Thursday, December 29, 2011

Poor mother toddler bonding linked to teenage obesity.

I read an article today from Ohio State University which appears to reinforce my belief that the first five years of life are so critical for the normal development of a toddler.

The researchers there looked at the quality of parenting in early life and then looked at the rate of teenage obesity: as you would unhappily expect, those with weak mother-child bonding had a higher rate of obesity - in fact it was over a quarter of them, or 26%. This compared with under 15% for those with observed better bonding skills.

The knee jerk response is then to blame the parents for "causing" their kids to be obese in their later life, with all the associated medical problems that can be associated with it - diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. But the findings highlight the fact that changes must be ocuring in the toddlers brain to account for the metabolic responses to these early life experiences. According to Sarah Anderson, Assistant Professor at Ohio State, “Sensitive parenting increases the likelihood that a child will have a secure pattern of attachment and develop a healthy response to stress. A well-regulated stress response could in turn influence how well children sleep and whether they eat in response to emotional distress – just two factors that affect the likelihood for obesity.”

So instead of just focusing on eating healthy food and getting adequate physical exercise - which is necessary for all children anyway - systems need to be developed to support and improve the parenting skills of those who currently lack them. This is easier said than done and cannot be left solely to government agencies to find solutions. This is something that everyone who knows someone with kids needs to be aware of. Bringing up kids is tough; doing it by yourself is even tougher; doing it in an environment where unemployment is high and making ends meet is a never ending struggle, would just about make a saint weep.

An offer of help, a word of encouragement: maybe even taking the child to the park whilst Mum has a break, or reading stories to the little one whilst she takes "five" - there are many small ways in which we can make a big difference. As Professor Fiona Stanley here in Perth said many years ago, "It takes a village to raise a child".
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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Maintaining the balance in 2012

Here are some figures from the CDC about falls in the over 65yr olds:

  • One out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year but less than half talk to their healthcare providers about it.
  • Among older adults (those 65 or older), falls are the leading cause of injury death. They are also the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.
  • In 2008, over 19,700 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries.
  • The death rates from falls among older men and women have risen sharply over the past decade.
  • In 2009, 2.2 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 581,000 of these patients were hospitalized.
  • In 2000, direct medical costs of falls totaled a little over $US19 billion—$US179 million for fatal falls and $US19 billion for nonfatal fall injuries. This equals $US28.2 billion in 2010 dollars.
In other words, falls are a real issue for everyone, assuming that we all want to live to a ripe old age! But it's not just the elderly that have trouble staying on their feet: here's some information from New South Wales, Australia,

"The total average annual frequency of deaths and hospitalisations respectively, for falls in buildings in Australia were 343 and 105,968 for the period July 2002 – June 2005. The estimated annual cost for these deaths was $250 million, and $1.28 billion for hospital admissions, excluding indirect costs."

So anything that we can do to reduce the trauma caused by "slip ups" is not only saving lives, it's keeping people out of hospital and its saving a fortune. So what can we do?

Staying fit is the first thing to do. Our muscles not only are used for locomotion, but also act as "shock absorbers" when we land - think jumping off a low wall. Without any decent tone or strength in your muscles, doing that small jump could lead to serious injury. One simple way to help improve your leg strength is to find a nice shiny wall or locked door and stand with your back to it: now slowly slide your back down the wall so your knees bend to 90 degrees, and then push back up. If 90 is too far then only go half way: the point is to start within your ability and then to slowly increase the load you put on your legs as the weeks go past. Start with say 5 bends, have a break and then repeat. As the weeks go on, increase the number you do and lower yourself down to 90 degrees (but don't go any lower).

The second thing to do is to work on your balance. Many elderly people have problems with balance and it is wise not only to check with your physician before starting any balance exercises, but also to seek out a physical therapist who can demonstrate them to you in safe physical surroundings. Balance exercises are not rocket science, but they do need to be done away from sharp objects and preferably on a soft surface - just in case! The Mayo Clinic have a simple routine so check out

Finally, whenever we go out there is a potential to have a fall or a slip: what would you do? Would you put your hands out to break your fall and risk snapping your wrists? Probably the best way to prevent serious injury is to learn to roll as you fall and spread the impact over your trunk and reduce the chance of serious injury: you'll still get a battering and some great bruises, but you might also avoid a life threatening fractured hip. Luckily we live near the beach so that the young bride and I can practice this on the soft sand - it still jars, but it's fun too.

So in 2012, be aware, be strong and stay balanced!  
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

A sight for sore eyes: good news on Trachoma

 Trachoma has been a scourge for centuries and it's effects have been recorded on papyrus in Egypt and even earlier in ancient China. It is unacceptable that in so many countries, including Australia, that sections of those communities are still threatened with blindness caused by this preventable infectious disease.

A report in the MJA 2010 by Taylor et al, concluded that "Blinding endemic trachoma remains a major public health problem in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities." This is a disease that we know the causative agent - Chlamydia Trachomatis - and we have an antibiotic that we know works - Azithromycin, and yet there are communities both here in Australia, and around the world where blindness is occurring as a result of this preventable condition.

First some facts:
  • Trachoma is found in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, parts of Latin America and in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia.
  •  Worldwide 41 million people are affected by it.
  • 8 million will go blind because of it annually.

The Great News is that things are going to get better!!

Up to the present, prevention programs have been used in affected communities where they administer bi-annual doses of Azithromycin to eradicate Trachoma from those afflicted. Stopping the infections means stopping the resultant deformity of the eyelids, and it's the damaged, scarred eyelids that eventually lead to permanent distortion of the cornea and thence blindness.
Bruce Gaynor MD and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, have just reported in the Lancet, that Azithromycin given once a year is just as effective as when given twice a year: that means current resources can be made to go twice as far.  "We will now be able to reach more people and make the treatment go twice as far as before,” Gaynor said. “This will make a huge impact in slowing down trachoma-related blindness globally.”

All that we need now is for Governments to match the enthusiasm generated by these findings -by increasing their funding, not cutting it - so that a disease that was eradicated in the developed world 100 years ago, can also be eradicated from those communities who most need their sighted citizens.
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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Our body's "Homeland Security" system

Electron Microscope image of an Effector cell.
The immune system has long fascinated me. We naturally assume that if we get an infection, then our body's immune system will detect and destroy it: but how does it do it? How does the body know that you have an infected ingrown toenail? And how do the body's white cells discover that germs are "down there"; and then how does the white cell "hit squad" travel through the blood stream and find the exact spot where the infection is? And finally, how do these cells get through the blood vessel wall to where the infection is situated? That's a lot of questions, and after reading an article from the Weismann Institute of Science in Israel, I'm blown away by the cleverness of the whole system.

As far as I can work out, this is how it appears to work: a bacteria gets into the system and the first thing to happen is that local inflammation occurs. Specific immune-system cells such as Dendritic cells - think border protection - which wander around looking for interlopers, are switched on by this inflammation and bring genetic information about the bacteria back to the local lymph node. Enter a specialized cell called an Effector Cell - think special forces - which is "trained" by the lymph node nearest the site of inflammation in the subtle art of recognizing this new invading threat. The effector cells then re-enter the blood stream to find the nearest "jump off point" so that they can get close to the site of infection and "terminate" the opposition. But how do they find the right spot to exit the artery whilst hurtling through the blood as it is pumped around the body?

Well according to Prof Ronen Alon and his co-workers Drs Ziv Shulman and Shmuel Cohen, the lining of the blood vessels is not just a passive sticky barrier, but lined by endothelial cells that have the ability to "signal" to passing Effector cells where to exit the system. But what the researchers found was that these chemical signals were held within the endothelial cells  - presumably so they don't get washed away - in structures called vesicles, and that the Effector cells have literally to reach within the endothelial cells to discover that they are at the correct location. What also amazed me was that these defensive white cells have appendages like thin legs and actually crawl along the inside of the blood vessels: and as they crawl along, they "reach inside" the endothelial cells looking for the right chemical signals. It's a bit like driving down the street and stopping at each store to ask where the fire is, when you get to a cluster of stores that say "You're here", then the endothelial cells literally help the Effector cells to pass through "between the buildings" and carry out their mission!

There are still a great many puzzles to answer, but the complexity of the system is only equaled by the beauty of its organization.
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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Child is born ..

Being Christmas time there is a great deal of activity happening around the place, with the buying of presents, preparing food and having parties; and in all the fuss and turmoil, one senses that the real meaning of Christmas is being overlooked - apart from the dreaded "canned" carols in all the major malls and shopping centers! Ocassionally one stumbles across a Nativity scene in a large store, and as always, the little children are still fascinated by the strange sight of a baby in a crib surrounded by cattle, sheep and men in funny clothes.

