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Debunking myths on World Cancer Day

Today, 4 February, is World Cancer Day, the international day to raise awareness about cancer. This is a little confusing, since later in the year we also celebrate Daffodil Day, which has a very similar goal. Considering the impact of cancer on the human race, however, I suppose this is one topic that deserves a couple of days in the year.

Cancer prevention strategies can include some very basic, everyday tips, like promoting the use of sunblock before venturing into the sun.
Cancer prevention strategies can include some very basic, everyday tips, like promoting the use of sunblock before venturing into the sun.
Note: The yellow Livestrong wristband is a popular symbol, and fundraising item, of the Livestrong Foundation (formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation until it changed it’s name folliowing Armstrong’s doping scandal in late 2012). Despite the famous cyclist’s recent fall from grace, there’s no denying the huge contributions made during his professional career, towards cancer research and awareness creation, as well as providing support and inspiration for many living with cancer.
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There is a minor focus difference between World Cancer Day and Daffodil Day – where the latter has a specific focus on raising funds to support cancer research, World Cancer day is all about awareness creation, and busting some of the myths that still exist around the disease.

Specifically, the World Cancer Day website lists 4 common cancer myths, ranging from general societal misconceptions to very personal issues:

Myth 1: Cancer is just a health issue

Truth: Cancer is not just a health issue. It has wide-reaching social, economic, development, and human rights implications.

As such, it is critical that interventions addressing the prevention and control of cancer need to be included in the wider post-2015 global development goals. By spreading the responsibility to address cancer control beyond the health sector, there is a better chance that all the relevant challenges (at individual and community level) can be addressed.

Global policies, however, are not enough – real investments are needed as part of national, country specific cancer control interventions.

Myth 2: Cancer is a disease of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries

Truth: Cancer is a global epidemic. It affects all ages and socio-economic groups, with developing countries bearing a disproportionate burden.

This is a no-brainer, really – cancer does not discriminate. If anything, the poor and disenfranchised are hit harder by the disease, and more often than not get sicker and die sooner as a result of cancer. Therefore cancer prevention and control policies and funding must be equally non-discriminatory, with interventions made available to everyone – rich and poor, young and old, in both the developed and the developing world.

Myth 3: Cancer is a death sentence

Truth: Many cancers that were once considered a death sentence can now be cured and for many more people, their cancer can be treated effectively.

To achieve this, however, strategies need to be put in place to facilitate cancer control measures such as breast and cervical cancer screening, as well as improved access to cancer services including medicines and other treatment solutions such as radiotherapy.

Myth 4: Cancer is my fate

Truth: With the right strategies, a third of the most common cancers can be prevented.

Of all treatment strategies, prevention remains the most cost-effective way of reducing the global cancer burden. This not only includes putting in place early detection systems, but also implementing programmes that reduce the level of exposure to risk factors and promoting healthy lifestyle choices.

Another critical prevention strategy is improved knowledge dissemination – helping people understand the risk factors as well as ways of addressing these.

More info

For more information on the above myths about cancer and its control and prevention, have a look at the fact sheets prepared by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). General background information on World Cancer Day 2013 and the UICC is available here.

Celebrating the indulgence of pure peanut butter

So today is Peanut Butter Day. (National Peanut Butter Day again, in fact, but you know… there really seems to be so few International days in January…)

Anyway, let’s go with peanut butter, and peanuts, for that matter, for today. Certainly an interesting snack. For starters, it’s made from the peanut (Arachis hypogaea) which, despite being called a nut is in fact a member of the legume or bean family. So they’re called nuts (and you sometimes even get them when you buy mixed nuts), but they’re not nuts. That’s just nuts!

Pure peanut butter on a slice of freshly baked bread - comfort food delux.(© All Rights Reserved)
Pure peanut butter on a slice of freshly baked bread – comfort food delux.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Peanuts are used in many ways (eaten raw, roasted, made into peanut oil or flour, used in medicines), but none more rich and indulgent than good old peanut butter – a comfort food if ever there was one. Peanut butter is a rich source of protein, dietary fibre, vitamins B3 and E, magnesium, potassium and folic acid. It is also high in antioxidants and, though fatty, It has high levels of good, monounsaturated fat. The peanut oil in peanut butter has been reported to lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol without reducing HDL (‘good’) cholesterol.

And it contains high levels of niacin – a nutrient found to play an important role in the prevention of cognitive decline.

Not a bad mouthful, as such.

Aside from the obvious issue of peanut allergy, the downsides of peanut butter are not generic to peanuts, but rather concern the processing and additives involved in some brands. Some peanut butter brands, for example, contain added hydrogenated vegetable oils that are high in bad trans fatty acids, but this can be avoided by making sure you get freshly ground peanut butter made from peanuts, and peanuts only. Peanut butter is also said to have the potential to harbor Salmonella, but again I believe this is really only applicable to product that has not been properly handled during production, so it isn’t a generic problem either.

Thus, as long as you source responsibly produced, pure peanut butter, it seems you can pretty much snack worry-free (in moderation, of course).

Talking about worry-free snacking – people are always worried that peanut butter will make you fat. And sure enough, eating it by the tubfull certainly is likely to add up, but there are arguments that, eaten in moderation, it can actually help in weight management, as it’s rich taste and texture has been found to keep you fuller for longer than many other snacks.

Convinced? Then why not celebrate Peanut Butter Day with a chocolate-peanut butter-banana smoothie – if you can restrain yourself to a small serving (not easy!) it’s probably the simplest, most indulgent “good snack” you will taste in a while!

Felix Hoffmann and the invention of Aspirin

Our topic for today is Aspirin. It’s the birthday today of Felix Hoffmann (21 Jan 1868 – 8 Feb 1946), the German chemist and lead investigator at Bayer and Co who was responsible for the creation of aspirin.

Hoffmann’s interest in researching new pain medication was fueled by his father’s chronic rheumatism. At the time the best pain killer was salicylic acid (originally extracted from the bark and leaves of the willow tree) which caused some rather nasty stomach upsets and had had a really vile taste to boot.

Aspirin - still one of the most popular medications in the world, more than a century after its invention.(© All Rights Reserved)
Aspirin – still one of the most popular medications in the world, more than a century after its invention.
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In 1897, on 10 Aug, Hoffmann synthesised aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), by acetylating salicylic acid with acetic acid. He was not the first to prepare acetylsalicylic acid, but what made the Bayer version superior was that the salicylic acid was in the form of salicin derived from Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet), which caused less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid. Clinical trials by Bayer showed the new drug provided effective pain relief, lowered fever and had anti-inflammatory properties.

In addition to the above benefits of aspirin, it has also been shown to have an antiplatelet  effect in blood. As such, long-term low doses of aspirin is an effective treatment to help prevent blood clot formation, heart attacks and strokes.

Of course, as with all medication, it’s not all positive. Some of the not-so-great side effects, particularly with aspirin taken orally, include potential gastrointestinal ulcers and stomach bleeding. Due to these side-effects, and more specifically the potential of Reye’s syndrome (a severe brain disease that can result from administering aspirin to children), it is no longer prescribed to treat flu, chickenpox etc in children and adolescents.

To this day aspirin remains one of the most widely used medications in the world, and it is estimated that annual consumption is around 40 000 tonnes. Even though Hoffmann’s name is on the aspirin patent, it was owned by Bayer and he received no financial share in its huge international success.

Postscript: To add a sinister twist to our story, even though official records show Felix Hoffmann as the lead investigator on the aspirin project, a Jewish chemist, Arthur Eichengrun, later claimed to have been the project lead, and that records of his contribution were expunged under the Nazi regime. Stranger things have happened at the time, and I guess that is a controversy that is unlikely to be clarified anytime soon.

Getting hot under the collar on International Hot and Spicy Food Day

Today is International Hot and Spicy Food Day, so are you ready for a meal that gets the heart racing and the perspiration pumping?

This year, I am spending this special day enjoying our first home made Mexican salsa verde, authentically made with the decidedly strange tomatillo fruit (home grown, of course!). Somewhere between a tomato and a cape gooseberry, the tomatillo is essentially a tomato-like fruit wrapped in an inedible, papery husk. Eaten when fully grown but still green of colour and full of flavour, the tomatillo is the key ingredient in Mexican cuisine, including the hot and spicy salsa verde – a green sauce made from tomatillo with chili peppers, garlic, onion, coriander and a touch of lemon or lime juice. Hot, spicy, bursting with flavour, and great with some cheesy nachos!

