Scientific American February 2011: On Newsstands February 18
The Latest in Science News
Health: How to Fix the Obesity Crisis (pp 40)
Through public health policies and monetary incentives, New York City (NYC) is creating an environment that promotes healthy foods, writes Thomas Farley in this month's issue of Scientific American. Systematic steps that help customers make smart decisions when choosing what to eat are crucial to fighting the obesity epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one third of Americans are obese, and another third are overweight. If current trends continue, obesity will soon surpass smoking as the biggest single factor in early death. As David H. Freedman writes in a larger feature article, reversing the obesity epidemic requires not just research into genetics and physiology, but also sociological, behavioral and economic changes.
In NYC one such sociological initiative is "Health Bucks" — $2 vouchers that can be used at farmers' markets, which promote healthy eating in low-income areas. Another target has been sugar-sweetened beverages, "which account for a third to a half of the 300-calorie increase in American's daily diets over the past 30 years." NYC has started initiatives to address this problem. "We are more than 30 years into this epidemic," Farley notes, "and reversing it will take more than a few."
Science Agenda (pp 14)
In San Francisco's Bay Area schools, at least 40% of kids are not being vaccinated, leaving them unprotected against whooping cough, measles and other preventable diseases. This is part of a nationwide trend toward parents withholding vaccinations. The right to decide what's best for oneself and one's children ends where science has so clearly established a threat to the public welfare, write the editors of Scientific American in this month's issue.
Vaccine anxiety is a concern for many parents, even though there is no scientific evidence to support the concerns and accusations raised. Immunizations against contagious diseases are only effective when there are high immunization rates, as much as 95% of the population for infections such as measles and whooping cough. When these rates fall, as they have in many of the 48 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccinations, outbreaks can take a toll on other children who are too young for immunization or are immunocompromised.
The Science of Health: The YouTube Cure (pp 34)
The growing power of social media in shaping patient's expectations of medical treatments is investigated in Katie Moisse's Science of Health column in this month's issue of Scientific American.
YouTube and other social-media sites are encouraging people to seek experimental therapies that may not have undergone rigorous testing. Notably, in 2009 surgeon Paolo Zamboni reported in the Journal of Vascular Surgery that inflating a tiny balloon inside the twisted veins of the neck might relieve some symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). This finding created a buzz among many patients with MS. People uploaded before and after videos to YouTube and exchanged information about where the treatment was available. However, Zamboni concedes that his findings should have been tested more rigorously — the study was small and wasn't randomized, double-blind or placebo-controlled.
"These social-media sites can have a positive function in that they allow patients to discuss research and share their experiences," says Aaron Miller, a professor of neurology. But, "they have a very major risk in leading patients to embark on therapeutic courses that are not necessarily appropriate for them or haven't been established as being scientifically valid."
Some physicians consider Zamboni's treatment plausible enough for testing though it is too soon to offer the procedure, except as part of a properly controlled clinical trial. Miller says, "We can't bury ourselves in an ivory tower and function as though [social-media sites] don't exist." After he explains the lack of certainty about venous angioplasty to his patients, they usually agree it is best to wait.
Forum: The Bright Side of Gridlock (pp 16)
In the next two years pushing through the scientific gridlock that could follow recent elections to Congress and state government will require "courage and clarity" from scientists and citizens writes Francesca Grifo in this month's Scientific American Forum.
The recent elections saw the elevation to leadership positions in the House of Representatives of a number of Republicans who have expressed skepticism about climate change and who plan to portray efforts to curb carbon emissions as a "job killer." Some important measures, such as cap and trade and a carbon tax, are ruled out for the near future but Grifo argues that there may be some silver linings. If climate scientists are summoned before House committees to defend their work, these hearings might backfire by giving the researchers a forum to make their voices heard. And President Barack Obama still wields executive power and can mandate emissions cuts from motor vehicles and push for the development of solar plants.
"Progress won't be easy," Grifo concludes. "It will require the persistent and energetic engagement of the scientific community."