An early warning system for health threats: the invaluable work of ProMED

ProMED Mail is one of the most important information resources on the net, and most of us have never heard of it. It’s an email list which describes itself as a “global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of infectious diseases and acute exposures to toxins that affect human health, including those in animals and in plants grown for food or animal feed”.

Unlike the official clearinghouses run by WHO and CDC, ProMED is, in its own words, “open to all sources” and its reports are freely available to us all. ProMED was first to raise concern about the aggressive respiratory disease spreading in China in 2003, which became known as SARS. Before the Chinese authorities had permitted their officials to report the disease to WHO, Catherine Strommen, an elementary school teacher in Fremont, California, spotted a post in an international teachers’ chat room from a concerned teacher in China describing “an illness that started like a cold, but killed its victims in days”.

Alarmed, Strommen emailed an old neighbor and friend, Stephen Cunnion, M.D., a retired Navy physician and epidemiologist who now lived in Maryland. A practical, no-nonsense man, Cunnion started searching the web. With no success, he tried a new tack—sending an email to ProMED-mail, a global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of emerging infections and toxins. After quoting Strommen’s missive, he asked: “Does anyone know anything about this problem?”

The tiny ProMED staff conducted its own web search. It, too, came up empty-handed. On February 10, it sent out to tens of thousands of subscribers a posting headed: “PNEUMONIA – CHINA (GUANGDONG): RFI,” or Request for Information.

Thus did the world first learn of SARS, the new and deadly infection that would kill 774 people and infect 8,000 in 27 countries.

From an article by Madeline Drexler in The Journal of Life Sciences.

H1N1 Reports (Swine-avian-human Influenza A)

To keep up on H1N1 flu [I agree with the pig farmers, “swine flu” sounds like your big risk is getting it from pigs and pork, not human sneezes and handshakes] check the ProMED main page. While all the media is now frothing over with “news” about this disease, some of it sounds as reliable as alien abduction accounts. ProMED is timely and scientifically accurate but understandable by non-biologists. It includes valuable, and interesting, commentary on reports and questions: “this has been reported, but here’s what we don’t know, or here are local factors that must be considered in evaluating it”.

What ProMED does

ProMED is a program of the International Society for Infectious Diseases which began in 1994. It does not simply print whatever comes in—this is an extremely well-moderated list. A group of specialists checks and filters the reports, seeks more information from local sources and other experts, and provides judicious commentary. This group also “scans newspapers, the internet, health department and government alerts, and other information sources for inklings that an infectious disease, perhaps not yet reported widely, is threatening animal, plant and/or human health.”

I think I first signed up to receive the digests back when “mad cow disease” was emerging, and have since used ProMED to follow diseases such as anthrax and Ebola.
A topic of interest to me recently concerns outbreaks of measles and mumps in Western nations due to falling rates of vaccination. And as a former zookeeper I keep up on diseases of wildlife and zoo animals, including the fungal disease threatening whole populations of wild bats in the Eastern US. ProMED also covers plant diseases (mostly of crops).

All of this, infectious diseases of humans, wildlife, and crops, is of greatly increased urgency because climate change, global transport, and destruction of wild areas all lead to the spread of familiar diseases to new locales and the emergence of “new” diseases previously only found in remote wild areas. With regard to contaminants and toxins, governments are unable to deal with this effectively due to the political power of corporations and lack f oversight in producing countries. ProMED can’t make your food and furniture non-toxic, but it can sound alarms that might otherwise be silenced.References to a topic’s prior appearances on the list are attached to current reports, and archives are easy to access. Editions in French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish are now available.

“Each posting is limited to 25 KB bandwidth—to ensure that it slips through an old-fashioned dial-up modem in the most remote areas of the world (where new infectious threats tend to smolder). ‘We use technology that was state-of-the-art in 1994. We use email—plain-text email at that. We don’t use fancy fonts,’ Madoff says. ‘The power of the Internet is its ubiquity and speed; it’s not necessarily in all the neat things you can do.’ [from Drexler’s article cited above]

You can subscribe here.

Toxins and contaminants

ProMED also collects, evaluates, and disseminates reports of health problems related to toxins and contamination of food and medicines. These can be quite unusual. For example, the case of the toxic leather sofas in Britain:


Photo: Effect on leg of reaction to toxic chemical contained in sofas. From BBC.

