Good News (Part 3)

26 December, 2015


Malaria is a nasty disease, caused by mosquitoes infected with parasites. If you catch malaria, you get feverish and tired. You have headaches, and vomit. If you’re unlucky you may have seizures, fall into a coma and even die.

Almost 200 million people got malaria in 2013. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million died. 90% of these people lived in Africa.

This is good news???

Yes, it is! Since 2000, malaria funding has increased nearly tenfold. From 2000 to 2015, cases of malaria in Africa dropped by 40%. Thanks to this, over 600 million cases of malaria have been avoided!

The main reason? Insecticide-treated nets. If you sleep with one of these over your bed, you’re less likely to get bitten by a mosquito.

And how are people getting these nets? The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, founded in 2002, has distributed 548 million of them. They provide about half the international funding for malaria control worldwide.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping. They’ve spent almost $2 billion to fight malaria. They’ve also contributed $1.6 billion to the Global Fund.

The war against malaria is far from won. One of the main drugs used to fight it is artemisinin. But a strain that’s resistant to artemisinin is spreading near the border of Thailand and Cambodia.

A vaccine would be great. But there’s no vaccine yet. And it’s not easy: malaria is actually caused by several different organisms. Still, stopping just a few of the main culprits would be great.

New technology can change the game. On November 23rd, something amazing happened.

A team of scientists from the University of California announced that they had gotten mosquitoes to pass on malaria resistance genes to almost all their children—not just half, as you’d normally expect!

With this method, malaria resistance could spread through the mosquito population like wildfire.

This method is called a gene drive, and it was implemented using a system called CRISPR. If you haven’t heard about these things, it’s time to do some reading! I’ll give you some links below.

Being sensible and cautious, the scientists have not tested this method in the wild yet. They could do it in less than a year—but they’re in no rush. Said Anthony James:

It’s not going to go anywhere until the social science advances to the point where we can handle it. We’re not about to do anything foolish.

It may be good to test it on a remote island, where mosquitoes can’t fly to another place.

Gene drives are simultaneously very promising and quite scary. If we used one to spread malaria resistance among mosquitoes we could save half a million lives each year – and let poor countries spend their resources on something better.

We are gaining the power to do many things. We just need some wisdom to go along with this power. In fact, many of us have that wisdom. We just need to get better at making it prevail.

For more

On the CRISPR method for spreading malaria resistance:

• Heidi Ledford and Ewen Callaway, ‘Gene drive’ mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria, Nature News, 23 November 2015.

For more on CRISPR:

• Sarah Zhang, Everything you need to know about CRISPR, the new tool that edits DNA, Gizmodo, 6 May 2015.

For the new discovery:

• Valentino M. Gantza, Nijole Jasinskiene, Olga Tatarenkova, Aniko Fazekas, Vanessa M. Macias, Ethan Bier and Anthony A. James, Highly efficient Cas9-mediated gene drive for population modification of the malaria vector mosquito Anopheles stephensi, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (2015).

Good News (Part 2)

25 December, 2015


When I visited Cambodia I went to Kompong Phluk, a village where all the houses are on stilts, and everyone knows how to swim. The villagers raise fish in the Tonlé Sap, which is the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia. During the dry season, from November to May, this lake drains into the Mekong River near Phnom Penh. But during the monsoons, water flows back from the Mekong into the lake, and it grows six-fold in area! We took a boat ride down this muddy river into the Tonlé Sap and saw the fish farms.

In 2008, a Canadian student named Christopher Charles was working in rural Cambodia. He was living in a house on stilts. He had no electricity or running water, but lots time to sit around and think.

He started thinking about anemia.

Anemia is often caused by an iron deficiency. It makes you tired and weak. You have trouble thinking clearly. Almost half of Cambodia’s population suffers from this disease! In fact, over 3.5 billion people on our planet have anemia, and the World Bank estimates that it’s a $50 billion drain on the global GDP.

You can cure anemia with iron supplements—but they taste bad, and they often cause stomach pains, constipation, and even more disgusting problems.

So Charles had another idea: give villagers little blocks of iron to drop into their cooking pots. The iron gets released slowly as the water boils.

