Watching the World

Is a Second Opinion Important?

“When it comes to second opinions in medicine, too many of us are simply too polite. But such a lack of assertiveness could cost patients their lives,” states The News of Mexico City. Patients are often afraid that their doctor will feel insulted if they want to get a second opinion. But “most doctors don’t mind patients asking,” says the paper. “If yours does, it could indicate trouble ahead.” Today, second opinions are viewed, both by doctors and by insurance companies, as a good way to ensure the best treatment for patients. Dr. Michael Andrews, president of the Georgia Society of Clinical Oncology, says that he encourages his patients to get a second opinion because they often come back feeling more confident about his recommendations. The director of a public-health group said: “Patients need to remember they’re the ones whose bodies are on the line.”

Dangerous Friends

Teenage drivers are far more likely to have a fatal accident if there are passengers in the car, according to a study reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, U.S.A., found that the risk that a 16-year-old driver has of being killed increased by 39 percent with one passenger, 86 percent with two passengers, and 282 percent with three or more passengers. The main reasons cited in the study are “dangerous driving behaviors . . . , strongly associated with the presence of peers.” Such risky behaviors include speeding, tailgating, running a red light, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and being distracted by passengers who engage in horseplay.

“Older and Wiser”

Researchers have discovered that parts of the brain are able to grow new cells as people age, reports The Times of London. Previously it was believed that brain cells did not reproduce during adulthood. “The key to encouraging the growth is keeping the mind active,” says The Times. A recent study of people over the age of 65 found that learning and interaction with other people appear to encourage new growth in brain cells and their connections. The researchers found that mixing with other people improved “health, longevity and quality of life.” Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield comments: “The richer your experience, the more connections you have. So people do get older and wiser.”

Northern Sea Route

Sixteenth-century spice merchant Robert Thorne once dreamed of finding a sea route from Europe to the Far East via the Arctic. Today, Thorne’s dream has become a reality, thanks to global warming, reports The Times of London. The waters along the Russian and the Eastern Siberian coasts are now almost totally ice free throughout the summer months, enabling cargo ships to sail from the North Sea, around the Arctic Circle, and into the Pacific through the Bering Strait. When the route is frozen over, ships from Europe have to use the Suez Canal, go around the southern tip of Africa, or journey through the Panama Canal to reach the Far East. The economic advantages of using the northern sea route are significant. It virtually halves the distance between Hamburg, Germany, and Yokohama, Japan—to just under 7,000 nautical miles [to less than 13,000 kilometers].

Blood Testing Problems

“More than half of the world’s countries fail to perform full tests on donated blood, increasing the risk of spreading AIDS and other diseases,” says an Associated Press report. This report, based on information from the World Health Organization, also claims that “5 to 10 percent of people with the AIDS virus are estimated to be infected via blood transfusions.” However, AIDS is just one of the diseases that is transmitted in this manner. Each year, 8 to 16 million hepatitis B infections and 2 to 4 million hepatitis C infections are spread through transfusions and unsafe  injection practices. One reason given for inadequate testing of blood is that it is expensive. It costs between $40 and $50 per unit to check for these contaminants. Even so, such tests are “not always reliable, particularly if carried out by inadequately trained staff or with inadequate equipment,” notes the report.

Child Abuse in India

A child is inducted into prostitution every ten minutes in India, reports The New Indian Express. This means that about 50,000 Indian children are forced into the sex trade every year. In the state of Kerala, a seminar on child sex abuse reported another startling finding. Doctors there are “reluctant to examine cases of rape as they do not have the expertise for it, nor do they want to be involved,” says the newspaper. In some cases, even parents contribute to the problem. Says Central Vigilance Superintendent Sreelekha: “Parents were reluctant to file [rape] cases because of the possible social stigma and ostracism.”

Eating Together as a Family Is Healthiest

One of the best ways for parents to ensure good health for their children is to eat dinner with them, says the Globe and Mail newspaper. According to Dr. Matthew Gillman of the Harvard Medical School, “family dinners contain foods that are more healthful than children and adolescents would otherwise eat.” Children who eat family meals are more likely to eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, to take in the vitamins and minerals that they need, and to consume less sugar and fat. The researchers also found that eating dinner as a family engenders conversations about healthy eating and instills better dietary habits in children—habits that they will carry with them when they eat away from home. The new study, taken from a continuing research project using a sample of about 16,000 children between 9 and 14 years of age, found that “only two in five school-age children actually eat supper with their parents most days, and one in five never do,” says the Globe.

Master Weavers

“Spider silk is one of the strongest materials on Earth,” says New Scientist magazine. Each fiber can stretch from two to four times its length before breaking and is so strong that it has been said that a strand of silk the thickness of a pencil could stop a jumbo jet in flight. Researchers have been trying to unlock the spider’s weaving secrets for use in a variety of industries. For example, the present fabric of choice for bulletproof vests is Kevlar, an artificial fabric made using “concentrated sulphuric acid heated to near boiling point,” says the magazine. But while the by-products of manufacturing Kevlar are toxic and difficult to dispose of, spiders spin silk from “protein and plain old water, at pH levels and temperatures similar to those found in the human mouth.” Moreover, this mixture of water and protein is spun into a fiber that isn’t washed away by rain. Thus, New Scientist says: “Despite years of study, spider silk is still an enigma.”

Pollution in the Home

“The inside of your house is ten times more likely to be polluted than your front garden,” says The Times of London. A study of 174 British homes conducted by the Building Research Establishment showed that levels of formaldehyde vapor, released from furniture containing chipboard and other synthetic substances, were ten times higher indoors than outdoors. Twelve of the homes inspected did not meet World Health Organization air quality levels. Synthetic furnishings, vinyl flooring, building and decorating materials, chemical cleaners, or heating and cooking appliances can generate carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, benzene vapor, or volatile organic compounds. Benzene vapor, a known carcinogen, is a component of spray cleaners and also of tobacco smoke, another major indoor pollutant. Charlotte Gann, editor of Health Which? magazine, says that many people spend 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors. She advises “cutting back on a few chemical products, opening a few windows and checking gas appliances” to improve indoor air quality.