A judge [in the UK] is expected to order several retailers to pay millions of
pounds to people who suffered burns and rashes from faulty leather

More than 1600 people claim to have been affected by the problem. Tens
of thousands more people could have burns not yet traced to sofas.
The High Street stores, along with 11 others, may have to pay more
than 10 million pounds [USD 14.3 million] in compensation and legal
costs, the shoppers’ lawyers say. They claim that makes it “the
largest group compensation claim ever seen in British Courts.”

The sofas, which were manufactured in China, were packed with sachets
of an anti-mould chemical called dimethyl fumarate to stop them from
going moldy during storage in humid conditions.

Commonly known as DMF, the toxic, fine white powder has been used by
some manufacturers to protect leather goods like furniture and shoes
from mold. Even very small amounts can be harmful.

One sofa customer, who is well aware of the health problems caused by
her purchase, is a customer who bought a leather sofa suite from
Argos in April 2007. Almost a year later, she started to notice a
rash developing on her arms and legs. After a few weeks, her skin
started flaking off. She says the irritation was so bad, she was off
work for 2 months. This customer was seen by more than a dozen
doctors, who couldn’t work out what was causing the rash.

She said: “It was very, very painful; I couldn’t sleep at night; I
couldn’t walk about; I couldn’t drive; every time I did walk about,
the skin would fall off, and I would leave a trail of it, therefore,
I couldn’t go to work.”

Reliable histories of outbreaks/events

ProMED doesn’t just present breaking news and requests for additional reports; it frequently publishes very useful summaries of what’s been learned, and what action governmental agencies have taken. For example, “Melamine contaminated food products – Worldwide ex China” and “Prion disease Update 2009 (01)” (Mad Cow Disease and its human infectious disease, the fatal “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease”.

Supporting ProMED

Believe it or not, ProMED is supported by individuals, with not a penny of funding from any government. That means they are independent (remember the movie Jaws, where the city council wants to suppress news of the shark attacks?) and fast to react. They sift a lot of news from all sorts of sources, put out calls for more information, and disseminate news in a responsible way.

If the work of this group seems like something you’d like to support, here’s your chance. They’re having a brief Spring fundraising campaign. To quote their email,

Your gift funds quick information every day – The economical, low-tech computer programs we use enable us to speed ProMED to your mailboxes, to post it online where anyone can find it, , and to provide the administrative services (accounting, office space, cell phone connections, etc.) required to support a small, agile worldwide enterprise.

ProMED-mail reaches over 50,000 public health officials, students, journalists, agricultural specialists, infectious disease professionals and others around the globe. Because it is free, subscribers in more than 187 countries have an equal opportunity to know when a disease outbreak occurs — and can spring into action when necessary to prevent or minimize its spread.

If the Spring campaign is past, here’s the main donations page.

Bad Science: Housework helps combat anxiety and depression

I’m a subscriber to New Scientist, the British weekly magazine of science news for the rest of us. I subscribed to Science for a while too, because it publishes researchers’ actual articles, but decided I’d rather have more numerous reports with less math. New Scientist contains short reports and a few longer articles as well as interviews, and a great feature at the end where people write in requesting explanations for odd observations (very British, I think, in the tradition of the journal Notes and Queries (1849 – present), or letters to the London Times from country parsons reporting the first sighting of a bird).

Anyway, though I still find NS interesting and valuable, I’ve begun to feel they are sometimes sacrificing science for snappy headlines. Here’s an example that is from a while ago, but quite illustrative.

Housework helps combat anxiety and depression

FEELING down? You might be able to dust away your distress. Just 20 minutes a week with the vacuum cleaner or mop is enough to help banish those blues, and sport works even better.
That’s the message from Mark Hamer and his colleagues at University College London, who wanted to find out what benefits arise from different types of physical activity. They examined data from questionnaires filled in by almost 20,000 Scottish people as part of the Scottish Health Surveys, carried out every few years. Some 3200 respondents reported suffering from anxiety or depression, but those who regularly wielded the mop or the tennis racket were least likely to suffer, the researchers report (British Journal of Sports Medicine, DOI: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.046243).

One 20-minute session of housework or walking reduced the risk of depression by up to 20 per cent. A sporting session worked better, reducing risk by a third or more. Failing housework or sport, says Hamer, try to find something physical to do. “Something – even for just 20 minutes a week – is better than nothing.”

