvement than those with the fake. Even if this was just assessed with a questionnaire about subjective symptoms it would likely get published. Given how safe the product claims to be and all the problems with HRT (which the website is careful to inform you of) it would stand a good chance of NICE approval and the makers could sell thousands to the NHS, rather than flogging them online for £19 (plus P&P).

Actually on the subject of safety, I came across a couple of potential issues with the LadyCare while I was googling it. Apparently one woman's laptop became rather problematic when sat on her lap, atop the large magnet in her pants. Another unfortunate lady became magnetically attached to a supermarket trolley. Though this is of course just anecdotal evidence from the internet, I'm sure no one would take that too seriously....

Anyway, at the grand old age of 34 I'm hoping that my own personal summers are still are a little way off. When they do arrive I don't think I'll be sticking a magnet in my best Bridget Jones' unless there is some more convincing evidence. Of course there are lots of anecdotes about it working, but that isn't evidence, especially when the symptoms are usually impossible to quantify and always go away in the end with or without the product.

I'm sure lots of people will carry on buying it though, HRT isn't always great, so, I guess for some it will seem worth a shot.

And of course, there are plenty of people out there who would pay good money for fanny magnet!*.


*With thanks to Josephine Jones on twitter who's punchline I have shamelessly ripped off.

** I was told the combined pill is not recommended for those over 35, although Dr Google suggests that it's only a big problem for those who are over 35 who are also smokers and/or obese. Neither of which I am by the way... now I think of it... did that GP think I was in one of those groups?...*feelings of doom*

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Why I'm Not Signing the Petition Against Longer School Hours

Its not because I think teachers should work longer hours. 
How anyone has the energy to look after a room full of six year olds, then go home and carry on working, I will never know.

It's not because I want my childrens' academic progress to come before everything else in their lives (I don't).

It's not because I think most parents shouldn't be trusted to bring up their children correctly and the state should take over (again, I don't)

It's certainly not because I am a big fan of Michael Gove or the current government (to be clear, dear internet, I'm not).

It's not even that I agree with the scheme, if, as many people are saying it will mean compulsory 10 hour days for all children. 

Here are the reasons I will not join the 156,000+ people who have so far signed this particular petition:

Because it says longer schools hours would cut into time: "you are meant to be spending as a family"

and that "allowing mums to return back to work"  doesn't make financial sense
(my emphasis)

Regardless of weather or not I agree with Gove's plans, the sentiment of this petition seems clear:

Mothers are meant to be at home with their kids, they shouldn't be allowed in the workplace.

Well I can't sign up to that idea. Having Mum at home full time works brilliant for many families, I benefited from it myself as a child but what about the mums who have no choice but to work, just to make ends meet? Sure they are putting food on the table but they are meant to be at home? What about those who've spent years building careers or businesses? Should they jack it all in knowing they may never be able to return? What about the fathers who stay at home because their wives have greater earning power? Longer school hours would give them the chance to return to work too. But it's only the Mothers who get a mention, it's only Mum who is meant to have her life dictated to her. Heck, in that case what about the lesbian parents I know? They are all Mums - who is supposed to be earning in those families? Surely it doesn't make financial sense for their households to live on benefits for want of a penis? Or perhaps the writers of this petition do not think that these loving and committed couples should be "allowed" children anyway. It seems they consider the only acceptable family unit to be Dad the breadwinner and Mum at home with the kids.

Ok I'm probably going beyond what the writers of this petition intended, I suspect they mean well but the whole thing comes across not just as a criticism of the plans but of any mother who works outside the home. Almost all families are just trying to do the best for their kids in whatever particular circumstances they find themselves.  Exactly who is it that decided what all families are  "meant to" do from 3.30-6pm, (on weekdays, in term time) anyway?

I'm not even sure what exactly Gove is proposing. I can't find anything definite (please link to it in the comments if you have). I certainly would not agree with compulsory, 10 hour a day, academic drilling. But extended provision could be a great thing.The school could become a focal point for children's activities. Many parents spend a lot of time and money ferrying kids to dance/sports/music lessons. If you have more than one kid it's a logistical nightmare, if the class is at 4 pm and you work until 6 pm it's impossible (oh I was forgetting, you're not meant to be at work). Schools could offer many of these activities, all under one roof and government funding could make them accessible to all.

In reality most schools are already open far longer than the standard school day anyway. At my daughter's school there is breakfast club from 8 am and after school club until 6 pm. These aren't staffed by the teachers and they just about make it possible for parents to do a days work (so long as it pays enough to cover the fees). Personally I prefer to have my daughter stay in school on the days I work, I trust the school and it's staff to keep her safe and happy. If school clubs weren't available I'd simply have to find something elsewhere. But I'm lucky that I'm paid enough to afford it, many genuinely aren't. I'm not saying all mums should work but government funding to allow them to make the choice? I don't see that as a bad thing.

If it turns out that this really is a plan to introduce state control in all aspects of family life and to work our children to breaking point, to produce a nation of miserable, exam passing automatons then I'll be right there signing petitions and a hell of a lot more. But not this petition. I still won't agree that we should fight against these proposals by imposing on every family someone else's unrealistic ideal of how they are "meant" to live their lives.

And now for the bit where I get petty.
Ok really petty.

If you are going to argue that kids shouldn't have any more education - may I suggest that you at least do so with well constructed sentences? (I realise I may be sitting in a glass house here...)

family units have to work together from teaching right and wrong 
learning life skills to be a child not  an android in society
There are enough pressures on children from an early age and yet trying to impose more
These three form the penultimate paragraph, I've split them up to emphasise just how much they don't make sense
The writers also assert that the scheme would not be cost effective due to the additional expense to schools. Presumably they have access to a detailed economic assessment of these costs versus the potential gains from income tax paid by the many thousands of individuals who would return to work. Unfortunately the writers forgot to provide a link to this assessment. Which is a shame for Michael Gove. The current government isn't know for it's wild generosity to anyone without at least an earldom, Many of us may actually start liking them if they are planning to pour loads of money into childcare and kids clubs for struggling families. Or could it perhaps be that the writers need to stay behind after school for a few more maths lessons?
(I told you I was going to get petty)