Health & General News Items

Synigence/Clinnix — 29-08-2000 – 08-10-2000

In 2000, the publishers of a British medical information service for doctors, Synigence plc, was preparing to launch a similar online news and information service for consumers – to be called Clinnix.

Christopher Long was asked to provide web skills and advice during the launch and trial phases and, in addition, wrote a series of news pages and columns on health and general news topics...

By Christopher Long

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Health News 26-07-2000

Thousands dead or maimed through NHS inadequacy ...

One third of Britain's accident victims die needlessly because of low standards of care in the National Health Service, according to an alarming report from the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Orthopaedic Association.

A shortfall of 400 accident and emergency consultants is partly to blame, but one in nine disabilities are due to insufficient hospital trauma teams and a lack of facilities.

The report, based on years of research, recommends that Britain urgently needs hundreds more emergency consultants and the provision of acute centres throughout the country. These need to be equipped with resuscitation and trauma teams on 24-hour stand-by with their own intensive care beds. Nearby helicopter landing pads also needed to ferry accident victims between hospitals.

Ecstasy leads to tragedy ...

Just one ecstasy pill could cause long-term brain damage, according to American researcher George Ricaurte, after experiments with animals.

Ecstasy tablets, which are widely regarded as a recreational necessity in the club scene, are taken by hundreds of thousands of Britain's youth. But just one tablet could alter brain chemistry for life, according to Dr Ricaurte, since the difference in effect between heavy and light users of the drug is said to be very slight, if it exists at all.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Dr Stephen Kish claims that ecstasy can reduce levels of serotonin in the brain. Following autopsies on 11 healthy humans, he found that serotonin levels were 50-80 per cent lower in ecstasy users.

Serotonin levels play a key role in regulating mood change and appear to be linked to the development of psychiatric problems. The research suggests that a depletion of serotonin may explain the psychotic behaviour and depression often experienced by ecstasy users.

Top security mental hospitals are beyond treatment ...

Government plans to lock up potentially dangerous people with personality disorders have been rejected by the House of Commons Health Select Committee. The news was welcomed by MIND, the mental health charity.

Meanwhile the government plans to shelve reform of the three top-security mental hospitals, Rampton, Broadmoor and Ashworth, which house some of Britain's most disturbed and dangerous criminals.

The institutions are now so unwieldy and out-dated the government plans to replace them by eight smaller regional centres.

Slimming might reduce your intelligence ...

Girls on a vegetarian diet who are trying to lose weight are at risk of lowering their IQ. By cutting meat from their diet, while failing to supplement the lack of iron, they become sufficiently anaemic to damage their intelligence level.

Mike Nelson of King's College London, measured iron levels in 164 girls aged 11ñ18 and found a quarter of them to have such low iron levels as to be clinically anaemic. The study, funded by the Department of Health, then went on to compare the girls' intelligence. Those who were anaemic scored 10 points lower than those with normal iron levels. Supplementing their iron intake then raised their IQ score.

Could too much coffee lead to arthritis? ...

A report from Finland suggests that there may be an unexplained link between high coffee consumption and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. A study testing 19,000 healthy people found that those who drank more than three cups a day doubled their risk of developing the disease, while those who drank more than 10 cups had 15 times the risk.

The National Public Health Institute in Helsinki was, however, unable to explain how the apparent link operated. Furthermore, the research was begun in 1976 before filtered and instant coffees, which do not carry the same risk, were widely available. Strong boiled coffee was then commonly drunk in Finland.

Much previous research has shown that coffee has a beneficial protective effect against strokes and Parkinson's disease, can help to prevent kidney stones and – in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers – may actually help non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents to relieve pain in joints.

General News 29-08-2000

The madness spreads? ...

British scientists think that far more people could be infected with Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD), the human version of BSE, than has previously been believed. The frightening prediction follows research at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, London, which shows that a variety of animals can carry the brain disease without showing any of its symptoms. This suggests that the same may be true for humans.

If apparently healthy cows with dormant BSE survived to pass the disease into the food-chain the implication is that humans too may be carriers who can transmit the disease through infected surgical instruments or blood products. While some humans may not develop the symptoms others might.

The head of the research team, Professor Collinge, says he believes the current safety measures – the 30-month rule and offal ban applicable to cows – are adequate, but the question remains whether humans are carrying the disease without showing symptoms. Another mystery is why some of the mice the team infected with tissue from diseased hamsters die while others show no symptoms and survive. All the mice carry the same high level of protein prions which cause CJD and BSE.

Crime may not pay ...

Courts in England and Wales will set fines according to a person's salary, as from this week. Following new guidelines to magistrates, a professional person earning £900 a week, who is convicted of speeding, will now pay nine times as much as someone on benefits.

"The aim should be for the fine to have equal impact on rich and poor," according to Harry Mawdsley, chairman of the Magistrate's Association. "In most cases, the fine will equate to an offender's net weekly income: it's as simple as that. We do it now, but much more loosely."

Until now courts have assessed offenders into broad categories of 'low, average and high' earners. The new means-tested fines are intended to end the lottery in sentencing which has resulted in huge differences in sentencing across the country.

A previous attempt to means-test fines, in 1993, was a fiasco. One man was fined £1,200 for dropping a crisp packet and two neighbours were fined £75 and £1,500 for the same offence of driving without insurance.

Students slow on the uptake ...

Nine days after A-level results were published, thousands of college places remain unfilled. Only 5,000 more students than usual have applied for the 40,000 extra places made available in the first phase of the government's higher education expansion plans.

Despite Tony Blair's aim to have half of all young people taking higher education courses, so many places seem likely remain untaken by the autumn that there is a fear universities will be unable to fill them without lowering entry standards.

Shadow Education Secretary, Theresa May, says that the government was warned to meet student needs rather than set arbitrary targets. The lack of take-up, she says, is partly because young people are questioning whether the courses are worth the financial burdens they impose.

Only 419,836 have sought places so far this year, compared with 428,238 at the same point in 1998.

The windmills of a sheep's mind ...

Railtrack may be unloved by British rail passengers, but sheep may safely graze thanks to rail engineer, Jeremy Reece. He discovered that a simple child's toy windmill was enough to scare sheep and lambs off the rails.

Twenty-five of the little plastic windmills on stalks were commissioned for the Crewe to Newport line where cases of animals straying onto the lines have since dropped by 12 per cent.

More sophisticated safety measures are also being introduced to reduce the 3,000 delays each year caused by cattle, horses and sheep straying through broken fences. But nothing seems likely to be as simple and cheap as the windmill idea.

As Mr Reece of Railtrack contractor, GTRM, says: "Daft as it sounds, it worked".

Health News 04-09-2000

Meningitis deaths fall following vaccination programme ...

The results of the government's controversial programme to vaccinate 15 million British children against Meningitis C show that there has been a dramatic drop in the infection rate. Figures show that the infection rate in 15-17 year olds was six during the last three months – compared to 26 during the same period last year. Overall, the reduction is 85%.

The chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, defended the controversial aspects of the campaign, saying that there had been no attempt to conceal from the public the number of complications with the vaccine.

Migraines triggered by weekend lie-ins ...

Migraine sufferers who wonder why weekends are a common time for an attack may now have the answer. Changing your sleeping patterns and having a much needed lie-in can be the trigger, according to new research to be presented to the Headache World 2000 conference in London later this week.

Researchers asked sufferers to keep a diary to identify migraine triggers and sleep patterns, diet and caffeine consumption were high on the list, according to the Daily Mail. Apart from the weekend lie-in, a reduction of caffeine intake at the weekend can also be a trigger, according to American researchers. Expert Dr Bill Laughey explained that because caffeine is an addictive drug, withdrawal symptoms are inevitable.

However, the other commonly alleged culprit, chocolate, may not be to blame. Dr Laughey said that migraine sufferers who are aware of the early signs of onset of an attack can often have food cravings. Because chocolate is one of the most craved foods, it is wrongly accused of being the trigger of the attack.

Eating for two could harm your baby ...

'Eating for two' when you are pregnant may not be the best advice, according to researchers at St Thomas's Hospital in London. Higher risks of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes can result from eating more saturated fats during pregnancy.

If a mother-to-be raises the levels of saturated fat in her own diet to 20% – around double the recommended levels – this can be enough to cause problems for her child in later life. Saturated fats include the fat in animal and dairy products, as well as in pastry, biscuits and cakes.

The researchers studied the effects of dietary fat in animals, but these findings could also have massive implications for human health.

Health News 05-09-2000

Nurse appeal ...

The nurse shortage in Britain is now so serious that NHS trusts are prepared to pay up £2,000 per minute in TV recruitment advertising. East Kent justified its decision to spend £13,000 on 14 thirty-second adverts by saying that the more expensive alternative was to spend £2,500 to bring in a nurse from abroad.

The government claims that 12,000 more nurses are needed and the Royal College of Nursing, which supports the TV campaigns, says huge numbers of nurses have left the NHS to work privately or leave the profession altogether. In recent years, for every nurse who joins the health service, ten have left.

Other solutions to the problem include offering £1,000 payments to nurses who recruit a friend. But the RCN warns that while recruiting through TV advertisements is intended to persuade people in their own communities to respond, this will only prove cost effective if the new nurses stay in their jobs.

Doctors no longer to be allowed to 'play God' ...

Following a string of scandals involving patients who are denied resuscitation as a matter of policy, doctors are now to be banned from 'playing God'.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn has said that age and frailty alone will no longer be regarded as valid reasons to mark patients down as 'do not resuscitate'.

Instead, hospitals have until April 2001 to come up with an agreed policy, based on guidance from leading professional bodies, which puts the views of patients, families and carers at the centre of the decision-making process on a case-by-case basis.

CJD: Seventy-four deaths and rising ...

The remorseless increase in the numbers struck down by Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE, continues. With 19 deaths in the last year, the total death toll is now 74. But the pattern of the statistics reveals that the outbreak may only be in its early stages and may be increasing at a rate of 20-30 per cent each year.

There are two complicating factors in predicting the scale of the problem. First, the period between infection and the first detectable signs of the disease can vary from a few months to three years. Second, recent research suggests that unknown numbers of people may be carriers of the disease while showing no symptoms.

Deaths from vCJD were: three in 1995, 10 in both 1996 and 1997, 18 in 1998, 14 in 1999 and 19 so far in 2000.

General News 05-09-2000

Second opinion in twin dilemma...

A consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children is today examining the Siamese twins at the centre of the 'who shall live' legal dilemma. He will offer a second opinion before judges decide the fate of the two babies, Jodie and Mary, who are joined at the pelvis.

The children's parents are Roman Catholics from 'a remote community in Europe' [Cyprus]. In their legal appeal against a court decision they insist that no medical intervention should affect the will of God. Doctors, however, are convinced that neither child will survive more than three to six months unless they are separated.

