Linkage 8.21: Track Science, Swine Flu Priorites, and Dark Brain Matter

Women's 800m champion Caster Semenya

Women's 800m champion Caster Semenya

Track Meet Becomes Scientific Conference

The World Track & Field Championships being held this week in Berlin has been in the headlines a lot in the United States, which is unusual for a non-Olympics year. But there’s been a mix of the awesome and the odd from the meet which has generated a slew of fascinating science discussion. And believe it or not, it hasn’t had anything to do with doping.

First, the amazing: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who didn’t just set new records in the 100m and 200m races, he annihilated them. Bolt’s 100-meter time of 9.58 and 200-meter time of 19.19 shaved 0.11 seconds off his world records for both events, and the media has gone crazy. There’s a great graphic of how he broke the record here, more graphs and analysis than you could ever ask for here, and a clever video illustrating just how short 9.58 seconds really is, through the medium of the Beatles, here. One interesting article from the Guardian explains how Bolt’s performance was so extraordinary, it forces scientists to recalculate the limits of how fast humans can run.

The story of Caster Semenya is much trickier. The South African Semenya won the women’s 800-meter race on Wednesday under a cloud of suspicion that makes doping look like a mere annoyance: allegations that she’s not actually a woman. It turns out this is not an easy question to settle, as conditions like Klinefelter syndrome (born with XXY chromosomes) and androgen insensitivity syndrome (born XY, but unresponsive to testosterone) produce people whose genes and sexual characteristics do not match. The International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body of track & field, has reportedly begun “a series of tests” to determine whether Semenya is “entirely female.” How that is defined is unclear, but there’s precedent: in 2006, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of an 800-meter silver medal after failing a sex test.

The excellent sports medicine blog The Science of Sport, coincidentally run by two South African doctors, has been all over this story, and even the comments to posts like this one are worth reading if you’re interested in this unusual case.

H1N1 Flu Vaccine Recommendations Questioned As Flu Season Approaches

Last month, we discussed the recommendations of the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on who should receive vaccination for the H1N1 “swine flu” virus this coming fall. As the ACIP reports directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those guidelines – which said that pregnant women, caregivers for infants, health care workers, people under 24 and people with chronic medical conditions should be first in line – were likely to be followed by the medical community. And because there won’t be enough H1N1 flu vaccine to give to everybody at the start of flu season (the CDC’s Jay Butler estimated today that between 45 and 52 million doses will be initially available in mid-October), those priorities will be necessary.

But a report published online by the journal Science yesterday says that the ACIP may not have settled on the best strategy for preventing the spread of the novel flu virus this fall. Jan Medlock and Alison Galvani, epidemiologists from Clemson and Yale, ran computer models suggesting that targeting the limited supply of vaccines at school-age children – the demographic most likely to spread the virus – and their parents would likely minimize the total number of infections and deaths from the flu, as well as lowering the public health costs. Even though children may not be the population most at risk for severe flu symptoms with this virus (or seasonal influenzas, which they also studied), more vulnerable populations can be indirectly protected by targeting the children first before the virus spreads rapidly through classrooms, the authors said.

“Instead of vaccinating them directly, you can protect them better by vaccinating the children, stopping the transmission in schools and from schoolchildren to their parents,” Medlock said in a podcast interview on the Science website.

The difference highlights an interesting question: when you’re deciding who to vaccinate first, what goal are you aiming for? The ACIP recommendations were largely intended to give vaccine first to the groups that are most at risk of severe symptoms and death after viral infection – pregnant women, for example. Medlock and Galvani’s models tested several different goals, including minimizing death, minimizing infection and minimizing the economic cost of the disease’s spread. A cold computer might think it’s easiest to vaccinate schoolchildren and minimize infection across the general population at the risk of more pregnant women dying, but public health officials and scientists, for the most part, are not computers.

And Finally…

Science writer Carl Zimmer writes a perfectly-headlined summary of glia, the brain’s secret weapon. In Germany, a “hotel” for studying genetically modified mice is overbooked. And in a week where NASA announced the discovery of the amino acid glycine in a comet’s tail, here’s a nice overview of astrobiology, the search for life on other planets.

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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