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While most people in Britain spent today, Mothering Sunday, making dinner for their mums and giving them presents,  Bobby Jack, 5, and Freddy, 4, said goodbye to theirs.

Jade with Freddy and Bobby JackA quick glance at the news pages of the BBC, The Sun, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail, The Express and even CNN would have been enough to tell you that infamous reality TV star Jade Goody passed away early this morning due to cervical cancer, aged 27.

If you don’t know it already, the quick-guide to her fascinating time in the media started with her appearance in 2002 on Big Brother in which her astounding “lack of general knowledge” (as most news outlets so tactfully put it) gained her the public’s affection and put her on the path to fame. But on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 she became a national hate figure due to her bullying and allegedly racist remarks about fellow contestant and Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Then during her third big brother appearance, on the Indian version of the show, she was told that she had cervical cancer.

She has been on a media frenzy during the last few months of her life, with the money raised to go to her sons. Her media presence has had a beneficial impact on the amount of women getting routine check-ups: Julietta Patnick, director of NHS screening programmes, said some laboratories saw a 20 per cent increase in screening, others even 50 per cent thanks in part to the “Jade-effect”.

But while I do not fault Jade for wanting to raise money for her children’s future after her passing, I am doubtful if the media should ever have given this so much attention. Noel Gallagher (admittedly not exactly the moral authority himself) called the press coverage “embarassing for Britain”.  In part I agree, why must we give Jade any special attention? It is a sad situation and while I have nothing against her, I don’t see the need to keep going on about her case.

The fact that soon her demise will be broadcast on the Sky Channel Living also seems somewhat unnecessary and grotesque. Maybe she didn’t mind her privacy being invaded in this way, but there’s some things that just don’t need to be in front of the camera lens.

While the impact on screenings for cervical cancer are admirable, I think the media’s transfixed gaze on this case is unnecessary. That aside, I give out my condolences to Jade’s two boys and all her friends and family.

Jade Cerisa Lorraine Goody, 1981 - 2009

Jade Cerisa Lorraine Goody, 1981 - 2009

For more information on cervical cancer and screening go here and here.


Where is the fine line between a helping hand and an suffocating grip?

Nanny State

Minimum prices for alcohol, the smoking ban, campaigns to get our saturated fat intake down – the nanny state is a figure looming in the dark. Well, that’s what some people would like you to think. The picture is rather a lot tougher to actually get right.

Most people are actually in favour of the Government helping them to get healthier, according to one poll done last year. And many health officials, unsurpisingly, such as Dr Alan Maryon-Davis, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, thinks there needs to be more nannying. Dr Maryon-Davis argues that making policy isn’t only helping those who needs it and there should be more of this kind of nannying.

In some ways he’s right, the smoking ban for example has saved over 40,000 lives since it was introduced on the 1 July, 2007 and the Food Standards Agency‘s campaign against saturated fat is welcome considering in the UK people eat on average 20 per cent more saturated fat than they should.

But ultimately it’s all about helping the public, not controlling them, and when they perceive this help to push too far, that’s when they can rebel. In the Netherlands, for example, the smoking ban has been mired in extreme opposition.

The story of the nanny state isn’t as Big Brother-esque as many would make it seem, but what the public wants and needs have to carefully be taken into consideration.

While here in the UK medical universities are in desperate need of more body donors, a ferry or plane ride across the Channel it’s a whole different story.

The Netherlands has seen a large rise in the last few years in the amount of body donors, with the Academic Centre in Amsterdam seeing triple the amount of donors since 2000 and the Leiden University’s Medical Centre getting double since the 90s.Body Donation - Thinking about it?

Academic hospitals have even started to refuse bodies because of the paperwork involved and the expense of arranging a funeral. The increase is thought to have been caused because less people think of the so-called “third-way” (other than burial and cremation) as taboo. Publicity around Hendrikje van Andel‘s case, who died in 2005 at the age of 115 and thought to be the oldest person in the world at the time, helped tackle some of the negative associations to do with body donations. Her body was given to the Academic Hospital at Groningen.

In 2006 the amount of body donors was roughly 1,000, while the yearly necessity of donors in the Netherlands is said to be half as much.

Mhh, I wonder if the Dutch are willing to set up a body exchange?

UPDATE: Pat mentions that with the decline in religiosity more people become willing to donate their body, which is of course a fair point. But in this case both Britain and the Netherlands are pretty secular societies where religion has come to play a less prominent role. Media reporting is the crucial difference. In the Netherlands there were positive stories about Hendrikje van Andel. The UK on the other hand has been dogged by controversies like the one at the Alder Hey Hospital, where more than 2,000 pots containing body parts from around 850 infants were found to have been held without consent and the one surrounding Channel 4‘s infamous Anatomy for Beginners where the first public autopsy since 1830 was performed on television. Rightly or wrongly, the media has come to play a critical role in how people feel about this issue. 

I realise I have written about blood donors, but not about what it’s like to actually give blood.

On the 31 January I gave blood at the Church of England School in Kentish Town. It was a simple straightforward process, but I did have to wait an hour or so before it was my turn. (Hint. Bring a book)

You are asked to fill out a form first, with questions like, have you had a tattoo in the last 6 months? Have you paid or been paid for sex in the last 12 months? Have you been to South America in the last few years? Are you a man who has had sex with men?

Then you are brought to speak to a nurse who asks you about those trips to South America, tests your iron level by taking a tiny bit of blood from your finger (only for people of a specific enthic background, or so she told me).

You are then led to wait before you are put on a cot, a needle stuck into a vein on the inside of the elbow and for a few minutes you have to make a fist and unclench repeatedly to get the blood flowing. Once that’s happened the needle is taken and you are told to hold a plaster over the area. Finally a plaster is then put over that, sometimes held together with tape (to me the most painful part of the procedure as removing tape and arm hair do not go together well).

Some people feel faint, as one woman did next to me and have to lie down for a bit. I did not and after getting up I really did not want any sweets or any of the very very sugary juice. (I might just had a pint of blood taken from me, but I refuse to drink overly sweet beverages)

Your blood afterwards is tested and gets used for different things, for example the red cells are used in the treatment of anemia, the platelets in bone marrow failure, and plasma in obstetric loss of blood, which is usually during childbirth.

If you want to donate blood, ring the blood service on 0845 7 711 711 to book an appointment or go to the National Blood Service‘s website to find out more.

Some people disagree with giving blood, because of the blood ban, but I believe that while you might disagree with the Blood Service’s policy, there’s no need to penalise those who need what you can give them in just few short hours of your weekend.

Scott Shaw was 11 when his mother gave birth to a baby that was dead. She was seven months pregnant when she lost the child as well as her body weight in blood. If she had not received a full blood transfusion, she would have died.

Ever since, Scott has always wanted to donate blood, but because he is gay and a man who has had sex with men (termed as an MSM) he cannot.

“I am angered beyond belief that I am not able to do what should be a simple, yet lifesaving thing,” says Scott, now 21 and studying Drama at Queen Mary, University of London.

There are many men like Scott who do not agree with the lifelong ban on MSM blood by the National Blood Service for England and North Wales (NBS). The policy has been in place since the early 1980s in all of the UK, when the HIV epidemic was in its early stages and not yet properly understood.

According to the Health Protection Agency if the ban was removed the risk of HIV entering the blood stocks would rise by 500 per cent and if the ban only excluded men who have had sex with another man in the previous 12 months the increase would be 60 per cent.

Since the introduction of HIV testing of blood donations in 1985 there have been three cases of transmission of the virus to patients. This is due to a window period, typically 22 days, during which new infections won’t be picked up by tests.

Other rules by the NBS include not letting women donate blood who have had sex with MSMs in the last year and anyone who has gotten a tattoo in the last six months. But the lifelong ban on men who have sex with men is one of their most sensitive issues.

Some men, sometimes in shock and other times in disgust, have even resorted to lying on the questionnaire they are given to fill in before donating blood.

Marc Trepanier, a 29-year-old BSc student in Computer Science, explains that when he was 18 and went to his first and last donor session he was unaware that having had sex with a man and getting a tattoo in the last six months would disqualify him from giving blood.

“These requirements were a bit of a surprise to me. At the time I was really embarrassed actually and will admit that I was not truthful in my answers,” he says. “It was made clear that the blood is screened before use. I had had sex with a man only once at this point, so I lied to the nurse and gave my blood anyhow.”

Peter Tatchell, gay right campaigner and founder of OutRage!, adds that the policy is “rooted in homophobic prejudice” and should in some cases be ignored.

“I would encourage gay and bisexual men to give blood anyway, providing they are absolutely certain they haven’t had any risky sex and recently tested HIV-negative,” he says. “Bad laws are meant to be broken.”

Countries such as the United States, the Netherlands and Finland have similar policies to the UK, but Italy has restricted theirs to banning MSMs who have had sexual exposure in the last year and in Belgium and parts of Spain the ban on MSM blood does not exist. In Australia the ban was lifted last year and limited only to men who have had intercourse with men in the last year. Epidemiologist and bio-ethicist Dr Scott Halpern said during the case to drop the ban that the risk of death caused by old blood was far greater than the risk of HIV caused by MSM blood. He found a one in 100 risk of death using old blood and a one in million risk of HIV using blood from MSMs who engage in safe sex.

