FEAR #7: Malaria

If you’re over the age of 10 then you may have noticed a trend in the way that infectious diseases are reported. When an outbreak occurs in a far-flung nation, TVs and computer screens across the world are lit up with close approximations of a zombie apocalypse.

ebola

While there have undoubtedly been some horrific outbreaks, most recently Zika and Ebola, by their very nature many of these diseases are unlikely to become a long-term scourge on humanity. Often an inaccurate picture of reality is conjured by vested interests to score political points or to maintain their position at the pinnacle of ignorant arseholery

We can only hope that the victims got some help during their disease’s fifteen minutes of fame because once the story has served its purpose and the disease fails to live up to the hype, we don’t hear about it again (Bird Flu? SARS? Swine Flu?). Unfortunately, some diseases won’t toe the editorial line, insisting on providing a constant flow of tragedy that numbs us to their awfulness. Malaria is one such disease.

The name “malaria” literally means “bad air” and the reality of transmission is almost as ethereal. Silent, minute creatures fly into your room while you sleep, inject you with an incurable disease and leave without waking you. It sounds like the nightmare of an anti-vax campaigner, but sadly for the 214 million annual victims the nightmare is all too real.

The Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria line the salivary glands of the Anopheles mosquito. When the mosquito takes a blood meal the parasites are injected into the bloodstream (normally around 10-100 of them) and immediately head for the liver where they enter the cells and replicate like mad. Normally, after one or two weeks the parasite leaves the liver and begins a cycle of infection, multiplication and reinfection of red blood cells.

SPOROZOITES

Mobile forms of the Plasmodium parasite, known as sporozoites, are present in the salivary glands of Anopheles mosquitoes. Credit.

The parasites break out of the red blood cells and into the bloodstream in a synchronised manner. The frequency of these breakouts is dependent upon the species of Plasmodium the patient is infected with, as shown in the table below:

Species % Cases Red Blood Cell Cycle Average No. Parasites per μL of Blood
P. falciparum 50 48 hours 20,000-500,000
P. vivax 43 48 hours 20,000
P. malariae 7 72 hours 6000
P. ovale Rare 50 9000
Data from http://www.mjhid.org/article/view/333/450

This synchronisation is a key factor in malaria’s success; a sudden onslaught of parasites producing toxins is far more difficult for the immune system to fight and is the cause of the spike in fever that is most closely associated with malaria.

If the disease is allowed to develop the situation can become grave, a quick search online offers up descriptions like:

“The pain was so intense; I actually believed I was dying”

Things can get especially bad if P.falciparum is involved. This species can cross into the brain and causes hundreds of thousands of cases of cerebral malaria annually. In endemic regions it is a leading cause of childhood neuro-disability and it can strike with devastating speed. In all, malaria causes approximately 400,000 deaths annually and in the 97 nations where it is endemic (see map below), it is often the primary cause of infant mortality.

malaria map

Always interesting to see how much it follows political boundaries.

In fact, the fight against malaria has gone on for so long that it has left its imprint on human genetics. For example, sickle cell anaemia – a genetic disorder which offers resistance to malaria – is thought to have evolved on several occasions. Unfortunately, people who inherit the gene from both parents tend to suffer from chronic pain and a massively reduced life expectancy. It’s the genetic version of out of the frying pan and into the fire and it kills hundreds of thousands per year.

Less terrifyingly, some West Africans have developed immunity to P.vivax and P.malariae by losing the red blood cell receptor (Duffy Blood Group) that these two species bind to. Furthermore, new-borns can gain resistance from their mother, but it wears off if they do not build up their own by contracting many strains of malaria in childhood. The same is true for adults; if they leave the malaria zone they may lose their resistance.

Thankfully, in the modern world humans are not entirely reliant on good genes and mother’s milk. Current malaria prevention techniques fit into 3 categories: stopping the parasite in humans, stopping the mosquitoes, and prevention of contact between the two.

Stopping the parasite in humans tends to mean drugs. The oldest example of effective chemotherapy is the use of artemisinin by, you guessed it, the Chinese around 2000 years ago. Europeans had to wait another 1700 years until they got their hands on quinine, and it wasn’t until 1934 that the German company Bayer invented chloroquine. Since then several chemically synthesised drugs have been mass produced.

The problem with relying on drugs against such a prolific and deadly parasite is that it encourages overuse and the development of resistant strains. For example, resistance to chloroquine first occurred in the early sixties in South America (it was mixed into salt and flour!) and South East Asia (potentially due to overuse by troops in Vietnam).

What is really required to stop the parasite in humans is a vaccine (because they work, despite what overzealous idiots on the internet say). Potential vaccines have three strategies, anti-infection (stop the parasites before they reproduce in the liver), anti-disease (stop the infection and re-infection of the red blood cells), and transmission blocking (stop the parasite getting back into a mosquito). Previously, promising vaccines have been shown to be ineffective, but the recent development of the RTS,S vaccine, which blocks the parasite before it reaches the liver offers hope. This vaccine has been approved by European regulators and is the first licensed vaccine against parasitic infection of any kind. While this is a massive positive step, RTS,S is only intended for use against P.falciparum – emphasising the problem with combating 4 species at once – and trials showed that it is only effective in infants 27% of the time.

The slow progress with vaccine development means that efforts must be made to reduce the mosquito population. One method is to reduce mosquito breeding sites. Mosquito larvae require standing water to develop so the elimination of open sewers and litter, such as plastic bottles where water can pool, is a must. This requires a concerted effort from individuals on a local scale and does little to help those who live near lakes or swamps.

Population control using insecticides has proven to be controversial; DDT was initially successful, but it persists in food chains and resistance has developed. Regardless of the insecticide, blanket spraying is too expensive for such a large problem and selective spraying is not 100% effective.  A less invasive option is biological control, such as the introduction of fish that prey on mosquito larvae.

The final technique, prevention of contact, has also run into some issues. In tropical climates thick clothing is not a realistic option, but bed nets have been provided by governments and NGOs for night-time protection. But, as anyone who’s slept under one knows, they can be stifling and any gap means mosquitoes can be trapped inside making things much worse. Misuse is also an issue.

Obviously more education on malaria prevention is required, but all is not lost. For those of us who can’t be trusted to look after our own welfare, scientists are working on introducing genetically modified mosquitoes that are resistant to the parasite. This may be a long way from realisation, but a trial using a similar technique is under way in the Florida Keys as part of an effort to limit the spread of dengue fever.

Despite all the flaws in the battle against malaria, using a variety of control methods in concert is beginning to pay off, and it does seem that humanity is finally starting to win. The Roll Back Malaria Campaign claims that from 2000 to 2015, an estimated 6.2 million lives were saved as a result of a scale-up of malaria interventions and around 5.9 million of these were children under the age of five. Furthermore, 19 countries are on the cusp of eliminating malaria. With this in mind, the campaign has set the ambitious target of reducing mortality rates by 90% and eradicating malaria in 35 more countries by 2030. To celebrate, here’s a photobombing mosquito.

JW

FEAR #6: Food Fraud

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR is designed to put you off your dinner.

This Sunday 6th March it’s Mother’s Day in the UK, but rather than do a lengthy, meaningful and no doubt terrifying psychoanalytic article about the relationship between mother and child, I’m going to focus on a different holiday (because I’m my own man damn it). In case you didn’t already know, this Sunday it’s also National Frozen Food Day in the U.S.A. (where else right?), and what better way to honour it than focussing on all the dodgy dealings of the food industry. Hold on to your stomach.

In 2013 the horse meat scandal broke and confirmed what many of the turkey twizzler generation suspected all along – if you are what you eat, most of us are a fraud. But after the jokes died down (personal favourite: don’t worry – horse wasn’t the mane ingredient) and the public had been placated with enough terrible stock photos of food scientists checking food for various types of DNA, the world turned and the whole ugly business carried on as usual.

horsemeat scientist

There’s nothing worse than a scientist fingering your meat.

There are several reasons large scale food fraud is so popular (think I’m exaggerating? here, here and here say otherwise): firstly, it is a low risk, high reward venture. The penalties that criminal groups incur if caught with their fingers in illicit pies is minimal, bordering on a slap on the wrist when compared to the lengthy sentences handed down for drug related felonies.

There’s no greater illustration of this systemic weakness than the case of Castle Cheese, a U.S. based company who were recently found to have supplied fake Parmesan cheese for 30 years. Even worse, according to a report by Food and Drug Administration, the actual product contained a significant percentage of wood pulp and “no Parmesan cheese was used” (plus this substantiates my belief that American cheese is awful, so it must be true). Despite this obviously long-term and intentional fraud, the company’s president only faces a year-long jail sentence and a $100,000 fine. Not bad given they had $19 million in sales in 2013.

We may well expect this from a country that thinks that anything less than 30 pieces of insect in 100g of peanut butter is just an “aesthetic” problem, but if you’re inclined to think the high level of tolerance for this kind of crime is restricted to the U.S., think again. Even in the Netherlands a man who sold 300 tonnes of horse meat as beef only got sentenced to two and a half years. Admittedly, no one was hurt, but he didn’t know that and the discovery of phenylbutzone in horse carcasses means they easily could have been.

simpsons horsemeat

Effects of horse meat consumption include jaundice.

Another advantage food fraud has over other rackets is the vast customer base; everybody’s gotta eat so it’s pretty much a captive audience. This makes the scope for fraud enormous because the crime can vary from simple mislabelling to make the product worth more, like labelling farmed salmon as wild, to extremely sophisticated, such as adding melamine to milk to make the protein content appear higher. The latter case occurred in the U.S. a few years ago and resulted in the tragic death of six infants and hospitalised many more.

Although this is a particularly galling example, more often than not the ingredients cut into food are benign. This is not done as a socially responsible gesture aimed at maintaining the health of Joe Public, it’s done in the knowledge that people getting poisoned tends to arouse the interest of the authorities.

These criminal organisations have invested heavily in the fake food business and in most countries they are one step (at least) ahead of law enforcement. The UK is particularly behind the curve. Despite setting up a food fraud database as part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2007, there was little movement on the issue until after the horse meat scandal. A root and branch analysis of food supply networks in the UK was published in the Elliot review in 2014. Elliot’s suggestions were hardly rocket science, for example, the creation of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), as part of the FSA so food fraud investigations can be centralised. Elliot has since criticised the FSA for misinterpreting his report and waiting for two years before actually actively investigating anything. They still haven’t started actively investigating.

Government cut-backs and general mismanagement have also played their part in the problem. At the height of the horse meat scandal a report by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee claimed that the Border Force “neglected to examine freight for illicit goods” after having made 500 staff redundant between 2010 and 2012.

People may argue back and forth about the austerity program, but it’s hard to see the logic in trimming border force budgets when the result is an estimated loss of half a billion pounds annually in beer smuggling alone. In fact, the all-party parliamentary beer group (yes, that is a thing) estimates that duty has not been paid on 10-20% of all cans and bottles on sale in the UK.

Couple this with cuts to local government, which have led to a reduction in the number of trading-standards officers and it’s little surprise that criminals see this as a chance to cash in. It seems more and more like the health of the nation is being put at risk by negligence and ignorance at various levels.

In fairness to the government, despite further cuts to local authorities, last November’s spending review did promise an increase in spending on the border force. While this is welcome news, I (cynically) suspect that this has much more to do with searching freight for illegal migrants than for suspect food.

The Elliot review also encouraged a zero tolerance approach towards food fraud:

“In sectors where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive”.

While this is definitely a step in the right direction, when there’s no-one investigating it’s difficult to prosecute and the whole thing reeks of an empty threat.

Further to this, the globalisation of the food process, with multiple suppliers in different countries makes the fraud difficult to trace. This is especially true in highly processed foods where discerning which of the ingredients introduced the contamination is the investigative equivalent of unscrambling an egg.

findus

It’ll give you the trots.

The extent of the problem and the seemingly pitiful effort made to resolve it has led to reduced consumer confidence and shunning of guilty brands. This was highlighted by the sale of the European operations of the Findus Group, who were caught selling horse meat in their already grim crispy pancakes. This may seem like a victory for consumers, but the parent company Young’s Seafood made £500 million on the sale and most Findus meals are going to be shamelessly re-branded as “Chef’s Classics”. 

In all, the fraudsters are hardly feeling the brunt of consumer backlash and will continue to take advantage of a poorly managed and under investigated food network. Hopefully confidence will return when NFCU investigations become active later this year, but until then we all have a reason to be a bit long in the face.

JW

FEAR #5: The Hunt for E.T.

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at where our quest to end our crushing loneliness will lead us.

At the time of writing there is no substantive evidence to suggest the existence of extra-terrestrial life, unless of course there is the mother of all conspiracies going on (Wake up sheeple!!!!!1). Many people are attracted by such theories, even omnigeezer Danny Dyer has got in on the act, but if you’re one of them Stephen Hawking thinks you should shut up:

“If the government is covering up knowledge of aliens, they are doing a better job of it than they do at anything else.”

SETI TELESCOPE

They’re listening to Uranus.

So if the aliens aren’t already here, do they exist at all? Given the vastness of the universe and the seeming universality of physics and chemistry it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest there is probably some biology out there too. The question is how much biology is “some” biology? If we ignore the majority of the universe (sorry guys), which is expanding away from us so fast that it is unlikely that we’ll ever reach it, and focus on the Milky Way then we still have somewhere around 100-400 billion stars to work with. Restricting the estimate to sun-like stars with habitable planets only limits us to a minimum of 1.5 billion habitable planets. From there we can only speculate on the probability of life evolving on these planets, but even if the odds are millions to one we would still expect a few thousand instances of life in the galaxy. This paradoxical combination of seemingly favourable odds and the total dearth of evidence is known as the Fermi paradox.

CURIOSITY

A very expensive selfie.

In order to resolve this paradox, humanity has gone hunting for life in the cosmos. The search has formed into two main branches, one is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), which involves listening in on the universe via massive radio telescopes, and the other is NASA digging around in the dirt on Mars with rovers like Curiosity (it’s probably more complex than that).

On the face of it, the discovery of fossilised prokaryotes on Mars may not seem as significant as the discovery of a radio message from a civilisation of super-beings, but if it were to be successful it would have massive implications for humanity. For starters it would show that life was not a rare fluke, comforting if you’re worried about being all alone in the universe, but terrifying when you think a bit harder. If simple life is common, either we’re the lucky first ones to develop intelligence (not impossible but highly unlikely given the age of the Earth) or there is something killing everything off before it develops into a highly intelligent civilisation. This theory is known as “The Great Filter” and it is to civilisation what Dutch sailors were to the Dodo. There are many candidates for a Great Filter, including the initial evolution of life, development of eukaryotic life and development of intelligence a.k.a. stuff we’ve already done. What’s scary is the possibility that The Great Filter lies ahead of us and our day of reckoning may be nigh! Or maybe it isn’t, no one really knows.

Stepping back from the doom mongering for a moment, let’s think about the other contact scenario, a message received by SETI. Firstly, consider that we have only been transmitting and listening to radio signals for around 100 years, which is small in comparison with the lifetime of the universe, stars, planets and even our species. Secondly, the focus of radio observations is skewed towards detection of signals from “intelligent” life. Given the time scales and the bias of the system we can’t really expect to intercept messages from anything other than some kind of super-being.

pond scum

Idiots.

Historically, when a more technologically advanced civilisation comes into contact with a less technologically advanced one it doesn’t end amicably (just ask people living the Americas in 1491). However, debating whether they will be warmongers or pacifists is anthropocentric, their history and culture will not necessarily be a reflection of ours. The fact is that until we detect any signals the nature of any intelligent life in the universe besides our own is unknowable and there is the distinct possibility that their advances will be incomprehensible to us. In this situation they may look upon our “intelligence” in the same way that we look upon pond scum, it exists but we don’t feel any affinity for it and certainly don’t factor it into our decision making processes. It’s unsettling to think that we could be steamrollered without even knowing what’s coming and without them even considering if our existence is worth saving (hopefully we’d appreciate the irony given our treatment of other species here on Earth).

LIGHTYEAR EXPLANATION

Lonely, but safe. Taken from here.

Thankfully we may have one saving grace, the vast distances involved. This offers us the time to deal with whatever message we receive in a considered manner because it will have taken years to traverse interstellar space. There are already preparations underway, the SETI post detection subcommittee was set up “to prepare, reflect on, manage, advise, and consult in preparation for and upon the discovery of a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin.” and the widely adopted SETI post detection protocol encourages information sharing and international consultations on a response, including informing the Secretary General of the UN.

While it would be nice if a message from extra-terrestrials united us in our common humanity, it would take a fair slice of naïvety to expect things to actually go down like that. It’s likely that the post detection protocol will be broken quickly, it’s not even legally binding (we covered how space law sucks here) and when it comes to it governments may not trust academics or other nations with the information in the message. This will likely breed mistrust.

When the message does get out, the public reaction will vary largely between (and indeed within) cultures, no doubt some would embrace it, but you only need to look at B.o.B.’s flat earth rant to know that the cynicism will be off the charts. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that vested interests (read: religious groups and politicians) would do their best to play up this cynicism, perhaps under the pretence of preventing alien cultural influences on Earth. Under these circumstances we must be aware that SETI detection facilities may become the focal point of attacks by groups with whom intelligent life elsewhere in the universe runs contrary to their world-view. All this before we’ve even discussed sending a response.

