28 February 2007

Miracle Baby Back From Dead

Just to prove that not all the news is bad, the BBC reports:

"A baby boy who was pronounced dead after a heart attack came back to life 30 minutes later as he lay in his grieving parents' arms ... Brain scans have now shown no lasting damage and the Landers have been told their son can expect to lead a full and active life ... The doctors said they had never heard of anyone coming round after 30 minutes of apparent lifelessness, let alone a young baby. But the people at the hospital were unbelievable and they made the miracle happen."

27 February 2007

We're All Paying For NICE's False Economy

When the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recently ruled that patients newly diagnosed with Alzheimer's could not be prescribed donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Reminyl), or rivastigmine (Exelon) until their condition had progressed to its moderate stages, the chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, Neil Hunt, said that the NICE system overlooked the benefits that these treatments offered carers as well as patients. Comparing the cost of these drugs – just £2.50 per day for each patient – with the average bill revealed in today's report by the Alzheimer’s Society for caring for one person with late-onset dementia – £25,472 per year – it seems that NICE also overlooked the benefits to society at large.

The extent of the problem

  • There are currently 700,000 people with dementia in the UK
  • Two thirds of people with dementia are women
  • One in 20 people over 65, one in five over 80, and one in three over 95 has a form of dementia - around two thirds of those have Alzheimer's disease
  • By 2051, dementia is expected to affect the lives of around one in three people, either as a sufferer, a carer, or a relative
The social cost
  • Two thirds of people with dementia live in the community, either alone or with friends or relatives
  • 64% of people living in care homes have a form of dementia
  • The financial cost of dementia to the UK is over £17 billion a year
  • Family carers of people with dementia save the UK over £6 billion a year
Saving lives
  • 60,000 deaths a year are directly attributable to dementia.
  • Delaying the onset of dementia by 5 years would reduce this number by 30,000 a year

26 February 2007

Child Obesity: Whose Responsibility?

It seems only a week or two since Jamie Oliver's 2005 campaign against turkey twisters and chips led to new standards for school meals - and, in its wake, the scenes of parents passing orders of fried food through school fences to disgruntled pupils. Today's news has been full of the story of Connor McCreaddie, the eight-year-old weighing in at 14-stone, four times the average for his age, and his mother, who says her son refuses to eat fruit, vegetables and salads and will only eat processed foods.

The chairman of the National Obesity Forum has said "The long-term impact of this child's gross obesity are frightening. He has great risk of diabetes and coronary illness. His life expectancy is severely prejudiced. So action is required if his health is to be safeguarded."

But who should take what action? What are the roles and obligations of parents, schools, school-food providers, and the government in tackling childhood obesity?

Every Child Matters

The Institute for Public Policy Research today claims that Academies, Foundation schools, Trust schools, and faith schools have no reason to be their own admissions authorities, other than to select students by ability. This, we are told, is a bad thing because the schools are more segregated than their neighbourhoods.

Yet, if so many of the Church's 4620 schools are over-subscribed, they are clearly providing something that parents are seeking and are presumably unable to find in other schools. David Cameron says he wants to send his daughter to a church school as he fears she might "get lost" in an enormous state primary. Other parents identify their desire for the school to provide a moral compass as the reason behind their preference for a faith school. Tony Blair, whose children all went to faith schools, believes expanding religious schools would raise standards. Critics argue that the real draw is the higher academic standards often attained by such schools, as though success is somehow a problem.

It was the Church that first introduced schooling for the poor and constant Government interference in the education system over recent years has done nothing for morale or standards. Diversity encourages excellence and parents must be allowed a continued choice of schools. Perhaps even more importantly, gifted pupils and pupils with special needs deserve better, more individual instruction than they can receive if placed in a class that simply caters for the "average" child. Failure to enable each child to achieve their potential and thereby to contribute to society will cause more serious problems for local communities than any politically correct imposition of uniformity will manage to address.

One-third of all secondary schools are in charge of their own admissions process, and the vast majority of these are church schools.

24 February 2007

Today ID Cards - Tomorrow Radio ID Tags

RFIDQuoting an article to appear in next month's issue of IEEE Spectrum, Newswise asks:

"What if your boss asked you to have a chip implanted in your arm? Would you do it? What if it meant getting a higher salary? ... In the last few years people have begun to have tags planted in themselves--a move that could have serious repercussions for our privacy and freedom."
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags can be used to pinpoint the physical location of whatever the tags are embedded in

Update (28/2/07): The article can now be found here.

23 February 2007

Blogger Imprisoned

"There are things that one should not talk about, like religion and politics."