Jodie, it is thought, has a reasonable chance of living a normal life if she is separated from Mary who is entirely dependent on her sister's heart and blood supply for her survival. Mary's brain is described by one doctor as 'very, very primitive'.

However, one of the appeal judges, Lord Justice Ward, is first questioning whether they are dealing with one person or two, whether separating them would amount to an unlawful killing of Mary and even whether Jodie is entitled to 'self-defence' against the 'unjust aggression' of Jodie.

Judith Parker, QC for the Jodie, says that Jodie has a 5 per cent risk of death in the operating theatre, rising to 64 per cent if the operation were an emergency. Jodie would have only a one per cent chance of survival if separation were delayed until Mary's death, she added.

Close shave...

An asteroid one third of a mile wide has narrowly missed the earth. The cosmic near-miss occurred last Friday morning when it passed the earth by only twelve times further away than the moon. According to Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP who has campaigned for multinational co-operation to deal with the dangers of asteroids, this was a 'close shave'.

"It is as if someone had thrown a marble across a tennis court and missed your head by the width of your hand," he explained.

The asteroid, 2000 QW7, was first detected just six days earlier by Cornell University's Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Canterbury versus the Vatican...

The Archbishop of Canterbury has responded sharply to the recent Vatican statement, approved by the Pope, condemning all post-Reformation churches as not 'proper' churches. The Archbishop hints that 30 years of work by the ecumenical movement, aimed at bringing the various churches closer together, have been undermined by the Vatican statement.

The Vatican has declared all non-Christian religions to be "gravely deficient" and their rituals "an obstacle to salvation". In turn the Archbishop has told the Vatican that "the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion does not for one moment accept that its orders of ministry and Eucharist are deficient in any way".

Women find work more easily...

More women than men in the UK are moving straight into jobs after leaving university. The Higher Education Statistics Agency says 68 per cent of last summer's female graduates found jobs within 6 months compared with 63.7 per cent of their male counterparts. (43)

Trainees left in charge...

Staff shortages in Britain's Health Service are causing trainee nurses to be left in charge of patients unsupervised. A survey by Unison of 200 student nurses and midwives is said to show that patients are put at risk and students are frightened by the practice. The Royal College of Nursing says the findings are alarming.

General News 07-09-2000

£4 gallon on the way? ...

While striking French lorry drivers have driven petrol prices down in France, the cost in Britain is likely to reach £4 per gallon (87p per litre) by the end of the year. This would represent a nine per cent increase on today's price and a 38 per cent increase over 18 months.

The anger of lorry drivers and other transport-dependent workers in France over high fuel prices threatened to affect Channel Tunnel traffic today, even though prices in France are already 10p per litre cheaper than at British pumps and 30p cheaper in Germany.

The huge increases in fuel prices are blamed on oil producers who are deliberately keeping the supply low, causing protests around the world. Crude oil prices yesterday reached a ten-year high of 33.56 dollars amid fears that it could rise to 40 dollars by the end of the year. Europe's Energy commissioner is calling for increased supply and a price of around 20 dollars per barrel.

In Britain, high petrol prices are reaping a bonanza in VAT for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, whose last budget raised fuel duty by three times the rate of inflation. The issue, however, is likely to reap considerable consumer anger during the winter, only months before a possible Spring election. Seventy per cent of the retail price of petrol goes to the Treasury.

Dome doom ...

The Millennium Dome should never have been built and was sited in the wrong place. So says David James who has been brought in to sort out the muddle. He believes the Dome's financial performance has been a shambles but, like Millennium Commissioner Michael Heseltine, he believes it would have been "very wrong" to have closed it immediately as this would have caused defaults on existing contracts and huge redundancy payouts.

Mr James's comments came as the prospective buyers, Dome Europe, backed by the Japanese bank Nomura, were still in negotiations over buying the place for what, until yesterday, was an agreed price of £105 million.

So far the Dome has spent around £761 million, including extra handouts in February (£60m), May (£29m), July (£43m) and this month (£47m). Mr James says that to close it now would cost around £90m and that it would be cheaper and less damaging to subsidise it through to the end. Because only 4.5 million tickets have been sold at their full price (as against the target of 12 million), each ticket sold has now been subsidised by £128.

Dads or cads? ...

Humans have an almost unerring capacity to spot a cad in a fraction of a second, researchers have found. Women in particular use the ability to read the facial characteristics of potential mates and to weed out unsuitable sexual partners who would make poor fathers.

According to Dr Mark Shevlin of the University of Ulster, the facial differences between a "natural dad" and a "natural cad" are so subtle that they are recognised only subconsciously. He asked 60 volunteers to look at photographs of 36 strangers and to rate them according to three main personality types: extrovert, neurotic and psychotic. The most marked correlation showed a powerful ability to detect the psychotics who would prove least suitable as mates. He believes this power is most developed in women who are in the phase of their menstrual cycle when they are most likely to conceive.

School loos go unisex...

The first unisex school lavatories are being introduced at a high school in Stockport, Lancashire in a bid to curb vandalism and school bullying. If successful they are likely to be adopted at other schools in Britain.

Headmaster John Peckham was so frustrated by being unable to curb unruly behaviour in the old single-sex lavatories that a £30,000 new block of secure cubicles and wash-basins has been built which can be monitored from open doorways at each end.

Year 11 girls are said to be unfazed by the new facilities, but they may already have become accustomed to the idea from watching the TV series Ally McBeal in which the office unisex loos are the forum for gossip and intrigue by both males and females. The girls at Bramhall High School apparently approve of the new arrangement, saying that they most wanted to feel safe.

General News 11-09-2000

Pensioners to get £100 per week ...

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, seems likely to guarantee pensioners an income of £100 per week through rises in their pensions and in the minimum income guarantee. The pledge, if it emerges, is designed to head off criticism by trades unionists and party activists at the Labour party conference this week.

The pension rose last year by 75p to £66.75 while the minimum income guarantee is set at £78.45. While there is no intention to return to linking pension rises to earnings, a rise well above the current inflation rate is expected in order to pacify the unions and win support from Britain's fast-growing elderly population in the run-up to the next general election.

Fuel price crisis deepens ...

The government has been warned that the continuing row over high fuel prices is likely to cost thousands of jobs, provoke large-scale smuggling and damage the Labour party at the next election.

Fears are growing that unless the government cuts the duty on fuel by around 2p, workers' protests at high fuel prices in France may spread to Britain. Any reduction in French prices, following the widespread blockades of Calais, Dunkirk, roads and oil refineries, would put Britain, with the highest fuel prices in Europe, at a still greater economic disadvantage.

A limited blockade of Ellesmere Port by British farmers was the first evidence that the French methods of putting pressure on their government might be adopted here. But unlike their French counterparts, British police threatened to make arrests if roadblocks were not removed.

Winter sick note for the NHS ...

Yet another crisis was looming for the NHS as it emerged that a winter bed shortage was almost inevitable. In the last year, 4,000 beds – one in fifty – has been lost. More worrying still for hospital managers is that the government's promise to provide an extra 100 intensive care beds has translated into a net loss of 19 while the money to fund and extra 200 this year has failed to emerge. Staff and skill shortages are also causing an acute shortage of facilities that seem certain to cause patients to be turned away and waiting lists lengthened.

While the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn call urgently on hospital chief executives to "go for growth rather than plan for decline" he gave no explanation for why the government's promises in the NHS Plan, published in July, were not being fulfilled.

Affairs of the heart ...

As doctors at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford announced success in implanting a pioneering new artificial heart pump, a GP in Stockport was at the heart of a row over the he way he is alleged to have cut out a dead patient's pacemaker with a penknife.

A horrified Manchester coroner has demanded an investigation into the conduct of a Stockport GP, Arepalli Krishnamurthy who allegedly asked the daughter of a dead female patient to lend him a kitchen knife so that he could cut out her pacemaker. When the knife proved too blunt, the doctor is said to have borrowed a penknife from a neighbour, completed the procedure and walked out leaving shocked witnesses with bloodstained surgical gloves, scissors and the carving knife.

Meanwhile, at Oxford, a 61 year-old man, given just six weeks to live and too old for a transplant, is now walking two miles a day and in excellent condition after having a thumb-sized artificial pump implanted in a chamber of his real heart which is powered by batteries on a body-belt. The power of the £50,000 pump, which can spin at 12,000 rpm, is adjustable according to the needs of the patient and is linked to the batteries by a fine cable which exits just behind the ear, like a hearing aid.

The surgical team, led by Stephen Westaby, noted that for a few days after the operation the patient had no pulse thanks to the steady flow of blood. Interestingly, however, they believe that the patient's pulse has now returned because the heart is recovering after having its load lightened by the pump.

Health News 11-09-2000

Unhappy nurses ...

One-fifth of Britain's nurses are apparently so dissatisfied with their pay and conditions that they are ready to leave the profession. Only two-fifths of an increasingly ageing nurse population felt loyalty to the profession and existing nurse shortages of 17,000 are creating so much extra work that still more are driven to seek alternative employment.

According to a report in The Times, existing shortages, poor morale and the impending retirement of a huge number of older nurses represents a 'time bomb'. The proportion of nurses under 29 has halved in the past ten years to 13 per cent and the proportion over 41 has doubled to over half of all nurses.

The grim prospect of an NHS on the brink severe crisis comes from research by Professor Karin Newman at Middlesex University. She says that there will be an acute problem. "We haven't seen anything yet."

Be wise, eat sage ...

Sage, the common garden herb, could be a valuable weapon in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. Known in the middle ages for its supposed powers to enhance wisdom, scientists today believe that the plant contains acetylcholine which is known to be linked to memory loss. Researchers at the University of Middlesex are working on methods of creating an extract of sage which might safely and efficiently help sufferers of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease.

As The Times reports, the renewed interest in herbs has a venerable history. Aspirin is derived from meadowsweet and willow, while digitalis comes from foxgloves. A research team at the John Radcliffe Hospital is experimenting with traditional Chinese herbal remedies, used for thousands of years, in their search for a treatment for period pains which affect two-thirds of women.

General News 13-09-2000

Tankers begin to roll – slowly!

As three-quarters of Britain's petrol stations ran dry, the first signs of a government victory emerged when 60 tankers left distribution depots last night with vital supplies for hospitals and emergency services. The initiative appeared to be part of a concerted government attempt to demonstrate that it was in control of the crisis.

In a desperate gamble, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared yesterday that the situation would be on the way back to normal within 24 hours and then spent much of last night appealing to individual fuel industry bosses to be more pro-active in getting their tanker fleets on the road again.

Contingency plans had already been drawn up in Westminster to maintain emergency oil distribution to hospitals, GPs, health workers, coastguards, lifeboats, airlines, vets, animal feed companies, refuse collectors and food distributors.