––From issue 2652 of New Scientist magazine, 19 April 2008, page 4-5. Abstract of original available free, entire article requires fee to BJSM.

Why we shouldn’t believe this

In New Scientist’s brief bit, there’s absolutely no evidence for a causal relationship between exercising and being less depressed. It’s an example of the frequent, but quite false, assumption that because two things are associated, one causes the other. Other relationships are quite possible. Does physical activity really reduce depression and anxiety, or are the people who actually do housework or sports simply the ones who have less severe symptoms to start with? Or is there some other connexion altogether? Nothing in the New Scientist, or the article abstract, addresses that question. But it makes an eye-catching headline, to say that housework cures depression.

To investigate the question scientifically, it is necessary to take a large number of depressed people and randomly assign them to one of three groups: an exercise group, a control group given some other task like filling in a weekly questionnaire or reading about depression, and a third group who don’t get any new activity or other attention from the researchers. (Ideally those doing the testing and analysis don’t know which group is which.) Then, at the beginning and end of the study, measure psychological state using some accepted reliable tests and see what changes. Finally, use statistical analysis to see if the changes are significant or might be due to chance. [Even after that, other factors may make the apparent conclusions false: maybe the exercise was not enough to have an effect, or during the study the country went to war and everybody stayed depressed, or the social aspects of being in an exercise group had more effect than the actual jumping and sweating did.]

No doubt such a study has been done, probably more than once; advising depressed people to get more exercise is a standard approach and insurance companies would love to fund the research to support it. Mark Hamer might have cited previous work in the full text of his article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (which New Scientist should have read before writing their brief and provocative piece) but we readers have no way of knowing this.

In this particular case––the effect of exercise on individuals––researchers would have to be vigilant about the distortion of results due to participants dropping out or failing to comply with the activity levels. Even the method of choosing participants can affect reliability of results: if the depressed people are chosen from those who show up at clinics, their symptoms may be overall less severe than the symptoms of people too depressed even to go to a clinic.

A similar example: exercise and fibromyalgia

I have fibromyalgia, and some researchers have pronounced aerobic exercise to be beneficial for reducing the symptoms of this condition’s chronic pain and fatigue. Exercise is fundamentally a good thing, I agree. It distracts one from symptoms, adds an interest, may confer a feeling of control over one’s illness, strengthens muscles, promotes growth of new neurons in the brain, and can improve flexibility.

But. In moderate to severe cases of fibromyalgia, even mild exertion can cause greatly increased pain and exhaustion. Unlike the familiar “weekend athlete” reaction, the increased pain and fatigue may last a week or several weeks. This means that for some individuals the goal of walking briskly for a few blocks could take years to attain, since we are knocked back to the starting point when we overdo, or when something else in our lives like a cold or interrupted sleep aggravates our symptoms.

Some time ago I read a review article which gathered the results of a number of studies on exercise and fibromyalgia, and I noted that in some the dropout rate was high but wasn’t mentioned in interpreting the data. And then there are people, like myself, who would never enroll in an aerobic exercise program because we’ve “been there, done that” and it was painful and unproductive. If we’re not counted, and a high dropout rate is glossed over, then to whom do the results apply?

What can we say about exercise, then?

I am skeptical of the efficacy of exercise as a general one-size-fits-all prescription for fibromyalgia or depression. I would suggest the fibromyalgia studies really show that exercise appears to be helpful for those people able to endure it, but, while all patients should be encouraged to do appropriate activities as tolerated, there’s a need to be gradual and cautious. Some patients may never be able to attain exercise levels that make appreciable improvements to their symptoms, despite sincere efforts. (This doesn’t mean that exercise is without benefits to them, though. My level of physical activity doesn’t seem to help my pain, fatigue, or quality of sleep, but I’m much happier when I get out for a walk or a bit of gardening.) At an education class on fibromyalgia, I heard someone ask “How can I exercise when even walking around the house is too strenuous?” The reply was, “Can you get up and walk all the way around your kitchen table? Good. Start with that and work up.” Sensible advice, but actual improvement in symptoms may be a very long time in coming for that person.

