A flying beetle’s-eye-view of some low-growing Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis).
As summer heats up, daisies add their splash of white and yellow to chicory’s bright blue blooms to break up the monotone green of road verges across Ontario.
Of course, daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and chicory (Cichorium intybus) are late comers to the party, well behind Taraxacum officinale – dandelions. Among the first wildflowers of the spring, they dot fields with bright yellow and frustrate lawn lovers across the country.
While these plants are a perennial frustration to gardening humans, a field of weeds is an all-you-can-eat buffet to pollinators like bees and nectar-sipping butterflies.
Beetles, bees and butterflies are under threat from human factors such as habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Monarch butterflies, who primarily eat milkweed, have seen their population shrink 90 per cent in recent years.
Wildflowers are native plants that grow happily on undisturbed and herbicide-free land like road verges – the strips of land between roads and sidewalks. Research shows these small grassy patches might be a haven for declining pollinator populations.
The Indian paintbrush’s (Castilleja miniata) scarlet petals can make a masterpiece of any dull roadside.
Roadsides are often lush and lively due to the extra water they enjoy from rain runoff. Unfortunately, cities often meet these vivacious displays with vigorous cutting and regular chemical treatments for both aesthetics and safety (overgrown roadsides can reduce drivers’ visibility).
Can there be equilibrium between urban and ecological demands?
In a technical guide for enhancing, managing and restoring roadsides for pollinators, Pollinator Partnership Canada details how to design a pollinator-friendly roadside.
Municipalities can actively seed roadsides with native flowers. Or, they can choose to restore the verges to mimic natural prairie grasslands, an ecosystem in which local pollinators naturally thrive.
Pollinators need flowering plants throughout the spring and summer season. This allows them to nest, feed and breed.
According to the Wildlife Trust, cutting too early can be harmful. “Many wildflowers will not have a chance to flower or set seed and habitats and destroyed in the process.”
Overgrowth can be harmful, too. Competitive plants squeeze out the essential flowering ones. The Wildlife Trust recommends delaying cutting until August and the Pollinator Partnerships suggest even waiting until the fall.
Small changes like slowing mowing speed and cutting higher can support healthy roadsides, too.
Although it is a invasive species in Canada, the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an excellent food source for the hungry Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae).
In a 1992 British study, ecologists’ liveliest test road verges attracted 23 of the 34 butterfly species that inhabit Britain’s best nature reserves. This means that despite their proximity to fast-moving cars, the roadsides were an attractive habitat for the pollinators.
Daises (Leucanthemum vulgare) and bird vetch (Vicia cracca) are wildflowers native to Eurasia. They’ve since spread to grassy patches and roadsides around the world.
Usually, road verges are uniform: They’re covered in a deep layer of soil, treated with fertilizers, and seeded with alien grasses. The pollinator-friendly verge, according to the study, has a range of plants, irregular topography and occasional, late-summer cuttings.
Pesticides can also be a key factor in pollinator health. A direct impact of herbicides is a drop in available pollen and nectar.
Removing flowering species will reduce food for pollinators according to Pollinator Partnerships. They recommend keeping herbicides and insecticides as a last resort, such as when a stubborn invasive plant is damaging or out-competing native ones.
The Goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) is a productive pollinator that you might mistake for a wasp. Can you spot all four on this sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)?
Insecticides can also be poisonous for non-target bugs. They can persist in soil for years, trickling to parts of land, such as roadsides, that never needed treatment.
Well-managed roadsides designed with healthy ecology in mind support native plants, host local wildlife and boost pollination throughout the spring and summer.
With hundreds of thousands of kilometres of roads and roadsides, seemingly minor verges can be a vibrant ecosystem for local plants and pollinators.
Let’s all share the road: buses, bikes, bees, and butterflies.
By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs
Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a Journalism and French double major at Carleton University. Her pastimes include reading, painting and enjoying the outdoors - real jungles and concrete jungles alike. She is a repeat sustainability and circular economy writer and a both a big fan and a big sceptic of recycling. She is just as excited move back home to Toronto after school as she is to travel the world.
A new blood test promises to help detect Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. Photo by Amornthep Srina from pexels.com
A new blood test in development by researchers in the United States, Sweden, and Canada promises to give physicians an inexpensive, comfortable, and more precise tool to help them diagnose the leading form of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease.
As the population ages, it is no surprise that Alzheimer’s is the most prevalent neurodegenerative disease worldwide, afflicting more than 44 million people. With an increased number of cases and limited treatments, it would be beneficial to detect Alzheimer’s early for a better prognosis.
Currently, Alzheimer’s is detected through visible symptoms such as frequent forgetfulness, poor decision making, mood changes, and losing track of time. Once referred to a neurologist, a patient suspected of having Alzheimer’s may endure painful spinal infusions, uncomfortable and claustrophobic MRI and PET chambers, and various other invasive tests.
Thoroughly going through all the requirements for a proper Alzheimer's diagnosis takes time. It almost seems surreal that a simple blood test could diagnose a disease with such a reputation for a lengthy and difficult process of diagnosis.
Not only would it be better to detect Alzheimer’s for better control of the disease, but it would also allow for a less invasive and timely procedure than to what is currently being offered.