NBS nurse Shirley Patten who often has the final say in whether or not people can donate blood says that some potential donors are frustrated when they learn they are not allowed to.

 “Earlier today one woman was in tears, she was that upset,” says Shirley. “Most people don’t think they won’t be able to donate. If you’re determined to do something then it’s very hard to be told, ‘No, you can’t.’”

Harold Delf Gillies was considered by many to be the father of plastic surgery, but far from having been some rich Hollywood based doctor with an A-list clientele, he was actually a pioneering facial reconstruction surgeon in London helping soldiers who were scarred durring WWI and WWII.

In the Wellcome Trust‘s War and Medicine exhibition (running till the 15th of February, 2009) the relationship between war and medicine is charted from the Crimean war in 1854 (the first war covered by journalists) up until the present day.Pedicle tube from wrist to face

While at first glance you might not see what war has to do with medicine, it does as our guide through the exhibition explained “force medical professionals to raise their game”. Just think of some war-time medical innovations, like pennicilin which entered into wide use during WWII, estimated to have saved between 12 – 15 per cent of the lives of Allied soldiers during WWII.

But the most interesting exhibit in War and Medicine has to be one about facial reconstruction. Gillies, originally from New Zealand, was the first specialist in facial injuries. Between 1917 and 1925 he did over 11,000 operations on 5,000 serviceman. And far from these being a simple lift or trim like those in cosmetic surgery today Gillies employed dentists, anaesthetists, radiologists and even artists for his work.

What I find particularly fascinating is the pedicle tube technique. A tube pedicle is essentially a flap of skin cut from one part of the body where the skin is undamaged (say the neck) and this is connected to the area to be repaired. The concept wasn’t revolutionary, but Gillies had the idea of actually rolling the skin, so that the outside would essentially be dead skin. This increased blood supply and greatly reduced the risk of infection.

BBC did a particulary insightful documentary on this called Fixing Faces as part of their Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery Series. I’m afraid it’s not available on BBC I-player anymore, but shows like these and exhbitions such as War and Medicine show how quirky and dare-I-say random the history of medicine really is.

Recently ex-BBC Go Digital presenter and now freelance science journalist Tracey Logan came to speak to my health journalism class about what it is like to be a freelance journalist.

Pen and paper readyDuring her talk, she hit home that as a journalist you have got to be aware of what is happening. From sniffing out a story on hospitals using barcodes to register patients after her husband became ill to a story on scientists testing people’s pain when looking at religious pictures, it has been vital for her as a freelancer to have her eyes and ears open.

I think I was expecting a magic formula when she first came to talk to use, to go ‘oh, so that’s how it’s done’. But there was nothing there we haven’t heard before –

1. Know who you are as a journalist – be aware of your strenghts

2. Use what you have that is unique; e.g. your age, your perspective

3. And really keep your eyes and ears open to find a story where other people think there is none

Tracey’s written about things such as alcoholism, file-sharing, the power of faith and pheromones, but actually she got a BA in African Studies. It just shows that with journalism there world is there for you and you just have to go get it.

I am still a bit worried at exactly how to find great stories and remain jealous of people for whom it seems to coem naturally, but really all I need to do is to keep an open mind, eye and ear, and who knows? The next big story could be waiting.

What kind of offensive idiot would come up with a headline like this?

Daily Mail, 30 Jan, 2009

Today, I would like to take one temporary step away from health news.

I first want to say I am not an Independent-loving, left-wing, radical student and have nothing against the Daily Mail (in general). Far from criticising its news agenda I think it has a pretty brilliant mix of news and lifestyle, perfect for their daily readership of 4.8 million. News to me is a business, yes we have to inform people, but we have to give them the information they want and the Mail, love it or hate it, is doing something right.

But this is just downright stupid. The story is about a five-year old boy and his four-year old sister, whose mother is recovering from a heroine addiction and is unable to take care of them. The 56-year-old grandfather, who has angina, and his 49-year-old wife (who has diabetes) were deemed to be in too ill of health to take care of the children and a gay couple is set to adopt them.

Richard Littlejohn is infamous for repeatedly mentioning something or other to do with his issues pertaining to gay people. Indeed, Ben Summerskill, Chief Executive at Stonewall, has mentioned that Littlejohn might himself be a repressed homosexual.

Although Littlejohn says he “supports” equality in housing and civil partnership, but doesn’t believe in adoption. Fair enough. What really upsets me is how the blame is thrown on the gay couple. They are simply two people who wanted to adopt children together, just like everyone else. And just because they didn’t immediately turn down the offer when they might or might not have found out (through the Daily Mail) that the grandfather wanted them back and wanted them to be with a heterosexual couple they are deemed as “selfish”.

