Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Author: maya

5 facts I learned about bananas today:

  1. It is the most widely consumed fruit in America, taking the reign away from apples decades ago.
  2. You can buy them for 79 cents per lb or less. When compared to the price decades ago, even with inflation, the price of bananas is much cheaper now than it used to be.
  3. Supermarkets wont raise the price of bananas even if they lose profit off the fruit. The price of bananas is a major draw for consumers when choosing which supermarket to shop in. If prices of bananas are raised, then they may lose business.
  4. The type of banana consumed today is called the Cavendish banana. In the 1880s and 90s when the fruit was first imported, it was the Gros Michel banana that was grown. The Panama disease, a parasitic fungus, wiped out this species back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Bananas were also the first fruit to be shipped over the ocean.
  5. The reason why every single banana looks and tastes almost identical – banana plants reproduce asexually. In order to plant a new banana plant, a farmer removes part of the existing plant, called a ‘sucker’, and plants it in the ground. It grows into a genetically identical plant so every banana plant acts in the same predictable manner – same rate, same abundance, and same ripening time.


Just one more reason why exercise is good for you

As if we need more motivation to get up and work out, a study published earlier this month may give us even more insight into the benefits of exercise. Every day through multiple facets of media we constantly hear about the new fad diet, or new pill, or workout regime to getting fitter and skinner. We hear about how weight loss can reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems as well as increase overall mortality rate. Previous literature has discussed how exercise can potentially reduce risk of developing diseases at any point in our lives. Well, incase that was not enough to inspire you to get off the couch and get moving right now, the results of this article sure will. Published in the Cell Metabolism journal, researchers have shown that voluntary running in rats may reduce cancerous tumor manifestation. Performing multiple different trials, with different gendered and aged rats as well as different induced tumors, the researchers consistently found significant results for exercise effects potentially killing cancer cells. In one such trial, two groups of rats were inoculated with melanoma tumors but one group spent four weeks running on a wheel prior to inoculation. Running on the wheel reduced tumor growth by over sixty percent! Another experiment from this study showed that wheel running delayed the onset of malignant lesions (essentially cancerous tumors). A major response of the human immune system is inflammation, which helps to protect our bodies and fight off foreign pathogens; but chronic inflammation has been linked to tumorigenesis. Physical exertion causes inflammation and plasma levels of stress hormones increases extensively. One marker of this inflammation that is released are myokines which seem to have anti-proliferative effects on cancer cells. So although working out extensively creates potentially damaging inflammation, it also may be a protective factor against the growth of cancer.  The hope is that these findings can be further replicated to further assist cancer patients in recovery and remission as well as find other ways to limit the development of cancer in more individuals. Although, to be fair, it would be incorrect to generalize these finding to humans, if there is the slightest possibility that voluntarily working out can help me avoid developing cancer, I’m on the treadmill faster than you can say tumor.



Okay, but what is Zika?

The Zika Virus is  one of the most common news headlines these days, with alarming bylines including words such as threatening, nightmare, surge, outbreak, and microcephaly. We are all on edge and aware of this epidemic that is spreading through South and Central America like wildfire, and is creeping into the USA. I hear a lot of talk but minimal understanding of the infection, what it causes, and why it is terrifying. So, what exactly is the Zika Virus and what should we do?

Zika virus is an infection transmitted through the Aedes species of mosquitoes. It is related to dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. This type of mosquito is day biting and is common within the U.S. in Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Hawaii. The virus has been around since 1947, mainly isolated in Africa and Asia. By way of the South Pacific Islands, Zika managed to jump its way into the Western Hemisphere where currently we are seeing a large outbreak in Brazil. This outbreak is spreading rapidly because majority of people in this region of the world do not have immune defenses against the virus.

Zika infection is on our radar because of a trend potentially linking Zika to microcephaly in newborn babies. Microcephaly is a disease where babies are born with small heads and usually brain damage. Seizures, impaired cognitive development, delayed motor functions, speech impediments and dwarfism are just a few of the problems that can arise from microcephaly. There are many other causes of microcephaly including rubella, toxoplasmosis, poisoning of the fetus by alcohol or drugs, diabetes, and Down syndrome. Although the evidence connecting the infection and microcephaly is only circumstantial, there has been a surge of babies born with the condition – nearly 4,000 cases have been reported compared to an annual 150 cases. Of these reported cases, only a few so far have direct links to Zika – only a few newborns with microcephaly have tested positive for the infection. Officials say it is still to early to claim a causal relationship between the virus and birth defects.

Why are we struggling to keep this infection under control? It’s been around for nearly 70 years, why are we just hearing about it now?

Zika was not considered a threat until recently. The symptoms of the infection are mild, especially compared to the symptoms of similar infections (dengue and chikungunya), which can be fatal. Only one in five people develop Zika symptoms, which include high fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Most people pass the infection in one to two weeks and are advised to rest and hydrate until it passes.

There is no testing for the Zika virus because it is so closely related to dengue and yellow fever that any individual who has been infected with either or has had the yellow fever vaccine may obtain a false positive. Also, in order for accurate testing, blood or tissue samples from the first week of infection must be analyzed via advanced molecular technology. Many countries where Zika is located do not have the most up-to-date methods to perform this testing. Furthermore, obtained samples are needed from such a short window that majority of people do not seek medical attention quickly enough, or do not show symptoms and do not know they have the virus. Many women may have the virus unknowingly, and even if they get an ultrasound, microcephaly cannot be detected until the end of the second trimester. Even if a child is not born with microcephaly, the virus is linked to other developmental defects such as vision and hearing. Our problem isn’t with the virus itself per say, more with the potential connection between the infection and birth defects.