The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), also known as a husk tomato or Mexican tomato.(© All Rights Reserved)
The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), also known as a husk tomato or Mexican tomato.
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Hot and spicy Mexican salsa verde goes down a treat with corn chips and cheese.(© All Rights Reserved)
Hot and spicy Mexican salsa verde goes down a treat with corn chips and cheese.
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Speaking of hot and spicy – we (my wife, actually) recently decided to plant some Bhut Jolokia chili peppers. They’re still babies, so it will be a while still before we have the ‘privilege’ of tasting one of the hottest chili peppers in the world, but I will be sure to report back on the experience (if I’m still able to think straight after the fact).

One of our Bhut Joloika babies.  Considering the punch of the adult fruit (with a Scoville rating of over 1 000 000 units), the baby plant looks deceivingly innocent.(© All Rights Reserved)
One of our Bhut Joloika babies. Considering the punch of the adult fruit (with a Scoville rating of over 1 000 000 units), the baby plant looks deceivingly innocent.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course chili peppers aren’t just a great slap across the taste buds; filled to the brim with vitamin C, most B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and iron, they are also really good for you. And it is said that when your body is hit by the sensation of a hot chili, it releases endorphins and serotonin – a great feel-good boost resulting in a natural high similar to the ‘runners high’ experienced after intense exercise. Chili peppers also increase your metabolism, reduce hypertension, fight inflammation and have been found to lower bad cholesterol.

The chili pepper - from the genus Capsicum, and members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. With a taste that stands out from the crowd, and packed with health benefits, the chili pepper is one of the true celebrities among the edible plants. (© All Rights Reserved)
The chili pepper – from the genus Capsicum, and member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. With a taste that stands out from the crowd, and packed with health benefits, the chili pepper is one of the true celebrities among the edible plants.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now if that’s not enough reason to try out some new chili-based recipes on International Hot and Spicy Food Day, I don’t know what is. Have fun, and if you find a good hot and spicy recipe, let me know!

Celebrating Ruth Benerito and her quick-drying, flame-retardant, crease and stain resistant fabrics

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ruth Rogan Benerito (born 12 Jan 1916), the American chemist and inventor whose innovations in fabric technology have saved the world many many hours slogging away in front of the ironing board. Dr Benerito was the inventor of wash and wear cotton fabric.

As if this wasn’t enough of a gift to the world, Benerito also came up with numerous other innovations – in total she has been granted no less than 55 patents related to textile technology. Thanks to her we now have fabrics that are quicker drying,  crease and stain resistant, comfortable and better able to retard flames. She also developed a cotton textile cleaning technique (adopted widely in the Japanese textile industry) using radiofrequency cold plasmas. This method replaces the commonly used technique of pre-treating cotton with sodium hydroxide, as such greatly reducing the environmental impact.  Many of her innovations also found application in the wood and paper industries.

No more ironing for hours - just wash, dry and wear.(© All Rights Reserved)
No more ironing for hours – just wash, dry and wear.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The key to the wrinkle-resistant fabric was a process called molecular cross-linking. She discovered that the long chain-like cellulose molecules that make up cotton fibre can be chemically treated so they are bound (cross-linked) together – a process that strengthens the hydrogen bonds between the cellulose molecules, leading to the advantageous result that the cotton becomes less prone to wrinkling.

On an almost completely unrelated note, far removed from her important and ground-breaking work in textiles, Benerito also developed a novel technique to administer fat intravenously to patients too sick or wounded to eat. This innovation has helped save the lives of thousands of people  by maintaining their nutrition levels during severe illness.

From clothing to nutrition, these are some truly useful innovations indeed!

Milk Day, celebrating milk as a source of human nutrition

Today, according to various food blogs and holiday sites, is Milk Day. Rumour has it that this day is celebrated as Milk Day because milk was first delivered in bottles on this day, 11 January, way back in 1878. I did some searching to confirm this, but was unable to do so – it seems there was a patent for a milk container issued in 1878, but the exact issue date for that patent was 29 January.

While I cannot confirm the milk bottle fact, I don’t see any reason why we should not celebrate Milk Day. Internationally, milk is an important source of human nutrition, and in New Zealand in particular, the milk industry forms the backbone of our country’s economy.

A hanging milker device used in a rotary milking parlor.(© All Rights Reserved)
A hanging milker device used in a rotary milking parlor.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The New Zealand milk industry was started nearly two centuries ago in 1814 when the first cows arrived in New Zealand after being imported by early European settlers. New Zealand milk exports started in 1846, and in 1871 the first dairy co-operative was created in the Otago region. From these early initiatives, the New Zealand dairy industry has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2001, the Fonterra company was formed from an amalgamation of existing co-ops, representing the majority of the country’s dairy farmers. Wholly owned by the more than 10 000 farmers who supply milk to it, Fonterra is currently the world’s largest dairy exporter, exporting to more than 100 countries. It is responsible for about 30% of the world’s dairy exports with revenue of close to NZ$ 20 billion (approx US$ 16.8 billion).

While New Zealand leads world milk exports, India is the biggest producer and consumer of milk. India does not, however, import or export milk – it solely produces milk for domestic consumption.

Beyond being a direct source of human nutrition, milk is also processed into a wide range of dairy products – cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter, ice cream, chocolate and more. While the majority of the milk consumed by humans come from cows, the milk from buffalo (esp in India), goats and sheep are also consumed in significant volumes, especially in processed form.

Over the years, human consumption of animal milk has been linked to a variety of health benefits and risks. On the positive side, milk has been found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and it promotes muscle growth and post-exercise recovery. Other reported benefits include improved immune function and relief of hypertension. On the negative side, there has been reports of the casein in milk causing autism spectrum disorders, and excessive consumption of milk has been linked to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and potentially prostate cancer.

While there will probably forever be debates about the benefits and risks of milk consumption, as a source of fat, protein, carbohydrates, salts, minerals and vitamins, it continues to hold significant promise in addressing malnutrition and poverty, particularly as livestock management improves in the developing world.

Celebrating your favourite brew on International Tea Day

Today, 15 December, is International Tea Day, observed mainly in the world’s tea producing countries in the East (Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India) and Africa (Kenya, Malaysia, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi) . This is the day when even the coffee lovers among us should acknowledge that other beverage that many, many people enjoy so much.

In fact, after water, tea is said to be the most widely consumed beverage in the world. While its exact origins are unknown, tea drinking was first recorded in China, as early as the 10th century BC. It remained an oriental delicacy until it was first imported to Europe by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. The habit of tea drinking hit Great Britain around 1660, but only gained widespread popularity with the Brits around the 19th century, from which point they pretty much claimed it as part of their national culture.

Have a cup of green tea, and drink to your health.(© All Rights Reserved)
Have a cup of green tea, and drink to your health.
(© All Rights Reserved)

One of the great things about tea is the wide range available. ‘Standard’ tea, made from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is available as green tea (made with the unfermented tea leaves) or black tea (made by post-fermented leaves). The tea plant is also used to produce white tea, oolong tea and pu-erh tea. Then there are all the so-called herbal teas – chamomile, mint, rooibos, rosehip and more. All teas have distinctive flavours; different types of tea can be blended together, and all the teas can be blended with various other additives – herbs, citrus skin, and much, much more.

Chemically, tea is filled with bioactive chemicals – amino acids, vitamins, caffeine, flavinoids, polysaccharides – which have been associated with a range of health benefits, including protection against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Green tea, in particular, appear to have significant protective effects against a range of cancers.

Tea may also boost your immune system and increase your metabolism.

Pretty impressive – maybe I should swop more of my daily coffee shots for some health-boosting tea beverages!

Be HIV aware, for your sake and for those around you

Today we celebrate World AIDS Day. This is an opportunity for people the world over to join hands and unite in the fight against HIV and AIDS, to pledge support to those who live with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from AIDS. Held for the first time in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first global health day.

The red ribbon is the international symbol of HIV awareness.(© All Rights Reserved)
The red ribbon is the international symbol of HIV awareness.
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While the focus on HIV and AIDS has become less public over the past couple of years, the fact is that it is still very much part of life in the 21st century. Many advances have been made in HIV treatment, laws have been put in place to protect those living with HIV, and much more is known about the condition. Yet millions of people still do not adequately protect themselves, and discrimination against those living with HIV remain rife. World AIDS Day is there to remind us that HIV and AIDS have not gone away, and that there is still a need for funding of research, for awareness creation and for improved education.

