Thursday, April 29, 2010

Texting to Save Infants

The United States ranks 30th worldwide in infant mortality rates, and one out of every eight U.S. babies is born prematurely (an expensive medical condition, as I explained in a 2008 blog post). Medical and lifestyle factors that contribute to preterm birth include inadequate prenatal care, smoking and drinking, domestic violence, stress, diabetes, high blood pressure, and being under- or overweight, according to the March of Dimes. To address the problems of both infant mortality and preterm births, the text4baby campaign was created and launched in February 2010 to improve the health of expectant mothers and their infants. 

"Hispanics and African Americans are about 2.5 times as likely as whites to put off prenatal care until the third trimester or to get no prenatal care at all," explains TIME Magazine writer Bonnie Rochman on the text4baby website. "But they are likely to be avid texters." Since 91% of Americans own cellphones, according to the wireless association CTIA, text messaging is an effective way to reach these women.

To register for this free program, participants simply text "Baby" or "Bebe" (for the Spanish version) to 511411. Once registered, they receive three text messages a week, covering relevant health topics such as prenatal care, vaccines, breastfeeding, mental health, and car seat safety.

Text4baby is an unusual public/private partnership, whose motley crew of partners include (but are not limited to) the mobile technology firm Voxiva, the health insurance company WellPoint, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (whose secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, just criticized WellPoint for canceling the policies of women with breast cancer), and MTV Networks (producers of the disturbing reality show 16 and Pregnant).

Voxiva is a veteran at text-messaging health campaigns, primarily in international settings. The Washington Post's Mike Musgrove explains that:

Voxiva has launched about 150 health-related text-message services around the world, mainly in developing countries where access to doctors is scarce. Such projects, typically underwritten by governments or pharmaceutical firms, have often been used as a tool to disseminate news about treating diseases such as diabetes or AIDS.
So will the text4baby program really improve maternal and infant health among the participants? It's too soon to know, but I'm curious to find out. If it does, other health-related text messaging campaigns will surely follow, as the federal government focuses on prevention and wellness to offset the cost of health care reform.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Three Cheers for Bacteria

After I read that the FDA is investigating the safety of the antibacterial agent triclosan, a chemical widely used in toothpastes, cosmetics, soaps, and plastics, we did a quick audit of some of these products in our house. Triclosan might affect hormone function and contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Unfortunately, we have plenty of triclosan at home. Sitting on the bathroom sink, a tube of Colgate Total (Active ingredient: 0.30 % triclosan); in the broom closet, a container of Target's antibacterial hand soap (Active ingredient: triclosan 0.115%). I'll be phasing those out of our household post haste, and looking for triclosan-free alternatives. I'm glad to make the switch, because bacteria are my favorite microorganisms.

Over the past year, "bad" bacteria have caused plenty of havoc in my family, from sinus infections to scarlet fever (which happened, most ironically, just after we had watched a movie version of The Velveteen Rabbit, in which scarlet fever strikes the main character). It is true that problems such as bacterial meningitis and  MRSA infections have hurt or killed far too many people, and I will happily sing the praises of both antibiotics (used judiciously and correctly) and vaccines (such as the tetanus, pertussis, and Hib vaccines) to prevent dangerous bacterial infections.

But bacteria have an important role in biology, and I have no desire to wipe out more bacteria than medically necessary. Prokaryotic bacteria have been around for billions (billions!) of years, one of the oldest and simplest microorganisms - just one cell big, with no nucleus. Bacteria in our digestive tract help us digest our food and make a vitamin that helps our blood clot. Bacteria in the reproductive tract destroy fungi that can cause infections. And many antibiotics, of course, are made from bacteria.

Outside our bodies, bacteria keep soil healthy and break down dead plants. We use bacteria to make yogurt and cheese and to process sewage. Bacteria are wily and adaptable, and can even survive in the Antarctic's Lake Vostok.

Although bacterial problems such as salmonella outbreaks in the food supply make the news more often, far more types of bacteria are helpful than harmful to humans. Why do these fascinating organisms get such a bad rap (hey, go pick on viruses!)? Our obsession with eliminating the bacteria around us creates its own problems, such as questionable ingredients in household products and antibiotic resistance. I think it's time to show bacteria a little more respect - maybe a Bacteria Appreciation Week?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Travel Trumps Food

During a recent family trip to soggy Massachusetts I realized how hard it is to eat well when you travel with kids. Unless you trust fruit of questionable provenance, there is only one healthy food that is widely available for U.S. travelers: yogurt parfaits. You can find them at airports, Starbucks, Au Bon Pains. But I just can't eat them for seven days in a row.

My kids, on the other hand, won't eat them at all. Who can blame them, when yogurt parfaits are displayed next to glistening frosted scones, cheese danishes, blueberry muffins and red velvet cupcakes? Vacation, for them, was not just a change of scene but also a break from our standard healthy-snack repertoire at home of fruit, yogurt, cereal, cheese, and crackers.
I had brought the excellent Frommer's guide to Boston on the trip with restaurants bookmarked, and we did make it to one restaurant on my list, the tasty waterfront seafood shack The Barking Crab. But by most mealtimes, the kids were starting to tire of all the walking that our tour of colonial New England entailed, and I was happy to stop at the nearest reasonable-looking place that might have a kids' menu and a clean bathroom.

At one point, after I had tossed my guidebooks and printouts aside, I said "that restaurant must be good - it has a huge sign." Admittedly, we had been on the Mass Pike for an hour in the rain, and my younger daughter had just gotten carsick in my hat, which I had tossed to her in the nick of time. I wasn't feeling too picky, as long as we got off the turnpike.

In fact, the restaurant with the huge sign was pretty good. I put aside my foodie inclinations and spent the week eating clam chowder, fried fish, turkey burgers, and pizza as we retraced Paul Revere's ride from Boston to Concord, viewed the flooded Old North Bridge where the revolutionary war began, and (my favorite moment) watched the gray and stormy Atlantic from the windows of Salem's House of Seven Gables just after a fierce storm had blown through.

We weren't there to eat gourmet food, nor to play the role of the food police. And living healthy (like raising kids) isn't just about getting everyone to eat their vegetables. When we saw our city kids freak out with joy because they got to chase a herd of sheep across a muddy New England village green, it didn't really matter to me that, as a vacation treat, they had eaten Fruit Loops and donuts for breakfast.