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The latest news reports indicate that the mumps outbreak in Auckland is spreading. As you might expect, the very first commenter on the FB page for that story is someone claiming that vaccines don't cure mumps and offer a significant risk to health. (I wish Moveable Type allowed the Comic Sans font...)

The only reason I bother dipping my toes into the rather septic cesspool that such comments threads can become is to try to inject some science, in the hope that anyone sitting on the fence might come down on the side of reality. And to support those who offer science-based responses, like Blue.

The 'study' Blue's referring to is probably the one discussed here by Steven Novella: it was a survey of parents who home-schooled; it allowed participants to self-select, and it relied on parents' reports of events (ie there was no triangulation to ensure the accuracy of the data thus gained.

Orange may feel he's a gung-ho researcher himself but his maths skills appear sadly limited. This is in the context of Auckland DHB having provided him with the data (following his OIA request) on the proportion of fully, partly-, and non-vaccinated individuals who've come down with mumps in the current outbreak.

What Orange simply doesn't get - refuses to get - is that he needs to look at the data in terms of the proportion of the total vaccinated and unvaccinated populations in Auckland. (It was explained to him.)

However, we should give up on maths and become more aware of the corrupt practices of Big Pharma (not to mention Big Science):

There's a reasonable helping of redirection and also, along with unsubstantiated claims about corruption & deceit there are teh ebil toxinz:

None of these claims were substantiated by Pink or Orange. (Orange even states elsewhere that smallpox never really went away & wasn't all that bad anyway!) I did point out to Orange, elsehwere in the thread, that parotitis from step is easily detected via a visual exam and a swab, but apparently this was simply supporting his case... Then Brown came along (Lilac & Yellow are on the side of science).

In her first comment, Brown is referring to the so-called 'whistle-blower' saga, claiming that a CDC scientist uncovered evidence of a fraudulent cover-up of a supposed link (there isn't really a link) between vaccination & autism. This has been extensively discussed on a number of science sites, most notably by Orac at Respectful Insolence; here, for example.. This really was a manufactroversy, based on a rather shaky analysis - by someone who isn't an epidemiologist - after discussions with CDC scientist William Thompson. The documents in the case are apparently fairly widely available, as Orac describes here. He goes on to say that

So what emerges from all these documents? One thing that doesn’t emerge is any evidence of a coverup. There’s no contemporaneous documentation to suggest an effort to “hide” findings viewed as “inconvenient,” although Thompson’s retroactive markups of the meeting agendas sure tries to make it seem as though there were. In the end, after this document dump, we’re left with no evidence of scientific malfeasance or attempts to whitewash data.

Brown then goes down the 'toxins' route - she has quite a lot to say about toxins, a lot of it based on the scaremongering site (to which I refuse to link). Needless to say, she doesn't understand the relationship between dose and effect, and appears to be unaware that there's been no mercury in paediatric vaccines since the turn of this century. Yellow's comment on fruit is quite apt in this context - there is more formaldehyde in a pear than in the normal vaccine schedule.

For any 'discussions' that move beyond that level, here's a great resource from the writer of the vaccinesworkblog - it looks at (& debunks) various papers held up in anti-vaxx circles as supporting their claims around vaccines & autism. However, while it's definitely useful in discussing things with the 'undecideds', for the pro-disease activists Orange, Brown & Pink I can't help feeling that the saying about playing chess with pigeons is more appropriate.

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There's a 'Waikato Wellness Fair" just out of Hamilton next weekend. Along with the usual woo (homeopathy, reiki, & so on) comes something called 'Access Bars'. However, these are not accessible places to have a drink - oh no! they are something far more mystical than that. 

Apparently 'Access Bars' consist of

32 Bars of energy that run through and around your head that connect to different aspects of your life. They store the electromagnetic component of all the thoughts, ideas, attitudes, decisions and beliefs that you have ever had about anything.

There are bars for healing, body, control, awareness, creativity, power, aging, sexuality, and money; 32 different ones in all. Just by gently touching the Bars you effectively erase everything you have every stored there.

It's claimed that having one's Bars addressed feels like a great massage. I can't help thinking that if this is the case, my hairdresser should be creating inadvertent amnesiacs every time she does the wash, rinse, & massage thing for her clients.

You'll find a nice diagram of the position of these 'Bars' here. I'm afraid I looked and laughed. You can address aging by having a scalp massage? Money I can understand, because I'm sure this 'treatment' doesn't come free, but aging?. And 'Implant'? Does the practitioner somehow erase those nasty mind-control implants that chemtrails give us?

