Tag Archives: education

Deaths That Don’t Have to Happen: The Relationship Between Knowledge and Health

Editor’s note: As part of  a writing class I took this summer, I had to do a group project addressing a social issue within our society.

Part of that assignment was writing an essay that promotes activism to address the issue.The research inspired me, so I decided to share that essay with you. Hope you enjoy! 


Knowledge, and the desire to use it to better our own lives, as well as the lives of everyone else. This is what has made our species so great.

Fire, the wheel, internal plumbing, electricity, refrigeration. All of these creations were the result of intelligent people with an insatiable drive to solve major problems that affected everyone within their communities.

As the world progressed into the modern era, more and more of these advancements came from the realm of medicine. For thousands of years, smallpox was a scourge that regularly plagued populations all over the world.

A close-up of the smallpox virus. Click to enlarge. Magnification: x28,500

In the 19th century, the disease was killing 400,000 Europeans every year. In the 20th century, it accounted for an estimated 300 million deaths worldwide.

Now, consider this: the vaccine for smallpox was discovered, by a man named William Jenner, in 1796. However, it took more than 160 years for the World Health Assembly to pass a worldwide resolution to eradicate the disease in 1959, and another 20 years for the disease to be completely eradicated.

There hasn’t been a single documented death from smallpox since 1980, but it took nearly 200 years to make that happen.

Click to enlarge

Our modern world is no different. Every year, 3 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases, half of that being children 5 years old or younger.

Other preventable diseases, like diarrhea and pneumonia, claim the lives of another 2 million children who are simply too poor to afford things like clean water and basic treatment.

If you’re keeping track, that’s 3.5 million children dying every year from basic problems that we solved ages ago. Another way to think of it: imagine every kid enrolled in public school in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston dying this year. Imagine, just for a second, all the human potential that we are losing along with these children.

I know you may be thinking that it’s somewhat inevitable that developing countries lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to new vaccines, treatments or procedures, so chew on this for a second: out of a list of 18 developed countries, the United States was at the very bottom when it came to deaths from preventable causes.

For people under the age of 75, these preventable causes account for 23% of total deaths for men and 32% of total deaths for women.

Preventable disease per 100,000 citizens. Click to enlarge

How many more people are we going to let die simply because they lack access to resources that are so plentiful that they are taken for granted by the rest of us?

We have to always remember that the position of privilege we find ourselves in only exists because someone at some point in history fought for our right to good healthcare.

So now, it is our responsibility, our duty, to use this position of privilege to extend this same basic human right to health to the countless people still living without it, not only in our country but across the globe.

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Lack of Education: The Real Reason for the Spread of Ebola

Since the latest Ebola outbreak began in March, there have been more than 2,100 reported cases and 1,145 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

This is already by far the most serious Ebola outbreak in recorded history.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge (Courtesy of the New York Times)

But the disease isn’t some super-virus that is spreading through the air and infecting anyone who comes close. The only way it can be spread is through bodily fluids- getting the blood or vomit of a sick person in your eyes, nose, or mouth, or in an open wound.

So it’s actually relatively difficult to contract the disease, if you understand how it spreads. But the problem is that almost everyone who’s becoming infected now does not know how Ebola spreads.

That’s one of the reasons it has spread so fast. You see, an Ebola victim is most infectious right after they die. This is because they have very high-levels of the virus in their blood at that point.

Also, the total destruction of their immune system causes them to start leaking blood from every pore in their body (this is why Ebola is called “hemorrhagic fever”). These secretions cover the skin of the deceased with a thin film containing high concentrations of the virus.

The stages of Ebola. Click to enlarge

So when the families of victims preform their traditional burial practices, which include kissing and touching the body of the deceased, they give Ebola by far its best opportunity to spread.

This lack of knowledge about how the disease spreads has also caused people to become distrusting of the medical facilities that treat Ebola patients.

“People have no idea how infectious diseases work. They see people go into the hospital sick and come out dead—or never come out at all… They think if they can avoid the hospital they can survive,”

says Dr. Terry O’Sullivan, director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security Policy Research (an American agency that has been aiding in the battle against Ebola).

Dr. O’Sullivan recently made an appearance on ABC News to discuss the outbreak (via Youtube)

When Uganda tried to stop the spread of the virus by preventing relatives from seeing their dead family members, it sparked a great deal of hostility and fear.

A rumor spread that the bodies were being kept for nefarious purposes, making the public even more distrusting of foreign health workers (some people believe the foreign health workers were actually the ones who brought the disease to Africa).

When Uganda tried to alleviate the problem by creating a mass graveyard where relatives could see (but not touch) their deceased loved ones, pandemonium broke out.

Villagers ran from the ambulances that transported them there, attacking humanitarian workers and attempting to burn down the hospital. As the Daily Beast’s Abby Haglage put it,

“They feared the disease—but they feared the medicine even more, as well as the people delivering it.”

Many people avoid going to clinics like this one even when they start showing symptoms of Ebola because of their belief that checking in to a treatment facility is an almost certain death sentence

Yesterday evening, this ignorance manifested itself again when a quarantine center for suspected Ebola patients in West Point, a slum in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia, was attacked and looted by protesters.

The protesters were unhappy that patients were being brought into their community from other parts of the capital, and some even believed that the whole Ebola outbreak was a hoax used to take advantage of them.

20 suspected Ebola patients who were being monitored for symptoms left the center during the attacks, but the real danger comes from the blood-stained sheets and mattresses that were looted by the protesters.

Warning shots from police weren’t enough to disperse the crowd of several hundred local residents who gathered near the clinic before it was stormed and looted. Click to enlarge (Getty Images)

A senior police official in the area expressed worry that the looting spree could spread the virus all over West Point, an area that is home to about 50,000 people, almost all of which live in serious poverty and lack basic health resources.

He called the attack,

“…one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my life.”

I understand his frustration, but his comment should make us ask ourselves the following question: where did this stupidity come from?

Stupidity is simply a lack of knowledge.

Consider this: in the three countries that have been hit the hardest by this outbreak (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia), literacy rates are between 35% and 45%.

Also, keep in mind that the vast majority of these literate people live in the major cities. In the rural areas, where the disease has really been spreading, literacy rates can be as low as 10%.

The extent of the outbreak as of August 11. Click to enlarge

What we need to understand about this outbreak is that if we would have invested in educating these people 20 years ago, we would not be spending exorbitant amounts of money now in an attempt to stop a disease whose primary victims don’t even understand how it spreads.

Also, the increased education levels would have probably led to a lot more local people becoming health workers.

Not only would there have been more health workers to deal with the outbreak, but a much larger portion of them would’ve been natives with the trust of the locals, rather than foreign workers who most locals are suspicious of.

The bottom line is that education is the answer to almost every problem in the world. Why? Because it gives people the ability to solve their own problems.

Related reading:

New Study: The More Education You Have, The Slower Your Brain Ages

A group of Danish researchers recently made an interesting discovery about the relationship between our education level and how fast we age.

The researchers were led by Eigil Rostrup, who works as a doctor at Denmark’s Glostrup Hospital.

Glostrup Hospital in Denmark

The study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, was based off of data from a group of 2,400 boys who had been born in the Greater Copenhagen area in 1953. The boys were tested both physically and mentally at the age of 20, and again when they were 57.

The testing gathered data on the participants general state of health, as well as their weights, smoking habits and IQs.

After the second round of testing at age 57, the researchers invited 200 men to the Glostrup Hospital for additional research: the 100 men with the best scores compared to their first test (at age 20), and the 100 men with the worst scores compared to their first test.

“We asked the participants to lie completely still in the MR-scanner without doing anything. Once in a while a light would flash in the scanner and at the same time the participant had to move his fingers,”

said Rostrup. This allowed the researchers to see how fast the men’s brains were able to switch from “default mode” (ie. when our brain is relaxed) to problem solving mode. Moving your fingers when a light comes on may not seem like a complex problem, but problem solving (even for the most basic problems) all happens in one region of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex, where higher-level thinking and problem solving takes place (our “Default Mode” network is located in the frontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex and the parietal lobe). Click to enlarge

Rostrup and his team found that the men who had received a better education were able to more quickly and efficiently switch from default mode to problem solving mode than those with the least amount of education.

The findings suggest that an education or job that challenges you regularly can actually stave off diseases related to brain aging like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Here’s Rostrup again:

“In young people the brain quickly and efficiently switches from the default mode to problem-solving activity. But in elderly people, and especially those who are demented or suffer from Alzheimer’s, this change is slow and inefficient…

The better our brains manage this change from rest to problem-solving when we are 60, the better equipped we will be at the age of 80 when it comes to handling the tasks of daily life and avoiding the symptoms that are especially common in patients with dementia, including Alzheimer’s.”

The change in brain activity as Alzheimer’s sets in. Click to enlarge

Researchers and neuroscientists alike hope that this new study can help doctors predict conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s ahead of time.

One thing is for sure though: mental exercise keeps the mind young just like physical exercise does for our bodies. Keep that mind sharp!

Read the original story from Science Nordic here.

Why Calling People Dumb Just Proves Your Own Ignorance

I’m no saint. Just like everyone else, I get frustrated with people from time to time. If you catch me after a particularly maddening encounter, you may hear the words “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “close-minded”, and maybe even “asshole”.

But one word you will never hear me use to describe a person is “dumb”. The increasingly popular idea that the world is full of stupid people is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be “smart”.

Real intelligence is simply the measure of a person’s curiosity.

As a child, I was deprived of video games and cable television (in hindsight, I’m eternally grateful for it). So, I explored outside, dug things up, made messes, did questionable “experiments” in the kitchen, and burned stuff every chance I got (what little boy isn’t a pyromaniac?).

I also asked a lot of questions. I mean a lot. Why is the sky blue? Why is rain wet? Why does grandma keep an extra set of teeth in a glass in her bathroom?

One day I guess my mom just got tired of trying to answer them all, so she took me on my first trip to the library. I’ll never forget what she said as we entered that temple of learning:

“The answer to every question you could ever have is in here.”

I was immediately hooked. From then on, when I wanted to know how something worked or why something was the way it was, I went to the library and found a book I could read about it.

I wasn’t critiquing the authors’ literary styles, or analyzing their sentence structure, or looking for deeper meanings. I was just enjoying the reading and relishing in my newly found power to find answers to every question.

That’s why today I have a wealth of relatively random facts that I can recall whenever necessary. It’s not because I was any smarter than any other kid my age, it’s just that I had parents who showed me a place where I could ask as many questions as I wanted and actually find the answers on my own.

Calling someone stupid also means you don’t understand how the brain works.

The average brain is made up of about 100 billion brain cells called neurons. Each of these neurons has the potential to connect to any of the others.

If you can remember your combinations and permutations unit in 7th grade math, you’ll know that the total number of possible connections that can be formed between 100 billion neurons is equal to 100 billion factorial:

100,000,000 factorial = 100,000,000,000 x 99,999,999,999 x 99,999,998 etc. all the way down to 1.

So what’s the total number of possible connections? Well, I tried to do 100 billion factorial on five different online scientific calculators and they all gave me the same answer: infinity (the real answer is obviously not actually infinity, but it’s a number with about 25 billion zeroes).

Google calculator was having no part of that calculation
Google calculator was having no part of that calculation

That’s right. There are virtually infinite ways in which our brain’s neurons can potentially connect to one another, and it’s the combination of these neural pathways that allows our brains to function.

When we are born, there are very few connections in our brain. This basically means that our potential is limitless.

An MRI scan of actress Fiona Shaw shows the major neural “highways” between different bunches of neurons in different regions of the brain. Click to enlarge

As we begin to get older, our brain realizes that certain abilities, like being able distinguish monkey faces as well as we distinguish human faces, aren’t really very useful. Consequently, those pathways erode away-the typical adult only maintains a few trillion pathways throughout their life.

I know the monkey example seemed a bit random, but it’s actually from a real study. In 2005, researchers demonstrated that six-month old infants could distinguish between the faces of different monkeys just as easily as they could between different human faces.

However, by the age of nine months old the toddlers’ brains had realized that the skill wasn’t useful, and most of them lost the ability. Only the babies who continued having to differentiate between the monkeys (ie. for whom the skill was still useful) retained the ability.

One of the babies who took part in the study

There is the potential for some extremely powerful, some would even say magical abilities within our brains. However, the brain’s number one priority is survival, so it limits things like creativity and imaginativeness to ensure that we can function well in society and provide for ourselves.

But sometimes, the part of the brain which holds back that dam of possibilities gets damaged, allowing glimmers of our superhuman potential to shine through.

That is the case with people suffering from savant syndrome. Savant syndrome occurs when a mental disability like autism damages the part of the brain that controls our basic functions.

Although those suffering from the condition usually lack the basic motor skills to tie their own shoes or dress themselves, the condition also liberates other parts of their brain, giving them some mind-blowing abilities:

A man who can read a book two pages at a time (one page with each eye) and remembers every detail about the 12,000+ books he’s read so far:

A man who flawlessly played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it once. He was 16, never had any classical training, and had just learned to walk on his own a year earlier:

A man they call the human camera, who can recreate entire cityscapes, down to the number of windows in every building, after viewing it once:

The list goes on. The point here is that all of us have this amazing potential within our brains. There have even been studies done proving that we can tap into some of this potential by temporarily shutting off parts of our brain using electrodes.

When we are born, we all have the potential to be as smart as Stephen Hawking, or as funny as Richard Pryor, or as musical as Jimi Hendrix. But from that point on, who we become depends on the neural connections that are created by the environment we live in.

And not only does everyone have amazing potential, but everyone has something to teach you. Knowledge can be obtained from books or computers, but wisdom can only be obtained through experience.

The wisest guy I know

Every person in this world has a life experience unlike anyone else’s. We all gain perspective about the world from the lessons we learn throughout our lives, so there’s a nearly infinite amount of wisdom we can obtain from those around us, if we’re willing to look for it.

Our brains are naturally curious, but this curiosity must be protected and fed for it to achieve its potential. Remember, Einstein was dyslexic and mildly autistic as a child, and he ended up becoming arguably the greatest scientific mind of our times.

Calling someone dumb makes them scared to ask questions- it stunts their curiosity, thereby inhibiting their ability to find out the truth on their own.

So, every time you call someone dumb, you are actually the one making society less intelligent.

Why The Most Important Educational Instruction Comes Before First Grade (Infographic)

When we talk about educational inequality in our country and the poor conditions of public schools in low income areas, we tend to focus on middle schools and high schools, and their inability to reach “troubled” youth.

This is definitely an important aspect of the problem, but the issues start much, much earlier.

Click to enlarge

One of the most important and most ignored aspects of educational inequality is the disparity in resources available for early childhood education.

In middle class or upper class families, a child is often given all kinds of educational toys and games to help the mind grow, develop, and prepare for formal schooling. Parents are also typically active in teaching the child basic lessons and skills through play.

But for low income children, this experience is very different. For one, many of them live with single parents who are working 80+ hours a week just to keep the lights on and put food on the table.

Click to enlarge

These parents don’t have money for all of the educational toys, games and camps that more well-off parents provide to their kids. Also, their demanding work schedules tend to leave them with very little time to spend with their child (and it is often only for a short period of time after an exhausting day of labor).

Although it can’t totally make up for the economic differences, pre-school was designed to help bridge that gap a bit. Unfortunately, less than half of pre-school aged children are actually even attending pre-school.

Check out the infographic below to see how this lack of quality early childhood education affects a child’s future:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The Streets of Chicago Are 4 Times More Deadly Than the Battlefields of the Middle East

This Fourth of July weekend saw joy, laughter, fellowship and fun. It also saw another rash of murders in the streets of Chicago.

The 3-day weekend starting on the 4th saw eight murders in Chicago. Two more have already been reported for today.

While this weekend was slightly more violent than others, it is definitely not an aberration. Easter weekend this year saw 45 separate shootings in Chicago. The weekend before that, there were 35 shootings in 36 hours.

In recent years, Chicago’s violence has the nickname “Chiraq”. Since the start of this year, the city has has seen 196 murders. That’s more than four times as many American fatalities as the 46 so far in Afghanistan and Iraq this year.

The homicides this weekend were a result of multiple shootings at Independence Day celebrations around the city which left another 60 people injured.

Total murders per year in Chicago from 1991 to 2011. Click to enlarge

Murder totals in Chicago actually peaked at 943 in 1992, and steadily declined in the decade that followed. But that number spiked again in 2012, which saw 521 murders. The majority of these murders were related to gang activity and the increasingly lucrative drug trade in Chicago.

To combat the rise in violence, Chicago dispatched hundreds of extra police into particularly dangerous neighborhoods, and reached out to community leaders for support.

“We will keep building on our strategy, putting more officers on the street in summer months, proactively intervening in gang conflicts, partnering with community leaders,”

said Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said in a recent statement.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy

It seems to be working. Last year, Chicago tallied 415 murders, the lowest that number has been since 1965. And as of June 30, Chicago had experienced nine fewer homicides than in that same period last year.

But these rates are still much higher than most cities. By comparison, New York City (which has three times more residents than Chicago) only had 350 murders in 2013.

So why is the murder rate so high? Many people would point to high rates of poverty, but Chicago actually has lower poverty rates than other major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

Poor schools also play a major part in the crime, but Chicago actually has a higher percentage of high school graduates over the age of 25 than New York City, Los Angeles or Houston.

A breakdown of the victims of Chicago’s 2012 murders. Click to enlarge

There is no one reason for the violence in Chicago, but there are a few other major factors that have contributed to it. One of these factors is depopulation and gang fragmentation.

In the 80s and early 90s, the majority of the homicides in Chicago centered around low-income government-subsidized housing projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes.

A picture of Cabrini-Green before it was demolished

Starting in the late 90s, the city carried out an aggressive campaign to demolish these high-rises as part of a plan to reduce crime. However, this just displaced tens of thousands of residents, exacerbating the issues of poverty they faced while simply spreading the criminals who had been sharing the buildings with them out to new neighborhoods.

The demolition of these centralized crime hubs has also led to a fragmentation of the gangs in Chicago. During the early 90s, much of the drug trade was controlled by Larry Hoover, who was head of the Gangster’s Disciples street gang.

This gang (which controlled a number of Chicago’s subsidized high-rises) was no stranger to violence, but it also had a very strict hierarchy that maintained unity and order amongst its gang members.

The arrest of drug lords like Hoover and the destruction of their headquarters created a power vacuum that broke Chicago’s gangs into countless smaller “sets”, which now battle amongst themselves for turf, power and money.

Larry Hoover is currently serving a life sentence for a murder in August of 1973

But maybe the biggest reason for Chicago’s high crime rates is the lack of jobs. Despite the fact that Chicago has higher levels of education than other large cities like New York, Houston and Los Angeles, it still has a much higher rate of unemployment (13.7%) than these other cities.

The gang violence exacerbates this problem by driving potential employers out of the inner cities, leaving only a handful of low-paying jobs to the residents who remain. This de-population also reduces property values which in turn further limits the public funds (ie. taxes) available to help fight crime and improve conditions.

Whatever the reasons are, the reality is inarguable: Chicago has a serious violence problem, and the fact that it doesn’t get the media airtime that Iraq, Al Qaeda ad ISIS do won’t change the fact that for every soldier we have lost overseas this year, we’ve lost another four youth in Chicago.

Continue reading The Streets of Chicago Are 4 Times More Deadly Than the Battlefields of the Middle East

Why Are We Losing Confidence in Our Public Schools? (Infographic)

Only 34% of Americans have faith in our public school system today. That’s less confidence than we have in our police, the medical system, and even the Supreme Court.

Check out this great infographic which shows how we’ve lost faith in public education, and why most people think the system is failing. Click the image to enlarge.