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Archive for the ‘Science and Health’ Category

Female smokers on the rise

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By: Siti Nurasyikin

Adorned in her little black dress and killer heels, Melanie Anne Periera slipped away from the thumping music and gyrating bodies as she exited the club with two of her girlfriends. They each slid a slim cigarette between their perfect red lips and  lit them. Surrounding them, just as many women as men were smoking up a breather.

“I picked it up when I ventured into the nightlife career and it was sometimes the only excuse for a breather. I think in truth, I’ve been largely a social smoker. Almost all of my girlfriends smoke. I think if it’s OK for men to smoke. It is OK for women too. I don’t see what the big deal is anyway,” said Periera.

A National Health Surveillance Survey conducted by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) revealed that the number of women smokers in Singapore has risen sharply from 3.6 percent in 2001 to 9.1 percent in 2007. According to the survey, females aged 18 to 29 accounted for the highest number of smokers compared to other age groups.

These young women explained that they smoked because of peer pressure. Smoking can also help them relieve stress, control their weight and improve their social image.

The social and cultural constraints which previously discouraged Asian women from smoking are weakening as traditions give way to westernization. Smoking among women is thus a complex issue of identity and lifestyle.

“With the modernization and globalization movement, young women are beginning to break out of their traditional roles and they want to be more like men. They’re working more – more of them are out in the workforce, more of them are more active… so I think it’s a natural trend for them to pick up smoking as well,” said Choon Lin, deputy director of the Smoking Control Programme, under the HPB.

Overseas studies attribute this rise to aggressive advertising conducted by tobacco companies, where cigarettes are promoted to women using images of vitality, slimness, modernity, emancipation, sophistication and sexual allure.

“Films and television shown in Singapore also show women smokers in a positive light. These women are usually attractive, cool and modern. It’s easy to be taken in by advertising like that,” Nur Azliyah Bte Rahim, a student and non-smoker, said.

The HPB’s latest anti-smoking campaign targets beauty conscious women by focusing on the deteriorating effects of smoking on a woman’s appearance. The board had designed a faux beauty collection called ASH that consists of lipstick, eye shadow, foundation, nail polish and loose powder made of real cigarette ash.

Since young women are usually concerned over their appearance, the health authority hopes the ash-themed campaign will encourage those who are already smoking to quit and deter others from picking up the habit.

Sarifah Salbiah Sayed Ahmed, an executive from the Substance Abuse Department at HPB, said, “We are targeting our programs more towards younger women. This includes advertising, public relations, lifestyle marketing through events and partnerships, and the provision of quit smoking services. We are creating a supportive environment to ease this transition because it requires a comprehensive approach to help them kick the habit.”

At the back alleys of Orchard Road, young women who are predominantly retail assistants gather, smoking, as they talk about sales for the day. “Smoking helps me breathe when in times of stress and emotional turmoil. This is my form of relaxation. I do think about quitting, maybe in future when I intend to start a family. I already know the harms of smoking on women. I think all smokers do,” said Cheryl Teo, a 23-year old luxury brand boutique salesperson.

Although the trend of younger women smoking is increasing, the health survey also showed that the number of women smokers decreases with age. Nonetheless, it remains a pressing issue as the harms of smoking are irreversible. With the multi-pronged approach taken by the HPB, Ahmed believes more young women will remain outside the smoky cordoned yellow box.

Written by mtrayu

November 8, 2009 at 8:27 am

Semi-cloning – the magic bullet in solving human diseases?

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By: Goh Kuan Hoong

Thanks to the breakthrough in semi-cloning technology by National University of Singapore, Holly is a proud parent of more than 1000 offspring even though she is barely 15 months old.

Holly, a four centimeter-long medaka fish, is the first semi-cloned fish in the world. Using her as a template, the three-member research team of National University of Singapore managed to produce fertile offsprings with random combinations of genetic traits.

Semi-cloning is a technique that merges two haploid nuclei, each containing one set of chromosome pair. For example, the human egg and sperm are haploid.

The combination of one haploid nucleus from an embryonic stem cell mirroring that of a sperm nucleus, and an unfertilized egg results in the creation of Holly and its offspring.

Associate Professor Hong Yunhan, from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences, who led the team, said, “My team took about five years to segregate and modify cells to produce a haploid DNA cell that emulates a sperm.” He added that the duration of the research cost S$1.5 million, and this breakthrough provides vast potential opportunities in the medical field such as human infertility.

This breakthrough opens up many possibilities in the medical field such as human infertility, and treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer. For example, an infertile person may still be able to pass on his or her DNA using semi-cloning. Human infertility may no longer be a problem for couples wanting to have children.

Dr Alan Colman, an investigator at the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research’s Institute of Medical Biology, said in a Straits Time article that the breakthrough is valuable to medical researchers.

“The techniques of semi-cloning allow scientists to study human haploid cells, which was impossible eight years ago. One day, we might be able to differentiate defective genes from the normal ones in human cells, thus reducing the likelihood of the baby born with Alzheimer’s disease, for example. ” Dr. Alan added.

Professor Hong however cautioned that it is too early to conclude that semi-cloning is applicable in the human context. More long-term research and testing need to be done to determine its feasibility.

“Scientists do not have a clear answer to how long future research will take before mankind can benefit for it. Researchers are still working on haploid cells from mice. In addition, the cell research is very delicate. For example, the development of an embryo cell is easily affected by external factors such as the environment,” Professor Hong added.

Outside the scientific community, there are intense debates among public about the implications of semi-cloning. One controversial issue revolves around the ethical aspects of the technology.

Father James Yeo, from St Anne’s Church told the Straits Times that the Church does not object to cloning as long as it does not harm the environment or human life. Father James, however, has a different personal perspective on the cloning of human.

“It violates human dignity and dilutes the meaning of personhood. It could eventually blur the line of parentage and is open to all kinds of abuses,” said Father James.

Eileen Guan, a third year student in NUS, shares the same sentiments. She felt that semi-cloning is not acceptable. Cloning something, from her point of view, is not ethical. She felt that alternatives like the use of surrogate mothers and adoption are more practical.

Professor Hong however expressed his optimisms on the prospect of semi-cloning being accepted by society in the future. He cited Louise Joy Brown, the first child ever created using in-vitro fertilization in the United Kingdom, as an example.

“People back then viewed Louise as a monster. Initially, society will be critical and sceptical. However, as the technology becomes more established, people will look at it in a different perspective and probably accept it,” he added.

Written by mtrayu

November 8, 2009 at 8:18 am

Goodbye H1N1?

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By Sarah Yap
28 October 2009

Masks, syringes and isolation accompanied John Chew for almost two weeks when he came down with the much dreaded H1N1 virus.

“It was something I hope my friends or family will never have to go through. It was really scary and everyone treated me like I was a walking disease,” said the 25-year-old..

Although the spotlight seems to have shifted away from the virus, it continues to linger and infect more and more Singaporeans. The last death, the 18th one caused by the virus , was only a month ago on Sep. 30.

The good news is that doctors believe that those who have previously contracted H1N1 are not likely to get it again. Vaccinations have also been developed, with countries such as Britain and Japan planning to make them available to the public soon.

On Oct. 27, the health ministry confirmed that Singapore would receive the vaccine in less than two weeks and will be available for sale at cost price.

The vaccine comes timely in the midst of speculation that a second wave will hit between November this year and January next year, as influenza pandemics historically hit two to three times a year.

Polyclinics have reported an increase in the number of patients with flu-like symptoms from over 11,000 to over 13,000.

According to Associate Professor Leo Yee Sin, head of the Communicable Diseases Centre, this may be a possible sign of an impending second wave.

The Ministry of Health, however, assures Singaporeans that the supply of vaccines they will be receiving far exceeds the demand.

The healthy ministry is already preparing to distribute the vaccines strategically, identifying and prioritizing high-risk groups such as pregnant women, healthcare workers and personnel and people with existing chronic medical conditions.

Still, the vaccine does not promise the complete eradication of H1N1.

With the virus’s ability to evolve into newer and possibly deadlier strains, the vaccine does not provide a one-size-fits-all solution and will only be effective for a particular influenza strain.

The vaccine has yet to be tested on children below the age of 18, posing questions regarding its ability to effectively immunize children against the virus.

With Singaporeans continously traveling to and from other countries, another issue is the possibility of travelers carrying in the virus and undermining the effectiveness of local preventive measures.

So while Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan urges Singaporeans, especially those frequently traveling, to get vaccinated, it may not be enough to completely wipe out H1N1 within the island.

Perhaps Singaporeans should remember that while the vaccine provides added protection against the virus, extra caution in these uncertain times remains to be the best antidote against H1N1.

Written by mtrayu

November 8, 2009 at 8:13 am