Kareem AmerSo says an Egyptian lawyer quoted in today's Independent, reporting on the Egyptian blogger jailed for four years for hatred of Islam and insulting the President, Hosni Mubarak. Kareem Amer (real name: Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman) had referred in his blog to companions of the Prophet Mohamed as "terrorists", to al-Azhar as "the university of terrorism" and to President Mubarak as the "symbol of dictatorship". In his Blogger profile, he states his main goal "is to defend the rights of Muslim and Arabic women against all form of discrimination and to stop violent crimes committed on a daily basis in these countries."

As elsewhere, bloggers are on the frontline of Egypt's pro-democracy movement, publishing calls for reform and exposing human rights abuses.

22 February 2007

Islam: Veiled in Controversy

Zilla Huma Usman (credit: www.digitaljournal.com)
Zilla Huma Usman,
shot dead Tuesday
The debate sparked last year by Jack Straw about the wearing of veils in public by Muslim women continues to rage. In the latest episode of this ongoing saga, the High Court has rejected demands brought by a 12-year-old in Buckinghamshire that she be allowed to wear niqab, the full-face veil, during school lessons. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Zilla Huma Usman, Punjab's Minister for Social Welfare and a strong campaigner for women's rights, has been assassinated by a gunman for not wearing a Muslim veil.

At a time when the Muslim Council of Britain is calling for our schools to make concessions to Islamic cultural norms, we would be wise to heed the warning of Britain's most senior Muslim peer, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham:
“The face veil is a barrier to integration in the West. The veil is now a mark of separation, segregation and defiance against mainstream British culture. There’s nothing in the Koran to say that wearing a niqab is desirable, let alone compulsory. It’s purely cultural. It’s an identity thing which has been misinterpreted. They were supposed to be worn so that women wouldn’t be harassed. But women, and communities as a whole, are now being harassed because they are wearing them."

Teachers: Dispirited & Disheartened

Earlier this week, the headteacher at my son's school reported to the governing body that all the local heads are complaining about a number of issues concerning funding and the extended schools project, so I thought I'd look into the experiences of others. The following has just appeared in the Belfast Telegraph:

"This money could be used to buy books, equipment and resources for pupils; to employ more staff; to stop our school buildings from crumbling further and would also enable us to buy in management support for school leaders.
"It is crazy to have a situation where schools are getting funding for extended schools, breakfast clubs and astroturf pitches when money is not getting to where it is needed, at the chalkface.
"Many of our colleagues are dispirited, disheartened, on their knees or trying to get out but we will keep fighting.
"We have come to the end of our tether. We are no longer school leaders - we are fire fighters. "

20 February 2007

When is a Life Viable?

Amillia Taylor's feetFact #1: Amillia Taylor was born on 24 October 2006 weighing just 284 grams, after less than 22 weeks gestation. Today she goes home from hospital.

Fact #2: David Steel, who introduced what became the 1967 Abortion Act, has been calling some time for Britain to fall into line with the rest of Europe, where abortions on demand are only available up to three months into pregnancy.

19 February 2007

Minority Report 2

One intent of the government's Mental Health Bill was to ensure that individuals such as Michael Stone, convicted in 1998 for murdering Lin and Megan Russell, could be confined against their will simply because they suffer from a mental illness, even though they are innocent of any crime and even though their condition is untreatable.

Well done, then, to the Lords for rejecting this ill-considered piece of deterministic legislation.

The Government might have more success at keeping dangerous criminals off our streets if it focused on improving the rehabilitation and education of those already incarcerated in our overcrowded prisons.

18 February 2007

Tony Blair's Minority Report

Last Wednesday I noticed a Scientific American report on neuroethics. It began:

"Neuroscientists are making such rapid progress in unlocking the brain's secrets that some are urging colleagues to debate the ethics of their work before it can be misused by governments, lawyers or advertisers.
"The news that brain scanners can now read a person's intentions before they are expressed or acted upon has given a new boost to the fledgling field of neuroethics that hopes to help researchers separate good uses of their work from bad."

When I heard Tony Blair discussing gun crime and the UNICEF report with Andrew Marr on Sunday AM this morning, I realised that the neuroscientists are probably right to fear. His words reminded me of statements the PM made last summer that he believes we need to predict and intervene far more early in the lives of those who are going to become a menace to society, "pre-birth even". In case you missed it, this is what he said today: "My view increasingly is that if you analyse this problem it is a problem of families who need to be put in, with very early intervention, in a structured framework where you are making sure that the children in those situations get looked after from a very, very early age."

As Nigel Cameron says on his blog: The movie Minority Report keeps tugging at today from tomorrow.

17 February 2007

Family vs Wealth?

