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A Brief History of the Panama Canal Railway

Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1881 as a project directed by France, and was completed in 1914 by the US. This 51-mile (82 km) waterway has served as a major facilitator of trans-oceanic trade since its existence.

But before there was the Panama Canal, there was the Panama Canal Railway, a form of transportation certainly far less known than the canal.

The narrow isthmus of Panama seemed like an obvious choice to ferry goods from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans, but getting enough investment to build a means to cross this strip of land was more difficult.

In the mid-19th century, leaders of countries spanning from France to Panama to the US commissioned studies that searched for the best available route from one side of Panama to the other. Since railroads were still a relatively new development (the first public railway, Liverpool-Manchester, had only opened in 1930), a railway was not the immediate choice of those interested in constructing a trans-oceanic route. A road, canal, or railway were all under consideration.

Yet all of these projects fell through until 1848. William Aspinwall, whose company operated Pacific mail steamships, was able to raise $1 million ($38 million in today’s dollars) in order to construct a railway across Panama. As it turned out, this money was collected at an opportune time. The Gold Rush in California began in the same year, creating an increased demand for people wanting to travel from the east coast cities of the US to the west coast.

By 1850, a route for the proposed railway was drafted, and construction began on the east coast of Panama. The going was difficult, to say the least. The proposed route crossed through swaps filled with alligators, and workers sometimes laboured in swamp water that came up to their waists. Malaria conferred by the thick swarms of mosquitoes claimed many lives, along with diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. Steam-powered tools were still uncommon in this era, and much of the work was completed by hand, including hacking through the thick jungle with machetes.

The slow progress of constructing the railway, combined with the additional costs of shipping food and supplies long-distance to the workers, meant that the $1 million raised was used up quickly. After 20 months, only 8 miles (13 km) of track were laid. The company was able to save itself by earning money through transporting desperate gold seekers across the continent, using a combination of canoes and mules where there were no rails.

The Continental Divide posed particular problems for construction, and constructing the part of the route that was meant to go through this mountainous area was challenging for both the Panama Canal Railway and later the Panama Canal itself. Several large bridges were also required for the railway, and altogether the workers constructed 300 bridges and culverts, channels that allow water to flow under the railway.

On 27 January, 1855, the railway was officially complete at the cost of 5-10,000 lives (the lack of an exact number shows how expendable workers were to the company) and $8 million ($248 million today). In total, the railway was 47 miles (67 km) in length. At the time of construction, the railway was the most expensive per mile of track ever built.

Once in was completed, it immediately became a popular and very profitable Thorofare from the Atlantic to Pacific, just as Aspinwall had originally imagined. Starting in 1881, the railroad provided another important function: transporting materials and workers to begin construction of the Panama Canal. If the railway had not already existed prior to the endeavor of building the canal, the construction of the waterway would have been even more expensive and would have taken longer to build than it was.

After the construction of the canal, demand for transportation via the railroad decreased. Over the next 80 years, the railroad went into a state of decline until Panama’s government offered private companies ownership of the railroad in return for restoring and running it. In 1998, the private company Panama Canal Railway Company (PCRC) took control of the railway, and the company immediately started making the necessary repairs to the route. One of the primary roles of the restored railway was to aid in transporting shipping containers for cargo ships across the isthmus.

The PCRC also offers a passenger service that runs one time a day Monday-Friday, with a total running time of about an hour. The PCRC itself is a company jointly owned by two American companies, Kansas Southern and Mi-Jack Products. Although the US government ceded control of the railway to the Panama government in 1979, it appears that the ownership has come full circle again.

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of a lesser-known railway!


Macular Degeneration & Diet

In the US, about 20 million people live with some degree of age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of vision loss in individuals 60 and older. The macula is an oval-shaped spot of pigmentation on the retina, and the degeneration of this part of the eye results in a loss of sharp vision. Individuals with macular degeneration may lose the ability to recognize faces, read, and perceive colours.

Although macular degeneration is currently irreversible, it is possible to prevent it through lifestyle changes. One perhaps-obvious way to reduce one’s risk of the disease is to protect the eyes from sun exposure through hats and sunglasses. The sun’s rays can damage your eyes along with your skin, so it is best to avoid excessive exposure.

Getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding smoking are other ways to reduce one’s risk of developing the disease. Yet what does the scientific literature say about foods that might help to lower the risk of getting macular degeneration? The rest of this post will explore a few articles.

There are very few diseases that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed by a healthy diet, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is no different. An NIH study from 2010 demonstrated that overall diet quality was related to a person’s risk of developing AMD. In the study, a healthy diet was defined as one with more servings of fruits, vegetables, soy, and nuts, and with less or no servings of meat and processed food. Individuals in the highest quartile of diet quality had a 54% lower probability of developing AMD compared to the other participants in the study.

How, specifically, might diet affect the risk of AMD?

There is a part of the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium, which is a layer of cells just outside the sensory part of the retina that nourishes and protects the machinery of the eye. The retinal pigment epithelium takes up yellow plant pigments from our diet.

You’ve probably heard that carrots are good for the eyes, and that is certainly true. Carrots are a good source of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body and can prevent the formation of both cataracts and macular degeneration. Carrots also contain lutein, which is an antioxidant that increases the density of the retinal pigment epithelium, increasing this layer of cells’ ability to protect your eyes.

Dark green vegetables like spinach and orange and yellow fruits and vegetables also contain a pigment called zeaxanthin. This is another compound that is associated with a lower risk of AMD.

Anthocyanins are another class of pigments usually found in purple or blue plants like red cabbage or blueberries. In a laboratory experiment using cultures of retinal pigment cells, the anthocyanins from blueberries protected the cells from light-induced damage.

Goji berries are known as a superfood, and their effect on retinal pigmentation is indeed substantial. A double-blind randomized placebo trial revealed that eating just 15 goji berries a day protected individuals from loss of pigment from the retinal pigment epithelium, and also increased plasma zeaxanthin level and antioxidant capacity.

As a closing note, eggs also contain zeaxanthin in their yokes. Yet goji berries contain 60 times that amount per serving, and do not contain high amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol that put an individual at greater risk of many chronic diseases. Thus, plants such as goji berries, spinach, carrots, and peppers are the healthier choice for consuming the pigments that protect our eyes from damage.

AMD is not an inevitable condition that we are helpless to protect ourselves from. As we have seen, there are dietary changes that we can take to lower our risk of developing the disease.

Wegovy – the Side Effects and Controversy

Recently, the drug Wegovy was approved for use in the UK. Similar to other brand-name semaglutide pharmaceuticals such as Ozempic, Wegovy can be used to treat diabetes. It involves a weekly injection in the stomach, thigh, or arm. It has recently made the news, however, for supposedly being a “game changer” for weight loss, and for being the secret to weight management allegedly used by many Hollywood celebrities.

The reason why the drug is also being used for weight loss is because it results in a decrease in appetite. When it sends the signal to the pancreas to insulin, another effect is that food moves slower through a person’s digestive tract, making them feel fuller for longer.  

Like many bad ideas, using Wegovy and other semaglutide drugs for weight loss has recently been trending on TikTok. Naturally, these pharmaceuticals are promoted as miracle cures rather than flawed interventions that come with serious side effects. Wegovy can cause unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It also comes with more serious side effects, such as pancreatitis, gallbladder disease, and potentially thyroid cancer.

It is almost guaranteed that most people hear all about the positive hype surrounding this drug, and don’t hear about the potential great harms it can cause.

Mainstream news outlets are also willing to air uncritical promotions of Wegovy. In January of this year, CBS’ 60-minutes showed a 13-minute promotion of the drug that was disguised as a “news” segment. The network had received funding from Novo Nordisk, Wegovy’s manufacturer, for this advertisement. The scientists appearing in the Wegovy ad had also received funding from this company, so unsurprisingly they were completely uncritical of the product.

This ad disguised as news was a violation of FDA regulations, as information about the side effects of Wegovy and comparative data about its effectiveness was completely absent. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit group advocating for evidence-based medicine, has filed a complaint against CBS for their egregious and biased advertisement that was disguised as news.

The aggressive promotion of Wegovy across many forms of media goes along with the trend of using profitable medications with negative side effects to treat chronic diseases instead of diet and lifestyle changes. In mid-January, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released its updated guidelines for treatment of obese children, and recommended weight loss surgery and semaglutide for kids as young as 12 or 13. There are no studies that show the long-term effects of using these treatments on a developing child.

