Dr Seuss as a science communicator

Before publishing his famous children’s books under the pen-name Dr Seuss, Theodor Geisel started out as an illustrator for advertising agencies and during WW2 worked as a political cartoonist. He used his talents to support the war effort by illustrating military materials for the US Treasury Department and War Production Board. To see a pamphlet he created to educate American soldiers about the risk of malaria and read more about this publication take a look at the post on this topic at the Contagions blog.

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The phylogenetic origins of one of humanity’s biggest killers

Plague has been responsible for some of the most high-mortality pandemics in human history and has been studied extensively by both historians and scientists. Most laypeople are familiar with the Black Death and the demographic consequences it had on Europe in the Middle Ages. Less well understood however is the molecular history of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that is the causative agent of penumonic, septicemic and bubonic plague. A post over at the Contagions blog details the phylogenetic tree of this bacterium to explain how scientists are using genomic sequencing to reconstruct the emergence of different strains of Yersinia pestis through history.

Dieting since the 19th century

A_corpulent_physician_diagnoses_more_leeches_for_a_young_wom_Wellcome_V0011771

Alarmingly high levels of obesity in western nations means that dieting and weight loss programs feature heavily (pardon the pun) in our popular consciousness. Yet an obsession with weight goes back at least 150 years to a period well before the current obesity crisis.

Prior to the mid-19th century, carrying a little excess weight was seen as a good thing. In the age before vaccinations and antibiotics it was commonly believed that being fatter enabled people to better withstand infectious diseases. Weight gain was also regarded as desirable because most people were thin as the result of not having enough to eat. Being overweight was a marker of prosperity as it signified that a person had the means to buy plenty of food and indulge themselves. Only wealthy merchants, businessmen or members of the aristocracy would have been able to afford to become corpulent, hence dieting to lose weight was relatively uncommon in this period.

The mechanisation and prosperity that accompanied the industrial revolution brought with it weight gain and the beginnings of modern diet plans. Reduced energy expenditure and increased access to (often poor quality) food meant that obesity began to rise in the working classes. The trend of previous centuries became reversed as obesity was increasingly associated with the lower classes while physical exercise fads and a quest for thinness became prominent amongst the wealthy upper echelons of society.

The social and economic changes that contributed to rising obesity influenced the emergence of the field of nutritional science. In the late 1800s balancing proteins, carbohydrates and fats featured in government health publications. Vegetarianism began to be promoted for good health from the early years of the 20th century. The food pyramid was created during the First World War. Calorie counting and diet pills emerged the 1920s and vitamins designed to correct nutritional deficiencies resulting from restrictive diets were sold from the following decade. Weight-for-height charts similar to the BMI charts of today first appeared in the 1940s and doctors began to advise their overweight patients to cut down on saturated fats in the 1950s.

As you can see, a concern with weight control has existed for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at the history of dieting you can read Louise Foxcroft’s entertaining and informative book Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2000 Years.

Image credit

Numa, P. (1833). A corpulent physician diagnoses more leeches for a young woman, who lies drained and bedbound [Image]. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_corpulent_physician_diagnoses_more_leeches_for_a_young_wom_Wellcome_V0011771.jpg

References

Rao, N. (2011). Dieting since the 1850s. The Journal of Health, Ethics, and Policy, 10(9), 38-39.

Arrested development: war and its impact on childhood health

Children of Palestine

This week news reports on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East got me thinking about the ways that warfare can impact human health. In particular, I began to wonder about the effects violence and political turmoil may have upon the children living in affected areas.

At the population level, childhood growth patterns are often seen as markers of overall health and periods of warfare have historically been associated with morbidity and delayed childhood growth. Studies in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia, Bosnia, Croatia and Iraq have shown deficits in immune function, cognition and growth in children who lived through recent conflicts. These effects are likely due to a combination of nutritional and psychological factors, as poor childhood health is linked to malnutrition, intense violence and the death of close family members.

Importantly, historical data shows that exposure to these conditions early in life has a marked impact on adult well being. Those who are underweight and of short stature in childhood are consistently more likely to suffer from health problems later in life.

These effects are not just limited to children who grew up during difficult wartime conditions. Exposure to environmental stressors during foetal development also plays a role. Analyses of children whose mothers were pregnant during the well-documented Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-45 show a predisposition to cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes in adulthood.

This evidence suggests that the impacts of war on civilian populations extend well beyond the most obvious repercussions of death, injury and psychological trauma and into more subtle aspects of biology. The current Gaza-Israel Conflict and Syrian Crisis will no doubt leave significant health impacts that will be felt for decades.

Image credit 

Erol, T. (2010). Children of Palestine [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/tijen_erol/4742024133

References 

Akresh, R., Lucchetti, L., & Thirumurthy, H. (2012). Wars and child health. Journal of Developmental Economics, 99(2), 330-340. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Kyle, U.G., & Pichard, C. (2006). The Dutch famine of 1944-1945: a pathophysiological model of long-term consequences of wasting disease. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 9(4), 388-394. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Minoiu, C., & Shemyayinka, O.N. (2014). Armed conflict, household victimisation and child health. Journal of Developmental Economics, 108, 237-255. Retrieved from JSTOR.