Sunday, November 8, 2009

H1N1 teaching moments

Although the typical A&P class is not focused primarily on pathology, we certainly do use pathology frequently as a tool to illustrate "normal" structure and function by looking at what goes wrong in injury and disease.  This works especially well when a disease or injury . . . or affected celebrity . . . is in the current news.  The current pandemic H1N1 outbreak gives us opportunities to teach some important concepts:
  • what do "public health" scientists do, and how do they do it?
  • what is a virus and how does it affect cell and body function?
  • how do vaccines protect the body?
  • why do some infections have a greater affect on some people than others?
  • how are viral infections spread?  how are they treated?
A recent news release posted at Science Daily summarizes a striking issue related to the flu vaccinations.  It highlights a paper recently published in The Lancet, which concludes that vaccination campaigns can be underminded by the public's tendency to link coincidental health events with vaccination campaigns.

Haven't we all see and heard of such associations?  They are even promoted by some otherwise trustworthy media outlets.  For example, many people are convinced of the strong relationship between certain vaccine preservatives and autism . . . even though thorough scientific investigation has shown no link.  An "outbreak" of Guillain–BarrĂ© Syndrome during the 1976-77 swine flu vaccination program turns out to be consistent with the number of people expected to contract this syndrome whether or not a vaccination program occurred.

In short, people get sick all the time and we should not automatically conclude that coincidental events are necessarily cause-and-effect scenarios . . . or even related at all.  And yet . . . we do.

This information is useful in teaching about how the scientific method can be used to answer questions.  In addition, the CDC's current surveillance methodology can be explored to illustrate how a scientific approach can be used in practical ways to watch for actual problems that could arise in a vaccination program.

In a somewhat related development, psychologists recently reported in Psychological Science that seeing and hearing a person sneeze can trigger fear or a "doom-and-gloom" attitude in healthy individuals.  I guess we should be cautious when exposed to sneezes, but the study showed that we tend to take such stimuli far more seriously than we realized.

Want to know more?
Pandemic Flu Vaccine Campaigns May Be Undermined By Coincidental Medical Events.
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center ScienceDaily. (2009, November 6)
[News release summarizing conclusions of a scientific study]

Importance of background rates of disease in assessment of vaccine safety during mass immunisation with pandemic H1N1 influenza vaccines
Black, S. et al.
The Lancet (early online publication) 31 October 2009
[Original peer-reviewed article]
Sneezes Provoke Fears Beyond Illness
Karen Hopkin
Sceintific American Online November 4, 2009
[Link to the podcast version or read the text summary]
[Here's an interesting clip to add to your PowerPoint or course web page . . . the first filmed sneeze ever recorded!  It was made with Thomas Edison's kinetoscope and was the first motion picture copyrighted in the United States.  Click here to see it ]

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