Articles for the Month of April 2010

“You’ll never take me alive”, said he.

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Saturday was our two year immi-versary, the anniversary of our immigration to Australia. I stumbled off of a 24 hour flight into to the blazing South Australian with Dr. O’C and a seven month old Boy Z. I’d never been to Australia and despite befriending several natives (including the one I had lived with for seven years) and doing extensive research into my Antipodean future home, I hadn’t a clue what to expect of the place. I was jobless, carless and clueless. It certainly wasn’t my first move, it wasn’t even my first international move. But I’ve never felt so lost.

We arrived the day before ANZAC Day. I hadn’t a clue what an ANZAC was, nevermind why he/she/it/they had a day. All I knew was that when I managed to wander my way down to the closest grocery store to the faceless suburb into which we had landed was that it was closed up tight.

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Two years later I’m not quite as lost. Inexplicably I’ve still got Dr. O’C. I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old budding fascist dictator in Boy Z and his rapidly growing lieutenant, Not Max. I know my away around my adopted city like I’m a native. I’ve got a job that I love a car that Dr. O’C keeps bashing up and a place to lay my head with a sea view when I wake up. I even know where to buy a carton of milk on ANZAC Day.

More importantly, I’ve come to feel at home in my home. I don’t feel Australian, but I feel comfortable among the Australians. I feel a part of Australia, that I can participate in things Australian. I feel a part of, something that I haven’t in the six and a half years since I left the country of my birth.

And I can tell you about ANZAC day. It’s a day of remembrance for the Australian and (less importantly) New Zealand Army Corps that fought at Gallipoli in World War I. The Battle of Gallipoli involved allied British and French troops landing in Turkey in a futile attempt to take Constantinople from the Turks. It involved a significant Australian presence and something like 8,000 Australian casualties. They tell us on ANZAC Day, that Gallipoli helped to established Australian national identity. I find it a bit odd that a thrashing at the hands of the Turks marks the beginning of Australian national consciousness, but it’s one of those idiosyncrasies that make Australians such a winsome people.

So the groceries stores are closed and there are dawn services around the country and in Gallipoli. And we have biscuits. And football. And I’ve learned, on this my third ANZAC Day and the second anniversary of my arrival in this enchanting corner of the world, that if you get out of the way and let it, life keeps getting better from one year to the next.

April 2008

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April 2009

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April 2010

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Just tell ’em I’ve got some of those St. James Infirmary blues

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I am sick. Meaning that the end of the world is nigh and the the air around me is filled with expelled virus and the soft moaning and whining of a man with the common cold.

I felt it coming on Wednesday evening and in the interest of being prepared and minimising loss of work time, I decided to preemptively buy some cold medicine. I picked up a box of a commonly known cold and flu medicine that happened to be on special and happily toddled home. It wasn’t until I decided to take one of the nighttime doses to insure a good night’s sleep that I noticed that I had purchased an herbal ‘First Defense’ product.

Echinacea? Vitamin C? Garlic? Where’s my decongestant? My antihistamine? My bloody painkiller? I subjected Dr. O’C to a 20 minute rant about the uselessness of ‘alternative medicines’, questionable labelling tactics and damned hippies.

But I took the useless stuff anyway, having spent hard earned money on it.

I awoke the next morning, fully expecting to be drowning in a sea of mucous and misery. But as my various peripheral sensors came into focus I realized that I didn’t feel that bad. My throat was a bit sore and I didn’t particularly want to get out of bed (of course I never want to get out of bed), but the anticipated congestion, pounding head and general illness just wasn’t there. Could the useless hippy medicine have worked?

Certainly not. I’m a scientist. I teach in a school that’s responsible for training pharmacists, nurses and other medical professionals. These natural remedies are just a way to bilk money out of hapless civilians. The textbook that we use to teach pharmacology to our second year nurses says quite clearly:

Although Echinacea is taken widely to prevent and treat colds, its efficacy is highly questionable. Recent randomised, placebo controlled trials…found it no better than placebo at reducing either the duration or severity of [cold] symptoms.

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In my oh so learned opinion, the only effect the echinacea has on preventing or treating colds is a psychosomatic one.

But I did feel OK yesterday. With my attitude about Echinacea, the only psychosomatic effect that it would have would be to make me feel more ill. And I’ve known a fair few scientists who have sworn by echinacea. My former post-doc supervisor, for one; a very smart, if mentally unhinged, woman. So, I decided to be a bit open minded and have a look at the current state of research regarding the efficacy (or lack thereof) of echinacea.

Much of the peer-reviewed literature on Echinacea is either in dodgy complementary medicine journals* or focuses on in vitro experiments showing that Echinacea has little or no effect on various parts of the immune system. However, I found a couple meta-reviews evaluating echinacea’s role in prevention or treatment of the common cold, one of them in The Lancet Infectious Disease – a reasonably reputable scientific journal.  The Lancet review, authored by Craig Coleman and his team at The University of Connecticut’s School of Pharmacy, waded through 738 published reports about echinacea and winnowed them down to 14 well-conducted studies that focused on Echinacea and the common cold.

What they found absolutely shocked me. Echinacea use decreased the odds of developing the common cold by 58%** and decreased the duration of the cold by one to four days. I combed through their statistical methods and they seem solid. The studies they chose to evaluate were all in proper scientific journals and undertaken by medical doctors or biomedical scientists. In most cases they were randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trials. In other words, they were the real deal. Dosage, Echinacea species and duration of treatment varied and in many cases additional supplements (Vitamin C and other herbals) were used, but in general one would have to conclude, gulp, that Echinacea works.

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Not all of the studies found that Echinacea reduced the likelihood of getting a cold or the duration of the cold and those that did involved longer term, regular use of the supplement. In fact, there was a sternly worded reply to Coleman’s review questioning much of their methodology. The authors themselves point out that their may be a bias towards publication of studies with positive outcomes; journals aren’t often interested in papers that show that something doesn’t work. It is also important to note that the safety of Echinacea is still a matter of some uncertainty. There are concerns about interactions between Echinacea and other drugs as well as effects on heart rate and blood pressure. There is some evidence that long term use of Echinacea can actually suppress immune function, making the user more susceptible to the common cold and other infectious diseases.

Most importantly, I’m now sick. So I can attest that a single dose of Echinacea, taken out of spite and belligerence, does not prevent the common cold.

So there.

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*I generally have a very low opinion of complementary medicine. Ironic, then, that I nearly got a moonlighting gig teaching for a local ‘College’ of Alternative Medicine a few months back. Yes, I can be bought. Reasonably cheaply. Contact me for further details.

**The second meta-analysis, compiled by Roland Schoop and colleagues, found a 55% reduction in colds in Echinacea users when compared with placebo groups.

This is a public service announcement…with guitar!

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On Good Friday, an eight year old boy in the Sydney suburbs was attacked and bitten in the face by his neighbours’ 18 month old Siberian husky. He required plastic surgery to repair deep gashes on his left cheek, nose and lips. This story sent a chill of recognition down my spine as did the photo of the little boy who had been attacked. What is more upsetting is that these are not isolated incidents. A couple of weeks ago a group of huskies attacked and killed a four year old boy in Pangnirtung, Canada. A 3-month-old Nebraska boy suffered broken ribs after being attacked by a Siberian Husky in 2009. In 2007, a baby in Perth was plucked from its cot and killed by the family’s pet Siberian husky.  Between 1982 and 2006, huskies or husky mixes were responsible for over 30 reported attacks on children in the U.S. and Canada. Only pit bulls (duh), rottweilers, chows, German shepherds and akitas more frequently bit kids.

In that last report, it is pointed out that huskies – unlike the more aggressive dogs – almost never attack adults. They are referred to as a special case, with most of the attacks occuring in regions where the dogs are kept in packs, often without regular human supervision – as with the death in Canada last week.