But at first, people hated them. They thought the iron blocks where ugly. They thought the iron blocks would scratch their pots. So they turned them into doorstops.

He kept trying. He needed a second idea: one that could make the first idea work.

He realized that in rural Cambodia almost everything revolves around fish. Fish from the Tonlé Sap provide Cambodians with 60% of their protein intake. People earn lots of their money fishing, they’re important in Khmer folklore. Even their currency—the riel—is named after a fish!

So, he made iron into “lucky fish” , shown here:

Now people are happy to put one into the pot when cooking.

One of those who has been using the fish is Sot Mot, a 60-year-old grandmother who lives just outside Phnom Penh. She drops the fish into boiling water as she chops up garlic, ginger and lemongrass for Khmer chicken soup. “Before, I felt tired and lazy and my chest shook when I was tired,” she says. “But after I use the fish, I have strength and energy to work and I sleep well, too.”

One of her grand-daughters seems to be improving, too. “Before, when I went to school I felt tired, and I didn’t do well at math, maybe the sixth in the class,” says 15-year-old Danai. “Now,” she says proudly, “I’m No. 1.”

Of course, this idea needs to be tested with scientific studies. And here’s one such study:

• Christopher V. Charles et al, Iron-deficiency anaemia in rural Cambodia: community trial of a novel iron supplementation technique, The European Journal of Public Health, 28 January 2010.

More studies are coming up.

No matter what the result finally is, it shows that paying attention to local culture can work wonders when trying to help people.

Large parts of this story are paraphrased from the following radio show, which is definitely worth listening to:

• Michael Sullivan, In Cambodia, ‘lucky’ iron fish in the pot could help fight anemia, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 25 December 2015.

Good News (Part 1)

24 December, 2015


As we head toward the new year, I’d like to talk about some good news!

Most news is bad news. Why? Because the news media are like the immune system: their job is to warn us of threats. But an over-sensitive immune system can actually cause diseases, like allergies and auto-immune disorders. And the same thing can happen to the body politic when the news media exaggerates threats!

You’ve already heard more than enough bad news. But you may not have heard this good news:

• From 1990 and 2015, the proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished has almost halved, dropping from 19% to 11%.

• Global child mortality from all causes has more than halved since 1990. So, 6.7 million fewer children under the age of five are dying each year now than in 1990.

• Violent crime has declined both in the US and globally: there has been a 35% decline in overall violent crime in the US from 1995 to 2014, and a 6% decline in global homicide rates over from 2000 to 2012.

• There hasn’t been a single case of polio detected in Africa in almost a year and a half! Polio is now known to exist only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A disease that used to be a major killer, with 350,000 cases in 1988, is now almost extinct.

• Since 2000, worldwide cases of measles have dropped by more than two-thirds, saving more than 17 million lives—largely thanks to vaccination.

• Ebola seems to have been defeated: between November 1st and December 16th, there were only 4 confirmed cases of the disease. Trials of an Ebola vaccine this spring indicated that it was 100% effective.

• Worldwide , the number of children not going to primary school has fallen from 100 million in 2000 to a projected 57 million in 2015.

• This September, for the first time ever, less than 10% of the global population lived in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.90 per day. This is down from 37% in 1990.

Of course not everything is going well—that’s not what I’m trying to say. Humanity faces a lot of tough problems. But I think many of us will be better at solving these problems if we can learn to be more optimistic. That’s true of me, at least.

(There seem to be people who are too optimistic—but strangely, I don’t know them personally. Am I just avoiding them, or are they avoiding me?)

These facts were taken from here:

• Charles Kenny, 2015: The best year in history for the average human being, The Atlantic, 18 December 2015.

Some are paraphrased from Alexander Kruel, a cool dude who pointed out this article on Google+. You can see the sources for the facts above in the article.

I would like to know if $1.90 is in constant dollars, but I didn’t have the patience to dig through the report where this fact came from:

Global Monitoring Report 2015/2016: Development Goals in an Era of Demographic Change, World Bank, Washington DC, 2015.

Can you find out?