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Teaching an old dog…

It’s always good to do something new and last week I did that by recording a podcast for the British Medical Journal, one of my regular clients.

I interviewed the incredibly impressive Dr Claudia Stein from the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe. She is one of those amazingly articulate Europeans – German in her case – who put us monoglot little Englanders to shame. Dr Stein was talking about a WHO report on the health of the European population, which, in WHO terms, stretches from Israel in the South over to Vladivostok in the east. Europeans are getting healthier but health inequalities are increasing.

This is the first time I’ve recorded a journalistic interview which other people will listen to and it really made me think about my uhms and aahs.

If you want to listen to it click here and go to “latest BMJ podcast” on the right hand side.

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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in Random

 

The war to end all wars

Malaria’s having a moment, (as they say in fashion mags about a fad such as lace or spots). Apologies for the trite intro but it’s important to draw your reader in. In the past six weeks I’ve written four stories on the subject. Two were about a financing mechanism used by the Global Fund to fight Aids, TB and Malaria to give people in developing countries access to cheaper malaria drugs. You can see my stories here and here.

The third was more positive (no sniping in this one) and it was about how researchers have developed an injectable formulation of the malaria parasite, making it easier for scientists to test potential drugs and, more importantly, vaccines on human volunteers. This was a very science-y piece and it did make me wonder how I, who got a C in O level biology, has ended up writing about this stuff.

The other story was about a previously promising malaria vaccine, which has not proved as effective as hoped in clinical trials. It got me thinking about the book I’m reading at the moment, Goodbye to All That, poet Robert Graves’ memoir of his time in the trenches during World War One. (Look at my copy above, in all its 1960s glory – filched from my parents’ bookshelf). We often talk about battling, fighting and combating diseases, such as malaria and in the book Graves describes a bet between Captain Furber ‘the greatest pessimist in France’ and an adjutant. Furber bets that the trench lines won’t move more than a mile in two years and, of course, Furber ends up winning.

Finding a vaccine against a disease like malaria must feel like trench warfare for the scientists and researchers on the frontline. You move a bit further forward and then something knocks you back. I won’t be betting on a definitive vaccine in two years time but hopefully we’re a few steps closer. It will be over by Christmas (2020).

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2012 in Random

 

Excavating the past

I’ve just finished writing an obituary for the British Medical Journal – my fourth. My latest was about Sid Watkins, a professor of neurology but best known for being the Formula One medic. After Ayrton Senna was killed in 1994 he helped introduce a whole raft of measures to improve safety on F1 circuits. So successful was he that there has been no death or serious injury at F1 since Senna’s death.

Writing an obit is a fascinating process and it has taken me a while to hone it. The problem is that everyone says very nice things about the person you’re writing about – the trick is to get behind this and find the detail that makes their life worth commemorating. When writing obits about medics – especially academics – it’s also tempting to write that it was your subject’s efforts alone that made a difference to the development of their particular field of research.

When I interviewed Michael Marmot about John Bunker, I asked him if Prof Bunker was ahead of his time. Prof Marmot rightly retorted that being ahead of one’s time is an academic’s job. I liked that answer and will remember it next time I get too carried away.

 

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Random

 

I’m back!

Would you like to know what I’ve been working on lately…? Of course you would!

It’s been a busy time in the field of global health and I’ve been writing a lot for the British Medical Journal. I’ve written stories on contraception and the dangers of diesel exhaust fumes. Diseases that in developed countries we no longer worry about are still a threat in the developing world so I’ve also covered polio eradication and measles and pneumonia

Writing about global health is not for the squeamish. A few months ago I wrote a piece on water and sanitation which discussed the practice of open defecation, ie shitting outside. I didn’t try to get the phrase “shitting outside” past my news editor as I doubt it would have made it into print but “open defecation” just sounds prissy.

Another horrible phrase was in the very important report on contraception that I covered for the BMJ. This talked about 222m women around the world who had an “unmet need” for contraception. Surely, a better way of putting it would be: 222 million around the world cannot get hold of contraception. Or, if you really want to use international development-ese “cannot access” contraception.

Next week I’m covering the London summit on family planning, organised by the Department for International Development and the Gates Foundation. I will look forward to hearing more assaults on the English language!

I’ve also written my first ever obituary, of David Bennett, professor of intensive care medicine at St George’s Hospital, London. He did some very important work on peri-operative mortality. Doctors are just as bad as international development bods in their jargon. Ie, he tried to stop people dying during surgery. He sounds like he made a great contribution and died at what is a young age nowadays, 71. I hope I did his career justice.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2012 in Random

 

Aiding and abetting

I’m covering the aid effectiveness forum in Busan, South Korea from the comfort of my home in the leafy London suburbs. It’s really difficult to get an idea of what’s going on when you’re thousands of miles and a 10-hour time difference away. Plus I’ve got two children at home who – from the strange sounds coming from the sitting room – sound like they’re wrecking the joint.
A very helpful man at Save the Children, Ben Phillips, has been keeping me abreast of events but it’s hard to know what’s going on.
These massive multilateral shindigs are bonkers – there’s another one going on at the moment in Durban on climate change – and I find it hard to understand how any real decisions can be made when you have so many different people round the table.
Ensuring that aid is delivered effectively is a massively important issue so let’s hope that governments remember that and don’t get sidelined by having oblique pops at each other (although of course as a journalist that’s mother’s milk to me…).

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in International health, Journalism

 

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Frontline medicine

Far be it from me to big myself up (oh go on then…) but I was settling down to watch Michael Mosley’s programme Frontline Medicine on BBC2 the other night and I suddenly thought: “Hold on! Didn’t I write a very similar feature for the British Medical Journal back in 2008?” Here it is (click on the red ‘H’).

I thought it was a fascinating programme. So did my seven-year-old who wandered in on a lingering shot of a bullet wound in someone’s chest. (It was 9.45 in the evening and he should have been in bed).

Dr Mosley made some very salient points about what the NHS can (and do) learn from the army. I’ve always been so impressed with army medics, ever since a trip I did to Bosnia with Nursing Times in 1997. So well done Dr Mosley for bringing greater attention to their work than I ever could.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2011 in Random

 

She shoots, she scores (2)

So, my self coaching experiment isn’t going badly so far…. I am working from the bottom up and I have now achieved goal number two – ie, I have settled on an idea for my play and have begun to write it. The idea started with an image: a bedraggled young woman wakes up in her flat and finds a bag bulging with money in her sitting room. I have written the opening scene but as our wonderful playwriting teacher, Stephen Brown, keeps telling us writing is really all about rewriting. So, I think I am going to scrap the opening scene, or at least part of it. I do love the idea of it though.

My aim is to write a play that will keep my husband awake for its duration. The amount of cultural events he has slept through (or at least partially slept through) is legion: Pulp Fiction, War Horse (I sobbed beside him), the I see dead people film (name escapes me), Rocket to the Moon (on at the National earlier this year and it was, frankly, a bit dull), Sense and Sensibility etc etc. The only recent theatrical event he has stayed awake throughout recently was Simon Callow’s one man show on Shakespeare. However, his alertness might have been more down to the astonishingly uncomfortable seating at the Whitehall theatre. I’m off to see Top Girls there tomorrow night – I hope I’ll be less wriggly this time.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2011 in Plays, Random, Silly stuff