So should we respond? Well, we are already broadcasting our location and culture with radio and television broadcasts. However, these will be difficult to detect unless someone had an antenna the size of Manhattan within 100 light years of us, so direct response would require a much more powerful signal. While speculative messages have been sent, many have urged caution, arguing that we’re the new, stupid kids on the scene and our lust for knowledge may be our undoing. We would be entering a long term, long distance relationship with an unknown entity that could potentially expose us to things beyond our conception. Besides, the time between messages could easily be thousands of years, so we will be submitting future generations to unknown consequences of our actions. Basically, first impressions count and the price of a fuck up will be paid by our descendants, sound familiar?

Given what’s riding on this, the UN is the obvious choice to make a decision over how to proceed because it’s the closest approximation of fair international representation we have. However, I’m inclined to agree with the more realistic assessment from Michael Michaud who said:

“We cannot assume that SETI is immune from the ancient motivations of egoism, power, and greed.”

There is little that can be done to prevent rich and powerful groups from sending their own unrepresentative messages. I’m talking about this guy:

TOM CRUISE

“Hi Xenu! We’re 6-feet tall… all of us” – Tom Cruise (probably)

This may lead to a situation in which multiple contradictory messages are sent, which would only hinder the establishment of meaningful communication.

As always, assuming we’re not already doomed, the fate of humanity may be in the hands of a small unrepresentative elite and a fuck up may throw us out of the frying pan and into one hell of a fire. It’s enough to make you glad we’ve not found anything yet.

JW

FEAR #4: Water Security

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at how real the thirst is going to get.

As children we learn some important facts about water:

Fact 1: Water is essential to human existence.

This isn’t really up for debate. Life on Earth evolved in an aqueous environment.  Since then some organisms have developed an extremely hands off relationship with water, but humans are not one of them so we have to carry water around inside us all the time and occasionally top ourselves up with Fanta. Why this is the case is not really the focus of this article, but suffice to say that water is an incredibly unique molecule and everyone should be a lot more fascinated by it.

Fact 2: Water covers over 70% of the surface of Earth.

Earth’s blueness has given humanity a sense of aqueous hubris, making us feel like our water supply and (by Fact 1) our survival is secure. Unfortunately, our interpretation of Fact 2 is highly spurious, it tells us the quantity (a hell of a lot), but not the quality of the water available.

earths waterOf the abundance of water that confronts us, 97.4% is saline, making it as good as useless for most requirements such as human consumption, agriculture (it’ll kill the crops and other animals won’t drink it either) and many industrial uses (salt accelerates the corrosion of metals).

The remaining water is freshwater but, more than two-thirds of it is trapped in ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow (for now) and another 30% is groundwater, which is not always accessible. This leaves us with a miniscule percentage of the total we started with, but still what seems like a lot of water until you realise that humanity is capable of this…

aral sea

Satellite images of the Aral Sea show that the thirst is more real than we imagined.

That’s right, people already use an incredible amount of water. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), in the past century freshwater use has increased at more than double the rate of population growth to about 3.8 trillion m3 per annum.  The Aral Sea (above) was the fourth largest lake in the world, but began shrinking in the 1960s after the Soviet Union diverted rivers for an irrigation project. Unfortunately, a large percentage of diverted water was wasted, which is a common theme in humanity’s use of water.

On a more personal level, you can estimate your water consumption here or if you’re in a rush here. I did the first one and this is what it spat out:

waterfootprint

I am an abomination.

If you look past the fact that they went back in time and used Windows 95 to calculate just how much of a drain I am on the Earth’s resources, you’ll notice that I use roughly 3 m3 or the weight of around 40 men in water per day. Although it isn’t an exact science the numbers seem pretty damning, especially the amount of water required to produce my food.

water fry

In weeks I could raise an army.

In fact, 70% of the water used by humans is consumed by agriculture, so any issues with water supply will likely lead to food insecurity too. The massive loss of water via evaporation due to prevalent farming techniques such as spray and open-ditch irrigation only serves to exacerbate this problem.

The UN predicts that the global population will swell from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.7 billion by 2050, which means there will be 2.4 billion more mouths to feed. A dietary shift from starch to meat and dairy, which occurs as people become wealthier, will further amplify the demand for water, as shown in the graph below. Indeed, the IME predicts that the food production may require 10–13 trillion m3 of water annually by 2050.

water for food

As always with food, what goes in, must come out and this is the origin of another demand on the water supply, sanitation (seamless). Despite the United Nations recognising the human right to water and sanitation, over 700 million drink water that is inadequately protected from contamination by their own faeces and a third of the world’s population does not have access to sanitation that hygienically removes their excreta.

The number of people living in urban areas without these basic facilities grew by 20% between 2000 and 2008. Given that the population increase over the next 35 years is expected to be focused on cities in less developed regions, where urban planning is less rigorous, the growth of slums will pose a major challenge to attempts to supply urban populations with clean water and adequate sanitation. Fast growing urban areas are known to struggle with implementing sufficient waste-water infrastructure. A good example is Varanasi, a city on the Ganges, where untreated sewage, industrial pollutants and large numbers of human corpses are dumped into the river daily. Implementation of action plans, such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) have received mixed reviews at the very best.

tom sellick

Apparently that moustache can hold 1,000 litres of whatever liquid you want.

Even in developed nations, the water supply is used poorly. The UK has massive losses in its water piping systems. This wasteful attitude towards water (epitomised excellently by Tom Selleck, who stole water during a drought to grow avocados… which he hates) has led to an increased use of aquifers (essentially ancient groundwater stores) which may take thousands of years to replenish. Seriously, have we learnt nothing from the whole fossil fuel thing?! This is why we end up with mega-rich companies, who don’t believe in water as a human right, trying to sell the equivalent of my daily water footprint to L.A. for $960!

Going back to the estimate of how much water I personally consume, second to food production is industry, which accounts for roughly one-third. This data isn’t broken down into different industries, but the demand has a variety of origins from clothes manufacturing to the cooling of nuclear reactors. The energy industry is a particularly interesting example, one of the major complaints about the controversial process of fracking (excellent impartial video here) is that as well as using a vast amount water, the fracking fluid, containing various organic compounds, is pumped back into the ground potentially contaminating the water supply of nearby towns and cities.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s this thing called climate change, which will (can’t emphasise that enough) cause significant variations in rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater. Rising sea levels are also predicted to cause salinization of river deltas and groundwater, upon which populations are dependent. According to the UN, water supplies are already under stress in developing countries and while there is enough water for all, its uneven distribution means water scarcity is already a real concern affecting billions across large regions.

Even “greener” forms of energy place a large burden on water supplies. Biofuels, which are tipped for increasing use in the transport industry, still require the use of a vast amount of water for their production. If 5% of road transport is powered by biofuels by 2030, there could be a 20% increase in water demand in agriculture as well as an increase in water pollution from fertilisers and agricultural chemicals.

three gorges

The impressive bit.

Hydroelectric power generation may not poison the air, but it also has its downsides. Damming rivers prevents migrations of fish to breeding grounds and the flow of sediment downstream, essentially putting food security and ecosystem services at risk. An extreme example is the Three Gorges Dam in China, undoubtedly an amazing feat of engineering, but one that displaced over a million people and has a major effect on life downstream.

Regardless of the application, our desperate need for water also makes it a potential source of conflict between nations because inanimate molecules don’t respect political boundaries. We’ve already seen how oil’s blasé attitude to invisible lines contributed to the First Gulf War (an example of how prequels can be better) and even before that water was a major issue in the run up to the Six-Day War. Given the geopolitical importance water will take on in a post-fossil fuel world perhaps we should worry a little more that 90% of the world’s population live in countries that share river and lake basins and if living in the UK makes you less concerned just remember our enthusiasm for foreign wars and the potential for Scottish independence.

In order to avoid a future where our water security is threatened, unilaterally pissing in the shower every day to avoid flushing the toilet is not going to cut it and neither is the realisation that bottled water is bullshit. What’s required, as always with these things, is innovation, implementation and sustained political cooperation. The innovation, though difficult, is something humans generally succeed at; newer more efficient irrigation methods and waterless dyeing of fabrics are just the beginning.

The tough bit will be maintaining the political will to cooperate in a world dealing with the impact of climate change and the uncertainty that it brings, when on a national scale the UN believes water resource management plans are “unsatisfactory and well behind targets”.

FEAR RATING 8/10 – We’re a long way from a victory sip on this one.

JW

FEAR #3: Vaccines

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? In this edition of FEAR the highly polarised issue of vaccination gets a rise out of us.

The vertebrate immune system is has two main strategies to fend off infection, namely, the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system allows vertebrates to form immunological memories, discriminate between the body’s own cells (self) and foreign objects (non-self) and orchestrate an effective response to rid the body of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, protozoa etc.) that have the potential to cause harm. HOLD IT… why are we explaining pathogens when bored teachers with autotune is a thing?

Anyway… despite coming in various forms (see table below or this video), vaccines generally achieve their goal using the following mechanism, which we’ve massively oversimplified for the sake of brevity:

  1. The vaccine is introduced to the body, usually via an injection, but sometimes orally.
  2. The immune system responds and learns how to fight off the pathogen.
  3. Information on how to fight the pathogen is retained by specialised cells, such as B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes.
Vaccine Type Contents Example Pros Cons
Live Attenuated Live but weakened pathogens. Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) … more on this later. Induces a strong and long lasting immune response. Possibility (very small) that the vaccine will revert to its wild type and cause disease.
Inactive “Dead” pathogens. Typhoid (injection) If it’s dead it can’t reproduce and cause disease. Not always effective long-term, boosters are required.
Antigen (Subunit) Antigens, which are the parts of the pathogen that stimulate an immune response. Hepatitis B Does not introduce viral particles. Provokes a weaker immunological response than the whole pathogen would.
Virus-Like Particle Broken up viruses with the nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) removed. Influenza The particles can self-assemble into a shape resembling the original virus, but contains no nucleic acid (DNA or RNA), so it doesn’t reproduce. Getting the particles to self-assemble correctly is a challenge.
Toxoid The toxin produced by the bacteria. Tetanus Highly effective at blocking harmful toxins. Does not actually help the immune system deal with the pathogen.

By inventing vaccines, rather than continuing to tackle the disease mano a mano as nature intended, it would appear humans have learnt how to trick the adaptive immune system giving us something for nothing. If you count getting stabbed in the arm with a needle nothing. FYI we don’t, but we’ve got used to our smallpox free lifestyles.

So, the time has come to address the elephant in the room. There is a lot of controversy over vaccination and the internet is one hell of a breeding ground for it. That said, the controversy dates back about as far as vaccination itself, the old timey propaganda images are evidence of that (see below).

old vaccine poster

Anti-vax cartoon from 1894 (via The Atlantic)

On the face of it, issues tend to be separated into two types, efficacy and safety. Turning first to efficacy, since the introduction of vaccines the prevalence of diseases has dropped massively (see infographic below), smallpox has been eradicated and efforts to eradicate other pathogens are well underway. The obvious counter argument made by anti-vax campaigners is that correlation does not imply causality. So far, so good.

vaccine infographic

Vaccine infographic by Leon Farrant.

Anti-vax campaigners argue that improvements in hygiene and sanitation since the introduction of vaccines are the real reasons for the reduction in disease, but this is where their science is flimsy. Certainly, better hygiene and sanitation can massively reduce the incidence of disease, but even in a highly sanitary environment pathogens would still be around and people will still get infected, so you would expect serious but localised outbreaks of disease to occur every so often. The fact that this doesn’t happen in the developed world indicates that this theory is incorrect. Further to this, developing nations, which may lag behind in terms of sanitation, have also seen a fall in disease, efforts to eradicate polio in India are a testament to this.

vaccine graph

Graph via Current Offence.

What actually happens is that vaccines prime our immune system so that the infection is stopped before it causes damage i.e. becomes a disease (see graph above) and spreads, thus preventing us from suffering disease symptoms and the scientifically named “sad times”. If a large enough percentage of the population is vaccinated then the pathogen cannot jump from one susceptible person to the other and the whole population is safe. This called herd immunity and it allows us to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons, such as old age or immunodeficiency. This is how, in combination with improved sanitation, hygiene and education, vaccination can aid the total eradication of diseases.

In terms of safety there have been many reviews, but this one, from a respected scientific journal (the fact that we even have to say this tells you how much pseudoscience there is to wade through) is a good example of a systematic analysis of the evidence.

The review claims that as the success of immunization increases the safety concerns also increase, because if the prevalence of the disease reduces, people are less worried about disease and become more occupied with adverse effects of the cure. This seems like vaccines could be considered a victim of their own success, but that would gloss over the failures of those charged with maintaining the confidence of the public. However, maintaining public confidence is tricky and the reviewers have recognised a consistent pattern in how vaccines get blamed for stuff:

  1. Cases of a medical condition increase or new medical condition arises.
  2. Someone cries foul and blames vaccines (the correlation is not causality argument disappears when it suits them).
  3. Investigations with poor methodology confirm their suspicion.
  4. Investigators tell the public, often before/without sufficient peer review.
  5. The results resonate with those who suffer with the condition and public confidence is lost.
  6. The results are found to be incorrect and the fear unfounded.
  7. Regaining the confidence of the public takes longer than it did to lose.

A good example of this is the MMR vaccine. In 1998 former doctor Andrew Wakefield falsified data to suggest a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This destroyed public confidence in the safety of the vaccine (see graph below) and over 15 years later uptake of the MMR vaccine in England has finally rebounded but remains below the World Health Organisation’s target of 95%.

MMR UPTAKE

Uptake of the MMR vaccine in England for children before 24 months. NHS Immunisation Statistics England 2013-14.

The reality is that medical testing standards are sufficiently high, requiring several phases of trials that can take many years and the safety of vaccinations is constantly monitored.

Provided that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t suddenly become extremely lax with their safety testing, the real danger to the population is those who do not get vaccinated. When more and more people refuse vaccination, herd immunity is compromised and you get outbreaks of preventable disease, just like the measles outbreaks in the USA in recent years.

Unfortunately, once people have hold of an idea they tend to find it difficult to let go and research suggests that such is the case with vaccines. Moreover, the methods of hardcore anti-vax campaigners don’t seem to change with time or evidence. Essentially, having ignored the evidence they’ve become charlatans, peddling mistruths and propaganda.

One such charlatan is Jenny McCarthy, leader of Generation Rescue, a group who still incorrectly promote the link between vaccines and autism. McCarthy a former co-star of Charlie Sheen, displayed her lack of medical expertise quite recently when Sheen announced that he is living with HIV.

Generation Rescue campaign heavily against a mercury based vaccine preservative called thiomersal, which has been scientifically established as safe in the volumes used in vaccines.  McCarthy’s former partner Jim Carrey, has also been vocal on the subject (yeah, we were heartbroken too), earlier this year he posted a picture of an autistic boy along with a rant about vaccines on twitter. Needless to say the boy’s family weren’t happy and he ended up having to apologise (below).

carrey tweet

This is just the thin end of the wedge, as the evidence gets weaker, the fearmongering gets stronger and as Godwin’s law dictates, eventually someone will invoke the Nazis. That makes this a good place to stop.

nazi vaccine

In conclusion, it is patently obvious, to all who have considered the evidence, that the vast majority of arguments against vaccination are fundamentally flawed and often just made up, but that’s indicative of the problem. Not everyone has considered all the evidence and it is counter-productive to climb upon a high horse and tar all those who don’t vaccinate their kids with the same brush as a minority who pump the internet full of “toxic” (see what we did there) propaganda. Fundamentally, these are people who are concerned for the wellbeing of their kids, but were misled by charlatans. The only way to overcome this is through greater education about vaccination specifically and promotion of science and evidence-based critical thinking in general. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s easier to constantly fear monger than constantly educate and falsehoods are easily sown, but difficult to root out.

Fear Rating: 1/10 – The needles are sharp, but don’t be afraid of pricks.

JW

FEAR #2: Jahbat al-Nusra

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks into Al-Qaeda’s official representative in Syria, Jahbat al-Nusra.

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham… for those of you with short memories) were officially dumped on 3rd February 2014, with the al-Qaeda central command claiming:

“…[Al Qaeda] does not have an organizational relationship with [ISIS] and is not the group responsible for their actions.”

From this we can ascertain that al-Qaeda thought they were wearing the pants in this relationship and they wanted a clean break. Yet ISIS, like an army of strong independent (and fundamentalist) women, have clearly moved on. They are the anti-darlings of the mainstream media, garnering all of their attention and Salafists flock to them like cats to a laser pointer. Where has this left Al-Qaeda? Have they given up in Syria? Are they sat at home cry-wanking to what’s left of Bin Laden’s porn collection and waiting for ISIS to call?

In short, the answer is no. There are several contributing factors to their lack of current exposure in western media. Firstly, the media is so saturated with click-bait atrocities committed by ISIS, that the more subtle and less well packaged horrors fall by the wayside. The fact that it required the image of a drowned child on a beach for the majority of Europe to get a conscience about the refugee crisis (with the notable exception of the UK government, who remain firmly on the wrong side of history) gives you an idea of just how difficult attention seeking can be.

Secondly, al-Qaeda have always aspired to the nation state model that ISIS’s self-declared caliphate takes on, but they have, on the whole, had to settle for a structure more akin to a franchise. This is not necessarily due to any major difference in ideology, al-Qaeda are committed to the creation of a global Islamic caliphate just as much as ISIS, but rather a difference in methodology. Whereas ISIS have conquered ground quickly and brutally, al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, are searching for a lasting victory, which is why their approach is a mixture of extremist actions and occasional tolerance.

