We know that comparatively disadvantaged people, even in rich countries, have worse health and shorter life expectancy than others. But what is it exactly about socioeconomic disadvantage and other environmental difficulties that affects our biology? And at what age are we most vulnerable to these effects? Continue reading
Blog post by Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Senior Lecturer in History, discussing the roles of history and race in global suffrage.
In February 2018, I held a workshop in parliament to discuss the ways in which we could learn from the history of suffrage struggles, and the fights for political representation in the Global South, and use those lessons in reflecting on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in Britain. The workshop was supported by PolicyBristol, History&Policy and the national Vote 100 campaign. Some of the podcasts from this event are available online. Speakers came from a range of academic and policy backgrounds, with an equally mixed audience. Continue reading
Controversial changes to disability welfare benefits have left many ill and disabled people unable to access the support they need. In his speech to the Labour Party conference, the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, spoke of how benefit assessments had “created a ‘hostile environment’ for disabled people”. Continue reading
Momentum seems to be building for a people’s vote on Brexit. Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol) argues that it will not provide the answer to Brexit – whether or not the government secures a deal with the EU. Rather, he argues that the calls for a people’s vote are distracting campaigners from making the case for the outcomes they really want. Continue reading
When the NHS turned 70 this year, I was reminded of another anniversary which has had an enormous impact on healthcare over many years. Penicillin is 90 this year.
Discovered in September 1928 by Alexander Fleming, it was first used as a cure when George Paine treated eye infections with it in 1930. A method for mass production was devised by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1940, and it was first mass produced in 1942, with half of that total supply used for one patient being treated for streptococcal septicaemia. Continue reading
Dr Sofia Galani, Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School
A quick internet search for human rights in the first week of August retrieved results about the crucifixion of convicted criminals in Saudi Arabia and the political stand-off with Canada, the struggle of Argentinian women to decriminalise abortion and the debate on religion freedom sparked by Boris Johnson’s derogatory comments about women wearing burqas.
With all these human rights debates around us, it is not difficult to understand why we have not considered the human rights violations that take place in the maritime domain. Continue reading
Your body mass index (BMI) indicates whether you are within a healthy weight range based on your height. Having a higher BMI – meaning more weight relative to height – can increase your risk of developing heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. While BMI is partly determined by your environment and lifestyle – including your diet and how much you exercise – our genes also play a role.
Genes are inherited from our parents. When this genetic information from the egg and sperm combine, the DNA is replicated continuously – doubling the number of cells until an entire baby is formed. DNA replication is not perfect and every single base in the human genome – the single blocks of code which make up entire DNA strand – has the potential to be mutated for good or for bad. Importantly, this creates a huge amount of random genetic variation at a population level, which is like a huge natural genetic experiment. If we know that these random genetic changes are linked to small changes in BMI, we can test whether BMI influences lots of different things, including cardiovascular health – like a randomized controlled trial.
Broadly, there are two ways of identifying parts of our DNA which are linked with particular traits. Studies of patients affected by rare obesity-related disorders (candidate gene studies) or large-scale population-based genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Findings from the latter of these methods – studies that look to see whether a change at any position in our DNA is linked with a particular trait – have implicated hundreds of common genetic variants associated with BMI.
A 2015 study conducted by the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) consortium and published in Nature found 97 places in our DNA which influence BMI levels and which were responsible for small differences between people, regardless of how different their environment and lifestyles were. This means that, while we cannot predict an individual’s BMI with genetics, we can refer to genetics to understand if patterns materialise in populations.
Small, genetically driven changes in BMI provide an opportunity to determine whether differences in BMI between people have a role in health and disease. Genetic mutations which are randomly allocated at conception aren’t easily changed by our environment and experiences later in life. As a result, our BMI, weight and chances of developing obesity-related diseases could partly be determined before we’re even born.
Low BMI, low heart disease risk
Using this property of genetic variation, we undertook a study that was recently published in the scientific journal Circulation. Our research showed that higher BMI is likely to have an influence on measures of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure, in more than 3,000 healthy 17-year olds from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as the Children of the 90s).
The Children of the 90s study, based in Bristol, has followed families in the UK through data collected from questionnaires, clinics and biological samples since the early 1990s. Using MRI scans from 400 21-year old Children of the 90s participants, who were recruited based on genetically driven differences in BMI, we also demonstrated that having a higher BMI is likely to lead to structural damage to heart tissue, including an enlarged left ventricle – the heart’s main pumping chamber.
Until now, studies have typically looked at the link between BMI and cardiovascular health in adults by observing patterns within populations. However, it’s difficult to conclude a relationship between the two without confusing the role that lifestyle factors play or finding how cardiovascular disease changes BMI rather than the reverse. Surveying people is also open to many sources of bias, such as recalling or reporting information incorrectly.
We wanted to isolate the property of genetic variation to improve our confidence in drawing conclusions about the relationship between BMI and cardiovascular health in a population of healthy young people.
Our results support the idea that having a healthy, normal BMI from a young age is likely to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and help prevent heart disease later in life. Modern genetics allow us to investigate the causes of disease more quickly and cheaply than ever before, and the availability of genetic data in studies such as the Children of the 90s means we can more readily overcome limitations of traditional studies. We hope these findings lead to increased efforts to tackle the obesity epidemic at all stages of life, starting in early age.
