A word about masks

Posted on April 28th, 2009 – 3:07 PM
By Josephine Marcotty

Every news photo on swine flu shows people wearing masks. Surgical masks. Construction masks. White masks. Blue masks.


But here’s a tip — most masks don’t really protect you. There is only one type called N95 that stops the spread of infection. And those masks are expensive, hard to come by and are only really worthwhile in a close setting — like a hospital or clinic — where you are in close proximity to someone who might be infectious.

This is how Mike Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, explains it.

Flu viruses are transmitted by droplets that are dispersed by coughing or sneezing. “Droplets fall within 5 to 8 feet” of the person spreading them, he said. So a mask is only effective if you are standing within 5 to 8 feet of someone who is coughing or sneezing, and not covering it up. (You know…. “cover your cough.”)  And that mask has to be made in a way that blocks the droplets. Most masks don’t. Only the N95 masks fit tightly around the mouth and nose and prevent all droplets from penetrating through the mask.

In fact, most people don’t get sick from inhaling someone’s infected droplets. Most pick up a virus by touching a surface like a door knob or hand rail, and then touching their own mouth, nose or eye. That gives a virus left behind by someone else a happy landing in your body.

Dr. Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota’s state epidemiologist, says the only way masks slow infection is by inhibiting people from touching their mouth or nose. It’s far more effective to wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and cover your cough, she said.

So what’s the harm if a mask makes you feel safer? Maybe nothing. But Osterholm, who has a knack for seeing the dark side, questions what might happen if there is a pandemic and we run out of masks that don’t really do any goood anyway.  “You will see people panic because they can’t get their mask,” he said.

And panic may be worse than a pandemic.

The brain of a kleptomaniac

Posted on April 1st, 2009 – 11:56 AM
By Josephine Marcotty

Do you know any kleptomaniacs? If so, here’s some news: A researcher at the University of Minnesota has found that a drug commonly used to treat alcoholism appears to work on kleptomania, too.
Here’s a pretty hilarious video on the study published today in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry. It features the researcher, Dr. John Grant, who explains the whole thing, and who also drew the cartoon. Be patient – he talks a while before it starts to get funny. No time for video? Keep reading below.

Grant, a psychiatrist at the university, says that kleptomania – an addiction to shoplifting – is similar to drug, alcohol, and gambling addiction. All seem to involve the pleasure receptors in the brain, the ones linked to “the rush and desire,” he said. They are the same receptors that respond to opiates.
The drug, Naltrexone, works on alcoholics and other addicts by blocking those receptors. All of a sudden, the urge to drink or use drugs goes away. So does that pleasurable feeling.

Grant decided to try it on kleptomaniacs. He found 25 people who spent at least one hour a week stealing, and a lot more time than that thinking about stealing. He put half of them on a placebo, and the other half on Naltrexone.
Everyone who took the drug reported less obsessive thinking about stealing, and reported less stealing when compared to the other group.
Grant said the drug is not likely to be a cure, but it could help especially when used in combination with therapy.

Prat, er, pet falls

Posted on March 26th, 2009 – 11:53 AM
By Josephine Marcotty

Falls associated with pets have never been addressed in the scientific literature. (Okay, there was one small study.) But today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have  corrected that omission. It turns out that an average of 86,629 falls a year are caused by pets.

You know what kind of pet we’re talking about.


Yes, the dog. The vast majority of pet falls, 88 percent, happened when owners were either pushed or pulled to the ground by their dogs. Or they tripped over them. Cats caused the rest.  Mostly people either tripped over their cats or fell while chasing them. You can read the whole thing published today in excruciating detail here.

Women were twice as likely to be injured as men.

Pet falls were still only a fraction of all falls, about one percent of the tumbles that send about 8 million people a year to the emergency room. But the researchers said that since 43 million households have dogs, and 37.5 million own cats, this is a public health problem.

What’s the solution?

“The development of more effective prevention strategies will require more information about the risks for fiall injury associated with specific pets (including size and breed) and put-human interactions,” they said.

Clearly, a whole new field of public health research awaits.

In the meantime, they recommend — more training! Of course, I’ve never quite figured out if obedience training is for dogs or people. It worked better on me than on my now deceased but beloved ox of a Labrador retriever. I was the one with skinned knees.

What are your pet fall stories?

Do you eat meat?

Posted on March 24th, 2009 – 8:04 AM
By Josephine Marcotty

Red meat is as American as apple pie and the wild wild west. But eating it every day will likely hasten your death, according to one of the largest studies ever done. Researchers looked at 500,000 middle-aged and elderly Americans, and those who ate at least a small hamburger every day were thirty percent more likely to die in the following 10 years from heart disease and cancer. Processed meats also increased the risks.

They also found that people who ate fish, chicken turkey and other poultry decreased the risk of death. Even pork, long heralded as the “other white meat” by pork producers, is believed to increase the risk of cancer because of it’s high iron content.

The study was conducted by researches at the National Cancer Institute and published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine. An editorial  in the journal described it as the “Rolls-Royce of studies on this topic.”

The American Meat Institute dismissed the findings as unreliable because it relied on information provided by the study recipients.

Do you eat red meat? Will this change your mind about how much is healthy for you and your family? What will you eat instead?


The middle ground on abortion?

Posted on March 22nd, 2009 – 6:00 PM
By Josephine Marcotty

Has the national debate about abortion changed? Is there a middle ground between the two sides that have been polarized for years? Sarah Stoesz, CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, will answer questions about that today here on BodyTalk.  She and other groups in South Dakota defeated two proposed laws in South Dakota that would have outlawed abortion in almost all cases. Now, much of what they learned about voters attitudes in South Dakota is reflected in a new, and, some would say, less divisive debate nationally.

In 2006 and 2008 their coalition, The Campaign for Healthy Families, adopted a campaign strategy that appealed to voters who were ambivalent about the decision to end a pregnancy. Most South Dakotans say they are anti-abortion, but the campaign convinced a majority of voters that banning abortion altogether could have unforeseen consequences on families. You can read about it here. .

Do you have ideas on how to resolve the political debate about abortion? Is there room to compromise? What messages do you think the public wants to hear on this? Post your questions here and Sarah Stoesz will answer as many of them as she can on Monday.


Sarah Stoesz, CEO, Planned Parenthood

Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota