Behind the Headlines


Health headlines. Promises of cures for cancers (sometimes even a cure for “cancer”, which makes little sense as cancer refers to many diseases). Diets. Fitness. Weight loss. Heart health. The latest discovery by scientists, often using similar language to the opposite claim made not so long ago in the media.

New stories every day. A deluge of data, often unreliable data, that distracts us from the much harder search for actual knowledge.

This is the nature of the mass media – careful analysis isn’t as captivating as the appearance of new breakthroughs every day, and isn’t cost-effective from a media perspective. But as we become more media savvy, we question the media, and hopefully we turn to more reliable sources.

Here’s a very promising source of intelligent news about health: Behind the Headlines. It takes health headlines and discusses the evidence that does or does not exist for the headline. Fantastic.

Aside from being more informative about the individual cases, this also introduces critical thinking into the reporting and consumption of health news. The reader is presented with a framework through which each story is analyzed. Rather than a simple “Scientists have discovered that…”, a claim made must hold up to examination. Being told what to believe by someone in a white coat is replaced by sound argument and research. This is good.

Health professionals and those interested in the subject, please check it out and let us know what your assessment

Getting behind the noise on a wiki

Fellew wikiholics, how do we best apply this kind of critical analysis in a wiki? In our case, we deal with knowledge about global public health, international development, and sustainability, which are also contentious areas – this looks similar enough. It’s just a matter of applying it in the wiki world. Some of the principles have been worked out on Wikipedia – others will have to evolve on Appropedia to suit the different goals and guidelines, including more room for analysis. It seems to me that a community of informed, thinking people, a guideline for page structure and some editing tools will be the starting point for this evolution.

“Behind the Headlines” is provided by the NHS Knowledge Service in Britain. Many thanks to the British taxpayer – if it fulfills its promises, this is money very well spent.

Pandemic panic – what have we learned?


In the recent swine flu scare, the World Health Organization (WHO) went up the pandemic scale surprisingly quickly. Now it looks clear that it won’t be a pandemic after all: far fewer people have died than die during a normal flu season – and far less than regularly die around the world from malaria, dirty water, or smoke from indoor cooking and heating, week after week and year after year.

Preparedness for pandemic is important, and the time to get ready is well before a pandemic occurs, and the time to start handwashing and mask-wearing is when a potential outbreak first occurs. Emphasizing the seriousness of the situation is good and wise. But you can emphasize preparedness with the pandemic scale is at 2, rather than 5. (Or even zero for that matter – if the WHO makes announcements on potential pandemics, the fear factor means that many people will pay attention.) As a public health layperson, I’m hesitant to criticize the professionals (I studied public health engineering, rather than public health per se; and my focus is on knowledge sharing, rather than knowing everything myself). But these questions need to be asked. The WHO made out that there was a high likelihood of pandemic, when it appeared to me and many others that there was no good reason to do so. Were they boys crying wolf, and what does this mean for the next potential pandemic?

I still believe the risk of a 1918-style pandemic happening again is very low, as I’ve argued with my friends in the development field. We’ve learnt much since 1918, our communications are many times better, and the conditions of 1918 (international war, troop movements, trench warfare, widespread poor nutrition even in rich countries, less advanced diagnostics and treatment) just don’t exist today. But I’d be a fool to say it’s impossible. We’ve built a better public health infrastructure, and the nasty virus DNA may just form into a more challenging virus.

The point is to be prepared – to develop strategies such as the Flucode, and develop freely available information on making oral rehydration solution and simple masks. Be prepared for an outbreak of something nasty, and be ready to deal with it quickly – these are what we need. We’ll also have side-benefits in being better able to deal with regular influenza (a sometimes deadly disease but without the headlines) and other diseases.  Action, not panic.

Am I being harsh on the WHO?

The seemingly impossible is possible


What’s the real state of the world? This is the brilliance of Gapminder – it takes us beyond platitudes and generalizations about poverty and abundance, and shows us the state of the world in terms we understand.

I apologize if you’ve already seen the video below, but there are still many who haven’t. It’s an enlightening and funny presentation, and a must-see for all who care about the state of the world.

There is a lot of good news, but:

“This really shows you – we have not seen good economic and health progress anywhere in the world, without destroying the climate, and this is really what has to be changed.”

That’s Hans Rosling at TED 2007, a moment of warning in a positive talk where he argues that “the seemingly impossible is possible” and demonstrates it in an unexpected way in his finale:

As for how to have economic and health progress without destroying the climate – that’s what we’re about at Appropedia. Watch this space.