The first cracks in the blockades, mounted by angry farmers and haulage workers, appeared this morning with reports of more tankers leaving depots with fuel destined for garage forecourts. Around eight were reported to have left Stanlow with a large police presence to encourage tanker drivers to roll.

Nevertheless, the tankers drivers' response was slow. The first five tankers to leave Purfleet each had a police officer in the cab but even then 13 of the 18 tankers refused to leave their depot at the last minute.

While there have been no reports of violence, intimidation or illegal activity at any of the country's blockades there were suspicions that both oil distributors and their drivers had made remarkably little effort to breach the picket lines. Opposition MPs accused the government of being out of touch with the public mood and not listening.

Yesterday the government heard warnings from senior Whitehall advisers that the crisis could risk severe damage to Britain's security and economic viability with large-scale redundancies if tough action were not taken immediately. Nevertheless, even if fuel supplies were resumed as normal today, it could take weeks before the country returned to normal.

Roman Catholics order enquiry into paedophile priests...

The Roman Catholic church, rattled by the number of priests accused of child abuse, has asked the retired judge, Lord Nolan, to carry out a formal investigation into paedophilia among the priesthood.

From 1995 to 1998 21 of the 6,124 Catholic priests were convicted of paedophilia while abuse charges against a further ten were dropped and 63 were investigated but never charged.

Lord Nolan, himself a Catholic, will not investigate individual cases but intends to produce an interim report by next Easter and a full report within a year. His appointment, by the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev. Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, appears to be a response to growing criticism that the church harbours known paedophiles while failing to take adequate action to protect children or condemn those priests who abuse them.

The Archbishop offered a formal apology for the activities of "people exercising responsibility in the church" to the survivors, their families and communities.

Dome doom deepens...

The government faced still more humiliation over the Dome yesterday when Nomura, the Japanese bank, said it was pulling its consortium out of negotiations to buy the Greenwich site for £105m. This raises the serious prospect of widespread redundancies among the Dome's 5,000 employees and even the possibility that it will be demolished if no buyer can be found.

Nomura found the Dome's accounts to be so disorganised that it could no longer proceed with its bid. The New Millennium Experience Company, which operates the 'attraction', was unable even to guarantee what assets, fixtures and fittings it owned and could offer for sale. Meanwhile Lord Falconer, Minister for the Dome and the enterprise's sole share-holder, refused to resign yesterday and appealed to a previous bidder, Legacy plc, to re-enter negotiations.

Nature pays more than nurture...

Nannies are coming a poor second to gardeners in the pay stakes. According to a survey, British families pay their nannies and child carers an average £3.64 per hour (just above the minimum wage) while gardeners are paid an average of £6.46.

No added toll charges for motorists...

The government has promised to protect British motorists from a European Court ruling that would have required them to pay VAT on road and bridge tolls. Instead a two-tier charging system will be introduced whereby private motorists will be excused the extra tax while commercial traffic will pay the 17.5 per cent tax and reclaim it from Customs & Excise later. Ministers say that the government will absorb the cost.

General News 14-09-2000

Fuel supplies begin to move again...

Many of the protesters at fuel blockades around the country decided early this morning to end their actions, though some have vowed to continue. As Tony Blair's promise to end the dispute within 24 hours failed to deliver yesterday, desperate ministers put troops on standby ready to help police with fuel distribution to hospitals and other vital services

Ellesmere Port, where the blockades began, was the first to relent. Protesters claimed they had won a moral victory against the government's policy of maintaining high fuel prices and said action could and would resume if the government does not reduce them. The government however has made no commitment to any price changes before the next budget. Grangemouth, Plymouth and other depots soon followed Ellesmere's example.

However, even if more supplies of fuel do leave refineries and depots, industry specialists predict that it could be two or three weeks before supply returns to normal. Panic food-buying in some parts of the country has led to shortages in many shops while there appeared to be chaos at some petrol stations selected to distribute emergency petrol and diesel to doctors, vets, the emergency services and other key workers. Many hospitals on Red Alert were undertaking emergency operations only.

Last night it was confirmed that tanker drivers within refineries and depots have largely supported the protests by refusing to cross picket lines. Management threats that they would lose their jobs led many protesters outside the gates to agree to scale down the blockades.

Clearly caught off-guard, ministers appeared rattled by the ground-swell of majority support for the farmers and haulage industry workers who spear-headed the protests. All day they issued dire warnings of impending harm to patients and referred to incidents of intimidation, violence and illegality on the part of protesters, though when challenged they were unable to provide examples.

A peerless proposition?...

The search is on for eight to ten people each year to become independent peers in the House of Lords at Westminster. A new Appointment's Commission invites any of us to put ourselves forward as a potential independent "people's peer", simply by filling in an application form and providing a curriculum vitae with two references.

To be eligible the potential 'non-party political peers' have to be British, Irish or Commonwealth citizens, aged over 21, who can show outstanding personal qualities of integrity and independence, a record of "significant achievement" and that they have the time and ability to make an effective contribution to the Upper House.

Those selected will have the title Lord or Lady and be entitled to an attendance allowance of £81.50 per day.

The initiative was introduced by Labour to counter criticism that hereditary peers would be replaced by the Prime Minister's cronies.

Maternity leave for a year?...

The current six-month's maternity leave could be doubled to last a year if radical plans being considered by the government are adopted. Women are currently entitled to six weeks at 90 per cent of their normal pay and the next 12 weeks at a flat rate of £60.20 a week. Ministers are apparently investigating whether some pay might be made for another six months.

