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(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

Health care in 2011: Cancer screening debate dominates fractious year Add to ...

In a unanimous 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that Insite decreases the risk of death and disease and there is little or no evidence that the clinic has a negative impact on public safety.

Insite was set up in 2003 after the federal Liberal Government of the time agreed to grant a special exemption from prosecution for drug violations. It was based on the assumption that it’s better to have drug addicts shooting up in a medically monitored setting than sharing dirty needles in back alleys.

But the federal Conservatives, who came to power with a pledge to get tough on crime, opposed the clinic, arguing that Insite essentially encourages criminal activity.

The Supreme Court decision, handed down in September, was seen as a triumph of scientific evidence over political ideology. It also raised the possibility that similar harm-reduction sites will be opened in other Canadian communities.

A window on the hidden mind

A discovery made this year could radically transform the way doctors assess patients who appear to be in a permanent vegetative state.

An international group of scientists detected signs of consciousness in individuals who were considered to lack any awareness of the world around them.

The team, led by Adrian Owen of the University of Western Ontario, used relatively inexpensive electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to measure brain activity in 16 patients previously diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. In one experiment, patients were asked to imagine wiggling their toes. In three of the subjects, the EEG readings showed electrical activity in response to the command. This study, published in November in The Lancet, showed that some individuals considered to be in a vegetative state are consciously aware but unable to physically respond.

The cheap and portable nature of EEG equipment means doctors could do bedside patient evaluations. The research, which must still be confirmed with additional studies, also points to an easy means of communicating with individuals who once seemed beyond reach.

Fraudulent autism research

Once they take root, some false notions seem impossible to purge.

About 13 years ago, a British doctor claimed to have discovered a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and the development of autism in children. Andrew Wakefield’s study, published in The Lancet, struck fear into the hearts of many parents – especially in Britain. Many parents refused to have their kids vaccinated, leading to outbreaks of childhood infections that were once under control. Some children have died.

Since that time, countless other researchers have conducted their own studies and failed to find a link between vaccines and autism. In January, new evidence emerged, showing that Dr. Wakefield’s study wasn’t just bad research, but involved scientific fraud. Brian Deer, an investigative journalist, showed that Dr. Wakefield fabricated evidence. All 12 cases reported in his study were misrepresented; medial records, diagnoses and medical histories were altered to make it look as though autism symptoms arose soon after the kids got an MMR shot, reported Mr. Deer in an article published in the British Medical Journal.

Unfortunately, even this bit of scandalous news has not convinced some anti-vaccine parents that the autism study was a sham. And that means Dr. Wakefield’s bogus research continues to do harm to the cause of public health.

The face of testicular pain?

When doctors at Kingston General Hospital were examining ultrasound results of a patient’s testicular tumour, they were surprised to see what looked like a screaming face in the grainy black and white image.

It was, of course, an optical illusion – like seeing castles in the sky amid cloud formations. The team, led by Naji Touma and Gregory Roberts of Queen’s University Medical School, decided to share the startling picture with colleagues and sent the image to the journal Urology, which runs a monthly feature on interesting medical cases.

“The residents and staff were amazed to see the outline of a man’s face staring up out of the image, his mouth agape as if the face seen on the ultrasound scan itself was also experiencing severe epididymo-orchitis,” the doctors wrote in reference to the patient’s painful inflammatory condition.

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