But, that may not actually be true; there may be another fish to fry in this Zika mess. Although the population is too small to form any conclusive correlations, there seems to be a trend linking Zika to a rare autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome. This syndrome causes temporary paralysis where the immune system attacks part of the individual’s nervous system and can potentially be life threatening. Guillain-Barre affects about 1 in every 100,000 people and is so rare that officials did not have to report it. Now hundreds of cases are reported and people are starting to raise a nervous eyebrow. While there is no cure for Guillain-Barre, there are treatments where majority of patients make a full recovery.

So what should we do here in the U.S. before it becomes an epidemic?

It is inevitable that Zika will reach the U.S. – well it already has. So far it seems that U.S. citizens with Zika acquired the infection while traveling abroad to regions where Zika is prevalent. Mosquito control is probably the best form of protection. In the U.S. Aedes mosquito’s breed mainly in trash, usually litter on the sides of the road, and small puddles of standing water. Also, with global temperatures rising, mosquitos are moving further north with the warmer temperatures. Protection against mosquitos such as using bug spray with DEET, staying inside in air conditioning, and wearing long pants and shirts are all helpful ways to avoid getting bitten. Aggressive anti-mosquito pest control measures will be key in attempting to avoid an outbreak.There is not much fear throughout the U.S. because the mosquito that transmits the disease most readily does not reach majority of the country. Also the time period that mosquitos are active in this country is only a few months out of the year. Currently, other than not traveling to regions where Zika is located (the list now includes 24 countries) and especially not getting pregnant if you do travel there, are probably your best bet for avoiding Zika and it’s complications. A vaccine is an illogical method of mediating this outbreak because vaccines can take years to produce and be approved.


After the criticisms of how poorly the Ebola outbreak was handled, officials across the globe are working to find an efficient solution to resolve the Zika Virus. Fingers crossed that an answer is discovered sooner rather than later, otherwise our future is looking a little meek.




Don’t Tell Me What to Eat

Too often I read articles that claim if you do not have Celiac disease and you go gluten free, there are no benefits to your health. But what most of these articles also state is that when these people chose gluten free, they cut out foods such as cookies, cakes, and bread, which are considered to be unhealthy. Removing these foods from the diet, even if the reason is because they are “going gluten-free”, does have health benefits. It forces individuals to, potentially, make healthier choices. What articles need to emphasize is that the gluten free diet fad can be harmful, or at least lack benefits, when people replace common gluten-containing foods with highly processed gluten free versions. Going gluten free may help guide people to avoid making unhealthy choices, choosing fruit over cake for dessert or having a salad instead of a pizza for lunch. Although weight loss or reports of people feeling better on a gluten free diet may not be attributed directly to the lack of gluten itself does not mean that a gluten free diet does not have any health benefits to those without Celiac disease.

Not enough is understood about gluten and its affects on the human body, but for those with Celiac, cutting out gluten is vital. Wheat gluten is a protein that is created when glutenin and gliadin, two molecules, combine and form a bond. This process occurs when dough is kneaded and is responsible for bread’s chewy texture. Celiac disease is an allergy to wheat gluten where the immune system triggers an inflammatory response in the individual’s intestine. Essentially the body mistakes gluten for a foreign body, attacks it, and can cause serious damage to the surface of the small intestine. As the presence of celiac disease increases and more research on gluten is published, more people are educating themselves via the media and deciding to partake in a gluten free diet.

Articles published about the benefits or harmful effects of gluten or gluten free diets need to share all the facts before they advise readers what type of diet to follow. Yes, if you are choosing to go gluten free, make sure you supplement your diet correctly so you don’t lose out on essential nutrients from whole grains. Just because you are removing gluten from you diet does not mean you should substitute common gluten foods for gluten free versions – check labels, educate yourself on the ingredients your are putting into your body (same goes for foods with gluten too). There should be an emphasis on all natural, whole foods. Also, writers should include information on the processing of wheat and how majority of that process is harsh and unnatural. Once given all the information, readers can make their own decisions about whether they want to eat gluten or not, and in what amount.

Every body is different, some people can digest gluten, some people cant, and some can in different amounts. Same goes for all food groups. Information shared about different foods and diets need to make clear that certain foods work for some people and may not work for others. Trust me if you told me to eat vegan I would have stomachaches for days – I physically cannot digest that much fiber and vegetables. Speaking from experience, I have been gluten free for about six years and was diagnosed with Celiac disease a year ago. I am in support of reducing gluten or going gluten free, but not to substitute gluten free foods for those with gluten, but rather to eat a healthier diet. As Michael Spector elaborates in his article, the Western diet today is full of sugary foods and carbohydrates that are refined and highly caloric. Majority of the wheat eaten in the American diet comes from white flour that is highly processed, containing gluten while lacking vitamins and nutrients. Committing to a gluten free diet forces you to remove foods that contain white flour, amongst other things, that have been linked or potentially can contribute to negative health outcomes. Choosing a gluten free diet can have benefits for some. It also can have harmful effects if not done correctly. It also may not be necessary, may contribute to weight loss, and also may not. Before advising readers to chose a diet, lets share all the facts, emphasize the importance of natural foods, and reiterate that every body is different meaning one diet may not be the answer for you as it is for me.


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