Swine flu shuts down prisons: Let the prisoners out?

May 3, 2009

This headline from the Sacramento Bee sure caught my eye:

Swine flu case shuts down visits at all 33 state prisons

Of course, I read it too fast, and skipped over the word “visits.”  I had to click on the story to see whether they were going to tell the prisoners to stay at home for a week, like the Fort Worth, Texas, school district did.   I suppose, after a fashion, that was exactly the message.

At the Officer of the Receiver for California Prison Health Care Services, spokesman Luis Patino said Sunday that an inmate in Centinela State Prison in Imperial County was diagnosed as probable for the H1N1 virus, or swine flu.

“The inmate and his cellmate have been isolated, Patino said. “They remain at the prison.”


Ticket sales for movies are way up in those areas where the schools are shut down — good news for the opening weekend of X-Men Origins:  Wolverine.

Maybe we’d be better off if the kids remained in school, as well as keeping the convicts in the prisons.

Is the panic over swine flu too much? If we go back to the week ending March 21, 2009, we find that there were already more than 22,000 cases of influenza in the U.S., with 35 pediatric deaths.  Has the swine flu added to either the rates of infection or the rates of death?  If the dramatic steps, the event cancellations and school closings, are appropriate for the swine flu, shouldn’t they have been appropriate for the other flu viruses, too?

Do we really need to close schools?  What do you think — tell us in comments.

See the CDC’s report on swine flu at their site:    H1N1 (Swine Flu)

Other resources:

Evolution theory driven by anti-racism

May 3, 2009

Here’s a book that most creationists hope you never read and which strikes terror in the hearts of Discovery Institute fellows: Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.

Cover of Desmond and Moores 2009 book, iDarwins Sacred Cause/i

Cover of Desmond and Moore's 2009 book, Darwin's Sacred Cause

It’s another grand book on Darwin from the team of Adrian Desmond and James Moore, based on their deep diving into the archives of writings from and about Darwin in his own time.  Their earlier book, Darwin, is a bit of a modern classic in biography, and a must-read for anyone seriously studying Darwin and evolution.

This book promises to eviscerate a favorite chunk of calumny claimed by creationists, that Darwin’s theory is flawed because Darwin himself was a racist.  Scientists painstakingly note that the racist views of a scientist don’t affect the theory (think of William Shockley and the transistor), but creationists still use the false claim as fodder for sermon’s and internet rants.  Or, in the case of the Discovery Institute, the false claims is used as a justification to appoint a fellow in the propaganda department, Richard Weikart.

Desmond and Moore confront the claims head on, it appears.  How will creationists change their story to accommodate these facts?  Or, will creationists resort to denial?

One theme that may be supported in the book is the realization that pursuit of a noble cause frequenly ennobles those who pursue it.  Certainly it is easy to make a case that Darwin’s hatred of slavery and advocacy for its abolition colored his views of what he saw, though perhaps not so much as what he saw colored his views of slavery and abolition.  Desmond and Moore have a chapter that discusses Charles Lyell’s trips to America, and Lyell’s different views on slavery having traveled the American south.  Lyell did not travel as an abolitionist, and his views suffer as a result.  Lyell was a product of his times in the portrait Desmond and Moore paint.  Darwin demonstrated the power of science, and the power of personal use of science, in using the facts to overcome racism; Darwin used his experience and study to rise above the times.  That may be the difference between the men, why we celebrate Darwin today, and remember Lyell as a good scientist, but usually a footnote to Darwin.


Applying evolution theory to defeat malaria

May 3, 2009

If the theory works, why not use it, eh?

One of the most serious problems with the use of DDT is that it tends to drive insects to evolve defenses to pesticides very quickly.  Almost every mosquito on Earth today has alleles that allow it to digest DDT, rather than be poisoned by it.  These alleles arose shortly after DDT was put into use against mosquitoes, and by the mid-1960s had made fruitless the malaria eradication campaign worked by the World Health Organization.

Evolution can be used to the benefit of humans and the eradication of malaria, too.

Voice of America (remember that agency?) tells the story of Andrew Read, a researcher at Penn State University, who realized that the deadliest mosquitoes are old ones — malaria has to survive for about two weeks in the mosquito in its life cycle in order to be infectious to humans.  If the mosquito dies before that time, the malaria can’t be transmitted.

Read’s proposal?  He has a fungus that takes a couple of weeks to work, but which kills the mosquito once it gets going.

In other words, Read doesn’t worry about getting all the mosquitoes.  His method, if it works, will kill only the mosquitoes most likely to carry malaria.

Plus, since most of the breeding cycle of these mosquitoes will be completed, it won’t drive the mosquitoes to evolve around the problem.

“The good thing about just killing the old ones is that most mosquiotoes will have done most of their reproduction before you kill them, and that means the susceptible mosquitoes will indeed continue to breed, so you still have susceptible mosquitoes, and your insecticides then just work against the old guys, removing them, and they are the dangerous ones. So under those circumstances, you don’t get the evolution of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes.”

He and his colleagues have been testing a kind of fungus that makes mosquitoes sick over the course of several weeks. And it eventually kills the oldest and most infectious mosquitoes.

“The name of the game is not mosquito control. It’s actually malaria control,” Read explains. “So if you just remove the old ones, you still have lots of young, non-dangerous mosquitoes around, but you have controlled malaria.”

Read says this fungus is about 98 to 99 percent effective at killing old mosquitoes in the lab. Now he says he needs to test this fungal insecticide in villages areas where malaria is prevalent, to see whether fewer people get the disease, even if they’re still getting bitten by mosquitoes.

Read and his team propose a new concept of mosquito control, based on what we know about the life cycles of mosquitoes and how they evolve, rather than just looking for one more “new” pesticide to which the insects will soon become resistant.  Read’s article appears in the open-access Public Library of Science (PLoS), published April 7, 2009:  “How to Make Evolution-Proof Mosquitoes for Malaria Control.” His coauthors are Penelope A. Lynch and Matthew B. Thomas.


Insecticides are one of the cheapest, most effective, and best proven methods of controlling malaria, but mosquitoes can rapidly evolve resistance. Such evolution, first seen in the 1950s in areas of widespread DDT use, is a major challenge because attempts to comprehensively control and even eliminate malaria rely heavily on indoor house spraying and insecticide-treated bed nets. Current strategies for dealing with resistance evolution are expensive and open ended, and their sustainability has yet to be demonstrated. Here we show that if insecticides targeted old mosquitoes, and ideally old malaria-infected mosquitoes, they could provide effective malaria control while only weakly selecting for resistance. This alone would greatly enhance the useful life span of an insecticide. However, such weak selection for resistance can easily be overwhelmed if resistance is associated with fitness costs. In that case, late-life–acting insecticides would never be undermined by mosquito evolution. We discuss a number of practical ways to achieve this, including different use of existing chemical insecticides, biopesticides, and novel chemistry. Done right, a one-off investment in a single insecticide would solve the problem of mosquito resistance forever.

Among reasons you may want to bookmark that publication:  In the opening paragraphs the authors discuss how Indoor Residual Spraying drives mosquito resistance to pesticides, with citations to the most recent and most powerful studies.  This is the case against bringing back DDT in a big way.

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