For depressed people, exercise is unlikely to be harmful and may indeed help––I myself believe that it does––but there’s no evidence of that in the New Scientist account of Mark Hamer’s work.

I felt this was worth writing about for two reasons, one general and one particular. It’s a good example of how the media gives us accounts of scientific research without the details needed to evaluate them. And, invisible conditions like fibromyalgia and depression are different from most other health problems. They are regarded by many as non-ailments or personal weakness/malingering, so it is easy for “exercise may help” to become “quit complaining, pull up your socks and get on with it”. From there it’s a short step to “all these patients could feel better but they just won’t do the work necessary; they cling to their disease.”

And I have to admit that the example used, housework, was particularly galling to me. While there are people who can enjoy housework as a zen activity, or feel great satisfaction at making their floors and sinks shine, most of us (male or female) do not get much pleasure at all from it. Every time you do it, next day there it is again, dirty dishes, laundry piling up, dog hair floating across the floor. Truly, housework is never done. And, given that housework is still seen more as a woman’s responsibility than a man’s, and that women have a higher rate of depression than men, the “FEELING down? You might be able to dust away your distress” line seems offensively sexist and dismissive.

Nanotech intro for the rest of us


Book cover image from Amazon.

Nano, the emerging science of nanotechnology. Ed Regis.

I picked this book up at our Friends of the Library bookstore for a quarter, though when I saw the publication date of 1995 I had second thoughts. How could so old a book, on such a fast-moving aspect of technology, be worth reading?

But when I started it I was immediately drawn in, and after finishing it conclude that for us non-scientists, as well as for those interested in the background and implications of the whole “nano” idea, the book is well worthwhile. The focus is on Eric Drexler, who as an MIT engineering undergrad in 1976 formulated the basic idea of assembling substances or structures one molecule or atom at a time, and became what Apple used to call an evangelist for the idea for the succeeding decades.

Drexler was not the first to discuss the possibility of such constructions––that honor goes to the ingenious mind of Richard Feynman who broached the topic in a 1959 lecture––but he expanded upon it, foresaw not only multiple uses but also some of the social/economic consequences of a technology which could lead to all of us having tabletop “matter assemblers” which could produce anything, from a ribeye steak to car parts, using just about any old “stuff” as raw material. And Drexler organized others into a bi-coastal league of nano-fans to brainstorm, research, and support the vision. At least, he did that after the first few years when anxiety about the social impact, or the possibility of runaway assemblers covering the earth with “grey goo,” led him to keep the idea more or less under wraps.

Ed Regis is an experienced science writer of the sort that used to be dismissed as “popularizers,” because they write for the general reader, one who’s interested, educated, but not schooled in the particular branch of science under discussion. He writes for publications like the NY Times, Wired, and Scientific American, as well as writing books. He’s good at what he does.

This book, for example, explains Brownian motion (the jumping about that individual particles, from atoms to pollen grains, do when suspended in liquid) and the workings of scanning tunnelling microscopes (which proved able to manipulate individual atoms), and other such things, well enough that I was able to explain them to someone else. That doesn’t mean I have any real inkling of the physics or mathematics of it all but I have a degree of layman’s understanding which enables me to follow the discussion, and I can build on it if I wish to read more.

Brownian motion was early raised as a theoretical objection to the concept of moving atoms around to construct molecules: how could you do it if your atoms wouldn’t stay put? An early response was, “If our own cells can make molecules, then it can be done.” A later response was the demonstration that it had been done; researchers pushed atoms around to make letters and pictures. Since then, other researchers have used enzymes or gene-altered microorganisms to tailor-make specific molecules.

Regis includes a lot of what could be disparaged as unscientific human interest detail–personalities, anecdotes–but to me this added more than just readability, it added another dimension. The original concerns about the human future which motivated Drexler to think about fundamental technological change, the ability of a high school student to make his own scanning tunneling electron microscope, the accounts of scientific rivalries and misunderstandings, these have a place in a popular account of a technology that is so mind-boggling and promises or threatens such far-reaching upheavals in society.

As I finished, the question in my mind was “Why haven’t I heard more about huge strides in this technology in the years since the book’s publication in 1995?” I’m looking into that question now, with much more comprehension than I had before reading Regis’s book.

Further information

Books by Ed Regis at Amazon

Nanotech site interview of Regis

Same site’s links to articles, current uses, etc.