Being born is a miraculous event - what starts off as two cells fusing into one, ends up becoming a living, breathing human being, and all in the space of 9 months. But the passage from conception, to the time when the baby becomes independent and able to forage for itself, is probably the most "dangerous" period in our lives. For Jesus to be born in a "cattle shed" to a young teenager who had no ante-natal care, and who is having her first baby surrounded by men,and not a midwife in sight, would classify as an extremely high risk birth. And to highlight what faced infants born before the time of modern medicine, here's a quote on conditions in a well known country in the mid 18th century:

    "Infants under one year old accounted for a quarter of the total deaths in England and Wales. Half of all of the deaths were infants under five. Sanitation and hygiene were serious problems. Filth or contaminated foods often caused infection. Diarrhea was so common and dangerous that it could cause death in a baby in less than forty-eight hour." Palestine at the time of Christ was a fairly primitive place and under siege, (not much seems to have changed!) so it would be a fair guess to think that similar conditions would have existed in His time.

If Christ were to be born today in an undeveloped country such as Mali, there would still be a one in five chance that He would be dead before the age of 5! Paradoxically, if He were to be born in Egypt or Albania, He would have a one in five chance of being overweight by the time he was five!

Where we are born has a significant impact on our health and longevity, and for many infants on this planet, they have a fairly rugged start in life. Where a child is born is a major factor in predicting its future health, but the family - or lack of - into which that child is born and which nurtures it in those first 5 years, is equally vital. Critical biological imprinting goes on in those vulnerable first five years, and if parents neglect themselves or their child, the result could well be that the child will spend the rest of their life paying the price.

The gift of one child 2,000 years ago gave us all hope: lets make sure that for what remains of the rest of our lives, that we try our best to give every child the best opportunities in those critical first five years.
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hydrogel hope for scar free burns

As humans, we have a natural fear of fire. Anyone who has burnt himself or herself will instinctively flinch if they get too close to dangerous heat – and with good reason. Burns are one of those traumas where everyone, medical staff included, has an emotional response. Not only is there the pain, both physical as well as mental and emotional to cope with, but there is also the reality of long term hospital treatment and the inevitability of scarring.

Over the past couple of decades, burns management has come into it’s own as a speciality with excellent protocols to fast track severe cases, and wound management aimed at reducing infection and hopefully reducing the scarring too. Technology has been introduced with the aim of restoring skin coverage as quickly as possible, with people such as Prof Fiona Woods here in Perth WA, being an internationally regarded expert in the area of “Spray on Skin”.

Now workers at John Hopkins in America have developed an engineered Hydrogel that could form the basis of an inexpensive burn wound treatment that appears to work better than currently available dressings or clinical therapies. Using mouse studies, they have shown that the jelly like material appeared to regenerate healthy, scar free tissue, which John Harmon, a professor of surgery at John Hopkins described as “Absolutely remarkable. We got complete skin regeneration, which never happens in typical burn wound treatment.”

The Hydrogel was developed with a team of engineers and promotes the early development of new blood vessels in the area under treatment: this leads to regeneration of the more complex structures found in skin such as hair follicles and the exocrine glands that produce oil on the skin.

Although a patent is protecting the gel, the researchers admit to not fully understanding how the gel works. One theory goes that the gel attracts bone stem cells that take up residence in the matrix and morph into the cells required to produce healthy skin. As there are no drugs or growth factors within the Hydrogel, it is possible that it could be classified as a “Device” and thereby get into the healthcare system quicker than if it had to undergo extensive pharmaceutical trials.

Lets hope what’s good for mice is good for humans too!

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Keeping an eye on the future

Macular Degeneration (MD) is the leading cause of blindness in Australia with 1 in 7 people over the age of 50 being affected by it. In hard numbers this means that each year there are 17,700 new cases and the frequency of the problem increases as we get older. In the US the numbers are even more startling with over 7 million people suffering from the condition. The experts talk of Dry and Wet forms of the disease with the wet form being more amenable to treatment, and the dry form - the far more common one - having no effective treatment at all.

What we do know about MD is that it's hereditary with a 50% chance of developing in those with a strong family history. We also know that smokers are at three times greater risk of developing MD and may show signs of the condition 10 years earlier than non smokers: but quitting smoking for 20 years reduces the risk to that of the normal population. We might not be able to change our genetics, but we can stop smoking or make sure our children never smoke!

