AWOL Newswire: February 2011

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You may remember the salmonella outbreak from alfalfa sprouts in December—or you may not. The bacterial infection struck 94 people in 16 different states. In response, the FDA Food and Safety Modernization Act, a bill two years in the making, finally passed in December. The bi-partisan bill will improve the prevention of food contamination, allow the FDA to issue food recalls when a company fails to do so, require grocery stores to state if they have sold food that was recalled and improve disease surveillance to find outbreaks faster. This is the first piece of US food safety legislation to be passed in 70 years, and it’s much needed. Last year, 76 million Americans suffered from preventable food-borne illnesses. According to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, “Preventing food-borne illness is a core public health principle that is especially critical in an increasingly complex and globalized world.”

Kelcie Pegher


Eighteen percent of Americans believe that a childhood vaccine may cause autism, according to a recent poll by Harris Interactive/HealthDay. Another 30 percent of Americans are uncertain, despite a dearth of scientific evidence to support the claim. In 1998 a study published in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, made a casual assertion that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. A public health scare ensued. Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist who conducted the study, denies allegations that he intentionally manipulated the data to reflect these findings. But after numerous studies failed to confirm the findings, The Lancet fully retracted the study in February 2010, and Wakefield lost his medical license. In the meantime, a decade of media coverage and celebrity endorsement lending weight to the claims (looking at you, Oprah and Jenny McCarthy) have perpetuated public belief in the myth, resulting in a decline in vaccination rates and, unsurprisingly, new cases of mumps and measles, diseases that had been all but eradicated.

Amberley Romo


An inexplicable phenomenon called colony collapse disorder began affecting bee colonies in the US in 2006, causing whole colonies to leave their hives and disappear. Scientists and beekeepers alike had no idea what was causing the rapid decline in bee populations around the country. Last October, The New York Times cited a recent study that claimed to have solved the mystery; apparently, a fungus and virus were infesting hives in tandem, causing a variety of strange behaviors in the bees, and likely their death. Yet the article failed to mention that the lead researcher received a large grant from the agrochemical company Bayer, which has been accused of producing insecticides harmful to beneficial pollinators like bees. Independent studies have found large varieties of synthetic agrochemicals — much like those produced by Bayer — in the abandoned hives of collapsed colonies. These may be disrupting the normal functioning of colonies. Since bees are responsible for pollinating billions of dollars worth of crops in the US alone, beekeepers and researchers are looking to the EPA to seriously regulate the production and use of pesticides in order to keep ourselves, our bees and our economy healthy.

John Bly


US diplomatic cables disclosed by whistleblower organization Wikileaks revealed that the US and United Kingdom support the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Bangladesh, an agency condemned by human rights organizations as “a government death squad.” The human rights record of the group restricted the US and UK from aiding or providing training to the RAB in 2008. The cables, however, detail the UK breaking these restrictions nine months later without any investigation into past violations or recent improvements. The US Ambassador to Bangladesh describes RAB — which is alleged to have carried out at least 1,000 extrajudicial killings — as “the country’s premier counter-terrorism force…the enforcement organization best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.” The RAB, however, seems more like a force of state terrorism than anything else, instilling fear into the Bangleshi people who come across them.

Ashley Dejean