The proposal which has been strongly backed by former Cabinet minister Harriet Harman and is likely to be raised at a fringe meeting at the TUC conference today, is being assessed by Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department of Trade & Industry. But it is likely to be strongly resisted by business leaders who believe they are already over-burdened with regulation.

If adopted, the proposal is likely to be the centre-piece of Labour's 'family-friendly' policies in its forthcoming election manifesto.

Costly divorce...

The ever-growing rate of marriage breakdowns is costing taxpayers an estimated £11 each per week. The bill for welfare benefits, the Child Support Agency and legal aid alone are costing £8.5 billion a year while the total cost swells to at least £15 billion a year if other benefits, crime, and extra education costs are included. Some believe that the true figure may be as high as £30 billion if all the indirect costs are included.

The latest figures suggest that the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine's figure of £5 billion greatly underestimates the costs of family breakdown in Britain, though it is widely accepted that the demands on many government agencies and departments as well as the NHS, education and other local authority resources are far higher where divorced and single parent families are concerned.

Researchers showed that truancy alone was costly: "The likelihood of adverse outcomes for children from broken families is about twice that from intact families," the researchers say. "Two-thirds of young offenders, up to half of whom come from broken families, begin their criminal activities while truanting."

General News 15-09-2000

Fuel Crisis ...

Fuel tankers were working at full stretch last night and this morning making deliveries to 300 priority petrol stations throughout the country. Around a fifth of garages were expected to be operating again later today. However, while many motorists found fuel after prolonged queuing, priority was still being given to emergency services, doctors and others with pressing needs. Hospitals remained on Red alert.

As eighty military fuel tankers were deployed to speed deliveries to essential services yesterday, an extraordinary attempt – soon abandoned – was made by some oil companies to hike petrol prices by another 2p within hours of the blockades being lifted. Infuriated, the government called the move 'insensitive'.

Meanwhile ministers appeared stunned by the speed and severity of the eight-day crisis which some continued to blame on the violence and intimidation of pickets, including right-wing extremists. This interpretation did not accord with the evidence of news footage or the apparent behaviour of those picketing refineries and fuel depots.

Gordon Brown said that there would be no reduction in tax levels on fuel before November's Budget, while the CBI said the crisis had cost business hundreds of millions of pounds. Post office collections were reduced to one per day and some supermarkets were still short of some lines following panic buying in the past couple of days. Around 80 closed schools gave thousands of school-children another day off.

The government said that meetings would take place with the police, the oil industry and others to ensure that such a protest would never bring the country to a standstill again.

Film Ratings ...

Britain's film classification rules have been reviewed and will allow teenagers access to all but the most graphic sex and nudity scenes. The British Board of Film Classification says that the review was necessary to avoid two major public concerns: the desire not to be 'nannied' and the fear of youngsters being exposed to drugs and violence.

Among a number of fundamental changes to the censorship system, films containing sex and nudity will be more likely to get a 15 rating than before but scenes of drugs and violence with be tolerated less. U rated films will have no references to drugs. The 12 rating will become advisory only – leaving it to parents to decide whether the film is suitable for their children.

The new system, which retains the U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 ratings, was arrived at after consultations with 3,000 people of all backgrounds. It means that the 1994 film Pulp Fiction would not now have been rated 18,unless cut, because of its drug scenes. But the violence in Brad Pitt's Fight Club would have got through the 18 test uncut today. Recent changes already mean that the 30 year-old Deep Throat and many other hard-core films can now be seen uncut in the new R18 category for the first time.

However, the digital era is increasingly by-passing the control of the old film classification system. Andreas Whittam-Smith, president of the BBFC, concedes that the board's role will increasingly become that of an adviser and informer rather than that of a censor.

Easy Degrees ...

As universities struggle to meet the government's target of 100,000 more places by 2002, university chancellors were warned yesterday that granting so-called 'easy degrees' was not equipping students for jobs in the real world.

In a speech prepared by Education Secretary David Blunkett and delivered by Education Minister Baroness Blackstone, university chiefs at their conference in Stockton-on-Tees were warned: "There is no point in a degree if it does not require rigour and breadth of knowledge to achieve it".

The warning follows criticism by Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, of courses in such arcane subjects as knitwear and pig enterprise management or subjects which have no real career application, such as media studies.

The government also used the conference to draw a line under the recent row about alleged élitism at Oxford and Cambridge. Mr Blunkett's message was that some of the blame lay with teachers who did not understand the requirements of universities, but also that universities themselves often assumed that inner city comprehensive students wouldn't make the grade.

University Fees ...

The level of parents' income at which they begin paying university fees is to be raised from £17,000 to £20,000. David Blunkett announced that this will be bolstered by £130m of new cash to fund £2,000 bursaries for poorer students.

The fund will also pay for university staff to visit schools and run open days and summer schools to encourage university applications from a wider range of school-leavers.

General News 18-09-2000

Crisis? What crisis ...

While the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was denying at the weekend that there had been a 'crisis', opinion polls were showing that the fuel crisis has caused substantial damage to the government. For the first time since Labour came to power, the popularity of the Tories was shown to be neck and neck with the government at 37 per cent each. While dissatisfaction on this scale was not expected to last long, splits within Labour's own ranks were worrying party managers.

On the streets, more than half of all petrol stations were reported to have supplies by last night with BP claiming to have 1,300 of its 1,500 forecourts re-stocked, while Shell had restored supplies at just 487 of its 1,100 outlets.

The recovery in supplies, however, does not appear to have cooled public anger at what is widely regarded as the government's refusal to listen to popular concern over ever-rising fuel charges. The protestors, who last week gave the government 60 days to reduce fuel taxes, say they are prepared to restore the blockades.

However, the government's 'task force', set up to ensure that a similar paralysing protest cannot happen again, is reported to be examining ways of forcing the oil companies to guarantee fuel supplies on the same sort of basis as applies to the gas, electricity and water industries.

Paula Yates dead ...

Troubled TV presenter Paula Yates, who was found dead yesterday at her home in Notting Hill, London, may have been the victim of a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. As police await the results of an autopsy, friends were insisting that the presenter of The Tube and former wife of Bob Geldof would not have intended to kill herself and that she died after choking on her own vomit in her sleep.

The star is believed to have been discovered unconscious in her bed by her four year-old daughter Tiger whose father, Michael Hutchence, committed suicide in Australia three years ago.

The Dome fiasco deepens ...

Two new embarrassments face the government and the beleaguered management of London's Dome. Just when it had been accepted that the place should be closed down with all possible speed – and at least additional cost – it emerges that an 'unlimited liability' contract was signed a few months ago with the organisers of the Miss World contest who plan to host the pageant there. If the show cannot take place this exposes the technically bankrupt Dome to a potentially huge claim by Asian Zee TV which now owns Miss World.

However, a second nightmare lies in wait for the government and Dome minister Lord Falconer who claimed recently that at least the Greenwich site had been cleaned and regenerated as a huge potential brown-field development site.

In fact the sub-soil is believed to be heavily contaminated to a depth of 30ft with lead, cadmium and arsenic. Only topsoil to a depth of 18in was cleaned prior to construction of the Dome and Greenwich council granted planning permission for exhibition purposes for one year only – not for housing.

Fewer marriages on the rocks ...

Although fewer people are getting married, those who do stay together longer. According to government statistics, 13 in every 1,000 marriages end in divorce each year, compared with 14.2 in 1993. However, the popularity of marriage continues to decline and by the end of this year four babies out of every ten will be born outside marriage.

Weekend Health Diary 07-01-2000

Ups and downs ...

There must be a deep and purposeful human survival strategy involved in the old dictum that 'woman with skirt up runs faster than man with trousers down'. And all that business of a man chasing a woman until she catches him may have a lot going for it.

Running around, it seems, does men a power of good – not least in bed. Carol A. Derby of the New England Research Institutes in the USA has been keeping a close eye on 593 male erections. She finds that exercise reduces the chances of erectile dysfunction – what we non-professionals call 'do you mind if we don't?.

All you have to do is burn up about 200 calories a day – the equivalent of a brisk two-mile walk – or agree, at last, to mow the lawn. This will reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction by half.

Sad to say, Ms Derby picked a fairly useless bunch to study. So few were brisk walkers – or lawn mowers – that she couldn't statistically prove how much the risk falls as the exercise increases.

More fools they, because there's no evidence that exercise will solve the problem once dysfunction has set in. Her lazy Lotharios could have solved many potential problems of the heart through aerobic exercise – thus, as it were, stoning two problems with one bird.

Regrettably, scientists are a sober lot these days and Ms Derby does not appear to have thought of hiking her skirt up and leading her gallant band in healthy, headlong pursuit.

Beware of trumpeting too hard ...

Trumpet players often look as though they're about to burst a blood vessel and research now suggests that they are indeed at greater risk of suffering a stroke.

The September issue of Neurology magazine reports on five wind instrument players who have suffered damage to brain-feeding blood vessels. All but one were amateurs. Doctors at the University of Munster, in Germany, believe that the effects are caused by the pressure placed on a musician's chest and neck.

Young players, who may be over-enthusiastic blowers, seem to be at particular risk, perhaps because they lack technical proficiency. One 17 year-old was found to have had a series of 'mini strokes' caused by constriction of blood flow to the brain, or ruptured blood vessels.

But the news should not cause alarm: in most cases the affected trumpeters already had structural abnormalities that predisposed them to injury.

Effect of warnings wane ...

If new evidence from the USA is to be believed, the government may have to review its health warning programmes for cigarettes and alcohol.

A study of 32,500 students by Arizona State University has shown that while health risk warnings on bottles and cans – introduced in the USA by law in 1989 – may have short-term impact on young people, the effect is soon lost.

The research showed that though the warnings produced initial results, they had worn off 3.5 years later. Paradoxically the warnings were still remembered by the adolescents though they were no longer influencing any reduction in drink-driving.

Young, white, female – and dependent ...

The obsession in the USA with the self-evident ill-effects of smoking continues unabated. New research reveals that we are not all equally susceptible to the weed.

If you are white, female and young, you are the most likely to find its addictive properties irresistible.

Conversely, older black male Americans seem to be least dependent on nicotine.

The researchers at Columbia University say that nicotine may, indeed, be the most addictive of all substances, producing greater dependency than alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.

What they cannot yet explain is why factors such as sex, race and age appear to influence our dependency on the drug and how easily we can stop smoking.

To give and not to count the cost ...

North American women, it seems, are more generous than their men-folk – at least when making sacrifices for their husbands.

Recent research in Canada reveals that in 150 transplant operations, 36 per cent of wives were willing to give a matching kidney to their spouse. But for reasons unexplained, only 6.5 per cent of men were prepared to do the same for their wives.

To make matters worse, when any other first-degree relative needs a kidney, men are just as willing as their wives to make the sacrifice.

