Health & Science

For energy, here comes the sun, A flawed flu vaccine, ‘Suffocation roulette’ on the rise, Probiotics can go either way

For energy, here comes the sun

Environmentalists have been touting solar energy for years, but engineering problems have limited its usefulness, and solar now provides only 1 percent of the world’s energy. But widely respected futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil says that’s about to change. This isn’t the first time that Kurzweil has made a bold prediction: He foretold the explosive growth of the Internet, the common availability of wireless access, and the fall of the Soviet Union. In the next five years, Kurzweil now predicts, nano-engineered materials currently being developed will transform solar energy into a viable alternative to oil and other fossil fuels. The new nano-materials will make solar panels light, inexpensive, and, most of all, far more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. The sunlight falling on Earth offers 10,000 times the amount of energy that humankind consumes every year, so Kurzweil says that once we perfect solar power, we’ll be energy-rich, able to power our homes and make hydrogen fuel cells for our cars. Kurzweil tells that the engineering problems involved in solar energy are similar to those in computer technology, in which advances have proceeded at an ever-accelerating rate of speed. “I’m confident that we are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels,” he says. In two decades, he says, solar will produce most of the energy we need.

A flawed flu vaccine

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The flu is rapidly spreading through the population, and this year, your flu shot may not protect you against getting sick. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta say the flu vaccination—which usually prevents about 70 percent to 90 percent of infections—this year is effective against only about 40 percent of the circulating viruses. That’s because health officials guessed wrong about which viral strains would be most common this winter. So the vaccine they created for this flu season creates antibodies against viral strains people are not likely to encounter, while leaving them unguarded against the strains to which they might be exposed. So far, 44 states have reported flu cases, up from 31 in just a week. Ten children have died. Another problem this year is that flu viruses are evolving to be immune to anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu. Five percent of this year’s strains are untreatable with anti-viral drugs, compared with last year’s 1 percent, CDC epidemiologist Dr. Joe Bresee tells the Associated Press. “This represents a real increase in resistance,” says Bresee.

‘Suffocation roulette’ on the rise

Children and teenagers are dying because of a foolish game in which they strangle themselves to get a “high.” The game requires no drugs, just a belt or the hands of a friend forced around the neck. Depriving the brain of oxygen briefly creates a feeling of euphoria, until the “player” collapses. The line between “high” and unconscious or dead, unfortunately, is a thin one, and it’s not hard to cross it. Instructions for playing the game are now circulating on the Internet, and it’s become popular among teen and preteen boys, who have nicknamed it “blackout,” “flatliner,” “suffocation roulette,” and the “fainting game.” Some reports place the number of such accidental deaths in 2007 at about 70, but experts agree that the number is probably much higher, since deaths from asphyxiation are often interpreted as suicides. One expert has estimated that about 1,800 children have died playing the game over the past 10 years. “We think it’s critical that parents and educators and health-care providers become aware of this phenomenon so they can look for the warning signs,” CDC psychologist Robin Toblin tells USA Today. Those signs include bloodshot eyes, neck bruises, disorientation, and such paraphernalia as dog collars or bungee cords.

Probiotics can go either way

If you’re already healthy, probiotic supplements could make you healthier. But if you’re sick, those same “good bacteria” supplements could endanger your life. Two parallel, independent studies have found that probiotics tend to strengthen the immune systems of long-distance runners, while similar supplements double the risk of death in those with pancreatitis. “Probiotics primarily work by providing good bacteria in the gut to maintain a healthy balance in the digestive tract and stimulating the immune system,” Dr. David Pyne tells Reuters. “In effect, probiotics top up the beneficial bacteria in the gut to improve the balance between good and bad bacteria.” But when you’re already ill, probiotics could place dangerous strains on the immune system, says a study in The Lancet. When doctors gave 296 people with significant pancreatic inflammation a probiotic or a placebo, the patients who got the placebo fared far better. Thirty-one percent of the probiotic group required intensive care, and its death rate was twice as high as that of the placebo group.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.