On the microscopic scale, the problem is one of "neuro-inflammation" caused by activation of Microglial cells, inflammatory cells in charge of cleaning up dead and dying material in the eye. Enter Mayo Clinic ophthalmologist Raymond Iezzi, M.D and his colleagues who worked with Nano-engineers to develop a Nano-particle called a Dendimer, that has enabled them to deliver Steroids to the retina and reduce the inflammation. According to Dr Kannan, a collaborator of Dr Iezzi, "The activated Microglia in the degenerating retina appeared to eat the Dendrimer selectively, and retain them for at least a month. The drug is released from the Dendrimer in a sustained fashion inside these cells, offering targeted neuroprotection to the retina."

Predictably, all the work so far has been done on rats, and researchers are not suggesting that this is a cure but offers the prospect of good control. If, as hoped, the results are reproduced in humans, then this will be an enormously relief for everyone who hopes to live beyond the age of 50!
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Asthma Prevention: you've gotta suck it up!

Most Doctors who write prescriptions for their patients live under the impression that the patient will follow the Doctors advice and take the medications "As directed". Sadly, in a great number of cases this is not the truth: antibiotic courses are not completed, contraceptive pills are missed, 'Statin usage drops off as the patient feels OK - the list is depressingly long. One of the key principals of modern medicine is Prevention, and that means that patients need to comply with the advice given, if we are to achieve a good level of success.

Asthma is a good case example. In asthma, a trio of events occurs,

  • Inflammation of the lining of the airways leading to a narrower tube through which to breath.
  • A thickening of the normal dust-trapping, watery mucous secreted by the inner lining, which leads to blocking of the narrowed airways with these thick, sticky mucous plugs.
  • A thickening of the circular muscle that controls the diameter of these small breathing tubes and which exacerbates the overall narrowing of these smaller airways.

In an asthma "attack", some irritant or triggering event - smoke, virus infection, stress - causes the circular muscles in the tubes to contract and narrow the tube, reducing airflow. Now if the diameter of that airway is already narrow due to inflammation, and has thick mucous plugs blocking up the smaller tubes, then the patient is going to wheeze and to get very short of breath: sometimes fatally so!

So the key to reducing the risks of suffering a significant asthma attack is to reduce the inflammation so that the airways are at their maximal diameter, and to make sure that they are not clogged with tenacious mucous: enter the principal of using Inhaled Cortico-Steroids (ICS). If it's going to be effective and keep people out of hospital, then they've got to take the medications on a daily basis. This has been backed up by research just released by the Henry Ford Centre in the US where lead author Dr Keorki Williams reported "We found that every 25 percent increase in ICS adherence was associated with an 11 percent decrease in asthma attacks, but most importantly, we found that causal use of these medications is not enough, especially among patients whose asthma is not controlled. Patients must use their asthma controller medication as prescribed if they want to have the best chance of preventing serious asthma attacks."

As my dear old Mum used to say: "An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure".
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Sunday, December 11, 2011

A heartfelt gift from the US to India

In the spirit of this time of year, my attention was drawn to an article in the American Journal of Cardiology about re-using pacemakers from "deceased" patients. As far as I am aware, it is illegal in most western societies to re-use a cardiac pacemaker once the patient/owner has died, but this article reports that the prohibition does not apply if the pacemakers are sent to other, more needy parts of the world.

The project reported in the journal, was initiated by an Indian medical student prior to his move to Loyola University. He interviewed 53 poor patients in Mumbai who had severe rhythm disorders that had left them breathless with even the mildest of exertion. Their poverty meant that the price of between $2,200 to $6,600 for a pacemaker, was way beyond their wildest dreams. On reaching Loyala, the now Dr Kulkarni started out a philanthropic venture to get the pacemakers from donor families to be sent to India. This then progressed to research to confirm how safe the process was.

Each pacemaker was rigorously cleaned and sterilized after removal, and then only those with a remaining battery life of at least three years were chosen for future implantation. After two years follow up, all the patients are alive and all but two reported much improved health. Importantly there have been no battery failures and no reports of infection.

