Tuesday, May 19, 2009


by Martí­n Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, May 13, 2009

The relationship between Mexicans and science is schizophrenic. On the one side, we want to trust science, and on the other we deny its credibility.

In the wake of the recent outbreak of influenza, Mexican media demanded precise and fixed figures from day one, when the were impossible to have. Reporters demanded them in part by lack or knowledge about how science works, how it advances slowly and by successive approximations.

But the informative void was filled by another virus: conspiracy theories (mainly through e-mails or by word of mouth).

The majority of these were just simply absurd: the virus is an invention ("influenza my ass", López Obrador dixit); Obama brought the virus to Mexico; it was released as part of an agreement to reactivate world economy, at any cost; the outbreak was part of a strategy to scare Mexicans right before the July elections…

The problema is that in Mexico —and in a lot of other Countries— we lack a scientific culture that, beyond having or not certain knowledge, would allow us to distinguish between anecdotes or suppositions and verified data.

What we do have, certainlly, is an advanced "culture of distrust": when our expectations do not match, we deny the data, we accuse science of authoritarism and we tend to believe in complots.

As the eminent mexican pathologist Ruy Pérez Tamayo writes (La Crónica, May 8) "the handling of the necessary measures to face an epidemic is not only matter of logic and good intentions; it deals with actions based on a lot of accumulated experience through the years, on specific and well documented information, on a wisdom acquired in the books as well as in the field. For an emergency situation such as the one Mexico is going through, it is fundamental to trust authorities, especially when these are real experts with regards to the problem".

Unfortunately, our authorities have not earned that trust. Sadly, also, our culture of distrust makes us prefer conspiracy theories than trustful information.

Poor Mexico: so little science and such a taste for rumors!

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Virus, science and society

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, May 6, 2009

The influenza outbrake that has kept Mexico City - and the whole country - semi-paralyzed since April 24 leaves several points clear.

First, the outbreak was expected. Not necessarily in Mexico, or from viral sub-type H1N1 (the favorite candidate was H5N1 which caused the avian flu outbrake in 2006). But evolution, the nature of these viruses —promiscuity; fragmented genome; human, swine and avian hosts— and the natural history of influenza made it perfectly predictable that sooner or later we would be facing another pandemic.

Second, a problem of this magnitude its not only a scientific or medical matter: it affects the whole of society: economy, politics, diplomacy, daily living (we chilangos, inhabitants of Mexico city, know that well). International organisms (especially the World Health Organization) had the good sense to foresee and prepare measures to contain the inevitable: manuals, international agreements, labs, purchase of anti-viral drugs

Mexico simply followed these indications —not ideally, but adequately, considering our limitations— when the outbreak data were clear.

Now there's talk of slowness in the response, but one of the bad things about an epidemic outbrake is that it cannot be recognized until it's there. To declare the alert before being sure was too high a risk (there are also those who say that the measures were excessive, but the virus could have been very lethal: H5N1 kills 50% of people infected.)

My usual readers know that I don't support Felipe Calderón, our non-legitimate president. But in this case, the actions of his government, as well as the ones from Marcelo Ebrard's (in Mexico City) were not only appropriate, but successful. The intellectual credit for this is for the international medical community; but the political credit is theirs.

The lessons from this situation are that we have to demand more support for scientific investigation and the reconstruction of a health system that works on prevention and research —not only in health attention. There's also a necessity of a much better communication strategy for authorities. And finally, an urgency to have more well prepared science journalists, to avoid the epidemy of conspiracy theories that only make social reaction much more difficult.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Influenza and evolution

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, April 29, 2009

The problem is that's what viruses are like: promiscuous and addicted to gambling. And that's what evolution is like, taking species trough twisted and unexpected roads. And that's what science is like, unable to advance on its own road, no less random, faster than it can, held up by its method, which demands it makes sure about what it knows up to that moment before taking the next step.

The influenza virus which is currently bothering us (family orthomyxoviridae, type A, the most common ones, that also infect birds, pigs and horses) is, as are all viruses, a protein capsule that contains genetic material; in this case, ribonucleic acid (RNA), the older and less stable cousin of DNA.That's part of the problem: RNA copying is less accurate: sometimes it adds, sometimes it substracts, and thus causes spontaneous mutations inside one species of viruses.

And if several different viruses infect one same cell, they can recombine, taking with them pieces of genetic information from the others. The virus that concerns us has genes from other influenza viruses that infect humans, pigs and birds. And it can continue changing. What's alarming is the fact that it has learned to jump from human to human (as was feared from bird flue in 2006).

Its last name H1N1 refers to two proteins of its surface: haemaglutinin (of which there are 15 variants; this is number 1), which the virus uses to bind to the cell it's going to infect, and neuraminidase (9 variants) which allow the new viral particles to come out of the infected cell without being stuck to it.

Oseltamivir (Tamiflu -do not self medicate!), one of the drugs that work against the current influenza virus, inhibits this enzyme, and prevents that the new viruses form disseminating.

Science, as evolution, is unpredictable. I can seem slow and expensive, but if James Watson and Francis Crick hadn’t discovered, 56 years ago, the DNA double helix, today we wouldn't have the molecular biology tools that allow us to study and fight this virus.

And if we do not widely invest in scientific investigation —as Barack Obama said, immediately backing his words by increasing his country's investing in science by 3 percent of USA's gross domestic product— we won't be able to fight future crises -whether they be health crises or any other type of crises.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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