That’s not to say that al-Qaeda are small fry, there are al-Qaeda affiliates across the globe, including the Middle-East, the Indian Subcontinent, East Africa and Central Asia. In Syria the main al-Qaeda affiliate is Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), meaning “The Support Front” (indeed, they are often referred to as The al-Nusra Front). In fact, al-Qaeda’s very public rejection of ISIS was intended to boost support for the far more compliant JN in Syria and prevent ISIS from encroaching any further into their territory.

JN are considered expert fighters and employ asymmetric tactics, including suicide bombing, to devastate Syrian regime forces. This gives JN a military advantage over other, more moderate Syrian rebel groups with less expertise or an unwillingness to commit themselves to such extreme tactics.

Gaining control of Idlib, a regional capital, from the regime in March was a major victory and JN currently control large areas of the patchwork tapestry of death and displacement that is the map of Syria in 2015, see map below. It is interesting to note that despite controlling this territory they have not declared a caliphate, a tactic that is indicative of their differences with ISIS.

Map of territorial control in Syria. Russian air strikes in October largely targeted rebels fighting the regime in north west Syria, this includes Jabhat al-Nusra. Credit: Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

Map of territorial control in Syria. Russian air strikes in October largely targeted rebels fighting the regime in north west Syria, this includes Jabhat al-Nusra. Credit: Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

However, should they be afforded the opportunity to use this territory as a stable base for operations, there is speculation that they will attempt a grand attack against Western interests, as is typical of al-Qaeda. This risk may be heightened by JN’s desire to come out from the shadow of ISIS and announce itself internationally as a force to be reckoned with. While a sufficiently stable situation on the ground in Syria is a distant prospect, the threat should not be taken lightly as JN have a chilling record of committing atrocities and destroying historic and holy monuments.

Examples include the massacre of villagers and forced religious conversions, which the JN leadership apparently apologised for, but here at Current Offence we like to think we know a shit apology when we see one.

JN also desecrated a tomb that was particularly sacred to Shia Islam, an act which drew condemnation from Iran and enraged Hezbollah. This is an unwelcome development, as further Hezbollah involvement will cause the conflict to encroach on refugee laden Lebanon.

The combination of military successes and atrocities make it a distinct possibility that moderate groups will not be able to resist JN’s claim to power in any potential post-conflict rebel-led government. In fact, when the US declared them a terrorist organisation some moderate groups protested. While this is not concrete evidence of the “Four Lions Hypothesis” at work, if the moderate groups continue to give political ground to JN in return for their military backing, JN will be able to frustrate the transition to democracy just as much as Assad and ISIS. Remember, JN’s long term goal is the establishment of an Islamist theocracy not a boring old nationalist unity government.

Recently, nations have become aware of the threat posed by JN and there are attempts underway to limit their influence, including US drone strikes, ever popular in spite of a dearth of publicly available evidence regarding their effectiveness, not to mention the obvious moral quandary. Moreover, Russia’s recent commitment to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime against all comers, despite its links to human rights abuses, has served a blow to all rebel groups, moderate or otherwise, see map.

In spite of these new challenges to its strength, JN has been defiant, invoking the spirit of the Afghan defeat of Soviet forces and even offering a bounty for captured Russian soldiers. This may seem like bravado, but as recently as last month US trained troops handed over all their weaponry to JN, so why not take on Russia?

Looking forward, JN have several key goals. Given recent events, making significant gains against the regime forces is unlikely, but their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the population suggest that although they may be decimated by international airstrikes from above and a resurgent regime force on the ground, the seeds of the extremist ideals they have sown may go on to form a devastating insurgency for years to come. Another goal is to resolve the schism with ISIS, but should this remain unresolved, it would not be too surprising if JN outlasted ISIS, who will do well to avoid a major popular backlash as a result of their brutal tactics.

FEAR RATING – 8/10 IF YOU’RE IN SYRIA, 3/10 OUTSIDE: TERRIFYING, BUT LOCALISED. ANOTHER REASON TO STAY OUT OF SYRIA.

JW

FEAR #1: Space Debris

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? In the first edition of FEAR we tackle an issue high above our heads, space debris.

The importance of the space industry is often understated and in recent decades the economic and emotional frenzy of the Apollo program has given way to a more intuitive, though not necessarily correct, sense that everyday earthly issues are far more pressing. With this in mind it is important to restate the just how vital it is for humanity to maintain a strong space industry.

In the long term it is expected that space technology will allow humanity to permanently cut itself loose from the gravitational umbilical cord that tethers it to a doomed Mother Earth, a subject that is discussed brilliantly here. Admittedly the short term is less exciting, but the use of satellites is essential for many things we take for granted including weather prediction, communications and navigation, as well as research into climate change and famine.

Space debris, which is largely comprised of satellites and rocket stages that have ceased to be operational (although humanity has been creative when it comes to making space debris, see the table), poses an existential threat to all working satellites. The collapse of space infrastructure may leave the next generation pining for widespread mobile data coverage and satnav in the same way that I long for the transcendental excitement provided by the Apollo missions or Concorde.

SOME CREATIVE WAYS OF MAKING SPACE DEBRIS
Method Who When Example
Anti-Satellite Weapons USA, China and the USSR USA and USSR during the Cold War, also China in 2007 and USA in 2008 In 2007 China blasted one of its satellites into over 3,000 pieces of trackable debris (>10 cm) and probably a shitload more of the smaller stuff that we can’t detect (until it destroys something useful).
Not venting Fuel Tanks All spacefaring nations All the time until recently In 2012 at least 1,000 trackable fragments were produced when fuel in the upper stage of a Russian Briz-M rocket decided to explode. Thanks Russia.
The West Ford Projects USA 1960s Hundreds of millions of tiny (1.78 cm) copper needles were released into orbit in an attempt to bounce radio signals off them. Some of the needles were deployed incorrectly and remained in clumps that still orbit to this day.
Clumsiness Astronaut and Cosmonauts More often than you’d like to think Many items were lost on spacewalks or jettisoned during the lifetimes of the International Space Station (ISS) or Mir, the Russian Space Station. Like this toolbox.
SPACE DEBRIS DAMAGE

Proof of the damage space debris is capable of. Left: 1.2 cm ball bearing fired at 6.8 km/s (via ESA). Right: Damage to a window on the Challenger spacecraft, caused by a 0.2 mm fleck of paint (via NASA).

What endows space debris with its destructive power is its tendency to travel at incredibly high speeds, up to around 7 km/s (~17,500 mph). At these speeds a collision with anything larger than 10 cm will rip an orbiting satellite to pieces and even a 1 cm piece of debris can hit with an energy equivalent to an exploding hand grenade. Collisions inevitably create more debris and increase the likelihood of further collisions in a domino effect that eventually becomes self-sustaining. This is known as Kessler syndrome and if it occurs everything in orbit will be ground into a fine dust and the orbits surrounding the Earth will become entirely unusable for spacecraft for decades.

space debris graph

Distribution of space debris as of 2007. From G. Forden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For an excellent interactive graphic click here.

Now, if you’re optimistic that this scenario is unlikely because all that debris is tiny in the vast infinity of space… allow me to rein you in with some hard facts.

Firstly, space, at least the regions of it where satellites and debris orbit, is not that big. Most satellites are found in two regions, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which extends from 160-2000 km above the Earth’s surface and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) at 35,786 km above the Earth. The evidence suggests that Kessler syndrome is most likely to begin in LEO, more specifically in crowded orbits over the poles at altitudes of 600-1200 km.

iridium and cosmos collision

Two satellites, Iridium 33 (active, 560 kg) and Cosmos 2251 (de-activated, 950 kg), collided in 2009. The collision created over 1,600 trackable debris items in regions frequented by telecommunications satellites (via NASA).

Secondly, humanity has left a lot of debris up there. The US Air Force track >22,000 objects larger than 10 cm in LEO using radar, while computer simulations estimate that there are 150,000-700,000 objects >1 cm and hundreds of millions >1 mm.

Some of this debris has already begun to collide, see image on the right. Estimates from 2010 suggested an average collision rate of once every five years. Since then, computer simulations have suggested that even if new launches were to cease, the multiplication of debris will be self-sustaining.

Obviously a moratorium on launches is ridiculous and impractical. In fact, a new space race is underway, driven by a mixture of emerging spacefaring nations and rapid commercialisation of space. A result of this is the shift towards the use of CubeSats. These are cheap satellites that companies plan to use in large constellations. The idea is well intentioned as CubeSats offer the potential to make space exploration far less exclusive, however, you get what you pay for and many of these CubeSats lack manoeuvrability, making them highly likely to collide and do more harm than good.

Essentially, Kessler syndrome is already upon us (can’t stress enough just how bad that is) and as time passes space will become an increasing harsh environment to operate in. Ignoring the problem will render space too dangerous for future use and send many of the systems that modern society is dependent on into terminal decline. Now that I’ve got you worried I’ll let you know what our best and brightest are doing to save us all.

1ec2199f9da29fa8caccece66275b6e0

GIF showing a net capture mechanism for use in the e.Deorbit mission (via ESA).

Leading the charge is ESA, which has begun working on a mission called e.Deorbit (due for launch in 2021) to bring a defunct satellite out of polar LEO. Several mechanisms for removal have been mooted, including the use of a net as shown on the right.  Where possible, ESA has also begun to remove its satellites from crowded orbits at the end of missions (e.g. ERS-2). Further to this, the risk of satellites exploding is being managed by draining fuel, venting tanks and switching off batteries.


Brief aside: As a UK citizen I’m shocked at how little we fund ESA. The UK contributes less than half of the amount France and Germany do and Italy push us into 4th place! No offence Italians, but we should be doing better than you, so some offence I suppose.


The US Air Force has also invested in a new generation of space surveillance called Space Fence, which will be capable of tracking 200,000 objects that are smaller than those currently tracked. This infographic by Lockheed Martin describes how Space Fence will protect US “warfighters”, in case we were wondering where their priorities lie. Contracts have been negotiated to allow other bodies access to the data, but the extent of this access has not been made public, probably because the US has a habit of being precious about its military operations. This may be the reason why a group of European nations are planning to develop detection infrastructure independent of the USA.

To summarise humanity’s plan, the Europeans plan to limit the mess they make and remove a dead satellite (that’s “a dead satellite”, as in, just the one and it’s going to cost millions) and the US is going to have a front seat if they fuck it all up. In order to stop the debris collisions becoming self-sustaining we need to remove 5-10 pieces per year and this is a mission to remove one piece in six years’ time. It leaves me thinking that this just isn’t good enough and that more would be achieved with international collaboration.

Ah international collaboration, the dreamer’s solution to all world issues. But wait, space is one of the few areas that buck the trend of simmering contempt between nations, the International Space Station stands alongside the Montreal Protocol on CFCs as one of the few real international successes. Unfortunately, this bonhomie doesn’t extend to space law so the UN hasn’t really gone near it since the 1970s. This leaves us with international agreements whose application to space debris is vague and insufficient for the contemporary space industry.

In conclusion, we appear to have a “tragedy of the commons” situation where our long term losses will outstrip our short term gains. Current efforts to mitigate space debris are insufficient and the required funding to tackle the problem quickly and effectively is not forthcoming. Further to this, an international agreement is unlikely and failing that we’re looking for someone/something to act unilaterally and at considerable expense to save us from what will be a social disaster. Yeah I’m worried about this.

FEAR RATING: 7/10 – THIS SHOULD KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT

JW