As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, I hope that in another 58 years there will be similar celebrations and appreciation when its research arm, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), turns 70. Continue reading
Britain has only a couple of months left to decide on its future relationship with the EU. Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol) says it is time for both the government and the opposition to level with the public about the choices involved. The coarse sloganeering of the past two years will lead to a destructive Brexit unless politicians get real.
The summer recess is often described as silly season. But this year is different: the silliness has to stop. We have just two months to decide on our future relationship with the EU, and the magical thinking – in the government and Labour party alike – is no longer sustainable. Continue reading
There are few dams in the world that capture the imagination as much as Belo Monte, built on the “Big Bend” of the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. Its construction has involved an army of 25,000 workers working round the clock since 2011 to excavate over 240m cubic metres of soil and rock, pour three million cubic metres of concrete, and divert 80% of the river’s flow through 24 turbines.
Costing R$30 billion (£5.8 billion), Belo Monte is important not only for the scale of its construction but also the scope of opposition to it. The project was first proposed in the 1970s, and ever since then, local indigenous communities, civil society and even global celebrities have engaged in numerous acts of direct and indirect action against it.
While previous incarnations had been cancelled, Belo Monte is now in the final stages of construction and already provides 11,233 megawatts of energy to 60m Brazilians across the country. When complete, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the Amazon and the fourth largest in the world.
A ‘sustainable’ project?
The dam is to be operated by the Norte Energia consortium (formed of a number of state electrical utilities) and is heavily funded by the Brazilian state development bank, BNDES. The project’s supporters, including the governments of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) that held office between 2003 and 2011, have justified its construction on environmental grounds. They describe Belo Monte as a “sustainable” project, linking it to wider policies of climate change mitigation and a transition away from fossil fuels. The assertions of the sustainability of hydropower are not only seen in Brazil but can be found across the globe – with large dams presented as part of wider sustainable development agendas.
With hydropower representing 16.4% of total global installed energy capacity, hydroelectric dams are a significant part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. More than 2,000 such projects are currently funded via the Clean Development Mechanism of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – second only to wind power by number of individual projects.
While this provides mega-dams with an environmental seal of approval, it overlooks their numerous impacts. As a result, dams funded by the CDM are contested across the globe, with popular opposition movements highlighting the impacts of these projects and challenging their asserted sustainability.
Beautiful hill, to beautiful monster
Those standing against Belo Monte have highlighted its social and environmental impacts. An influx of 100,000 construction and service workers has transformed the nearby city of Altamira, for instance.
Hundreds of workers – unable to find employment – took to sleeping on the streets. Drug traffickers also moved in and crime and violence soared in the city. The murder rate in Altamira increased by 147% during the years of Belo Monte construction, with it becoming the deadliest city on earth in 2015.
In 2013, police raided a building near the construction site to find 15 women, held against their will and forced into sex work. Researchers later found that the peak hours of visits to their building – and others – coincided with the payday of those working on Belo Monte. In light of this social trauma, opposition actors gave the project a new moniker: Belo Monstro, meaning “Beautiful Monster”.
Today I’m thinking of the thousands of Brazilian families along the Xingu River who lost their homes and livelihoods to the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. #HumanRightsDay @hrw @amnesty @AmazonWatch pic.twitter.com/Xo3qmQhpyO
— Chris Feliciano Arnold (@chrisarnold) 10 December 2017
The construction of Belo Monte is further linked to increasing patterns of deforestation in the region. In 2011, deforestation in Brazil was highest in the area around Belo Monte, with the dam not only deforesting the immediate area but stimulating further encroachment.
In building roads to carry both people and equipment, the project has opened up the wider area of rainforest to encroachment and illegal deforestation. Greenpeace has linked illegal deforestation in indigenous reserves – more than 200km away – to the construction of the project, with the wood later sold to those building the dam.
Brazil’s past success in reversing deforestation rates became a key part of the country’s environmental movement. Yet recently deforestation has increased once again, leading to widespread international criticism. With increasing awareness of the problem, the links between hydropower and the loss of the Amazon rainforest challenge the continued viability of Belo Monte and similar projects.
Big dams, big problems
While the Clean Development Mechanism focuses on the reduction of carbon emissions, it overlooks other greenhouse gases emitted by hydropower. Large dams effectively emit significant quantities of methane for instance, released by the decomposition of plants and trees below the reservoir’s surface. While methane does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide (only persisting for up to 12 years), its warming potential is far higher.
Belo Monte has been linked to these methane emissions by numerous opposition actors. Further research has found that the vegetation rotting in the reservoirs of dams across the globe may emit a million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. As a result, it is claimed that these projects are – in fact – making a net contribution to climate change.
Belo Monte is just one of many dams across the globe that have been justified – and funded – as sustainable pursuits. Yet, this conflates the ends with the means. Hydroelectricity may appear relatively “clean” but the process in which a mega-dam is built is far from it. The environmental credentials of these projects remain contested, with Belo Monte providing just one example of how the sustainability label may finally be slipping.