Dr Kulkarni appears to have taken a simple idea and followed through with it: the families of those who no longer need their pacemakers have shown true generosity, and the needy recipients have been given a new lease on life. It's an idea that ticks so many boxes, and one that deserves our world wide support as the global family celebrates this very special time of giving gifts at Christmas.
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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Keep the kids safe at Christmas

Specialists are warning of a possible upsurge of Button Battery ingestion over the Christmas period. These Litium based batteries are used in portable electronic devices, such as  watches, camcorders, digital cameras, thermometers, calculators, communication equipment and remote car locks. They usually have a CR number printed on one side: the first part of the number refers to the diameter and the second part the thickness, and it's the bigger batteries, greater than 15mm that are potential sources of concern. If they stick in the oesophagus - the tube through which food travels from the mouth to reach the stomach - then it can cause a potentially fatal perforation.

In children under 4 who have smaller diameter oesophagi, then the chances of this happening are significantly greater. So if you know your little one has swallowed a button battery, take them straight to the emergency department. The chances of death are rare: in one study only 15 deaths were reported out of 56,535 "reported ingestions", but no one wants their child to be one of the 15!

The other group of people who tend to swallow these small button batteries are the old folk. That's when they're changing the batteries in their hearing aids and oops, down she goes! In this group the battery can get stuck in the lower part of the bowel, so it is important to make sure that it does pass through by checking the bowel motion. If there is any concern then it is important to check with your Physician who will order some Xrays.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tiny Ticks can carry a big punch!

When we were kids, one of the "Ditties" that we used to sing was "If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise", which I think ended up being about teddy bears. But what got me humming my old nursery rhyme was nothing to do with bears, but ticks! My eye had been caught by an article about a rare new infection, a bacterium called Neoehrlichia mikurensis which was first identified in Japan, and which had now been found to be transmitted by ticks on the other side of the world in Gothenburg Sweden !

I like to go walking in the country north of Perth WA, and at this time of year it is so easy to pick up ticks - kangaroo ticks, and "salt and pepper" ticks - as you walk through the bush or the woods, and there are as many folkloric ways to manage tick bites as there are different species of those pesky arachnids. So any information about reducing risks always attracts me.

Ticks have eight legs and pass through several stages before they reach adulthood - egg, larva, nymph and then the adult. They mainly appear in the spring and summer months and attach themselves to the tips of long grass or bushes before attaching themselves to "passers-by". If that's a human, they then tend to climb up inside the clothing to the warmer areas of the body, such as the head and neck, and then settle down for a feed by burying their snout and head under the skin to suck blood.

Ticks can cause problems by a reaction to their saliva causing

  • local reactions and itching
  • generalized allergic reactions
  • paralysis due to toxic proteins - dogs
  • spread infections such as Lymes disease in the Asia, Europe and North America

This new infection reported in Sweden has only been found in 8 people worldwide since 2004, so it's unlikely to be coming to an "Tick" near you anytime soon, but it is a timely reminder that these seemingly simple "beasties" can cause significant health issues.

Importantly, the Tick will release more saliva if disturbed, which raises questions as to how best to remove them without causing more problems. For those with a known Tick allergy, the best answer is to leave them well alone and get them removed in a Clinic setting where there are appropriate medical supports and adrenaline is available if necessary. As to the best method of removal, unfortunately there is no consensus on this that I am aware of. But you shouldn't squeeze them, try to pull them out or even poison them as this will upset them and make them release more saliva and potentially upset you in the process!

The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy have suggested a novel approach and that is to use a freezing spray - such as Aerostart: apparently used for cleaning Carburetors - which instantly freeze dries the insects and kills them before they can release any more saliva. On paper this seems a great idea, but they also warn that:

  • this advice is based on clinical experience of those treating patients with tick allergy
  • this product is not “registered” for such use
  • this product is highly flammable, and thus should not be used near naked flame or when smoking
  • rapid cooling of the skin and thus skin irritation may occur
  • since it is unlikely that formal studies in this area will occur in the near future, such advice is based on a consensus of “expert opinion” rather than derived from results of formal clinical studies.
So be warned!

The best idea is to avoid getting bitten in the first place so:
  • Wear appropriate clothing when outdoors in tick areas including long sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into socks and a wide brimmed hat. Ticks are more easily detected on light coloured clothing.
  • Spray clothes and hats with an insect repellent and wear a repellent that contains DEET or Picaridin.
  • When returning from an area known to have ticks, remove clothing and search for ticks, especially behind the ears, on the back of the head, groin, armpits and back of knees. Be careful where clothes are placed as they may introduce ticks to inside the house. Don't forget to check children and pets
Reference 1
Reference 2
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fish Tales for young women.

