All posts by Kara Marker

About Kara Marker

I am a scientific journalist and graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in music, and I have research experience in microbiology, specifically work on the infectious agent Staphylococcus aureus.

So You’re A Nerd… Thoughts of An Expert’s Deskmate

Today I want to talk to you about nerds*.

I was eating lunch with several colleagues (almost all PhDs in some sort of biomedical science) and one mentioned a moose (for the life of me, I can’t remember the context). When I used the word “meese” to describe more than one moose, everyone laughed.

“Is that a word? Meese?” Someone asked.

“I don’t know, but I like it**,” I responded. “I love plural forms of words.”

That profession was accompanied by another round of laughter and some weird looks. “I’m a different kind of nerd than all of you,” I said.

This got me thinking. The idea of a “nerd” is so comparable to the technical concept of a “subject matter expert” (SME). Often people use phrases like “I’m a science nerd” or “I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd” or even “I’m a weight-lifting nerd.” For me, I am a word-nerd (This word combination also rhymes. I love rhymes and alliteration, further solidifying my status as a word-nerd.).

Depending on the subjects you’ve studied extensively – whether in the form of an intense PhD program in science or a lifelong obsession with various Lord of the Rings media, you’ll likely consider yourself an SME, a nerd.

I think this is particularly interesting because as kids, if you were a “nerd,” that was a bad thing. You weren’t cool. But I think having a PhD in foods and nutrition is awesome. I think having (both!) an MS in in food policy and nutrition and an MPH in health communications is so impressive. And I think poring over extended editions of Lord of the Rings DVDs and re-reading long, detailed fantasy novels is inspiring. I love nerds because you can learn all sorts of things from them, and the information is delivered so enthusiastically because as nerds, we love the things we know a lot about.

*Note: I wasn’t sure where this post was going to go when I started, but in recent months/years I’ve realized that I am a particularly introspective and inquisitive person. And because this is my blog, I can post all the musings about the world that I want to! Ha!

**Note: The plural form of “moose” is just “moose.” A blog post from Oxford Dictionaries points out the obvious association between goose/geese and moose/meese, so why does the goose/geese rule not apply to moose/meese? The same blog post explains that because “moose” is a “loanword” (taken from the Native American Algonquian language and adpated into English in the early 17th century by British settlers of North America), the plural ending of the noun is identical to the single form. Loanwords either follow this trend, take the standard plural ending (add an “s”), or adopt the plural ending of its original language.

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Thoughts of a Subject Matter Expert’s (SME) Deskmate

I was doing some research for an article I was writing about post-exercise performance and metabolism. The study under review was comparing results between a fasted and fed pre-exercise state. The abstract of the research article I was reading (link) mentioned the acronym “FFA” but did not explain what it meant. In my training as a technical writer, it is certainly “against the rules” to use an acronym before first spelling it out. When you play by the rules, the acronym makes its first appearance only in parenthesis. At least, this is what I was taught.

What does one do when they are not familiar with an acronym? They Google it, of course. But when I Googled “FFA” it should come as no surprise that my first ten Google search results were articles about Future Farmers of America. I knew that was not the FFA I was looking for (see image). Immediately aware that I would to dig through many layers of Google search results before identifying the “true” FFA, I finally remembered that my very own desk mate actually got her PhD in foods and nutrition and her Master’s in exercise physiology.

“Kristine, what would you think ‘FFA’ stands for in the context of post-exercise metabolism?”

Without hesitation, Kristine answers, “free fatty acids.”

Now, I have been writing about health and nutrition professionally for almost four years – many times about the importance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (check it out), but even I could not come up with the words “free fatty acids” when I came across an unfamiliar acronym. If I had to seek consultation to identify the words, how would a true lay-person with no direct access to PhDs have figured it out?

For those who care at all about scientifically literacy, we know that it is rare for a lay-person to pick up and attempt to read an academic article. There are also some who would argue (including me, depending on my mood) that a lay-person should not attempt to read an academic article, with the concern that the piece – packed with jargon and laden with passive language – would only confuse and dishearten the reader. However, for those who may be on the side of encouraging lay interaction with scientific academia, inclusion of the “FFA” acronym is an issue. What are we going to do about it?

I have some thoughts…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Tattoo Removal

When I think of tattoo removal, I think of Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother getting his lower-back butterfly tattoo removed and meeting the infamous Stella in the process. Also this: 

From “We’re the Millers”

I think a lot of us have heard that getting a tattoo removed is even more painful than getting the tattoo in the first place. Other than that, it’s likely you don’t know that much about how a dermatologist actually removes a tattoo.

Tattoo removal specialists are more likely be able to remove a tattoo – and remove the entire design – if:

  • The tattoo was professionally done (not homemade – yikes)
  • The tattoo includes less of the deep black/blue inks
  • More time has passed since getting the tattoo

Even under the most perfect circumstances, scarring, skin color variation, and incomplete removal of the tattoo often result. As it is considered a “aesthetic” or “cosmetic” procedure, tattoo removals are usually not covered by medical insurance. The cost of a tattoo removal procedure will depend on the type of procedure and the type/size/location/age of the tattoo.

There are three main types of tattoo removal according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.

Dermabrasion

Like I explained in a past blog, tattoo ink only permeates into the epidermis and dermis. The idea behind dermabrasion is to remove these layers of the skin affected by tattoo ink in order to remove the tattoo. This approach is lauded for its low costs, outpatient experience, and well-tested assurance. Like other approaches to tattoo removal, dermabrasion is accompanied by a risk of skin color changes and potential scarring. Patients receiving dermabrasion for tattoo removal should expect to experience a two-three week healing time and a feeling of being “wind-burned.” During recovery, patients should avoid exposure to the sun.

Laser surgery

Laser therapy (also called laser surgery or laser rejuvenation) is the preferred treatment for tattoo removal (low-risk, minimal side effects). This treatment option involves targeting a tattoo’s pigment with high-intensity laser beams. Based on what type and how many lasers used as well as various laser settings, this approach can work for different color and size tattoos. Laser therapy limits the amount of scarring that results from tattoo removal because of the laser’s ability to selectively target the tattooed skin without damaging un-tattooed skin.

Surgical excision

Surgical excision is as invasive as it sounds. The dermatologists uses a scalpel to surgically remove the tattoo (this option is rarely used and usually only for small tattoos in special cases). The wound is closed with stitches.

References and sources to learn more

Layers of the skin

Classifications of burns

Science of tattooing

Healing

Removal

Tattoo Healing

30 states require tattoo artists to provide aftercare instructions, and rightly so. Proper aftercare is super important for maintaining the integrity of the design and preventing infections.

Saniderm Tattoo Healing

Every tattoo artist has their own preference for tattoo healing, and the shop I went to – Canvas Tattoo & Art Gallery in Charlotte – prefers tattoo aftercare via Saniderm, an adhesive bandage that lets the tattoo “breathe” while protecting the healing skin from environmental exposure at the same time. Interestingly, similar bandages are used for burn victims.

The folks at Saniderm explain that because recently tattooed skin is indeed an “open wound,” appropriate aftercare is essential to not only make sure the quality of your new ink stays intact, but also to prevent unwanted infections that could ruin your tattoo and be really dangerous. The Saniderm bandage keeps newly tattooed skin moist and clean during the first few days after the initial tattooing when the skin is the most vulnerable.

After completing the tattoo, the fabulous Grace Jang at Canvas (who also designed my tattoo, check out her insta) put a Saniderm bandage on my arm and gave me these instructions:

  • Remove Saniderm bandage after 12-24 hours, gently clean tattoo with antibiotic soap, and pat dry with a paper towel.
  • Put another Saniderm bandage on and leave it on for five days.
  • No scratching or soaking my arm (no baths, but showers okay) for 3 weeks.
  • After removing Saniderm, keep tattoo moist with moisturizing lotion to prevent scarring, which could affect the tattoo design.

I followed her instructions meticulously, and three weeks later, my tattoo looks fabulous. There was a bit of (expected) peeling and it was a little itchy, but I kept it clean and moisturized and everything was fine.

So why is it imperative to keep a new tattoo moisturized? The healing wound will dry up and form a scab (like wounds tend to do) if you don’t keep it moist. While scab formation is a normal part of topical wound healing, excessive scabbing can warp the design of a tattoo as the body gets rid of “damaged” skin cells (in this case, tattooed skin cells likely important to the integrity of your design) and replaces them with new skin cells. Together, using Saniderm immediately after getting a tattoo and relying on moisturizing lotion in days after that is a great way to compromise with your immune system – protecting skin cells without ruining your new tattoo.

Other types of tattoo healing

General advice from MedlinePlus recommends covering a fresh tattoo with petroleum ointment followed with plastic wrap/bandage for at least a few hours. After removing the bandage, wash the tattoo with soap and water and apply more petroleum ointment. After this point, you’re essentially letting the wound heal naturally, keeping it moisturized and protected from the sun. Most experts will advise not scratching the tattoo while it heals and not soaking it in water.

Getting the Tattoo

What’s happening to your skin when you’re getting a tattoo?

Getting a tattoo is like getting multiple injections of ink in a concentrated location on the skin – of course usually in a meaningful pattern according to the tattoo design. Tattoo needles take the ink through the epidermis (outer layer) into the dermis (second layer).

  • The epidermis is responsible for new skin cell production. Think about your skin peeling after a sunburn and scabs forming when you get a cut. This layer of the skin also produces melanin, dictating what color your skin is. Additionally, protective immune cells live in the epidermis. Think about how much nasty stuff your skin is exposed to on a regular basis. These immune cells are hard at work 24/7. First-degree burns are those that affect the epidermis.
  • The dermis has its own set of duties, including sweat production, sensation, hair growing, oil-making, and ferrying blood to and from the epidermis. Second-degree burns are those that affect the epidermis and part of the dermis.

The immune cells living in the epidermis don’t know that the needle piercing the skin is something you’ve voluntarily agreed to do (actually paying someone to do). They react as if the body is under attack, triggering the inflammatory response. You’re familiar with the immune response if you’ve ever cut yourself, scratched a bug bite, or gotten a sunburn. I’m going to go out on a not-to-flimsy limb here and say you’ve definitely experienced the inflammatory response during your lifetime.

When immune cells in the epidermis trigger the inflammatory response, the immune system goes on high alert, sending troops of specialized immune cells to the wound site. This is also why you feel pain during a tattoo (and other wounds) – your body is telling you that you’re under attack and you need to GTFO.

The ink delivered by the tattoo is taken up by immune cells called macrophages, which specialize in engulfing particles and digesting them to “clean up debris” at a wound site. Skin cells called fibroblasts also take up ink. Whichever way the ink goes, those cells stay in the dermis permanently, providing the “a tattoo is forever” quality that makes grandmothers everywhere furrow the brows and purse their lips in disapproval.

Let’s Talk About Tattoos

Well folks… #ScienceKara got a tattoo and (obviously) was very intrigued about the process of getting a tattoo and how it heals afterward (I’m a low-level hypochondriac) and thus, a blog post was born. I started writing this and realized that there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the realm of tattoo science, so I’m splitting it into a series of couple of articles.

The Art (and Science) of…

Tattooing

Tattoo Healing

Tattoo Removal

Plus…

What Can Go Seriously Wrong if You Get a Low-quality Tattoo

 

To begin, I want to take a few paragraphs to talk about why I got a tattoo and the social implications of having a tattoo in 2018. I’ve thought about getting a tattoo for a long time, as I am very passionate about self-expression and constant reminders of strength and meaning. But as someone who, realistically, also has to consider what my tattoo will say about me in the workplace, I did some thinking and some serious research on more than just the tattoo healing process before getting my ink.

Social Implications of Getting a Tattoo: How Things Have Changed

There are plenty of Business Insider, Forbes, and Huffington Post articles discussing tattoos and changing social norms, but I scored an even better source: a peer-reviewed journal article from a journal called Human Relations. Let’s chat about the highlights.

The main question: is it still true that people with tattoos are less “employable” than people without tattoos?

Researchers say that discrimination based on an individual having tattoos is a form of “lookism,” which also includes discrimination based on clothing, attractiveness, and body weight. Authors of the 2018 study cited other studies from 1995, 2006, and 2011 that suggested employers are less likely to hire applicants with tattoos. This of course excludes a few specific occupations, like a tattoo artist.

However, the authors also mention a 2016 study that showed that “the prevailing view that body art is associated with both employment and earnings discrimination was challenged by a recent study finding that having a tattoo is not significantly related to employment conditional on labor force participation, nor with earnings conditional on employment.”

The author from the 2018 Human Resources study build a more robust study design as a follow-up to the referenced 2016 study, factoring in a more diverse set of metrics like:

  • Tattoo prevalence and characteristics
  • Labor force participation
  • Labor supply and earnings
  • Socio-demographics
  • Risky behaviors
  • Health status

Ultimately, their study confirmed that they could find “no evidence that tattoos are significantly associated with employment or earnings discrimination.”

I’m not an expert on the evolution of social norms in American culture so I can’t say for sure why tattoos are becoming increasingly accepted in the working world. I’d like to think that Americans are becoming increasingly accepting of all forms of self-expression – in addition to tattoos, things like gender and sexuality. What do you think?

A Sign of Self-expression

Transitioning into talking about why I decided to get my tattoo, I think the easiest way to explain to people why I got my tattoo (a cat looking into a mirror and seeing a lion as his reflection) is to talk about self-expression.

The older I get, the more I feel this gravitational pull of monotony, the transition into the habitual activities of the working world: Wake up, get ready. Eat breakfast, take the dog out. Go to work, do my job. Come home, make dinner. Watch TV or read a book. Go to bed. Repeat.

Add in a few weekends, a few doctor’s appointments, and some fun outings with friends. Nonetheless, I was only a few months in at my new job (my first “real” job working 8-5), and I was feeling apprehensive about falling into the rhythm and waking up in 20 years wondering where the time had gone.

Now, I’m not saying that getting a tattoo is going to solve all my existential philosophical issues, but this single act of permanent self-expression definitely helped me stake my claim that I would not be giving into the monotony. You have to work for a living – I understand that this is how the world works – but I can also devote as much time as I can to bettering myself, learning about the world and about its people, and enjoying all the aspects of life. This is (partly) what my tattoo means to me, reminds me of.

Bettering Myself

As much as I talk (and write) about health, nutrition, exercise, etc., I’m really not as healthy as I can be in my own life. The second part of what my tattoo means to me is that promise to myself that I will devote myself to staying healthy – mind and body – with eating healthy foods, exercising regularly and building my strength, and taking care of my anxiety.

I hope that when I look at my tattoo and see the cat and the lion, I can gain inspiration from either character based on what situation I’m in. When I feel like the cat, I’m looking for strength from the lion to be strong or make a hard choice. And when I feel like the lion, I need the cat to help me stay grounded and remember how far I’ve come. I hope that if you’re reading this and you’ve been considering getting a tattoo or some other form of self-expression, that you’ll follow through with it despite any nay-sayers discouraging you. You know what you want and what you need, and life’s too short not to do the things that bring you joy, purpose, and strength.

Stay tuned for the next episode in this series about tattoos.

The Fitbit Philosophy

I bought a Fitbit before my trip to Germany because I wanted to see how many steps we walked each day (and pat myself on the back for all of my 10,000+ days). I have the Fitbit Charge (2?) – the one with the clock display that connects with your phone and reads your texts and notifies you when you have an incoming phone call. I also like to call it “the poor woman’s Apple watch.” It has a plethora of features you can read about on Fitbit.com, but I mostly use it for:

  • Counting steps (more often making myself feel bad for not reaching 10,000 than celebrating for reaching 10,000)
  • Telling the time/date
  • Reading text messages during meetings
  • Looking at my active minutes

This is relatively normal Fitbit activity, and what I really want to talk about today is something I’ve been calling “the Fitbit Philosophy.”

‘If you run three miles but you forgot to wear your FitBit, did you really run three miles?”

You know what I’m talking about. It’s that feeling of disappointment you get when you pull yourself out of bed in the morning or stop at the gym on the way home from work before realizing that you forgot to wear your Fitbit. Yes, you’re going to have an invigorating workout, but your steps, active minutes, calories burned, etc. won’t be calculated and counted by your Fitbit. You won’t get to mentally high-five yourself all day every time you check the time. You won’t get to speak the not-so-humble brag “I’m killin’ my steps today” to coworkers who smile weakly and clearly couldn’t care less. You won’t have the satisfaction of getting a “head start” on the ultimate goal advertised by the Fitbit world – 10,000 steps (on my 10,000+ days this usually occurs around 10:00pm while I’m walking the dog or climbing the stairs to my room one last time. ‘Is that a phone call I’m receiving? No, the computer on my wrist following my movements all day is notifying me of my ten-thousandth step with vibrating fireworks and other celebratory effects.’).

The Fitbit philosophy is born from the classic Fitbit marketing position: walking/running at least 10,000 steps a day will make you a healthier individual, and regularly wearing a Fitbit will help remind you to achieve that goal. There is a lot of research on exercise, physical activity, nutrition, and weight loss, so I’m not writing today trying to say that I have all the answers on fitness and how to lose weight and be healthy. But there is one scientist whose research I’ve read a lot of, and I’ll cite him.

David Nieman, DrPH (Doctor of Public Health), has dedicated his career to the field of exercise immunology, and currently he is the director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, just 30 minutes north of Charlotte.

One of Nieman’s studies (from 2016) found that splitting up long periods of intensive exercise into 3-4 ten or fifteen minute sessions is just as healthy as completing one bout of exercise. For some people, exercising in short bouts as opposed to longer sessions actually reduces the amount of post-exercise unhealthy inflammation, muscle damage, and overall stress on the body.

The Data*

75 percent of the people I polled on the Fitbit philosophy have a Fitbit. Here are some reasons why:

  • Calculating calorie intake and calorie expending
  • Motivation to make healthy choices
  • Insight into running workouts and heart rates
  • Earning badges and competing in challenges

For those who did not own a Fitbit, here are some reasons why:

  • Cost too high
  • No desire for fitness direction
  • Preference for maintaining fitness and health without counting calories

Two-thirds of Fitbit owners wear their device every day. The other one-third only wears the device when they happen to remember to do so. All of the Fitbit users had reached the goal of 10,000 steps at one point in their lives:

Over half of Fitbit users feel the sense of “my exercise doesn’t count today” when they forget to wear their Fitbit.

*I’m going to keep my poll open and update the data section as new responses come through

It’s also important to remember that walking 10,000 steps per day won’t necessarily help you lose weight – eating a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruits is just as important as (if not more than) regular exercise. If you’re almost completely inactive and obese, walking 10,000 steps would probably make a huge difference. But the more weight you lose, the harder you have to work to continue losing weight – with regular exercise and healthy diet choices. For exercise to make a big difference on weight loss, it really needs to be 45-60 minutes per day, and your heart rate need to be elevated for most of that time.

Read more on this.

Body Love

All that being said, I like to remind people (and myself!) that eating healthy food and exercising regularly is about more than just losing weight – it’s about being healthy and feeling great – physiologically and mentally. Yes, for many people losing weight is a step to being healthier, but in our society (so focused on numbers and standards – think BMI, everyone is different), I think there is always room for a reminder that being healthy isn’t only about what you weigh. In fact, as a foodie, I definitely believe in the mental health factor of eating your favorite foods (for me? Bojangles, fine cheeses, ice cream) and drinking your favorite drinks (for me? Red wine, craft beer) from time to time. What’s life without a little bit of flavor?

Ever wondered, “Why 10,000?” Here’s a comprehensive article from Mayo Clinic on that.

Just for fun, here are some other Fitbit thoughts:

#TFW your 3:50pm 250-step reminder from Fitbit corresponds with your afternoon trip to the toilet

When you and your deskmate at work both check your Fitbits at ten minutes to the hour, you’ll make eye contact but remain speechless. For you both already know it’s step o’clock.

It’s a text message! It’s an Outlook calendar alert! No, it’s 4:50pm and you’ve barely moved in the last hour.

When you know the “step counting technology” is imperfect, because Fitbit says you walked 15 steps but you know for a fact that you’ve been sitting so long, you’ve actually walked -32 steps.

Science Kara in 2017: Sifting Through Nutrition Research for the Truth

Following trends in nutrition science can seem confusing, frustrating, and even pointless. A lot of nutrition research is funded by big players in the food industry which can lead to published results that are potentially biased and misleading.

However, I like to encourage people not to give up on nutrition science altogether. Like anything else, it is imperfect, and more experts are dedicating their research to understanding the beneficial aspects of specific foods every day.

I am a big fan of the research conducted at the North Carolina Research Campus, where scientists focus on specific fruits and vegetables (F&V), their different components, and what these components can do for specific bodily functions. But today I refer to a recent review of nutrition studies published by the American College of Cardiology, where leading experts are focusing on digging through the controversy and returning with a “bottom line.” For example, are eggs good for you because they contain protein or bad for you because they are high in cholesterol? You have probably heard both arguments, and the contradiction can be confusing enough to make you want to forget about “trying to be healthy” all together because of the way nutrition “experts” cannot seem to agree on a dependable, official standard.

There is still a large volume of knowledge that scientists have yet to access concerning the nutritional components of F&V and other healthy foods and how they work to heal the body and prevent disease, so do not expect the recent review to be a flawless and timeless new guide to eating right. Instead, take it in as a reliable source and an accurate representation of the body of work that encompasses nutrition research.

If you decide make a lifestyle change because of the information the review has to offer, that is great, but if you continue to shun the idea of altering your eating habits because of the possibility of the information changing in the future, that is your decision. But come on, should the essential message present in the review, that relying on a mostly plant-based diet is the best way to prevent disease, really come as a surprise to you?

The review discusses different diet patterns including fads and trends, problems with modern nutrition research, and controversies about the consumption of different foods. I am going explore each topic one by one, but I also encourage you to check out the review for yourself. It is easy to read. For even lighter reading, here is a press release about the review from the American College of Cardiology. Stay tuned.

Do you have an “Appetite for Life?”

The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) hosts regular events as a part of a program they call “Appetite for Life.” It’s an initiative to “unlock the promise of personalized nutrition for proactive health management.” In other words, their mission is to show people how to eat for their health, specific to individual genetics and environmental experiences.

zeisel-afl

The speaker at the event on September 13 is Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, and Director of the NRI. Zeisel is world-renowned, a pioneer in the field of personalized nutrition. A nutrient you’ve probably heard of, called choline, is essential for human health, especially concerning pregnant women, and Zeisel is the scientist credited with this discovery.

“I’m not going to tell you what to eat today,” Zeisel says as he begins his talk. Tonight’s event is called “Genetics and Health: Your nutrition needs are as unique as you are,” and the venue, local eatery Restaurant 46, is packed with members of the local community and employees from the neighboring North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), a 350-acre research center located in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Zeisel goes on to describe the true meaning of personalized, or precision, medicine and the past, current, and future studies the NRI has in place to make personalized medicine a reality for everyday people concerned with their health.

“Diet can be changed to bypass nutrient deficiencies depicted by the genetic code,” Zeisel goes on. He starts by breaking down the specifics of nutrition science, starting with genetics. He describes single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), common genetic variation that occurs uniquely in all humans, as “spelling errors” in the DNA. Considering that a majority of the audience have a limited understanding of current genetics, Zeisel presents his description of SNPs in an accurate yet simplified manner. After all, what’s the point of talking about bringing personalized medicine to the public if the lay people can’t understand what you’re talking about?

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Zeisel and his colleagues at the NRI are preparing for the future of genetic testing, a technology they predict as being able to sequence an individual’s genetic code to provide a complete record of specific “spelling errors” in the DNA that might make the individual at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. Being aware of nutrient deficiencies would then allow the individual to change their diet to eat more or less of a certain type of food.

There are companies that exist now, like 23andMe, that can provide genetic information from a DNA sample. However, the product a 23andMe customer gets in return for their money and a cheek swab is just pages and pages of combinations of “AGTC” that’s essentially meaningless unless the customer also happens to be an expert in nutrigenetics with a lot of free time.

Zeisel goes on to talk about choline, folate, and other studies from the NRI and other institutions concerned about health and nutrition. He leaves plenty of time for community members to ask their own questions, many about their health and the health of their loved ones.

The NRI’s story is far from over, but after a while questions subside. For now, people head home with a new perspective on individualized nutrition. The next Appetite for Life event is now something to look forward to, a talk by NRI scientist Stephen Hursting on October 18.

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Images from UNC NRI and Kara Marker

What You Haven’t Heard About the “Brain-Eating” Amoeba

A recent report of a death from a specific type of organism that causes brain disease has millions of people concerned about going swimming. The loss of life from this disease is devastating, but there’s actually almost no reason why people should stop going to the U.S. National White Water Center (WWC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, where officials are still not positive the female from Ohio was exposed to the disease-causing organism.

home_page_image_naegleria-vjf5-a
Naegleria fowleri | Credit: CDC

Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba species that causes an extremely rare infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis. Less than ten cases per year have been reported in the United States for the past 50 years, with just 37 infections reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during 2006 and 2015. However rare the disease may be, infections do occur as seen in the unfortunate report of an Ohio female visiting the WWC with a church youth group.

It’s difficult to resist feeling a little bit afraid after hearing this story on the news, especially since the media refers to the amoeba as “brain-eating.” The reality is that N. fowleri breaks down brain tissue, causing death from brain swelling. Meningitis, or the infection of the brain and/or spinal cord, is not unique to N. fowleri. Meningitis occurs much more often as a result of a viral infection than from an amoeba or other parasite.

Additionally, it is important to note that you are only at risk for primary amebic meningoencephalitis if N. fowleri goes up your nose. If you swallow contaminated water, you’re fine. If you’re swimming in the ocean, you’re safe (N. fowleri doesn’t like salty water). The amoeba is only dangerous if it goes up your nose, which contributes to the rarity of this disease.

“The number of yearly cases of death resulting from this rare amoebic infection is so low that there is absolutely no reason to think that the White Water Center is any more dangerous than a lake or any other fresh water body of water,” said molecular biologist Christy Esmahan, PhD. “The media likes to sensationalize rare infections, but the truth is that you are far more likely to die of drowning in a pool than of contracting this infection at the WWC or anywhere else.”

Many Facebook users and Twitter scrollers are probably more likely to click “share” or “retweet” than they are to actually read any of the dozens of news stories covering this incident. Let’s look at some of the lead titles:

“Teen dies from brain-eating amoeba infection after visit to Whitewater Center”

“Brain-Eating Amoeba Eyed in Death of Ohio Teen”

“Ohio woman dies from infection caused by ‘brain-eating amoeba’”

Am I hooked after reading these titles? Yes. Is my mom canceling her trip to the WWC this weekend? Most likely. Does this title really describe the situation? Not entirely.

Let’s go over some of the key points:

  1. Meningitis from this particular amoeba is extremely rare. You’re no more likely to contract this disease from the WWC in Charlotte than you are at any lake, river, or other non-saline body of water in the world.
  2. Officials are not even sure if it was actually the WWC where the amoeba was contracted. The WWC is still running under regular operation, and scientists are testing the water for amoeba right now.
  3. You are not at danger from contracting meningitis from this amoeba by drinking contaminated water. It has to go up your nose to be dangerous.

Know the facts, stay informed, and don’t be afraid!

https://twitter.com/ScienceKara 

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Credit: U.S. National White Water Center