"If it comes to a collision between our wealth as a nation and the wellbeing of families, I choose families." David Cameron, 16 Feb 2007

Deborah Orr in today's The Independent questions the impact that the Conservative leader words will have on the factors driving this week's big issues of child poverty and gun crime:

"David Cameron, at least, is willing to go on the record and talk about some of these issues. Unfortunately, what he is saying makes little sense. Cameron's suggestion that government support for marriage can be any more than a gesture in the short to medium term is utterly facile. How can he imagine that the young people who have experienced family breakdown over generations can be equipped to respond to tax incentives to marry? How can he imagine that men who make their living in the black economy can be made to pay child maintenance through direct debits from their wages? How can he imagine that this will inspire a desire to behave as a loving hands-on dad?"

So, what do readers of this blog think will make a real Difference?

16 February 2007

Gun Crime

Once again the papers are full of comment on the wave of violent crime that has left three London teenagers dead. I thought DJ Dodge, the music producer and DJ interviewed on last night's Ten O'Clock News said it all: "I doubt very much there's ever been the case of a youth who's had a great family background and a great education who's gone out to become a street robber, a drug dealer, or a gunman ... The answer's right there: Education, from the beginning, and family values - mother and father, grandparents, community. That's the solution to the problem, right there."

15 February 2007

Science and Faith

I see Richard Dawkins' latest outburst has prompted a few of our senior scientists to write in The Times "that science should not be expected to provide solutions to problems such as the purpose of life or the existence of God, for which it was unfitted."

Perhaps the source of any confusion would be clearer if the anonymous agent were explicitly identified: "Each of us should not expect science to provide solutions to problems such as the purpose of life or the existence of God, for which it was unfitted."

A Right to Pain-Free Life?

I've just heard the Rev Roy Jenkins on Thought for the Day discussing the case of Kelly Taylor who has lived with a couple of terminal diseases the whole of her life and is seeking a judicial ruling to force doctors to give her a lethal dose of morphine. I heard Mrs Taylor being interviewed by the BBC a couple of nights ago and was struck by the shallowness of her case.

"I want to assert my own independence," she declared. Having told us that she had attempted to take her life by starvation but it had hurt too much, she went on in apparent good humour to state that she couldn't bear life any longer. After a brief pause she admitted that life was alright, it was pain she was tired of.

Her lawyers will argue that doctors' refusal to kill her contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans "inhuman or degrading treatment." Well, though we might sympathise with Mrs Taylor's plight, if she genuinely believes the NHS is treating her in an inhuman or degrading manner, she needs a lesson in some of the conditions that the majority of people endure on a daily basis around the world.

Mrs Taylor possibly only has a year to live. She clearly has the energy to fight for a cause. She could have chosen one that would have given hope and made her an inspiration to many. It is a pity she has chosen one that is symptomatic of so much that is wrong with modern Western society and its obsession with selfishly individual "rights".

For more on this case, visit the NHS Blog Doctor.

14 February 2007

What Money Can't Buy

Today's UNICEF Innocenti report Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries makes for a sobering and challenging read: the physical and emotional well-being of British children is the worst among the world's wealthiest nations.

Those on the left clearly think we simply need to throw more money at the problem. So we find one of the report's authors, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw from York University, claiming "if you're asking what is the main driver of these results, it's the fact that for a long time children in Britain have been under-invested in; not enough has been spent on them." Or Kate Green, Chief Executive of Child Action Poverty Group asserting "The report makes very clear that without addressing relative poverty the well-being of children in the UK will continue to suffer."

However, well-being is about more than just money. It's about personal fulfillment and being able to make a contribution to society. One of the concluding remarks on last night's extended analysis on Newsnight was that "individualism has filled the vacuum left by religion." Although this was not thoroughly explored, the pursuit of individualism is surely one of the factors behind the breakdown in relationships that means our children were ranked as having the worst relationships with family and friends, including the second highest proportion of children living in single-parent families or with step-parents. At one point in the debate, Anastasia de Waal, Head of Family and Education Unit at Civitas, tried to suggest that this did not mean children raised by married parents have a better start in life. Yet, recent evidence, such as that compiled by Jill Kirby or Iain Duncan Smith makes irrefutably clear that family breakdown is a major cause of social exclusion and that children born to married parents have significantly better chances in life than those born to unmarried parents. For instance, within five years of the birth of a child, only 8% of married couples have split up compared to 25% of those who marry after birth and 52% of cohabitees.

Money, such as in the form of Gordon Brown's tax credits, has failed to make a difference. To quote Jill Kirby, "The perverse consequence of our fiscal, social and welfare policies has been to incentivise and institutionalise child neglect. It is time for a new approach." That approach is surely encapsulated in David Cameron's watchword, social responsibility. As George Osborne observed in the Newsnight debate, "This is not all about politicians in Westminster passing laws, it's about social responsibility, it's about parents taking greater responsibility for their children, it's about trusting teachers in classrooms, it's about us as neighbours in a society playing our part as well."