Traditionally, research into Heart Disease has been focused on the male of the species: the obvious reason being that men seemed to be "slipping off the twig" far more frequently than their female companions! And this is true ... to a certain extent, but in fact heart disease kills more women than breast cancer and has been the bridesmaid of what ails women when it comes to research. Thankfully, over the last 10 years this has changed and its really good to see researchers publishing articles based on how to reduce Heart risk for women which is both relevant and practical.

A group of researchers in Copenhagen have recently published their findings after following 49,000 women - median aged just under thirty - for an eight year period and found that those who incorporated some fish in their weekly diet were 50% less likely to have had a cardiovascular problem.

The following points are interesting to note:

  1. Hardly any of the women who ate fish, actually took fish oil supplements: in fact the few who did take supplements were excluded from the study.
  2. This was a group of young women of child bearing age, and the benefits accrued to them from eating fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids was measurable in a relatively short time. In other words, this wasn't a "superannuation effect" - one which you have to wait until your over 65 to benefit from!
  3. The quantity of fish eaten varied, with benefits being noticeable with as little as two servings per month. However, the recommended amount is to have fish as a main meal twice a week.
  4. The study was based on phone interviews which I am always a little wary about: but the numbers were high and the subject not a threatening one, so my feeling is that the results do carry significant weight.

The big question is "What fish should I consume"? This will depend on the area of the planet you live on, but Sardines, Salmon and Tuna are always reliable sources. For those of us in Oz,

  • Sardines
  • Ocean trout
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Tuna
  • Herring
  • Mackerel

are all good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids: Bon Apetite!
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Monday, December 5, 2011

Special Christmas "Gifts" from my patients.

As it comes towards Christmas, I have been reflecting on the "gifts" that I have received over the years from patients whom I have cared for. These gifts are not the regulation bottle of plonk, but are those experiences that have helped forge me into the person I am now. Some of the gifts I would rather not have received, but they have been a part of the tapestry that is my life story.

There was dear old Mrs Little, a lady I had never met until I received a phone call from her. "My son Bill is wetting the bed still, any suggestion?" she asked. I asked a few pertinent questions such as how long had this been going on, and what sort of things had she tried already. Then I asked "How old is Billy", to which she replied, "65". It turned out that Bill was an alcoholic who lived in the caravan at the back of her ancient home in rural Victoria! When I visited him, it also turned out that Bill had advanced head and neck cancer that he had never bothered to get checked. Over the months of caring for Bill in his final illness, I got to spend a lot of time with Mrs Little who was full of ancient wisdom: "Catholics should be graded like eggs" was one that sticks with me, and this from a lady who attended almost daily Mass. She lived to be 105 with her faculties still intact.

Another delightful lady who always cheered me for other reasons was a lady in her 80's who was also an alcoholic. When I visited her at home, usually mid morning, she was already drunk and greeted me with the words "God, you're handsome", which always does some good to a middle aged man's ego!

Mr D'Arcy was a gentleman to his bootlaces, always gracious and always welcoming. He had the most severe airways disease and yet always walked me to my car after a visit and shook my hand in thanks for coming to his house.

Matt was a very intelligent, but troubled teenager, who made his parents life hell. But there was something about the kid that I liked. He was smart and insightful, but he was an unmitigated risk taker and "defier" of authority. We used to have long conversations on life and all the great opportunities that were opening before him and how he could do great things, if just he could accept that life does present us with boundaries which we all have to live within. Matt would smile, and I knew he was in some other place that I could never enter. He was seeing psychiatrists and taking various medications: I think he used to see me more for a chat than anything medical. He committed suicide and I was devastated not only for his family, but for a life that had so much, and yet chose oblivion over challenge. Thanks Matt for teaching me about how tough life is for some teenagers.

Bob Jefferies was a grumpy, hard individual who was rude to all and sundry, Doctors included. He was one of those "heart sink" patients whom you dreaded to see in the waiting room. For some reason he picked on me, and over the years I got to know Bob really well and also got an insight into why he was grumpy. He had been a rear gunner in the last great war and was shot down over Germany. He jumped from the burning plane at a height of 2000 feet, with his parachute on fire too! Fortunately it was winter and he fell into a snow covered pine plantation and skidded down the trees into deep snow fracturing both feet into the bargain. He tried to walk to safety, but all he got was frostbite to his burnt broken feet before he was captured and interred. After the war he married and had a son: when his son was a teenager, he was killed in an accident that left the parents devastated. Bob never talked about his son, his wife told me, but he did open up about his war years and when he left these consultations, he would shake my hand and smile and say "Thanks Doc".

To all the patients with whom I have shared such amazing moments, I would like to say "Thanks to you all", you have enriched my life.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

A not so fishy story!

Firstly, a technical term that I had to look up: it's the term "Broiled"! For the ignorant, like myself, it's a form of cooking where you use the Grill in your oven, as opposed to using the barbeque, where the heat comes from the other side. Both barbequing and broiling would produce the same end results with the meat nicely cooked on the outside and the inner part remaining moist and tasty!

This relevant fact became apparent to me when reading why baked or "broiled" fish could help reduce the risks of Alzheimer's disease by preserving critical areas of grey matter within the brain. Dr Rajii, from the Pittsberg Medical Centre Mercy Hospital, reported his findings after following a group of people 65 years and older, over a 20 year period and measuring the size of their brains using imaging techniques. He found that in certain critical areas of the brain - the Hippocampus and the Frontal Lobes - the grey matter was better preserved in those who consumed between 1 to 4 servings of fish per week. These areas are considered important in Alzheimers disease as they are vital pathways for memory and cognition.

Why this happens is uncertain, but the theory goes that fish oils contain omega-3 fatty acids which are thought to reduce inflammation within the brain, and in Alzheimers, the inflammatory process plays a significan role. Last year Dr Rajii reported a similar finding when following up on the effects of regular exercise, but reported the opposite effect in obese people - where the relevant grey matter volume decreased.

Eating fish has been shown to help with cardiovascular disease, and now it's been shown to lessen the risks for Alzheimers disease: sounds like good news to me!

PS: for those of you who think it works with fried fish - sorry, but no. There were no measurable benefits from eating fried fish. Take it from an expert, broiling is the way to go!
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

World HIV AIDS Day

Today is World HIV AIDS day and if the Three Wise Men were to arrive this Christmas, then I hope one of them would bring a cure for this terrible scourge and donate the Patent and Intellectual Property Rights to all humanity!

Here are some figures from UNAIDS from Nov 2010 and refer to the year 2009.

Estimate Range
People living with HIV/AIDS in 2009      33.3 million         31.4-35.3 million
Adults living with HIV/AIDS in 2009       30.8 million         29.2-32.6 million
Women living with HIV/AIDS in 2009      15.9 million         14.8-17.2 million
Children living with HIV/AIDS in 2009      2.5 million         1.6-3.4 million
People newly infected with HIV in 2009      2.6 million         2.3-2.8 million
Adults newly infected with HIV in 2009      2.2 million         2.0-2.4 million
AIDS deaths in 2009      1.8 million         1.6-2.1 million
Orphans (0-17) due to AIDS in 2009      16.6 million         14.4-18.8 million 

At the end of 2009, women accounted for just over half of all adults living with HIV worldwide.

Although the number of cases has "stabilized" over the past few years, there is still an awesome challenge ahead to treat, manage and recover from this global devastation. For every case reported, several other people are affected by the disease. In Africa, if the HIV patient is the mother or father, then the whole family faces severe economic hardship, if not starvation. So when we talk of 33 million people with HIV, then we must extrapolate that to say that over 100 million people SUFFER from the effects of HIV AIDS.

And it isn't just a simple fact of finding the right treatment, and hey presto, everything in the garden will be rosey. A report from the US suggests that "Only 28% of people infected with HIV in the United States have achieved viral suppression"according to a report from the CDC. One of the reasons behind these bleak figures is that 1 in 5 HIV sufferers don't even realize that they carry the infection, and of those who are aware, only 51% are receiving ongoing medical care. If that is the situation in a country with "first world" Hospitals and Health Care, what chance for those in Sub Saharan Africa?

Most of you who read this will wonder "what can I do to make a difference, because where I live, I've never met anyone with HIV, so it doesn't really affect my life?" And you're right, it does seem hard to effect a change on a world scale, but perhaps what we can do to begin with is to be compassionate. Just by talking about HIV in a compassionate way amongst your friends and colleagues will help alter attitudes because 3 million children live with AIDS and there are over 16 million orphans as a result of AIDS, and they need help. The second thing to remember is that every small donation to an accredited HIV AIDS organization will help effect change: maybe not immediately, but with increasing awareness and support, the future lives of millions can be changed.
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