Another way to feel full for longer is through increasing your intake of fiber through eating more whole plant foods. Less than 3% of Americans get the daily recommended amount of fiber, a crucial nutrient for overall health. Fiber acts to protect a body from a variety of different chronic diseases, and replacing high-calorie cheeseburgers with fibrous foods means that a person is eating fewer calories but still feeling satisfied. Yet as always, there isn’t profit to be made in getting people to eat vegetables.

However, there is a lot of profit in weight-loss drugs. Novo Nordisk has the goal of selling $3.72 billion in the sale of such pharmaceuticals by 2025. A month’s supply of the drug currently costs $1,300. It’s a perfect process. Fast food giants profit from making people obese, and then pharmaceutical companies profit from selling them the drugs to treat the illnesses they developed through poor diet. Sickness is far more profitable than health, which explains a lot about our society.

New Study Shows Exercise More Effective Against Depression and Anxiety than Medication

Worldwide, one in eight people have a mental disorder such as depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety. In the US, major depressive disorder affects around 7.1% of the population, and around 18.1% of Americans have anxiety disorders. There is much money to be made from giving out medication for these mental health issues. Without insurance, a 30-day supply of depression medication can cost anywhere between $10-30 for generic drugs and $230-$1990 for the brand-name variations. Medication for anxiety can be similarly expensive (without insurance).

The idea that depression is caused by low serotonin levels and that medication corrects this imbalance has been disproven. And as this 2017 article explains, we still don’t know whether medications like Prozac are actually effective treatments for most people who have depression.

A new meta-analysis of numerous randomized controlled trials suggests that exercise is more beneficial for relieving the symptoms of depression and anxiety than pharmaceuticals or psychotherapy. The researchers who conducted the meta-analysis found that exercise was approximately 1.5 times more effective at treating these conditions. While exercise reduced the mental health issues in study populations between 42-60%, psychotherapy and pharmaceutical interventions only reduced these problems by 22-37%.

150 minutes of physical activity each week resulted in significant reductions in depression and anxiety, and this physical activity could be as moderate as walking 20-40 minutes a day. However, high-intensity forms of exercise, according to the study, produced the greatest benefits to those struggling with mental health issues.

Exercise releases endorphins, the chemical signals in the brain that contribute to feelings of wellbeing. Physical activity also reduces inflammation in the body, a problem which can contribute to a general feeling of unwellness. Exercise might work to reduce anxiety by reducing muscle tension and thus anxiousness, although more work in this area is needed.

It is clear that exercise confers many benefits for mental health, but it is rarely the first thing that physicians prescribe to their patients. Too often, doctors immediately write out a prescription for medications that have side effects and might not be doing all that much.

There are several reasons why exercise is not commonly prescribed by physicians against mental health disorders, or is only mentioned as a tangential way to improve symptoms. Patients might be skeptical that simply increasing their exercise could help what they are feeling – medication that promises to correct a chemical imbalance in the brain seems on the surface to be a more modern and effective treatment.

Doctors might be aware of this perception and want to preserve their image as a source of authority, or they might not be aware of the research on the powerful benefits of exercise against mental health disorders. Often, medical school focuses heavily on prescribing drugs as the first line of defense against an illness. In addition, doctors might believe that their patients are capable of taking a pill each day, but would not be able to stick with an exercise regimen. This reason is sometimes why doctors prescribe pills over dietary changes that would treat the root causes of someone’s disease.

It is important that exercise be seen as a legitimate treatment for mental health issues rather than just something added as an afterthought in addition to prescription drugs. In recent years, doctors in some regions of the globe have begun to prescribe nature walks for their patients over pharmacotherapy. In Canada, the organization PaRx (Park Prescriptions) works with licensed professionals to prescribe patients to spend time outdoors to improve their mental and physical health.

The research to support these prescriptions is clear, and it’s time for the treatments that physicians prescribe to catch up with the science.

Disgraceful Situation in East Palestine, Ohio Continues

Last week, I mentioned that Norfolk Southern, the railway that operated the train that derailed and contaminated an Ohio town with vinyl chloride, had set up a $1 million fund for the victims of this disaster. That amount is a pittance compared to the amount the company has spent on stock buybacks and CEO pensions.

