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Swine Flu (H1N1) Outbreak: Recombination and Media Responsibility

Students in my class take part in this discussion here.

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As we follow the story of the swine flu Influenza A(H1N1) outbreak on the news and the internet, we start to become overwhelmed with information. In all cases related to health, it is vital that we practice critical thinking and take the time to evaluate our sources of information. The more controversial or the higher the impact of a story, the more likely it is for people to be discussing and disseminating (spreading) misinformation. Misinformation can be due to simple misunderstanding, poor communication of facts or delusion and the intention of misleading others.

In this task, we will look at some of the resources related to the swine flu Influena A(H1N1)outbreak and evaluate their usefulness and reliability. We will see how this outbreak relates to syllabus areas of IB Biology and in particular look at the genetic aspect of the evolution of the pathogen.

Here we go – read and watch these resources and try to pick out information that will help you answer the questions below.

Short news clip with Dr. Joe Bresee from the Centre for Disease Control:

What do I need to know about Swine Flu? from NewScientist

Interactive world map of cases and a Swine Flu Timeline from the Guardian

What are the phases of the WHO’s pandemic alert?

The progress of the story (oldest to newest):

Guardian News, 25th April: “Swine flu epidemic kills 16 in Mexico city

Guardian News, 25th April: “Swine flu symptoms similar to human flu

PrisonPlanet, 26th April: “Swine flu a beta-test for a bioweapon

NewScientist.com, 27th April: “Is swine flu a bioterrorist virus?

Nature.com, 27th April: “Swine flu spreads the globe, genes could contribute to rapid spread

Wired.com, 29th April: “Swine flu from pigs only, not humans or birds

Guardian News, 29th April: “Governments must prepare for a pandemic

Guardian News, 29th April: “Global race to produce swine flu vaccine

BadScience, 29 April: “Swine flu and hype – a media illness (a risk is still a risk)

BBC News, 30 April: “WHO raises pandemic alert level

NewScientist, 2 May: “First genetic analysis of H1N1 shows potecy – and potential weakness

BadScience, 2 May: “How effective is Tamiflu, really, at stopping the aporkalypse?

Discussion questions:

1. Reading the articles from Wired, NewScientist and Nature, can you explain briefly how the new form of swine flu has spread to humans?How does this relate to our Biology syllabus?

2. Which of the sources used above do you consider most reliable? Where should we turn for the most reliable and up-to-date information on health issues?  Why?

3. What do you feel is the ethical (most responsible) way to report global diseases in the media? Why?

4. How could irresponsible journalism make the impacts of an outbreak or pandemic more serious? How would you balance the public demand for information with the possibility that giving out too much information might lead to harm?

Your task:

Take part in at least two of the discussion questions. Make use of the sources provided and show evidence of reading around the subject. Address the guiding questions and build on them with your own ideas, supported by research from reliable sources.Make a minimum of three posts in each of two discussions. Pay attention to netiquette.

Here are some quick reminders of the Biology in action:

Crossing over (recombination) animation

The influenza pandemic of 1918 – what might happen now?

Attenborough on Darwin: The Tree of Life

This is on my shopping list for sure – and one of those rare occasions I miss British TV. Attenborough kicks the Year of Darwin off with his new documentary, The Tree of Life. Sadly the BBC iPlayer thingy is only available in the UK, though I’m sure some will know how to fool it – if you hurry there are a few days left to download it!

Here’s the man himself (Attenborough, not Darwin – that would be cool) in an interview with Nature magazine:

And if you’re up for an interesting quick read, here are the Top Ten Myths of Darwin from The Rough Guide to Evolution blog.

Life After People

Thanks to Bro Taylor for this one.

The History Channel ran a special called “Life After People“, about- surprisingly enough- life after people. He described it as “like ‘I Am Legend’ but not rubbish.”

What would happen if we all disappeared? How long would it be before animals moved back into the cities? how long would electricity keep being generated? Would buildings crumble?

It helps us realise that we are never in a position to ‘save the world’ – only life as we know it. The world will be fine long after we are gone. Why not visit their microsite and see if you would survive?

The save tag is not enabled on the GoogleVideo page, but you can save it by clicking here (via KeepVid).

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel

Diamond came up on TED Talks this week, and he is a great example of Edge’s idea of the Third Culture – taking the sciences and humanities and putting them together to get to the roots of how the world works.

Jared Diamond specialises in how societies collapse and how cultures have become different, by not only focusing on the social and political but also the environmental and evolutionary. One of his books, Guns Germs and Steel, tells the story of how human history took different paths and is one of my top science-related reads.

National Geographic ran a 3-part series on the book, and here it is on GoogleVideo:

Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

In this talk, the comb-over king discusses how societies collapse:

Jared Diamond’s Edge profile

American Scientist interview

Amazon search results for his books.

Spore: a computer game with a point!

Joe told me about this, and then I started seeing articles and adverts for it everywhere. It looks like fun, if you have a few hundred spare hours.

There’s a great article at SEED Magazine that discusses the development of the game, from the creator of The Sims, and goes into the compromises they had to make with the science in order to keep it entertaining. There seems to be plenty of scope for learning about evolution through this game, though the notion of “Intelligent Design (ahem..)” creeps in (possibly inadvertently) where they have sped things up to make them more entertaining and have created a creature editor (and Creator tools) so that players can build their own organisms.

Perhaps someone (not one of my ever-so-busy IB students) can post a review of the game in the comments.

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