While it is true that there is a greater incidence of high blood pressure and heart disease among men, could it be that women simply can't afford the financial burden of their husbands' deaths? Or do women merely have a greater sense of family duty?

If Dr Deborah Zimmerman and colleagues at the University of Toronto have the answer, they're not saying.

Weekend Health Diary 08-10-2000

Kids and bugs come out to play ...

Most young children find paddling pools and public fountains irresistible – just as baby bacteria find pools and ponds amusing playgrounds. But children and certain forms of bacteria are not very happy playmates. When mixed they can result in nasty cases of gastro-enteritis.

Public health officials in Boston, USA, came across four such cases among children playing in recreational fountains containing contaminated water. The children, not surprisingly, developed diarrhoea, fever and stomach cramps within two days.

Further south, in Atlanta, Georgia, disease control and protection officers were amazed to find several dozen such cases among visitors to Florida parks. They discovered a poorly designed system, in which untreated water was constantly re-circulated during the day and left in a holding tank at night, providing ideal recreational facilities for the bacteria.

According to Boston's Dr M. Anita Barry, the children "probably swallowed fecally contaminated water" and "the outbreak illustrates the potential for disease transmission when untreated water is re-circulated in recreational spray fountains".

Research is a wonderful thing, but surely any child in a public park could have told her that?

Drinka pinta – rue the day? ...

Is the government worried that it may have another species-hopping BSE-type crisis on its hands?

Apparently not. British milk is among the best in the world – though it does occasionally harbour a bacterium which may play a role in the development of the rare bowel disorder, Crohn's disease.

The bug, Mycobacterium Paratuberculosis (MAP), has already been found to be the cause of Johne's disease in cud-chewing animals but, although it survives pasteurisation, it has not yet been proved to be harmful to humans.

Nevertheless, the government's Food Standards Agency is sufficiently concerned to be calling for a special scientific conference to find ways of eliminating the bacterium. Crohn's disease is one of two inflammatory bowel diseases. It's an incurable, chronic condition producing a wide range of gastro-intestinal problems, including severe pain, diarrhoea, nausea and weight loss.

There is no suggestion that the other disorder, ulcerative colitis, has any link with the MAP bacterium. Researchers at Queen's University, Belfast, found the MAP bug in 1.9 per cent of raw milk and 2.1 per cent of pasteurised milk during tests made at small and large dairies throughout the UK.

Independent scientific advisers are suggesting no change in the government's advice to consumers – but they're going to discuss ways of eliminating MAP at a conference all the same. So there we have it: milk's OK – so that's all right.

Suck it and see? ...

Scientists in Maryland, USA, proudly announced this week that saliva contains properties that help wounds to heal. Where have they been?

Surely everyone in the world (apart from scientists, perhaps) knows that a cut finger heals faster if you lick it. Dogs and cats are inveterate lickers of wounds which seldom bleed much and heal in no time.

To give them their due, Dr Sharon M. Wahl at the National Institutes of Health says her team has 'found' the compound concerned. They've even given it a fancy name which just slips off the tongue like saliva itself. They call it 'secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor' – or plain old SLPI.

To test the stuff, they created 'knock-out' mice who lacked the genetic component for SLPI and, lo and behold, the little bleeders bled for much longer than normal mice. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

The good news is that if researchers could reproduce or synthesise SLPI, new hope might be given to millions of people with chronic, hard-to-heal wounds such as diabetic ulcers and bed-sores. A really interesting bit of research would be finding out why the spit in spit-and-polish shines shoes so much better.

I want to live forever ...

North Americans can't abide the though of death. Its inevitability appals them. Eat the right things, do the right things, believe the right things and then... somehow... perhaps... the plea from Fame will be answered and fresh-faced teenagers will celebrate their thousandth birthdays. If all else fails, you bury yourself in a cryogenic fridge.

We may be heading in that direction, but only slowly, it seems. The maximum age at death in Sweden in the 1860s was about 100 years. By the 1990s this had risen to 108. Most of this 'progress' began around 1969 &3150; because people who had already reached 70 were now better equipped to live longer.

But one debate still lingers. Is there a fixed age beyond which humans cannot live? Some scientists believe that while 'life expectancy' has changed, 'potential life span' has never altered. John R. Wilmoth of the University of California, who examined the Swedish statistics, believes that less exposure to infection coupled with medical advances in the fight against chronic disease are expanding life span. He thinks life span will continue to increase by one year per decade – though living to be 100 is improbable for most of us now.

This may well be true. But will 120 year-olds cope with the emotional and psychological onslaught of adapting to an increasingly fast-changing world that is scarcely recognisable from their childhoods? Would anyone brought up on Fame really want to carry the memory with them for another 110 years?

Late penalty? ...

Successful British footballers may earn fame and millions when they're young but they can expect serious penalties in later life, it has emerged. A survey of 300 former professional footballers reveals that almost half of them ended up with osteoarthritis by the time they were 40.

Eighty-three of them had developed the disease in two or more joints and, of 43 who are now registered disabled, three-quarters have osteoarthritis too. Two-thirds of these men, now mostly in their mid-50s, were Premier League (Division 1) players, but the price of their success has been severe. Some were forced to retire because of pain.

Almost a third of the sample of 300 have had surgery at least once since retiring and two-thirds of these were for damage to knees and for knee-replacements. The number requiring surgery to hips and hip replacements is also very high.

But physical damage is not the end of it. According to the researchers at Coventry University, the once super-fit players are now often plagued by anxiety and depression because of damaged joints and osteoarthritis.

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