As of the time of this writing, the EPA has required Norfolk Southern to clean up the contaminated soil and water around East Palestine. This order will legally require NS to pay for the cleanup services provided by the EPA in the area. As of now, NS has increased the amount of money it will commit to the town to $6 million.

Residents of East Palestine have continued to be assured that their water is safe to drink, and mainstream news outlets have reassured Americans living in other regions of the country that no mass contamination of this town occurred. Yet the tests to prove that there is no contamination were conducted by a contractor hired by Norfolk Southern, which is a bit of a conflict of interest, to put it mildly. One of the testing companies hired to do the work has a history of falsifying data, such as for well-known disasters like Deepwater Horizon.

There is an economic reason why the railroad would want to declare the town free of contaminants so soon. They can’t run a train through a contaminated cleanup zone, but if the town is no longer under an evacuation order and is declared safe, the trains can once again run. Perhaps – and this is a wild idea – Norfolk Southern has falsely declared the region around the derailment safe so that they don’t lose any money by not being able to use the railroad.

A “clinic” has been set up for the East Palestine residents who are experiencing symptoms such as itching eyes, rashes, or vomiting. Yet this “clinic” is not actually providing any medical services. Instead, individuals who enter have the chance to talk to a few experts who assure them that their town is safe, and tell them to make an appointment with their own doctor if they are feeling unwell. Keep in mind that this is an impoverished town where people might not have health insurance at all or be able to afford medical bills even if they have insurance.

Meanwhile, Governor DeWine’s close connections with lobbyists from NS calls into question his ability to hold the railroad company responsible. His former legislative director served on NS’ Ohio lobbying firm, and NS has donated $20,000 to DeWine’s campaign and inauguration. NS’ lobbying firm worked to kill a bill that would have required crews of at least two people on all trains going through the state.

The other side of the political aisle has demonstrated its indifference as well. When asked last week why he has not yet visited East Palestine, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg mentioned dismissively that there are “thousands of derailments a year.” First of all, many of those occur in rail yards where one car derails at low speeds on a switching rail. Although it has to be reported, the incident doesn’t dump a carcinogen into an entire town’s water supply. It is unconscionable to dismiss the disaster in East Palestine as an everyday event that doesn’t deserve much attention.

It is sickening how the health concerns of local East Palestine residents continue to be dismissed, and how they are told to go to a “clinic” that will simply tell them that nothing is wrong and to see their own doctor. Given the ties of Ohio’s Governor with the railroad presiding over this disaster, it is unlikely that we will see justice for these victims.

Lobbying & the Ohio Train Derailment

On 3 February 2023, fifty cars of a train derailed in East Palestine, an Ohio town near the border of Pennsylvania. The train cars contained, among other things, vinyl chloride, a substance that raises the risk of developing several types of cancers. The derailment caused an enormous fire that required the evacuation of a three-square mile area surrounding the crash.

Residents were told that they could safely return to their houses once railroad safety crews burned off the rest of the vinyl chloride from the derailment. The toxins from the cars also spilled into the nearby Ohio River, and although Ohio Governor Mike DeWine originally said that people should not be concerned about the resulting pollution from the derailment, he later added at a press conference that those who used private wells close to the spill should only use bottled water.

Understandably, those living close to the chemical spill are concerned about the poisons that were released into their town’s air and water. People in East Palestine have complained about headaches and irritated eyes when walking outside. The vinyl chloride spill killed thousands of fish in the Ohio River, and people have reported livestock, wildlife, and pets to be sick or dying.

At the same time, EPA administrator Michael Regan has tried to assure residents of the area that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink. Officials have been generally dismissive of residents’ concern about their contaminated town. Perhaps some of this indifference comes from the fact that East Palestine is not a wealthy community. The median household income is $46,436, compared to the US average of $67,521.

Is it possible that the officials are right on this one and that people’s concern over their health and reports of sick animals are unwarranted? Perhaps. But the justifiable fears of residents of East Palestine have also been glossed over by the authorities, as if those without university degrees and special training are incapable of making any useful observations. There is a certain element of classism in this papering over of residents’ concerns. It would be far from the first time that the concerns of a poisoned Ohio community were ignored or covered up, as shown in the 2019 docufilm Dark Waters, about Dupont’s contamination of a town with hazardous chemicals.

The derailment itself was caused by a faulty axel. But there is more than just a nonfunctional mechanical part to blame in the catastrophe. First of all, the train carrying the volatile vinyl chloride was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train.” Regulatory agencies were convinced by lobbyists to exempt many trains from these stricter regulations when the current laws were being drafted.

Although Norfolk Southern, owner of the railway, has set up a $1 million fund for the individuals affected by the derailment, it also lobbied successfully against safety regulations proposed by the Obama administration and then spent billions in stock buybacks. In addition, the company cut staff despite warnings of safety concerns with an understaffed railroad – these safety concerns due to understaffing were one of the major grievances brought by striking railroad workers last year.

During the Trump administration, a regulation meant to require better braking systems on US trains was killed. Could the $6 million donated to Republican campaigns that election cycle have had anything to do with that decision? Electronic braking systems can stop a train much more quickly than traditional braking systems, and can help prevent catastrophic derailments like the kind that just happened in East Palestine. Finally, regulators under the Biden made no move to reinstate the braking regulation.

The East Palestine derailment was not the only one in the past month. As of the time of this writing, there have been 5 derailments in the month of February. The most recent one in Michigan also involved a car that was carrying hazardous materials. Will these disasters make this administration overcome the pressure of lobbyists and tempting campaign donations from the railroad industry in order to address safety concerns? I am not optimistic, but time will tell.

To read more about lobbying and the Norfolk Southern Derailment, I would recommend this article:

Examining Randomized Controlled Trials for Surgery

We have all heard of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) being used for pharmaceutical products, where one group receives the actual drug and the other receives a placebo. The results of the trial indicate whether the true medicine has a positive effect that is greater than the one potentially caused by the placebo. But what are the limits of RCTs? Can we use them for something like surgery?

As it turns out, the answer is yes.

One essential component of an RCT is that patients don’t know whether they are receiving the real drug or the placebo. Even better is when the physician examining their condition doesn’t know whether the patient received the real treatment or the placebo. This way, we can distinguish the placebo effect from the treatment effect, and the evaluators are not biased in the way they analyze patients from the control and treatment groups.

It is possible to give people sham surgeries to understand whether the surgery truly has any benefit. Although controversial, RCTs for surgeries are not unheard of. One example of a RCT for surgery is found in a 2002 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The surgery in question was arthroscopy, a surgery of the knee in which a small incision is made to insert a camera that can then be used to guide small tools to do the necessary work. As the authors of the study explain in the abstract, “Many patients report symptomatic relief after undergoing arthroscopy of the knee for osteoarthritis, but it is unclear how the procedure achieves this result.”

Could it be that the benefit from this study is entirely due to the placebo effect? 180 total patients with osteoarthritis of the knee agreed to be randomized into control and treatment groups for the surgery.

The control group received a placebo surgery, where the surgeon made incisions in the knee but did not carry out the full procedure. Although the patients were given tranquilizer and were breathing oxygen-enriched air, the surgeon pretended to be handling the tools for the real procedure in case the patients were still conscious of what was going on. There were two different treatment groups, each with a different type of surgical intervention.

Although surgeons obviously knew whether they were assigned to the treatment or control groups, the physicians assessing the patients’ conditions over the course of 2 years were blind to this fact. Over the course of 24 months, patients would give their ratings of the pain and function of the knee that had been worked on, and assessors also measured how well these individuals could climb up stairs.

The results were that there was no statistical difference between the control and treatment groups in pain or function over the two-year study period. At no point did the treatment groups score better in pain or function metrics than the placebo groups.

One major limitation of the study is that the individuals who agreed to participate in the study are not representative of the population that goes in for arthroscopic knee surgery.

As the authors explain in their study, “A selection bias might have been introduced by the fact that 44 percent of the eligible patients declined to participate in the study. We believe this high rate of refusal to participate resulted from the fact that all patients knew they had a one-in-three chance of undergoing a placebo procedure. Patients who agreed to participate might have been so sure that an arthroscopic procedure would help that they were willing to take a one-in-three chance of undergoing the placebo procedure. Such patients might have had higher expectations of benefit or been more susceptible to a placebo effect than those who chose not to participate.”

In addition, the study was performed in a Veterans Affairs hospital, so almost all of the patients were men. That makes the findings more difficult to generalize. Finally, having only 60 people in each group makes it more difficult to find statistically significant findings.

A more recent sham surgery on certain types of shoulder injuries had a more representative population, but also suffered from the same issue with a small number of individuals in each of the groups, since only 118 people were randomized into 3 different groups.

For all groups, incisions were made in their shoulders, and their arms were put in slings after the operation. All of the groups made significant improvements in pain measurements and function after the surgery, regardless of whether they had the sham surgery. In fact, the improvements for all three groups happened at almost identical rates across a 2-year period.

The authors acknowledge the limitations of their study, but also suggest that there is an overtreatment of patients who have the type of lesion studied in the paper. They suggest that nonsurgical interventions like physical therapy (which the participants in the study underwent after the surgery or sham surgery) as a way to solve the issue without a smaller risk of complications.

There are certainly ethical questions to RCTs with surgeries, not to mention difficulties in finding statistically significant results with few willing participants. It is hard to get a large representative sample of people to sign a document stating that they might receive a placebo surgery.

There are also not a lot of incentives to run RCTs with surgery, and not only because they are difficult to conduct. Physicians do not want to hear that the technique they may have spent decades perfecting doesn’t actually do anything. In addition, in the US, insurance companies may make a lot of money from certain procedures, so they wouldn’t want to see fewer of them.

Nevertheless, it is still important if we know that a patient’s improvement after an invasive procedure is due to the procedure itself or simply the placebo effect. RCTs are an essential component in advancing our knowledge of some surgical techniques.

Dissecting an Attempt by CNN to Fearmonger

Last week, Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida promised to begin preparations to downgrade COVID-19 to the same disease level as the seasonal flu. In the UK, those under 50 who are healthy and without preexisting conditions like cancer will no longer be offered the COVID booster. Last year, the Danish government stopped offering the vaccine to healthy individuals under 50, as stated on the government’s website. All of these measures are responses to moving to the phase of endemicity, where the virus is recognized to cause mild illness in the vast majority of people, like flu or the common cold.

Unfortunately, some individuals have made fear of the virus into an integral part of their political identity over the past few years. They have not adapted to changing conditions across the world as less harmful variants of the virus have taken hold. One example of this inability to adapt came from CNN last week, in their article entitled “Covid-19 is a leading cause of death for children in the US, despite relatively low mortality rate.” Throughout the pandemic, there have been deliberate efforts to exaggerate the risk of COVID among children, when in fact, as the CNN article itself admits in the second paragraph, “Children are significantly less likely to die from Covid-19 than any other age group.”

The article uses data from a study that examined causes of mortality among individuals 0-19, an age range which is personally not what comes to mind when I hear the phrase “children,” but let us put that aside. According to the study data, COVID-19 was the 8th leading cause of death among children. But let us examine that in context based on the data from the study. Here were the top 10 causes of death among individuals 0-19 years based on the pre-Omicron period of August 2021-July 2022 These death rates are given as deaths/100,000 people:

Conditions surrounding the perinatal period (period from childbirth to around 5 months): 12.7/100,000

All accidents: 9.1/100,000

Congenital malformations: 6.5/100,000

Assault: 3.4/100,000

Suicide: 3.4/100,000

Malignant neoplasms (tumors): 2.1/100,000

Diseases of the heart: 1.1/100,000

COVID-19: 1.0/100,000

Influenza and Pneumonia: 0.6/100,000

Cerebrovascular diseases: 0.4/100,000

Based on the data from this study, which was taken largely before the mild omicron variant was even in circulation, children are more than three times more likely to die by homicide or suicide than by COVID. They are nine times more likely to die in an accident such as a car crash than from the virus. Putting in a headline the phrase “Covid-19 is a leading cause of death for children in the US” completely obscures these facts. And since most people only read snippets from headlines, the average person would glance at the title and leave with the impression that COVID is killing children rampantly.

Based on the CDC’s data, over 90% of children in the US have had COVID at least once. There is a reason why many European countries requiring vaccine passports allowed prior infection to be a form of vaccination: immunology 101 tells us that when an individual contracts a virus, they will form antibodies against this invader, generating natural immunity. Yet in the US, various media figures still stress the importance of vaccinating children against COVID-19 from the time they are 6 months old, despite the very low risk of children from the virus. Meanwhile, the fact that men under 40 (and in particular adolescent males) are more likely to get myocarditis from the vaccine than COVID is never mentioned by these fear-mongering articles. There is other available data that would caution us against blindly vaccinating healthy children, such as a recent study focusing on cardiovascular effects from the vaccine among Thai children aged 13-18 that found cardiovascular effects in both adolescent males and females.

For many mainstream pundits in the US, the risk benefit analysis from vaccination has not changed with the variants. Now that omicron is the main variant circulating, the infection-fatality rate (IFR) of COVID is less than the flu. Even in 2020, COVID was no more dangerous to children than the flu was, based on an analysis from the Journal of the American Medical Association published at the time. We knew this in 2020. Yet calmer heads did not prevail when communicating the actual risk to children from the virus.

Dissenting voices are starting to be let into the mainstream. Last week, Newsweek published an editorial where a medical student describes how tribalism within the medical community resulted in tragic mistakes that harmed vulnerable groups the most. The title of the piece is very apt: “It’s Time for the Scientific Community to Admit We Were Wrong About COVID and It Cost Lives.” I am glad that these perspectives are finally being allowed to be heard on legacy media. Even if it is too little too late that Americans who are usually only exposed to fearmongering attempts like this latest CNN article are made aware of factual data and evidence. Only then can we hope to avoid making the same mistakes next time around.

The Misperception that Humans Need to Eat Cholesterol

In the past few weeks, I have encountered several people who were under the impression that humans must eat cholesterol. These individuals didn’t just believe that consuming cholesterol is not unhealthy, they believed it to be essential for human survival. I had not previously heard anyone say this, but perhaps the misperception is more widespread than I imagined. That said, this blog will briefly explain why the belief that humans must consume cholesterol to be healthy is patently false.

Cholesterol is something humans do need for survival. It is a compound that the human body manufactures in the liver, and is a critical component of cells. In fact, vitamin D is synthesized by the skin in sunlight from a form of cholesterol in the skin. Yet your liver produces all of the cholesterol that you need; anything else is excess. You absolutely do not need the cholesterol that you consume from foods. In fact, people should not consume cholesterol from foods at all, as this consumption is detrimental to health.

There is confusion in the mass public that surrounds whether dietary cholesterol intake is related to blood cholesterol levels, and many believe that it’s all genetic and out of a person’s control. Unfortunately, industry-funded studies have purposely muddied the waters on the truth.

If dietary cholesterol was genetic or unrelated to diet, then individuals who cease consuming cholesterol altogether would not experience significant drops in their blood cholesterol levels. Yet instead, we see that when people who switch to plant-based diets that focus on high-fiber foods and contain no cholesterol, they can expect a great decrease in their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. In contrast, individuals living on predominantly plant-based diets will experience a spike in cholesterol as they move to areas where a more animal-product-intense diet is consumed.

An examination of decades of research on the relationship between blood serum cholesterol shows that an increase in dietary cholesterol results in an increase of blood serum cholesterol. The reason why cholesterol myths remain so persistent in society is because profitable industries have the incentive to propagate them.

The study most often used to “prove” that dietary cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol was published in 1971 and used an analysis of only 8 (!) people. Abysmal study design is a common pattern among articles that industry uses to “prove” the health if their products. For example, the study used to “prove” that diet doesn’t affect skin health was conducted in 1969, and the procedure was thus: participants, all of whom had moderate acne, were separated into two groups. One group was assigned to eat two chocolate bars a day that were highly enriched with cocoa, while the other ate two candy bars that contained no chocolate. At the end of the study period, the number of pimples on subjects’ faces were counted. Not exactly a gold star research design!

A related question to the issue of dietary cholesterol and blood serum cholesterol is whether eggs are a healthy food to be consumed. One misperception about eggs is that they contain healthy HDL cholesterol, and so they are beneficial to consume.

The best available studies prove otherwise. One egg contains about 180 mg of dietary cholesterol, along with a great deal of fat. A meta-analysis demonstrates how egg consumption contributes to the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The cholesterol in eggs can raise an individual’s LDL levels, forming more arterial plaque and contributing to heart disease. Meanwhile, more fat-intensive diets lead to an increase in intramyocellular lipids, which clog muscles and prevent insulin from doing its job, contributing to diabetes.

In conclusion, humans definitely do not need to eat dietary cholesterol to survive. Quite to the contrary: consuming dietary cholesterol puts people at greater risk of many chronic diseases.

Hospitals STILL Not Separating Deaths from/with COVID-19, Mainstream Press Acts Shocked to Hear about This Issue

In January of 2022, New York’s hospital system released their data on COVID-19 hospitalizations for 2021. The data showed that only 58% of these hospitalizations were from COVID, meaning that the virus was the reason why these people landed in the hospital in the first place. The other 42% of COVID hospitalizations were from people who went to the hospital for broken bones or other issues and simply happened to test positive for the virus at the time. This data was released a year ago at this point.

Throughout the pandemic, US hospitals have consistently failed to distinguish deaths from/with COVID-19, which is an extreme disservice to the public. Lumping these two sets of figures together makes it appear like the virus is affecting many more lives than it actually is. I wonder why more public health officials didn’t point out this fact a year ago, when clear data from a large US state was released. I’m sure it was just a simple oversight on their part.

Last week, Dr. Leana Wen, former Health Commissioner for the city of Baltimore, went on CNN to discuss the issue of overcounting COVID hospitalizations and deaths. Wen was previously a strong advocate for lockdowns and restricting the ability of unvaccinated people to go out in public. In recent months, however, she has taken a turn towards less extremity, causing significant ire among her former supporters.

During her appearance on CNN, Wen explained that in many areas of the country, only 10% of people in the hospital from COVID are actually because of the virus. The rest have just tested positive for it incidentally. The CNN hosts were skeptical and pushed back against this data-driven claim. Yet why on Earth is this subject only allowed in the mainstream press now? It was obvious that overcounting hospitalizations and deaths was an issue years ago. Back in January of 2022, when NY released its hospital data, stating that COVID deaths were being overcounted was considered a conspiracy theory and could get you kicked off social media. No wonder the phrase to describe happenings in the pandemic has arisen: the difference between a conspiracy theory and fact is six months.

As an employee of a university, I work with exactly the type of people who would push back against Wen’s claims about deaths/hospitalizations, which, once again, were supported by pure data, and have been for a considerable amount of time. These people are still worried that they have an extremely high chance of being hospitalized or dying of COVID if they catch the virus. These individuals are living in a completely different universe to most of the country that has simply moved on with their lives. And why are they living in this alternative reality? Because of the continuous (one might even say purposeful) failures of the public health establishment to give transparent information about the virus to the public.

In the fall of 2020, I worked with colleagues who were convinced that everyone, young or old, had an equal chance of dying from the virus. By that time, we had known for months through hospital data that the primary victims were elderly people with comorbidities – I’m sure that many readers remember tragic stories of nursing homes being devastated by the virus. Yet because public health authorities took the “everyone should be equally terrified” approach to communication, this misperception that everyone is equally at risk persisted long after data was available.

I am glad that some information about the realities of COVID data is now being allowed on the mainstream press. Dr. Leana Wen is certainly in a difficult situation, because the class of liberals cultivated by years of intentionally panic-inducing news reports will feel betrayed that she is now taking a more measured route, and those who were against her harsh COVID policies in the first place will not be quick to forgive.

Yet the fact that some people in the US are shocked by the idea that COVID hospitalizations and deaths are miscounted demonstrates the utter failure of the public health establishment. Denmark began separating deaths with/from COVID more than a year ago. Why has the US still not done the same? I know many individuals who simply cannot figure out why individuals don’t trust health authorities and why trust keeps declining. Perhaps it is because of a complete lack of transparency and a refusal to provide better data to the public. Perhaps – and this is a crazy idea – Americans won’t trust an authority that consistently lies to them.

I am truly saddened by how much figures in public health have damaged their own reputation. This type of trust cannot be won back easily, and right now I don’t think such trust is warranted at all. People in positions of power within the public health establishment need to offer an apology and explain how they will avoid making the same mistakes in the future. A sincere apology would be the first step towards restoring trust in public health authorities – but somehow, I doubt that any such apology is coming soon.