As the blogger at Skeptical Vigilance says, 

Acess Bars appears to be just another form of magical thinking that if believed by its proponents has no real effect outside of head massage.

They are not so polite about those who don't believe in it but sell it anyway.

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Recently, I had an enjoyable chat with Graeme Hill on the subject of sleep. Also on the show was Karyn O'Keeffe, whose research interests are with the physiology of sleep (& the lack of it). My segment focused on the evolution of sleep and yes, I did quite a bit of reading in preparation!

Sleep is mediated by a chemical messenger, melatonin. The onset of darkness triggers the pineal gland to release melatonin, which alters the activity of the neurons in our brains, resulting in sleepiness. Exposure to light destroys melatonin, & so we wake. (Hence the concern about the use of tablets, smartphones etc late into the evening, because of the potential for this to upset the normal sleep-wake cycle.)

One of the things Graeme & I discussed was the evolution of sleep - when did this particular aspect of physiology & behaviour evolve? One of my favourite science writers, Carl Zimmer, wrote about this in 2014. He linked to a study suggesting that sleep may have evolved around 700 million years ago, on the basis of research into gene expression in a marine worm called Platynereis dumerilii.The larvae of these worms move up & down in the water column on a 24-hour cycle (a circadian rhythm), and while the 2-day-old larvae used in the study certainly don't yet have eyes, they do produce and respond to melatonin. Cells on the upper suface of these tiny larvae detect changes in light intensity, and with the onset of darkness, they turn on melatonin production. This stops the beating hairs (cilia) that allow the animals to swim towards the suface, and so they sink slowly down towards the depths. But not so deeply that the light-sensitive cells can't detect dawn's light, which destroys the melatonin and so the larvae swim upwards once again. (Apparently it's even possible to give them jetlag!)

"Well", said Graeme, "why do we sleep? It seems on the face of it a very risky business given the prevalence of nocturnal predators." 

And it's a good question. Why would sleep be selected for, given that you'd think it would make animals more vulnerable to predation? It must have some strong adaptive advantages, to outweigh that risk! Some of the possibilities are canvassed in this short piece in Scientific American, which notes that patterns of sleep and wakefulness vary enormously between species, and also within species depending on time of year - think of hibernation, for example. (Even that varies between species in terms of sleep duration: hummingbirds go into a form of torpor that may last less than a day each time.). The author, Christopher French, suggests that "sleep and related states provide periods of adaptive inactivity" - that is, that a lack of activity can also provide a selective advantage:

Most likely sleep evolved to ensure that species are not active when they are most vulnerable to predation and when their food supply is scarce.

He gives the example of a bat that sleeps around 20 hours a day, rousing to hunt insects that are active in the dusk. Searching for these insects during the day would be fruitless, but would also expose the bats to diurnal predators. But sleep must also be important in some way for the brain, as it's so markedly affected by a prolonged lack of sleep. (And now, I want to know how the melatonin thing works in species like this, that are active at night and sleep during the day. Apparently even nocturnal animals produce the most melatonin at night.)  

A few years back, researchers asked the question, "Is sleep essential?" (Cirelli & Tononi, 2008). (There's an excellent lay summary here - teachers would find it very useful.) I found the paper interesting because, in preparing to test their null hypothesis (that sleep is not essential), the authors first defined sleep:

Sleep is a reversible condition of reduced responsiveness usually associated with immobility.

Most work on sleep has been done in mammals & birds, but it seems that even the humble lab workfly, Drosophila, can be said to sleep: these little flies have periods when they become less responsive to stimuli; if they're forced to stay active, 'sleep pressure' increases; patterns of sleep & wakefulness change with age; hypnotic and stimulant drugs affect their activity; and gene expression in the brain changes with periods of sleep and wakefulness. 

Cirelli & Tononi's paper is open access & well worth reading. They feel that the available evidence doesn't support claims that bullfrogs, for example, do not sleep. Dolphins and other marine mammals, which are constantly moving, still appear to enter a form of sleep - in one hemisphere of the brain at a time - a statement supported by evidence of changes in brain wave activity.

They also discuss the effects of sleep loss - in rats, flies, cockroaches, and humans, prolonged sleep deprivation can ultimately be fatal. (This was the point at which Graeme told me about something called fatal familial insomnia, which sounds awful and is apparently one of the group of prion diseases, along with things like scrapie.) But well before that point, sleep deprivation affects performance, particularly in terms of cognitive performance. So, students take note! an all-nighter or two ahead of major exams is unlikely to work in your favour. 

Cirelli C, Tononi G (2008) Is Sleep Essential? PLoS Biol 6(8): e216.


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