To test how aware and clued up you are about HIV, the World AIDS Day initiative has created an online quiz. Try it – you may be surprised at the results! If you find you scored lower than expected, you can always learn more here.

Show your support, wear a red ribbon, and make sure that you know the facts. The more you know and understand about HIV, the better equipped you will be to take care of your own health and the health of those around you.

Looking at the world through a child’s eyes

Today is Universal Children’s Day – established by the UN to promote the welfare of the children of the world. While the ‘generic’ day is celebrated on 20 November, many countries have special Children’s Day’s celebrated throughout the year.

Children are key to all the strategies and activities of the UN – the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), while aimed at benefiting all of humankind, are primarily focused on children. As UNICEF notes, “six of the eight goals relate directly to children and meeting the last two will also make critical improvements in their lives.”

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela
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From an adult point of view, another important benefit of this day is that it reminds us of the innocence and wonder of being young. It reminds us that we don’t always have to over-complicate matters; that sometimes the best strategy is to approach matters afresh, with curiosity and without prejudice, the way children do by default.

This applies in life, as in the sciences. To quote physicist Frederick Seitz: “A good scientist is a person in whom the childhood quality of perennial curiosity lingers on. Once he gets an answer, he has other questions.” Marie Curie shared this sentiment when she said: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”

So, on this day, consider the children – may their best interest guide your actions, and may their example inform your ways. Happy Universal Children’s Day!

Show that you give a shit on World Toilet Day

Today, 19 November, we celebrate World Toilet Day. Together with Global Handwashing Day, that I wrote about some time ago, these two days represent the main ‘personal hygiene for health’ days celebrated annually.

Sadly, despite its importance from a health point of view, the day is also one of the most ridiculed annual observances (toilet humour rules, I guess), to such an extent that the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) has even published an ‘International stop-making-fun-of-world-toilet day!’ page.

Considering the huge health impact that basic sanitaton can make to preserving human health, this is indeed no laughing matter. According to UN figures, about 4000 children die every day as a result of a disease directly related to poor sanitation. That equates to a death almost every 20 seconds – more than the combined deaths caused by HIV AIDS, malaria and measles.

Millions of children, mainly in the developing world, rely of primitive, shared toilets for their basic sanitation requirements. And these are the ‘lucky ones’, given that millions more have no access to a toilet at all.
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Given the above, global provision of basic sanitation is a key target underlying the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of ‘Reducing by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate’. It is, unfortunately, also the area where the least progress has been made, mainly because the sanitation sector is desperately under-funded (probably as a result of it being a much less ‘glamorous’ cause than HIV AIDS etc).

According to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation, it was estimated in 2006 that almost $15 billion will be required annually to provide universal access to sanitation by 2015. By now, with the target date being so much closer, I am sure that number is much higher. Currently, 2.5 billion people still do not have access to a private toilet, and 1.1 billion people defacate in the open, with no sanitation system in place to address this pollution. That means one in three people do not have access to a private toilet, and one in seven have no access to a toilet at all. It is a humanitarian crisis touching the basic dignity of billions worldwide.

Many public, shared toilet facilities do little to facilitate basic human dignity, often being open, shared spaces with little or no privacy.
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Unlike complex diseases, sanitation is a ‘simple’ problem – it is easy to solve if only enough money is made available. As such, it is one of those areas where widespread public awareness campaigning can actually make a difference, to force governments into addressing and funding the problem.  To this end, a punchy awareness campagin has been launched under the theme of ‘I give a shit, do you?’, and tweets around the topic can be tagged with the hashtag #IGiveAShit to extend its reach and potential impact.

So, show that you give a shit, and start talking about sanitation. It may be a crappy subject, but as long as it is not addressed, millions of people will continue to die unnecessary deaths, deaths that can so easily be avoided. For suggestions about how to get involved, visit the World Toilet Day action page.

To get you started, here’s a neat little YouTube video about World Toilet Day – please have a look, and share widely: