Mr Epidemiology

No, I'm not a skin doctor



Do cartoons affect child attention spans?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

EDIT 27/09/11: This piece was selected by Jason Goldman in his weekly roundup! Thanks Jason!

I was on the phone with my mom recently, and she told me about a recent study she saw on CTV stating that watching SpongeBob Squarepants was bad for children. I scoured the internet, and found the research article in question. While searching, I also found reference to the study in the media. The headlines were … disturbing. They ranged from the factual “SpongeBob may impair 4-year-olds’ brains” and “Young Attention Spans Impaired by SpongeBob and Rapid Games, Study Says” to the more controversial “So your four-year-old can’t concentrate? He’s probably been watching SpongeBob” and finally throwing all logic and reason out of the window and claiming “Study says SpongeBob makes kids stupid.” (Those are all the actual headlines) As you can imagine this just made me more interested in the actual paper itself – in particular if I would be able to use the line “Researchers call SpongeBob Stupid” and cite it.

A threat to your child's intelligence?

As someone who watched a fair share of Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles  as a kid, I wanted to see how such claims were made, and what the actual study was. And yes, it was Teenage Mutant HERO Turtles. In the UK they changed the word Ninja to Hero, as Ninja had violent connotations. True story.

More after this word from our sponsors … (click read more)

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Movie Review: Contagion

So recently, I mentioned a new movie was coming out named Contagion. There’s been a lot of interesting buzz surrounding the movie on the internet, and several colleagues and I were excited to see a movie about Epidemiologists. So we ventured down to our local theatre to check it out.

I’ve tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, and I’ve tried to keep key details from being revealed. However, as with all movie reviews, if you want to be surprised by the movie, don’t read it.

Review after the jump.

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Using Video Games to Model Real Life Outbreaks

Those of you who know me know that I’m a video game nerd. And comic book nerd. And just nerdy nerd in general. So when I read an article that used World of Warcraft to model disease outbreaks, I jumped on it.

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) and forms the butt of many jokes in shows like Southpark, The Simpsons and others. I’ve never played it myself, but I lived with a guy who did so picked up a few things. Basically, you pick a player class (barbarian, wizard etc) and then join a “guild” and do quests together. These vary from the mundane to the epic (“kill this dragon”). It is, allegedly, a lot of fun. And a lot of that fun comes from being in a group of 50-60 like minded people, all playing out their fantasies as an elf, warlock, goblin etc.

World of Warcraft (WoW) has a very intricate world that has grown up around it. Gold provides an in-game economy, and treasures you gain from slaying foes give people items to trade. And since it is based around the actions of people, each quest can be very different from the last. Sometimes this can result in inadvertently hilarious consequences; the video below shows a guild meticulously planning their attack. However, when a player decides that he’s had enough, he runs in screaming his name (“LEEEEROOOOYYYYY JENNNKINNNSSSSS”). This results in his team panicking, and all their planning going to waste. To quote Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” I’m pretty sure he was talking about WoW when he wrote that.

So you have this society with thousands of players all logging on regularly, heavily invested in their characters, spending anywhere upwards of 40-60 hours a week in the game. What happens when a “virus” is introduced into the game?

More after the loading screen … (click read more)

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The Use of Research in Public Health Decision Making Processes

As researchers, we hope that when politicians are making decisions about policy, they use our research to help ground their thinking. In Canada, CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research), encourages researchers to make their work accessible, and has specific grant applications focused on Knowledge Translation (KT).

Part of the trouble with evaluating whether or not politicians use research when making decisions about public health is the sheer scope of public health. While we may consider very direct issues, such as vaccinations, one could argue that macro level issues such as agriculture, crime and town planning all affect public health (I briefly mentioned the latter in a previous post).

The problem is further exacerbated by how complicated the literature on public health is. While you can make decisions about drug effectiveness using randomized controlled trial data, public health research can include surveys, cohort/case-control studies and cost-effectiveness analyses. Even expert opinion can be considered a valid resource when used properly.

Now, knowing how complicated this all is, you can still try to draw some conclusions. First, is research evidence used? Secondly, if it is, what kind of evidence is used when making decisions? Third, how do they use evidence? Fourth, what else do they use when making a decision? And finally, what stops them from using research evidence?

More after the jump.

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Perceived weight status, actual weight status and weight control

Obesity is accompanied by many health risks, including diabetes, heart disease and musculoskeletal problems. Small decreases in weight have been associated with decreases in the risk of these adverse health outcomes, however, sustained weight loss is incredibly difficult to accomplish.

It has been well documented that people underestimate their height and weight (see my previous post on parental perceptions of child BMI). However, does knowledge of one’s weight affect willingness to start weight control behaviours? How much does your perceived weight differ from your actual weight? And more importantly, can health care professionals affect starting weight control behaviours?

More after the jump.

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Longitudinal associations between biking to school and weight status

When I was your age, I walked 5 miles to school every day! Barefoot! Uphill! Both ways! In the snow!! – PhD Students to undergrads

Active transportation, that is, biking, walking, rollerblading or skateboarding to school, has been shown to be associated with health benefits and increased energy expenditure. This varies from country to country however, with some countries having higher rates of active transportation. The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries have been very committed to ensuring that their cities are easy to navigate, and have made biking an integral part of their city planning and infrastructure (an issue discussed by friend of the blog Megan here).

However, it is unknown whether biking to school can affect BMI status. While cross-sectional studies exist, and show that those who cycle are physically fitter than their peers, you cannot conclude anything about causality or temporality from these studies. So Bere et al. investigated the longitudinal associations between biking to school and weight status among youth.

More after the jump.

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Breakfast Skipping and Change in Body Mass Index in Young Children

Breakfast: The most important meal of the day!

As mothers everywhere know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. However, as scientists, we want empirical evidence. Breakfast has been associated with several health outcomes, ranging from increased academic performance, to improved quality of life, as well as enhanced dietary profiles.

While many cross-sectional studies have found that those who skip breakfast are more likely to be obese, you cannot infer temporality from this relationship. In order to do that, you need a prospective cohort study, where you follow people forward through time to determine their weight gain.

While there are very few prospective cohort studies investigating breakfast eating habits among youth, even fewer have looked at this in Asian populations. And so Tin et al set out to look at the effect of skipping breakfast on BMI among youth in Hong Kong.

More after the jump.

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Parental Perception of Child Weight Status

There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it.

– Chinese proverb

Childhood obesity is a growing problem for our society. However, we are still trying to find effective methods of dealing with this public health concern. Some researchers have suggested that family based interventions could be the most effective way to tackle this issue, as parents can help instil healthy behaviours in their children.

However, what if parents don’t realize that their children are overweight or obese? What if they don’t realize that their child is gaining weight at an unhealthy rate?  If they don’t realize that there is a problem, why would they seek help?

A recent systematic review found that less than half of the parents surveyed correctly identified their children as being overweight in 19 of the 23 studies they examined.

So the question then becomes: Do parents only fail to recognize if their own children are overweight or obese, or do they do this for all children? And that is what a recent study by Jones et al, published in the International Journal of Obesity investigated.

More after the jump.

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How effective are interventions aimed at reducing “screen time” among youth?

Increased screen time is a problem among youth

Edit (14/07/11): Thanks to Gopinath for the article!

A common reason people give for the increased prevalence of childhood obesity is how youth spend more time in front of the TV/computer/video games now than they used to (a measure referred to as “screen time”). The average Canadian youth spends 6 hours in front of the TV/computer every weekday, and over 7 hours a day on the weekend (AHKC Report Card, 2011). So that begs the question – how can we reduce screen time?

Several interventions have been performed, and they have shown mixed results. But this could be due to a number of factors: the population they used, the methods they used or even chance. We can identify all the studies that have been done in this area using a systematic review, and then decide if they’re effective using a meta analysis. And that’s exactly what Wahi and colleagues did, in a study published in Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med this July.

More after the jump.

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