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But that wasn’t the case in Sydney, Perth, Nebraska or here in Adelaide. Huskies are not considered an aggressive breed and I don’t think they are, despite these news stories. They’re pack animals and require a firm understanding of pack hierarchy. For huskies that are family pets, the pack is that family. I think that the reason that most husky attacks are on children, especially young children, is that the addition of children disrupts the dogs’ pack structure. They are confused and they try to restore the pack hierarchy. They lash out, without understanding the inevitable repercussions of attacking a human child.

One of the Sydney husky’s owners said that the dog was “fine usually”. So was ours. Outside of the typical puppy nipping and occasional playful roughhousing, our husky never bit anybody. Never would. He sat idly by while someone broke into our house in Oxford in the middle of the night. He was remarkably well trained for his breed and I had worked hard on that training. I know how to train a dog. We did all the things right when the kids started to come – didn’t leave the dog alone with them, mediated dog-child interactions and on and on. Even when my husky attacked my little boy, they weren’t alone together. They were on a beach with four other responsible adults. It happened in a millisecond.

We’re very, very lucky. We’re lucky it wasn’t worse – that Boy Z isn’t dead or didn’t require plastic surgery. We’re lucky we didn’t make the news. We’re lucky not to be a statistic in some report about dog attacks.

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I want another dog. Boy Z wants another dog. But when the time comes, it won’t be a husky. Nor will it be any of those Nordic working dogs. I can’t trust them again. I’ve seen what they’re capable of, seen how they can turn in a moment. They’re too closely related to wolves. It was the lupine characteristics of the breeds that drew me to them in the first place and unfortunately it is the lupine characteristics of the breeds that lead them to occasionally attack children.

I guess the point of this post is to serve as a warning – Siberian huskies are not, by nature, aggressive. But they are dangerous to children. And I don’t think enough people know that. I didn’t know that, and I’d owned huskies for over a decade. If you’re a husky owner and you’re anticipating starting a family or have recently started a family – do not trust your dog(s) with your children. I know you think your dog is different. I thought my dog was different. I knew about the Perth attack before my son was born. My dog seemed fine with my sons. But my dog wasn’t different. No matter how gentle and harmless he seemed, there was a wolf inside of him the same way that there is a wolf inside your dog. Maybe your dog is different, but is it worth the risk?

Don’t trust your husky with your children. Don’t leave them alone together. Don’t let your dog off lead in the presence of the children even if you are there. I’m not saying to get rid of your husky if you have kids, though in our case everyone (dog included) might have been better of if we had re-homed the dog before our kids were born. For your sake, for your children’s sake, for your dog’s sake: do not trust your husky with your children.

Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come

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Back in the the days B.C., a four day weekend was all about rejuvenation of body and spirit. I used to gloat to friends and family about the liberal amount time off for Easter we were privy to in the Commonwealth while they were slaving away in their American sweat shops.

These days, the days of parenthood, a four day weekend for Easter is all about trying to stay sane around a toddler whose had chocolate for breakfast and to fit in a bit of sleep around a baby who doesn’t recognise the sanctity of night time.

And counting the hours until I get to go back to work and relax.

Late summer and early autumn is festival season in Adelaide. We’ve got the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Womadelaide, Writer’s Week. Err, the Clipsal 500 if we stretch the definition of ‘festival’. With the arrival of autumn in earnest, and the anticipation of the brutal South Australian winter, most of the festival events have tailed off but we managed to make it out to the last evening of the Northern Lights with a strung-out toddler and sleeping baby in tow.

For those of you who haven’t visited our fair city, most of the buildings of any historical/architectural significance are clustered together on the northern side of the city center. The festival folks project images onto the buildings – slam, bam Northern Lights. Sounds a bit naff, but it is pretty spectacular in real life. Especially if you’re two. Or 38 in the realm of a 2 year old. A realm in which nothing is naff.

Anyway, I – and by ‘I’ I mean Dr. O’C – took some pretty nifty photos, here are some of my favourites from the Northern Lights:

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There isn’t a lot of ‘Easter music’ out there, but I went back to Sufjan Stevens‘ “Seven Swans” with its unapologetic Christian overtones. I was feeling a bit bad about having been so flippant about Jesus and all.