Tau is a key indicator of Alzheimer’s disease and therefore this blood test. Here’s why.
Tau is a phosphorylated protein. This in itself is normal; phosphorylation is a chemical change that is involved in cell growth, cell signalling, and apoptosis (that is, telling a cell to die when it has reached the end of its normal life cycle). Specifically, it is when a phosphoryl group (composed of one phosphorus and three oxygen atoms) is added to proteins that contain the amino acids threonine, tyrosine and serine.
When phosphorylation goes awry for the Tau protein, it aggregates into clumps known as neurofibrillary tangles. These tangles are the primary indicator for Alzheimer's disease. It is thought that the onset of disease begins when Tau is phosphorylated at certain Alzheimer’s-prone sites.
For their blood test, the researchers measure the concentration of ptau181, a version of Tau that is phosphorylated at a specific site (181) on the protein.
Using this measurement, they were able to see the difference in protein levels between the blood of healthy individuals and that of people with Alzheimer's. This test is being compared with PET scans and spinal fluids to ensure the results were in fact positive and accurate.
While the results are promising the blood test is still in development and likely years from release.
If it does make the grade, this test will be of great value in primary care settings. Individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s could easily request the test to get an indication of early cognitive impairment.
This test could also provide a simpler and more accessible way for known Alzheimer’s patients to follow the progression and prognosis of the disease.
To be sure, there are still many trials that need to take place to ensure safety and accuracy of this test, but knowing that future and current generations may have better tools to control and prolong their quality of life is science worth celebrating.
By: Roxaneh (Roxana) Zaminpeyma
Roxana is a McGill graduate who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology with a minor in Social Studies of Medicine. She is currently a candidate for a Masters in Experimental Surgery at McGill. She is an aspiring clinician-scientist who is passionate about immunology, neurodegenerative research, patient advocacy, humane caregiving as well as medical history and technology. Her goal is to translate scientific content into words and images that can bring understanding to all her readers.
Technology has been helpful in keeping people connected in long-term care. But is this enough to offset the trauma caused by the pandemic? Photo: Georg Arthur Pflueger, Unsplash.com
Long-term care is one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. This much is revealed by the high death toll in long-term care homes, the lack of proper action from many of these places, and—as was the case west of Montreal—the literal abandonment of long-term care residents.
Amid the chaos is a second tragedy that few have talked about so far: residents’ mental health. As Canada re-opens, this issue should not be left behind.
For a long time, it has been an open secret that loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety are common among older adults in long-term care homes. In 2010, for example, 44 per cent of older adults living in long-term care had a diagnosis or reported symptoms of depression, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
The reality is, if you are in long-term care, you may be more at risk of psychological distress. And there are some driving factors that can put certain older adults more at risk than others.
One such factor is disability. Many people are admitted to long-term care when they are physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves. This loss of independence, depending on their ability to cope, can lead to depression.
Another is change in environment. When a person transitions to long-term care, they might be stressed or anxious about what the future holds for them. This isn’t helped by the fact that many long-term care homes resemble hospitals more than actual homes—which can lead to further feelings of alienation and discomfort among residents.
And yet another factor, and perhaps the most tragic, is the notion of grief at the loss of loved ones. Grief is already enough to put a person’s mental health at risk. But combined with disability and living in an unfamiliar environment, it can further set the stage for anxiety and depression.
In May of this year, long-term care residents made up 81 per cent of all COVID-19 related deaths. It’s therefore not hard to imagine that rates of depression and anxiety would increase among the survivors.
Surviving residents bore witness to the death of their friends and neighbors, all while coping with their own feelings of isolation and uncertainty related to the virus. Going forward we might expect residents to be consumed by a whole new level of grief and trauma.
On the bright side, there are many things we have done to stay connected to residents during the pandemic. Children have organized letter-writing campaigns, volunteers are teaching residents to do video calls, families visit and have played music outside of residents’ windows.
These efforts are good, but they should only be a start. There remains a dire need to address the mental health of long-term care residents, especially as the trauma of the pandemic sets in.
As Canada re-opens, long-term care must stay on the agenda. And mental health needs to be part of the conversation.
A good place to start is to give experts in geriatric psychology a platform to bring forward recommendations and have a serious discussion about the mental health of residents in long-term care.
Another would be to take a serious look at how we structure our long-term care services and evaluate whether we are truly meeting residents’ emotional needs.
We have all been shocked by the pandemic, some more than others.
In long-term care, we’re learning that it is one thing to survive, but it is another to actually feel alive.
By: Eric Dicaire
Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.
Photo by Vicious Bits, Creative Commons.
Recent research by a team of Canadian biologists, supports critics who've long argued that wolves are being sacrificed unnecessarily in efforts to save iconic mountain caribou in British Columbia and Alberta from possible extinction. Since the 80s, authorities in the two provinces have been conducting "culls" which have probably killed thousands of wolves since.
Culls involve either shooting the animals from helicopters, poisoning them or, in at least one case - an eight-year campaign of sterilization.
Mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus), one of Canada's most iconic species. A Creative Commons photo.
Yet caribou populations all over Canada, continue to plummet. Thanks to declines in all sub-species, they're now classified, nationwide as either threatened or endangered.
Some of the steepest reductions have occurred in mountainous regions in the two westernmost provinces. A few years ago, they were declared extinct south of the border, in the contiguous US.
Now, a team of experts from western Canada, is taking aim at a study published last year. It supports culling and the penning of pregnant caribou as ways to slow or stop their slide toward extinction. Such findings have been used by governments to justify their "predator control" policies.
Yet this newest evidence states flatly, there's simply no "statistical support" for such a position.
While wolves may account for more than half of caribou predation in other places, "Deep-Snow Mountain caribou" are far less likely to be killed by wolves than by other predators. Yet their numbers have crashed an alarming 45% in recent decades, possibly the steepest decline of any caribou ecotype in the world. (These herds live in southeastern BC, where, as their name implies, winter snows can pile up to three meters deep.)
"Wolves do not comprise the primary source of mortality for Deep-Snow Mountain caribou," the report finds, "constituting only 5–10% of verified cases of mortality - in fourth place after cougars, bears and wolverines." The authors point out, therefore, that it is wrong to apply a "one-size fits all" approach when it comes to wolf culls.
Besides, cullings ignore a long-accepted reality. It is loss of habitat due to human activity such as logging, which is the main driver of population decline.
"Despite warnings that industrial resource extraction, primarily forestry, was detrimental to maintaining viable caribou populations, habitat modification, fragmentation and associated road-building increased over subsequent decades."
Since the "Deep-Snow" herds depend on lichen that grows on old growth trees, above the snow-line for food, their world is therefore especially "incompatible with large-scale clearcut forestry."
"Logging," reads the study, also "leads to increased predator densities and greater access to caribou via clearcuts, roads, snow compacted by snowmobiles, and the loss of forested refuges. Snowmobile and heliskiing harassment are pervasive across the range of Deep-Snow Mountain caribou (ECCC 2018) and impose potential harm during winter and spring calving. Snowmobile harassment has been acknowledged as an increasingly important factor in Deep-Snow Mountain caribou winter ecology."
The study’s lead author, biologist Lee Harding, believes the importance of wooded habitat to caribou survival, cannot be overstated.
”Forests provide caribou with refuge from wolves and separation from other prey animals, including elk, moose, and deer. Without them, caribou must constantly be on the move to find food, exposing them on all sides. Predators are just one of the hazards."
The need for conserving caribou populations, warn the authors, "is now urgent and carries large economic, ecological, cultural and social implications.
By: Larry Powell
I’m an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, Canada.
I’m pleased to announce, I’ve just joined an international team of writers, telling “animal tails” (all true) on the online website, “Focusing on Wildlife – Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth”(FOW).
Please read my FOW stories here.
I’m also a member of the Science Writers & Communicators of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization. This can allow me to “get a jump” on important Earth Science stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. This can arm me with a “hot-off-the-press” story – sometimes stranger than fiction - the moment the embargo is lifted.
I publish the blog, www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), the perfect antidote for fake news!
Reduced emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to improvements in air quality in major cities around the world. [Photo @ Pixaby/Pexels]
More than 20 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally to date. There is no overstating of the scope of the pandemic tragedy for humanity.
However, it is also important to recognize that it has resulted in some unexpected environmental benefits — especially when it comes to air pollution and waste management.
The World Health Organization estimates that there are more than six million deaths annually because of outdoor and indoor air pollution. According to the 2019 report on the State of Global Air, air pollution contributed to the loss of 147 million years of healthy life in 2017 alone.
By obeying stay-at-home directives during the pandemic, people in Canada and beyond have contributed to the reduction of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, as well as particulate matter in major cities, including Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, which have experienced reductions in nitrogen dioxide levels of between 30 and 40 per cent.
Some experts argue that the drop in air pollution is short term. Once the global economy recovers, they say, people will return to their usual routines, pollution will return to pre-pandemic levels.
Hind Al-Abadleh, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University, was recently awarded a grant from the federal government to conduct a novel air pollution study that involves installing five air monitoring stations near public schools in Kitchener, Ont.
Al-Abadleh said that while the decline in air pollutant levels may be temporary, it presents a unique opportunity for researchers.
“The period that we are in right now with COVID-19 lockdown measures … is a natural experiment that will be hard to replicate,” she said, adding the pandemic will provide valuable data so that before school services resume, researchers will learn how to quantify background pollution.
“We’re hoping that once we collect data for the sites that we chose near schools, we will then take that data to stakeholders in the City of Kitchener, the Waterloo Region and private donors and show them the data and how pollution varies with factors such as human activity and weather patterns,” Al-Abadleh said.
“Hopefully, they will be concerned enough to expand this network of air quality sensors and invest in installing more of them near other neighbourhoods.”
Thus, even if the current reductions in air pollutants are temporary, there can be plenty of long-term benefits. This type of data serves as further proof that humans can have dramatic effects on the environment and climate data.
It also serves as a wake-up call about the importance of having policies in place that promote air quality in the short and long term, such as creating more green jobs, as well as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“Society needs to rethink how we can move the economy in a way that will bring people back to work,” Al-Abadleh said, “but at the same time without an impact on the environment.”
Commercial waste down, medical waste up – and limited markets for recycling
According to Independent Senator Rosa Galvez (Québec), an expert in pollution control and its effect on human health, there has been a reduction in waste production in certain areas.
“We are not consuming as we used to,” said Galvez. “Around commercial malls, restaurants and many industrial activities for sure, we are reducing the waste that is associated with that.”
The production of overall waste has slowed around the world but waste streams — including the collection and processing of recyclable material — have been disrupted during the pandemic. [Photo @ Tom Fisk/Pexels]
On the other hand, the pandemic has had a negative impact on waste management chains.
In recent months, cities around the world — including major Chinese urban areas — have reported a massive increase in medical waste. Additionally, countries such as the United Kingdom have reported a rise in domestic waste as a result of lockdowns.
The acute lack of manpower and the enforcement of measures to prevent infection because of the pandemic compromised how the waste management sector collects and recycles waste. Failure to resolve waste mismanagement issues could lead to an increase, ultimately, in environmental pollution.
It doesn’t help that even before the pandemic, Canada was recognized as one of the highest waste-producing countries in the world. It’s estimated that the average Canadian produces more than 670 kilograms of waste a year.
And while the Global Waste Index reveals that the United States produces more waste than Canada, the U.S. is more efficient in terms of waste management.
According to Galvez, the per capita production of waste has been increasing across the country, especially in Québec. As the pandemic worsened, the need for improved waste management programs in Canada, such as recycling, has become more essential.
“We don’t have a market that takes our recyclable materials,” said Galvez. “That’s a major flaw in the legislation.”
When China implemented the “National Sword” policy in January 2018, it banned the importing of plastic waste. Many businesses — including Canadian ones — rushed to find new markets in the recycling industry.
Collectively, they exported much of their waste to factories in Southeast Asia, many of which were illegal.
Canada exported more than 10,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia in 2018. Recently, Malaysia closed down 200 illegal factories and is one of many countries that is now sending shipments of waste back to the countries of origin.
“We cannot have incomplete programs with waste management,” said Galvez. “If we want a strong recyclable industry, we have to provide local domestic markets for that.”
Pandemic reveals consequences of human encroachment on wild ecosystems
There is no denying the pandemic has been a major issue for people and societies the world over. However, another silver lining to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, according to Galvez, is that it has revealed “a broken system.”
“The encroachment of human activities on the natural environment, including the domestication and trade of wild animals and breeding for livestock, is partially responsible for the emergence of COVID-19 and its transmission to humans,” Galvez said in an email.
According to Galvez, as well as a research article by Dr. Mark Everard et al., the destruction of ecosystems has made it easier for zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 to transfer from wildlife over to humans. Most scientists believe bats were the vector of transmission to humans.
“Because we are destroying these barriers, these jumps between animals to humans are becoming more and more facilitated,” said Galvez. “That’s why 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are from zoonotic origins.”
She further stated that going forward, we must decide whether we will continue operating society in the same way or use this learning opportunity to “launch a more just, clean, greener and sustainable economy.”
“We make mistakes — mistakes are human. But to proceed in the mistake, that is a problem.”
This article originally appeared in Capital Current.
By: Matthew Guida
As a native Montrealer, I graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Film Studies. I am currently studying for my master’s degree in Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.
My interest in journalism began while attending Concordia. I was a frequent contributor to the university’s independent newspaper, The Concordian. I further honed my skills and experience by working as a List Writer for the entertainment news website Screen Rant.
Since I started attending Carleton University, I have strived to further improve my skills as a journalist in not only print, but also in the fields of data, investigative and broadcast journalism. In the past year, I have also developed a growing appreciation for radio journalism and podcasts.
My current interests lie in studying the future of the journalism industry, writing and researching pop culture and social media trends, as well as furthering my career in the field of journalism.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.
I've enjoyed running for over a decade. While I'm not among the elite, I did run a half-marathon in 2017.
But it was not easy. Running never is for me.
I’ve suffered iliotibial band (IT) pain, shin splints, stress fractures, runner’s knee, and sciatic nerve pain—all from running.
I’m not alone: 56 per cent of recreational runners will experience a running-related injury, a stat that jumps to 90 per cent with marathon training.
To keep running, I’ve spent the past decade researching ways to improve my pace and prevent injury. With specialized help and a focus on recovery, I have been able to manage, beginning with my biggest issue: IT band pain.
The IT band is a strip of connective tissue that runs along the outer leg from the hip to just below the knee. It’s thought to have evolved to facilitate human locomotion, especially running. IT band pain is a common overuse injury for runners and has been associated with excessive hip adduction; that is, when your legs trend towards the midline, as if running on a tightrope. My problem, exactly.
Through physiotherapy, I learned to align my hips, knees, and feet while running, creating new muscle memory. To my surprise, my new gait has me taking more steps per minute.
Interestingly, increasing step rate by five to 10 per cent has been shown to reduce hip adduction, decrease energy absorbed by hip and knee joints, and reduce overall ground impact. Not only was the new alignment helping my IT band, but my quicker steps were also reducing stress on my joints.
Progress! But I was still suffering terrible pain from shin splints. These are caused by exercise-induced inflammation of the muscle, tendons, and bone—in this case, the tibia, the larger of the two bones in the lower leg.
The solution: custom orthotics courtesy of a chiropractor to solve this problem. These custom shoe inserts are moulded to fit the unique shape of an individual’s foot to correct abnormal walking or running patterns. They can help patients return to running after injury, such as Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, and of course, shin splints.
Orthotics help by improving lower leg alignment to reduce strain, adding cushion to reduce foot strike impact, and decreasing muscle activity to reduce fatigue.
Within weeks, my tibial pain subsided and has yet to return. My experience was typical judging by the literature, which reports orthotics’ success in reducing running-related pain for 64 per cent to 95 per cent of patients.
Orthotics have been shown to improve ankle alignment (reducing strain on foot and leg), reduce tibial rotation, and reduce vertical impact while running, which is likely how orthotics resolved my shin splints.
By supporting the arch and redistributing pressure across the foot, orthotics can also help reduce stress on the plantar fascia, a ligament on the bottom of your foot. This may help prevent plantar fasciitis, another painful injury common to runners.
So, orthotics: all good? Not quite.
Orthotics may increase stress on the patellofemoral joint, which is where your kneecap and thigh bone (femur) connect. Pain in this area is called patellofemoral pain syndrome, or runner’s knee. Orthotics might actually make this worse.
Study results must be cautiously interpreted. Injuries vary by runner. Orthotics differ in preparation and customization. And there are confounding factors such as time and other methods of treatment.
Although more research is needed, current evidence suggests orthotics may better suit lower leg and foot management because of improved alignment and support in these areas.
At the other end of the spectrum is no support at all: barefoot running, something my husband is exploring.
Barefoot running has hype going for it. Claims of improved speed and endurance and reduced injury have hoisted this minimalist approach into the spotlight. But the science is not conclusive.
The pitch? Running barefoot tends to cause mid- or forefoot strikes. So what?
Most runners’ first contact the ground with their heels (rearfoot strike). Barefoot running requires flattening the foot, so the runner lands either mid- or forefoot. This has been shown to reduce ground impact force and prevent impact-related injuries. Therefore, barefoot running equals fewer injuries.
Barefoot running has also been shown to cause more frequent, but shorter strides, which, if you recall from my IT band experience, decreases overall impact stress.
But there is a tradeoff. While mid- or forefoot ground impact has been shown to reduce strain on the knee, the impact is shifted to the lower leg, ankle, and foot. This increases injury risk in these other areas. For example, barefoot running was found to increase tibial shock, which may lead to painful stress fractures.
The dilemma: Barefoot running may help with knee pain but may lead to shin pain. Orthotics may help with shin and foot pain but may lead to knee pain.
My takeaway? Mindfully running may be the best first step. When I increased my awareness of stride, leg angle, and foot position during gait retraining, my step quickened, my stride length decreased, and ground impact softened—the barefoot claim—but I used regular running shoes. Awareness may be the key to injury prevention.
By: Christina Desnoyers
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Christina is now living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with her husband and Border Collie. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto and is now working on her Master of Science degree at the University of Saskatchewan, researching a genomics approach to assessing wildlife diets.
How can science writers and communicators cover vaccine science effectively in a climate where more than more than half of Canadians worry about potential side effects of all vaccines and nearly half would hesitate or reject a COVID-19 version even in the midst of a pandemic?
A roundtable at SWCC 2020 uncovered some insights. It featured science communication researcher Alice Fleerackers, social psychology professor Dr. David Hauser, immunology researcher Dr. Angela Crawley, and visual science communicator Mona Li.
“Vaccine hesitancy” is a global problem, one named in 2019 as one of the top 10 global threats to human health by the World Health Organization. Extensive evidence indicates vaccines are both safe and effective, yet divisions persist internationally among both the public and scientific community. This contributes to decreased vaccination rates and hundreds of thousands of vaccine-preventable deaths every year.
Calls to combat vaccine hesitation often focus on “fake news” and misinformation. But preliminary research by Hauser and master’s student Andrew Hall at Queen’s University suggests these beliefs may have a deeper root: jumping to conclusions cognitive style (JTC). This is the tendency to make judgments with very little information.
JTC is usually studied within the context of conditions, such as schizophrenia or panic disorder. But Hauser and Hall’s study—which is yet to be published—examined its connection to vaccine-related beliefs.
The duo presented study participants with a fictional scenario about two lakes, each populated with two different kinds of fish, but in each lake, one kind of fish was more common. . Each person received one piece of “evidence” (i.e. a fish that was caught in one of the lakes) and was asked to figure out from which lake it had come. They could either ask to see more evidence (i.e. more fish), or make a decision right away.
Most people asked for more evidence, but as many as 40 per cent did not; they needed only one piece of information to “jump” to a conclusion. It turns out those same people were also more likely to be concerned about vaccines having adverse effects or to believe in conspiracy theories about them.
For Hauser, one of the most interesting takeaways is the disconnect between what vaccine skeptics say and what they do.
“People who are skeptical of vaccines often say that… ‘we need to get more information before we can declare them to be safe,’” he says. “But it doesn’t seem like they have a ‘search for all the evidence’ cognitive style—the evidence we have seems to suggest the opposite.”
Herein lies a challenge for science communicators, especially in our “post-truth” reality: how to encourage audiences to engage more critically with vaccine (mis)information rather than jumping to conclusions?
In her work as an immunology researcher at the University of Ottawa, Crawley has been closely watching media coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine. In a breakout session at SWCC 2020, she worked with participants to brainstorm strategies to cover COVID-19 vaccine research. They discussed lessons from the past, such as media coverage of the infamous Andrew Wakefield study that (fraudulently) linked the MMR vaccine to autism.
One pain point raised during the discussion was just how hard it is to ensure scientific research is accurate —both for scientists evaluating it and communicators covering it. It’s a challenge amplified for COVID-19, where so much research is only available in preprint—publicly accessible but not yet peer reviewed.
To ensure this preliminary research is accurate and valid, SWCC 2020 participants stressed the importance of collaborating with scientists and being upfront about limitations.
“Work together with experts in the field to interpret [preprint] scientific articles to be conveyed to the public,” suggested one participant. “State that the study has not been vigorously peer reviewed,” offered another.
Being explicit about scientific uncertainty isn’t always easy, but researchers believe it can build audiences’ trust in science, help them make better decisions, and engage them more deeply with the scientific process.
Communicators may also have to play an educational role here.
“Add a layer of understanding before sharing new or current research,” one participant offered. “Provide a common language and information that is very foundational.”
Crawley agrees, encouraging communicators to include key immunology basics in any COVID-19 vaccine coverage.
“Explain how the herd immunity percentage is calculated, and use this as a means to try to encourage as much vaccine uptake as possible,” she says. “Give the public some insight into those processes.”
Building trust is about more than facts. A wealth of research highlights the importance of emotion in decision making, including in parents’ decisions about whether or not to vaccinate their children.
Li, who specializes in biomedical visuals, advocates for an empathetic, user-centred approach. At SWCC 2020, she explained how using visual formats, like comics and visual narratives, can bring a “human side” to science communication. She also offered advice for getting to know the perspective of the end-user in vaccine communication, such as building personas to get to know your audience. Ask: What do they already know about this topic? What do they value? What are their doubts and fears? Answering these questions is a first step towards effective empathetic communication.
In Li’s breakout session, participants brainstormed how to apply these strategies in their own work. Key takeaways included the importance of building authentic relationships with people who feel hesitant about vaccination and of sharing personal experiences, rather than facts and statistics.
“Large institutions are [often] very disconnected from individuals who they are trying to get to ‘listen,’” one participant said. “Dismissive messaging from experts may further divides.”
“We may think we are talking to hypothetical ‘others,’” added another participant, highlighting the importance of understanding the thoughts and feelings of these “others” before attempting to convince them of your own point of view. “People around us probably have all kinds of different beliefs!”
Taking the time to understand those beliefs, participants agreed, should be part of any vaccine communication strategy.
“We may worry about exposing too many things that the public can critique,” one participant said. But the consensus was that vulnerability could open doors for more effective messaging.
“Meet the audience where they are, acknowledge their concerns, feelings, and experiences—as well as your own...Communication should be more of a two-way conversation.”
To watch the full session, visit the SWCC Conference Session Recordings.
By: Alice Fleerackers, with insights from Dr. David Hauser, Dr. Angela Crawley, Mona Li, and participants of the SWCC 2020 Annual Conference.
Can the energy lessons of the COVID-19 lockdown guide Canada’s climate change actions for workplaces and transportation? Photo by Chris LeBoutillier from Pexels.com
Five years after signing the Paris Agreement and pledging to reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, Canada so far gets a failing grade.
Instead of trending down 30 per cent, emissions in 2030 are likely to reach little more than half this target. This assessment is supported by the most recent biennial report as well as reports from Climate Transparency and the UN.
Although effects of the federal government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change may not have been accounted for, climate transparency, the UN and Canadian academics say action needs to be taken to address the shortfall now.
Under the Paris Agreement, Canada has only 10 years left to bolster efforts and re-strategize. Developing new policies to lessen what the UN terms a “catastrophic” shortfall is going to be a major challenge. But one factor could strengthen efforts in this area: COVID-19. Modelling and strategic planning associated with the most recent reports were done well in advance of the pandemic.
What happens if we incorporate lessons we’re learning from the pandemic to strengthen our policies? Is progress so far a prophecy predicting failure, as some experts believe, or are there opportunities to reduce the magnitude of our failure?
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be more than a global health crisis. It has had major implications on food security, economics and – owing to full and partial lockdowns to stop the spread – human energy consumption.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), countries in full lockdown experienced an average of 25 per cent drop in energy demand per week. Their scenario, which quantifies energy impact due to the lockdown, predicts a global eight per cent decline in CO2 emissions. This is double the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II, indicating the colossal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
It is unlikely such seismic environmental gains from a reduced workforce can or should continue indefinitely but lessons learned so far can be transformative.
First, COVID-19 has re-defined work, demonstrating that entire companies can work from home without any loss in productivity. The CEOs of Twitter, Shopify, and Square, for example, announced that workers can continue to work from home even after the lockdown is lifted. Recently, Jean-Yves Duclos, president of Canada’s Treasury Board, announced that working remotely has not had a negative impact upon the work of the Public Service and could be the new normal. For a sector with over 220,000 employees, this is significant.
Before the pandemic, the federal government developed a national strategy for GHG emissions. It includes retrofitting of large buildings with carbon-intensive heating infrastructure to reduce emissions, increasing incentives for electric cars, and the development of greener transit options in Canada’s largest cities. These strategies have gained new relevance in light of the lessons learned from the pandemic.
Millions of Canadians can now work from home which has sparked speculation that many large buildings typically used for offices may become obsolete. This raises some crucial questions. How does increasing the home-based workforce across Canada affect GHG emissions from cars? How does working from home affect office buildings with GHG-intensive heating systems? What changes are expected if 20, 40 or 50 per cent of Canadian workers are home-based?
This information in a standard form, for example, megatonnes of CO2 equivalent, could inform policies to encourage individuals and large companies, perhaps through tax credits, to reduce their transportation-related GHG emissions by working from home. This knowledge could also be rapidly incorporated into strategies for investment and development of sustainable approaches to restarting the economy.
Global experts agree: individual action alone does not result in the drastic reduction in emissions needed. Similarly, reducing transport and the heating of buildings alone will not ensure Canada’s Paris Agreement targets are met. But it is one step in the right direction.
Among G20 countries, Canada has four times the average GHG emission from transportation and twice the average emissions from buildings. Progress in these areas will certainly require pushing the boundaries of our long-held perceptions of work.
But the pandemic has revealed what is possible. Now is the time to reform thinking and policy to match Canada’s goals and stated commitment to environmental stewardship. To do otherwise is to risk not only failure but to disregard our future.
By: Jasmine Hamilton
Jasmine Hamilton writes about health, public policy, faith, and everything in between. She earned a Ph.D. in Pathology from the University of British Columbia and a Certificate in Global Health Governance and Policy from Duke University’s Sandford School of Public Policy. She enjoys the outdoors and leads a book club in her spare time.
Both biology and behaviour play a part in why the coronavirus hits men harder than women. Photo: peakpx.com
As the coronavirus sweeps the globe, it seems indiscriminate in its attack, taking down anyone exposed to it. But a pattern is emerging: men seem to be hit harder than women.
Is it biology, behaviour, or both?
Women tend to have more robust immune responses, but as a consequence, are more prone to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. But this may also mean women are better protected against invading viruses, since their initial immune reaction is stronger than their male counterparts.
“Sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen are important in modulating the immune response,” says Veena Taneja of the Mayo Clinic, who studies differences in male and female immune systems.
One hypothesis is that women’s stronger immune systems confer an advantage to their offspring. Antibodies from mothers’ breast milk help ward off disease while infants’ immune systems are still developing.
Another explanation may be genetic. Women have two copies of the X chromosome, which contains many immune-response genes. Men have only one. Taneja says that while a female’s extra X chromosome is generally silenced, around 10 percent of these immune-boosting genes can be activated. It’s possible for women to get a "double-dose" of protection — although the research is still at an early stage, and it's still too soon to know exactly how all this might play out in the context of COVID-19.
Men may also be disadvantaged by higher concentrations than women of a biomarker associated with increased pulmonary, gut, renal, central nervous system, and cardiovascular manifestations. A recent study published in the European Heart Journal suggests this biomarker, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), indicates susceptibility for the coronavirus to infect healthy cells. This may help to explain why men are more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) than women.
Over the last two decades, men were also disproportionately affected by SARS and MERS outbreaks, both caused by coronaviruses. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that more women than men were infected by SARS in Hong Kong in 2003, but the death rate among men was 50 per cent higher.
It is clear that being male may be a risk factor for COVID-19, just like being older or having medical conditions like asthma or heart disease.
Gender differences in our vulnerability to the coronavirus are also shaped by social norms and practices. Photo: pixabay.com
Men’s behaviour may also be working against them during this epidemic. Men often don't seek health care until they feel more symptoms and so are less likely to seek out testing for the coronavirus when they feel sick. This might be because many men are taught to be self-sufficient, seeing self-care as an admission of weakness. This may result in ignoring tell-tale symptoms of the coronavirus. Other behaviours that affect general health such as smoking, may also play a role in the disease’s disproportionate impact on men.
Pollution could also be playing a role. In most cultures, men are more likely than females to work outside, exposing them to pollution and its associated risks for lung disorders.
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health officials have emphasized the importance of hand washing and hand sanitizing to prevent infection. But a study done by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that men — even those who are healthcare workers — are less likely to wash their hands or to use soap than women. These men also tend to be less compliant with pandemic-related restrictions such as physical distancing.
When it comes to this latest coronavirus, there is a tendency to group cases by criteria such as age and social standing and make broad assumptions that both men and women are equally affected. They are not. It’s a lesson for both the public and the scientists who are gathering and analyzing data about the new virus.
By: Sara Chung
Sara was born and raised in Singapore, and has lived in Canada for more than a decade. She completed her B.Sc. at the University of Toronto, majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology, and currently works in the tech sector. With coffee and tea flowing through her veins, she takes life on with high dopamine and serotonin levels!
For more details, please check out her LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sara-chung/
Rapidly warming oceans have left many northern marine mammals swimming in troubled waters. But perhaps none more so than the strange and mysterious "unicorn of the sea," the narwhal.
Narwhals breach through an opening in the ice-pack. Photo Credit – US Fish & Wildlife Service.
An exhaustive new study estimates, habitat suitable to narwhals could shrink by a staggering twenty-five percent by century’s end. Thank to manmade climate change, their watery home is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. And, in a scant few decades, sea-ice, so vital to their survival, could be gone altogether during Arctic summers.
Narwhals are cetaceans, a family of marine mammals which includes whales and dolphins. Most are found in Canada's Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, in the high Arctic. Others live in waters off Greenland, Norway and Russia.
Many spend several months each winter beneath the ice-pack, feeding on fish, squid and shrimp. In the summer, thy can be found in more open water in bays, fiords and inlets.
They’re capable of diving as deep as two thousand meters and holding their breath for an astonishing 25 minutes!
They can weigh up to two thousand kilograms and reach a length of about five meters. They're much larger than some dolphin species, but tiny compared to the mighty blue whale. Many migrate along the ice's edge some 17 hundred kilometres from Canada to Russia.
The males grow long, spiral tusks - actually overgrown teeth - that can protrude up to three metres from their head. While they’re predators, narwhals are also preyed upon. They’re believed to be increasingly falling prey to killer whales (orcas), as warming oceans lure the orcas further north from their usual ranges.
But humans are, as they have been for millennia, a top predator, too.
Indigenous hunters of Greenland and the Canadian high Arctic - the Inuit – have long depended on them as an important food source.
One official survey in 2010 (the most recent I could find) concluded that Inuit hunters took almost a thousand narwhals off Canada and Greenland that year.
Both countries recognize the right of the Inuit to hunt them. But they must adhere to a quota system. It's based on findings from periodic, scientific aerial surveys.
Fears of over-exploitation of the species have led to periodic bans being placed on the import and export of narwhal tusks. The Inuit fashion the tusks, made of ivory, into traditional figurines.
The tusks have also been traded illegally, often for tens of thousands of dollars each, on international black markets.
So, just how intimately are narwhals tied to their harsh world of ice and snow?
"Narwhals are uniquely adapted to the extreme conditions of an Arctic existence," the study states, "and their evolution and ecology intrinsically tied to the past and present sea ice dynamics of the region." Narwhals are known to have lived through extreme climatic changes for thousands of years. Yet they're also thought to be among the most vulnerable to those changes of any of the northern marine mammals.
The researchers hoped, by studying their past, they could gain an insight into their future. What they found was concerning. Before and after the onset of the last ice age (LGM), more than 26 thousand years ago, both the number of narwhals and their genetic diversity were perilously low. But they "responded positively" to both the warming and expansion of habitat which occurred after it ended some 19 thousand years ago. Their numbers increased, and so did other marine predators like belugas and bowhead whales.
However, the benefits such animals enjoyed in that post-glacial period, may be coming to an end. "Many polar marine predators are being negatively affected by global warming, which is decreasing the availability of habitat and prey," the study finds. "Although the range and effective population size of narwhals increased post-LGM, their future in a rapidly changing Arctic is uncertain. Narwhal distribution will be further affected in the near future, as the species also faces increased human encroachment, changes in prey availability, new competitors and increased predation rate by killer whales."
Areas which were once inaccessible to people, due to ice and snow cover, are now receding. This is allowing more activities such as fishing, oil exploration and drilling. And narwhals are known to be easily disturbed, and to flee from areas they would otherwise frequent.
So, are their numbers crashing?
The researchers admit, there's a good deal of uncertainty when it comes to population trends. World population estimates have ranged from 50 thousand to 170 thousand. As those estimates have wavered, so, too has their status on the endangered species list.
That has ranged from a species “of least concern,” to one that is "nearly threatened."
A veteran biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Steven Ferguson, has extensive experience observing marine mammals in the north. While he doesn't give hard numbers, he paints a fairly bright picture for those living in Canadian waters.
Dr. Ferguson tells PinP, "Both the Baffin Bay and Northern Hudson Bay populations appear to be relatively constant and do not appear to be depleted."
However, the good news seems to end there.
"Populations off the eastern shores of Greenland," he goes on, "seem to be experiencing a decline. And two stocks off West Greenland, appear to be lower in abundance relative to the past."
So, will these wondrous "unicorns of the sea" continue to ply their way through the world's northern oceans just as they have for so long in the past? Or are their numbers destined to dwindle to a dangerous few, like so many other of Earth's wild things?
The study appears is in the Royal Society's journal,“Biological Sciences.”
I’m Larry Powell. an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. I’m a member of the SWCC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization. This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. Often, this arms me with a “hot-off-the-press” story that’s ready to go, the moment the embargo is lifted.
I’m prepared to supply interested publications with important stories in the field of the Earth Sciences – stories often stranger than fiction! I publish www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), where science gets respect.
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