This story should be about the rights of social services rights to have removed the children from their grandfather’s care, instead it has unnecessarily focused on gay adoption. It started with Peter Hitchen‘s take and you can read Ben Summerskill’s response here.

Regardless of your support or disapproval of gay adoptions, what upsets me is the headline and the tone. Yes, there are disagreements, but a headline like that is not only rude, it’s downright ignorant.

Last Friday me and a friend of mine woke up outside of my door at 4 in the morning.

Earlier in the evening we went for a drink after a long day of uni assignments. The last thing I remember was walking home and then my memory goes blank.

Never leave a drink behind

I was lucky. I spoke to my GP and she said our drinks were probably spiked. My friend and I both had similar experiences – memory loss then passing out before getting home and (to my mind worst of all) violently emptying out the contents of our stomachs.

Thankfully we still had all our belongings and after a very queasy day, it seemed the worst was over. But the incident was a definite eye-opener.

One in four women who regularly go to pubs or clubs had their drinks spiked in 2003, found one national survey. And according to the Roofie Foundation the likely number of people that have been sexually abused after having their drink spiked is somewhere in the region of 13,000. And it’s not only women, about 11% of victims of drink spiking are men.

The place where spikings happen the most are pubs and clubs, but are also frequent at private parties and even during office get-togethers. Student bars are also known for these types of incidents and many universities warn to be vigilant.


The most commonly used method of spiking is alcohol. The flavour of hard liquor can often be masked and isn’t always easy to pick out.

Then there are certain used drugs like rohypnol, a anti-anxiety sleeping pill commonly known as the “date rape drug”, GHB, a class-C intoxicant, and ketamine, a fast-acting anaesthetic.

Symptoms can vary from dizziness, difficulty with walking, feeling of disorientation, nausea or vomiting, hallucinations, tiredness and fatigue, difficulty speaking, visual problems, paranoia and temporary amnesia (black-outs).


But you can make sure you reduce the risk of this ever happening to you, by following a few simple steps:

– Keep your drink in your hand

– Do not leave your drink unattended at any time

– Stay away from situations that you do not feel comfortable with

– Never accept a drink from anyone you do not know or trust

– Do not share or exchange drinks, or drink leftover drinks

– If you go on a date with someone you do not know, tell a friend or relative where you will be and what time you will be back

– Try to drink from a bottle rather than a glass when possible, as it is more difficult to spike a drink in a bottle

There are also drink spike detectors, but many have been criticised for not spotting GHB and then there are also interesting plastic bottle stoppers, which I fear are ultimately not too handy if you leave your drink somewhere, like Spikey.

No worries

Don’t get too worried or freak out, but hopefully my little personal anecdote will help to remind you about something you should already be aware of.

I have never been very impressed with the Telegraph’s health coverage and this story is a classic example of why.

Journalism is not an easy or unopinionated job and as such, newspapers can’t always be expected to sit on the fence. But sometimes a newspaper’s agenda can push a story too far.

NHS anti-smoking ad

Martin Beckford – who is, tellingly, the paper’s social and religious affairs correspondent – writes about the Colchester and Tendring NHS Stop Smoking Service in Essex‘s ‘sinister’ attempts to stop parents from smoking.

Basically the NHS has started speaking to toddlers at nuseries about the dangers of smoking, which the Telegraph points out is a way to get parents to stop smoking through children.

Furthermore they add that the Trust has been accused of using taxpayers’ money to bribe pregnant mothers to stop smoking with up to £100.

When welfare state arguments trump health considerations I think the balance has to be considered very carefully. This is not some sneaky way to try to get more people to stop smoking and infringe on the rights of citizens. This is about informing children early on to make good choices, not parents. Not to mention passive smoking in the home carries a 25% increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer, the choices of parents have an enormous effect of children.

And that £100 of taxpayers’ money to pregnant women? That actually comes in the form of Co-op vouchers, which isn’t exactly that same as a cash bribe. And can you really say that an unborn baby has any choice? By smoking while pregnant the feotus becomes exposed to toxins in tobacco smoke which increases the risk of premature birth, poorer lung function in newborn babies and children more frequently becoming ill.

Not to say that some of the concerns of the Trust’s actions are not valid, but this is far too one-sided. Why doesn’t the writer tell us a bit more about the campaign’s progress or anything about the risk of smoking to children?

I know that a paper has a duty to give readers the type of news they want, but maybe the Telegraph should make sure they provide enough information for readers to make up their own mind.