BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for June 2009

Crucial weeks for establishing swine flu pattern

Tom Feilden | 09:03 UK time, Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Swine flu clinic in Melbourne, AustraliaAnother day, another 204 laboratory confirmed cases of swine flu. Together with the 60 cases reported in Scotland on Sunday it brings the total for the UK to 2,773.

Although it's a drop in the ocean compared to the 30,000 - 300,000 cases of seasonal flu we might expect in any one year, it is higher than many experts were suggesting. The predicted "dip", or lull in the storm, before swine flu surges back in the autumn doesn't seem to be happening.

That's put the UK fifth in the World Health Organisation's global league table for swine flu infections. The total number of confirmed cases worldwide has risen to 52,160 - up 7,873 since Friday - with the number of deaths increasing by 51 to 231.

So what's going on?

Inevitably, experts disagree about the significance of the latest figures. It could be that all the publicity about swine flu is distorting the figures, or that the virus is even more easily transmitted than had been assumed.

Most do agree that the next few weeks will be very important in establishing a pattern for the spread of the virus, and Australia (where the annual flu season is already underway) could hold the key.

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The first cases down under came later than in the UK, but the rate of infection is rising. The WHO figures put the total number of confirmed cases at 2,436. So far just one person has died.

Thankfully the figures do seem to confirm that most people infected with the swine flu virus have experienced only mild flu-like symptoms - fever, fatigue, lack of appetite and coughing. Some people have also reported a runny nose, sore throat, nausea and vomiting. In only a very small number of cases the symptoms have been more serious -requiring admission to hospital.

One interesting issue concerns the rates for unreported cases. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control in the US estimated that as many as 19 out of 20 cases of swine flu might be going undetected.

Reassuring news if it means these people are not ill enough to bother going to see their doctor.

Scientists hampered by brain shortage

Tom Feilden | 10:36 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009

Brain in a brain bankThe decision to set up a UK network of brain banks will come as welcome news to researchers working on a wide range of neurological disorders including Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and autism.

The simple fact is that not enough of us are donating our brains to medical research after we die.

As a result, scientists have been hampered by a shortage of human tissue to work on, and earlier this year some of the country's leading neuropathologists held a press conference highlighting the problem. They warned that vital research could grind to a halt.

Professor James Ironside - the man chosen to head the MRC's new brain bank network - was at that meeting. Now he'll co-ordinate the provision of brain tissue, and help tackle the shortage of donations.

Speaking after his appointment this morning he said: "The availability of high quality brain tissue is critical to the success of research into devastating clinical conditions such as motor neurone disease and schizophrenia. My job is to build on the fantastic work that is already being done by the individual brain banks. Co-ordination is essential to give researchers access to what they need, when they need it."

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Part of the problem is that, because it can't be transplanted, the brain is not included under the existing regulations governing organ donation - a separate consent process must be completed. That's meant the organ is often overlooked by people who plan to leave their bodies to medical science.

Another problem, highlighted by Professor Margaret Esiri at Oxford University, is that people may be reluctant to donate their brain because they see the organ as the basis of their identity.

It's a squeamishness she says must be overcome given the appalling social and financial costs associated with conditions like Alzheimer's and autism.

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