Margaret McCartney

The Royal College of Physicians have just put out a report on smoking: Passive smoking is a major health hazard to children- sudden infant death, asthma, wheeze, meningitis, middle ear disease can all be caused by it and they want more to be done to prevent these problems – particularly in children.

There is an irony in that people in public houses are now better protected against smoke than children who live with smokers. And yes, most smokers want to give up – and most parents who smoke, I find, do so with guilt and out of the back door. Here are a couple of the proposals:

  • It is important to promote smoke-free homes through mass media campaigns, advice and support from health professionals to smokers, and new approaches such as substituting cigarettes with medicinal nicotine
  • Smoke-free legislation should be extended much more widely, to include public places frequented by children and young people, and to prohibit all smoking in cars and other vehicles; media campaigns are needed to explain the need to avoid exposing children to smoking as well as to smoke
…and while I can see why, it seems a bit illogical to me to stop adults on their own from smoking in their own cars.

Margaret McCartney

In one of my most enduring memories of childhood, I can see my little brother sneaking up to a glass of Guinness on Christmas Day and taking a furtive sip. He turned to reveal a cream moustache – and a nauseated grimace.

This Christmas, I saw that same look of horror when my seven-year-old daughter asked me if she could have a taste of fizzy wine. I said yes – but only a tiny drop. She tried it and promptly made a disgusted face that said, do adults actually drink this? I admit I was pleased: by satisfying her curiosity and denting alcohol’s glamour, I hoped I’d done a good thing.

Continue reading “Mother’s ruin”

By Rebecca Knight

Anyone who has ever spent considerable time with a young child who’s learning to talk -not just baby babble, but learning how to pronounce words, string phrases, and put sentences together – knows that it’s a fascinating thing to watch.

I have a two year-old daughter who every day is figuring out how to express herself with language. (She expresses herself in other ways too, she is a toddler, after all, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll stick to language.) It started with basic words: ball, kitty, yellow, mama, daddy. Then phrases: “mo wawa pease” – that’s: “more water please” for the uninitiated. And now she repeats everything I say. Every. Little. Thing.
Perhaps what’s been most exciting, however, is the fact that she, unlike me, speaks two languages. At home, we speak English, but she also spends a lot of time with her Brazilian nanny who speaks to her almost exclusively in Portuguese. My daughter understands most everything her nanny says, and answers her, accordingly, in Portuguese. It’s true, what they say, small children are like sponges.
According to a new study, they’re sponges in the womb, too. The research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science, found that infants born to bilingual mothers who spoke both languages during pregnancy show signs of different language preferences than babies born to mothers who spoke only one language. 

Margaret McCartney

Magical powers are always being squeezed from fruit. The latest is derived from the pomegranate, which is said to tackle drug-resistant infections such as MRSA.

This claim, by a team from the University of Kingston in Surrey, tells me two things. First, media reporting doesn’t always recognise the discrepancy between laboratory experiments and real life ones. If something works in the lab – Kingston reports “moderate” effects – there’s no certainty that it will work in practice. Second, the prospect of a cure for one superbug has obscured the fact that others are still at large.

MRSA is not the only resistant bacteria causing problems. There are Klebsiella pneumonia, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Acinetobacter baumanni, and that’s just the start of a very long list. MRSA used to be sensitive to vancomycin, an antibacterial – but now there are strains showing resistance. And of course there is clostridium difficle, caused when antibiotic use destabilises the balance of bacteria in the gut.

Continue reading “The war on superbugs”

By Rebecca Knight

We’ve all encountered people that had terrible, miserable childhoods. People who were abandoned as babies, or who grew up in poverty; people whose parents were unstable, and had problems with alcohol, or drugs, or gambling; or worse: people whose parents were cruel, and abused them.

I often think that these people, after enduring such unhappy childhoods, are somehow “owed” adulthoods free of trouble. Surely they’ve suffered enough. In the interest of fairness, shouldn’t they be blessed with good health at least? But most of the time, I observe, these people are often the sickliest. They have trouble with their weight, or have diabetes, or suffer from heart disease, or battle depression. It seems unjust.

Margaret McCartney

In September this year, a young woman fell ill and died, hours after she was injected with Cervarix, the vaccine intended to prevent cervical cancer.

Several media reports questioned the safety of the vaccine and called for the schools vaccination programme to be scrapped. The batch of vaccine was quarantined until investigations could be completed, but after a postmortem concluded that the schoolgirl had died of a previously unknown tumour, the vaccination programme continued.

I am no great fan of Cervarix, but not for safety reasons. Rather, I am not convinced that doubts about its performance have been adequately addressed by research. The management of this unexpected fatality, however, was faultless. The possible link to the vaccine was instantly spotted and properly reacted to. Deaths in young schoolgirls are uncommon, so the potential danger was easier to identify, and in this case it was relatively easy to rule out.

The remainder of this article can be read here. Please post comments below.

By Rebecca Knight

My daughter woke up three days ago with a runny nose, a fever of 101, and a wheezy, puffing cough that made her sound as though she’d smoked a pack a day for the past thirty years. My girl – age 22 months – is precocious, but I was confident that she hadn’t been sneaking cigarettes.

So I did what any novice mother in my situation would do: I went straight to the internet. I logged on to my favourite medical site and dutifully typed in her symptoms. Immediately I got a diagnosis: croup.

“Croup is a condition that causes an inflammation of the upper airways, and it often leads to a barking cough or hoarseness especially when a child cries,” the site said. “Most cases of croup are caused by viruses, and it is most common in children 6 months to 3 years old, but can affect older kids, too.”

Margaret McCartney

A case control study in the British Medical Journal: Hazardous cosleeping environments and risk factors amenable to change: case-control study of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in south west England examines the relationship between co-sleeping – sleeping next to your child – and sudden infant death syndrome.

Sids is relatively rare but devastating: and the cause is not yet fully understood. However, risk factors have been identified - the best known one was putting a baby to sleep face down. This used to be the done thing, however, it was subsequently shown to be postively dangerous, and the “back to sleep” information provided by health visitors has gone some way towards reducing deaths by Sids.

Margaret McCartney

In terms of information for parents, this trial from the Oxford Vaccine Group looks quite good: Swine Flu (Novel Influenza A H1N1) Vaccine Study for parents and children, except I can’t see a note that they have registered the trial at on their website. However, they clearly have –  it is registered here on the International Standard Randomised Controlled Trial Number Register

It’s a head-to-head trial of two vaccines, their side effects and their antibody response. The one by Baxter is called Celvapan, but GlaxoSmithKline has gone for Pandemrix, which really is a terrible name.

This trial is presumably to help the government choose a vaccine supplier: the trial may not, though, be able to add to the evidence for or against vaccination at all: see my previous interview with Dr Tom Jefferson

Margaret McCartney

Slings, pram-bikes, vibrating rocking cradles …

It’s hard to keep up with trends in child-rearing paraphernalia. When I bought a car seat for my first child, for example, there was hardly any choice. Most products were variations on a curved seat that put the infant in a sitting or flopping position. Now the new “must have” accessory is a car bed, a more rigid kind of affair which straps the child in so that he or she is flat.

Fashion for babies is a curious thing, often faddish and needlessly expensive. However, in the case of car beds, there seems to be evidence to suggest that the reclining baby is healthier than its propped-up counterpart. But is this enough for us to make the switch?

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Health and science blog (Archived)

This blog, part of the FT's health series, is a forum for readers interested in the science, policy, management, technology, business and delivery of healthcare.

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

About our regular bloggers

Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog:

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow