Saturday, May 05, 2007

British decay discredits mainstream parties

In a very British way, the article below is a reluctant endorsement of the anti-immigrant British National Party -- the only distinctly conservative party left in Britain today. As the BNP is well outside the current British consensus, however, an outright endorsement of it would simply not have been published in "The Times"

Today some in my town will cast a vote for the Epping Community Action Group. Sounds reasonable enough. Run from a flat near the station, ECAG wants to rejuvenate the high street and save small shops by relaxing our parking laws, it opposes fortnightly collection of household rubbish and would not build on green belt land. All for that. It has campaigned for the Co-op to smarten itself up (it was an eyesore), for the local adult learning centre to reopen and to stop town centre premises becoming an endless parade of chain coffeehouses and takeaways. My kind of people. And, yes, ECAG is run by a former chairman of the National Front but, hey, you can't have it all ways.

Ian Anderson, a man whose commitment to neighbourhood issues would seem the perfect antidote to disillusionment with party politics, was chairman of the NF from 1990 to 1995. Something more then a juvenile dalliance, it would appear. He says he has had no connection with extreme right-wing politics in ten years, a statement that is open to debate, not least because he stood for an NF splinter group at the Uxbridge by-election in 1997. Anderson's dubious background is known locally but is increasingly considered not to matter in an area where six British National Party members sit on the local council.

In a part of the world that should be the happiest, clappiest little market town this side of all the other cosy corners of southern England, the mismanagement, incompetence, mediocre thinking and muddled priorities of modern-day life have created a situation in which descendants of the far Right can thrive. I have election literature from all the main parties saying they support the green belt, and a school playing field at the bottom of my garden, half of which has been sold for housing. At the door, every activist said his candidate was opposed to it, yet none, if elected, can do anything about it.

And I am not saying I could ever bring one fibre of my being to consider voting for a former fascist reinvented as a green-belt conservationist; but I'm saying I understand.

Saw my first rat last Sunday. That was a thrill. I remember them from third-year biology, white and clean in a glass case in the science lab. This, however, was mangy and diseased and in something of a free-range situation close to the house. It looked quite startled. We both did. Not as startled as my 70-year-old mother would have been, mind you, had it chosen to take a bow at her surprise birthday party that afternoon. What a bash that would have been. We jump out; then the rat jumps out; then two ambulancemen jump out and cart her off to the nearest cardiac unit. Now that's what you call a surprise.

We don't get rats, you see, even in a relatively rural area, because we have cats. Not our cats, but Ebony next door and Ginger's brother from over the road and the mean cat from a few doors down and assorted others that have kept our property pest-free for more than ten years. We don't even get mice, the gateway rodents forming the advance party for heavy-duty vermin. Then again, until last summer, we had not been cut to fortnightly rubbish collection with the resulting stench and maggot infestations; which could explain why some folk are considering supporting a man who has stood for election on a ticket that advocated a different form of recycling involving humans and known as repatriation.

And I'm not saying I could bring myself to place an X next to that name on a ballot paper, even at gunpoint; but I'm saying I understand.

Then there was the swarm of bees (I know what you're thinking, in which ward does this man vote, Epping Biblical?) that settled in an adjacent tree while the couple were out, at the funeral of Frank, a good old boy from down the road who had died at the age of 92. A decent innings, one might say, except Frank was not delivered to hospital on death's door. He went in to have a pacemaker fitted and died of MRSA. Frank performed volunteer work at the local hospital where he was entrusted to clean the theatre until you could eat your dinner off the operating table. Maybe someone did. In the coroner's report it will probably say he died of irony.

Then, on Sunday, we saw another old friend, Peter, who has not been well lately. He fell from a ladder and badly injured his back and, after contracting MRSA and septicaemia in hospital, is back on his feet after seven operations. The last was to find out why he kept getting MRSA and septicaemia. It is intriguing that so many NHS trusts will not operate on the overweight because, looking at Peter, if you want to shed a stone or five, hospital is the place to be. Not that Peter was large to begin with but you could fit two of him in the suit he was wearing at the weekend. He pulled out a cigarette and said he had started smoking again, and all things considered it was a shame he gave up, because if the hospital had refused to operate on him for having a puff they might not then have had the chance to half-kill him seven times over. He has been advised to sue but says that action would only divert more money from an overstretched NHS. That is the inherent decency of mankind.

So I would love to be one of the people on these pages who thinks our world is wonderful. I would love to be the guy that sneers at the negativity in the Daily Mail, with its scares and its rats and its MRSA. I would love to be wiping a sentimental tear at the memory of ten years of Tony Blair; but the school playing field was sold and I did see the rat and Frank is dead and Peter is lucky to be alive and in my part of the world the far Right is winning. And I am not saying I would not implore you to set fire to your ballot paper and run screaming from the hall rather than cast a vote for National Front extremism, in any form; but I'm saying I understand.


Publicity forces some humanity onto the NHS

There's nothing like those "caring" socialists to look after you. You can go blind for all they care. The fact that you have paid for your government health insurance does not at all mean that you will get the cover you have paid for

An elderly couple who faced having to choose which of them should go blind because they could not both afford sight-saving drugs have finally been saved by the NHS. Olive Roberts, 79, and her husband, Ron, 81, both suffer from wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common form of blindness in Britain. They were told that the only way to treat their condition quickly enough was to go private. However, the treatment would have cost them more than 14,000 pounds each. They could afford only one course and decided that Mrs Roberts should have it as her sight was deteriorating faster.

Yesterday Wiltshire Primary Care Trust announced that it would fund Mrs Roberts’s treatment. The trust denied accusations of a U-turn, but was criticised by campaigners for allowing the couple’s condition to deteriorate by taking more than two months to decide. The couple are among tens of thousands of people with AMD who urgently need sight-saving treatment but who say that they have been let down by local health authorities refusing to fund new and effective drugs to treat the condition.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind, which supported the couple’s case, said that four out of five NHS trusts were denying patients prompt treatment with sight-saving drugs.

Mr and Mrs Roberts had AMD diagnosed after sudden onsets of blindness last year. Mr Roberts, a retired civil servant who served with the RAF and the Royal Navy during the Second World War, was disappointed that the trust had not contacted them directly with the news. “While we are delighted that Olive can receive the treatment she needs, we have been through hell in the past three months, and this highlights the fact that many other people are not getting the help they need.”

AMD damages the part of the retina responsible for precise vision. Treatments are approved for use on the NHS in only a quarter of cases and can merely slow the disease’s onset. The Roberts were advised that only prompt treatment with the drug Lucentis could prevent blindness. However, it is not approved for widespread use on the NHS. Mr and Mrs Roberts, of Malmesbury, asked Wiltshire Primary Care Trust to fund the treatment, but were told that they would have to wait up to three months for a decision.

Advised to undergo treatment within that time, the couple decided to buy Mrs Roberts a course of the bowel cancer drug Avastin, a cheaper alternative. However, clinical trials have not proved its safety and efficacy in AMD. Paul Jakeman, medical director for Wiltshire trust, said that the NHS would fund Mrs Roberts’s treatment with Lucentis. Mr Roberts said that he could now afford to pay for Avastin for himself. “It seems that only those who shout loudest will get this treatment,” he said.


Britain: Exodus from government schools

A very similar situation to Australia -- except that the proportion of teens going to private schools is much higher in Australia -- around 40%. Note that parents choose schools which offer HARDER (more difficult) subjects

Nearly 40,000 more children are now being educated privately than when Tony Blair came to power, new figures reveal today. Despite increasing government spending by two thirds, in real terms, since 1997, record numbers of parents are turning their backs on state education and paying up to 25,000 pounds a year for private education. Average private day-school fees have more than doubled in this period, according to a report from the Independent Schools Council.

Almost a quarter of sixth-formers now attend a private school while, in London, one in seven pupils is privately educated; in Edinburgh it is one in four. Overall 509,093 children attend Independent Schools Council (ISC) member schools, where the average pupil:staff ratio is the lowest ever, and there is one teacher for every 9.7 pupils. This compares with a ratio of 17:1 pupils to staff in state schools.

Despite average fees of 8,790 pounds and a drop in the number of British children of school age, there has been no let-up in the number of parents opting for private education. Head teachers say that this is not only because society is getting richer and families are having fewer children, but because parents are also better informed and more concerned about education. Pat Langham, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said: "A lot of parents cannot find a school that matches their requirements in the state system. That awareness is what is making more people prepared to pay for independent education. They know what they are getting and they know it's good."

Mounting pressures of commuting and long working hours have also persuaded more parents to turn to independent schools to give their children the care and attention they cannot always provide at home. At the same time, low teacher turnover provides stability and smaller class sizes mean pupils receive more attention and are better disciplined, Nigel Richardson, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of elite schools, said. "A lot of parents are both working very long hours and they increasingly value knowing that they will meet the same teachers three or four years running who will know their children."

Jonathan Shepherd, general secretary of the ISC, said that public schools had also bucked the demographic trend because they offered a broader education and wider range of subjects, including modern languages, classics and the sciences at A level. "The Government did make one quite major mistake in making languages optional after Key Stage 3," he added. "That has led to a huge decline in language teaching in the maintained sector. Parents talk to parents. They are the best recruiting agents for any school."

In 2004, the Government made languages optional for pupils over 14. As a result, only 51 per cent of teenagers now take a GCSE in a foreign language, compared with 80 per cent in 2000. Languages are now compulsory in only 17 per cent of state schools at this level. Critics suggest that schools are being motivated by their place in the league tables and tend to guide pupils away from studying languages towards easier subjects. As a result, independent school pupils account for more than half the A grades at A level in French, German, Spanish and other foreign languages. In chemistry, they make up 46 per cent of A grades at A level, 44 per cent in physics and 54 per cent of A level further maths A grades.

The Independent Schools Council covers 1,276 schools from nursery to sixth-form level, including Britain's most elite, of a total of 2,500 independent schools. Fourteen schools now charge more than 25,000 a year and the average boarding school fee at secondary level is 20,000. Of the half a million pupils, just 67,335 are boarders.

The annual census also reveals that 20,852 overseas pupils attend public school in Britain, the majority from Hong Kong and China. Although the number of boarders has dropped slightly, Britain's military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq may account for a surge in the number of Armed Forces families sending children to private schools.


Cure for osteoporosis?

Millions of women could be protected against life-threatening hip fractures by a once-a-year treatment with a new drug. More than 14,000 women die every year in Britain after breaking their hips as a result of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis, which affects up to three million people. The new treatment cuts the risk of such fractures by more than 40 per cent. Almost half a million women, mostly aged over 50, are prescribed drugs for the disease. Well-known sufferers include Rosalind Shand, the mother of the Duchess of Cornwall, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Lessing. the novelist.

The 15-minute treatment means that women can be protected against developing brittle bones without having to remember to take pills regularly. Poor adherence to treatment is a major problem in the development of osteoporosis. The new drug, zoledronic acid (Aclasta) has been tested on almost 8,000 women in a trial that included patients from Aberdeen, Sheffield, Liverpool and Glasgow. They were given annual infusions of either Aclasta or a placebo, and followed for three years. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed a 70 per cent reduction in fractures of the vertebrae of the spine, and a 41 per cent reduction in hip fractures. Breaks elsewhere in the body, such as the wrist, were reduced by 25 per cent.

There are more than 60,000 hip and 120,000 vertebral fractures every year in Britain, according to the National Osteoporosis Society. One in five of those who suffer a hip fracture dies within three months. Drugs for the disease, including the class called bisphosphonates to which Aclasta belongs, are given normally as pills that are taken daily or weekly. They are effective but do not always achieve their full potential because women stop taking them. One study in the US of bisphosphonate users who were followed for two years, found that only 43 per cent took the full course prescribed to them.

Professor Dennis Black, of the University of California, who led the new study, and his co-authors concluded: "A regimen of infusions once a year appears to ensure that patients will have a full treatment effect for at least 12 months. In contrast, many patients who receive prescriptions for oral bisphosphonates stop treatment, and most appear to be taking less than 80 per cent of their prescribed pills by 12 months." The National Osteoporosis Society welcomed this "exciting new treatment", saying that when it is available, it will add to the choice of drug treatments available for people at risk of breaking a bone due to osteoporosis. "An annual intravenous preparation may prove to be a convenient, cost-effective strategy," the society said.

Richard Eastell, Professor of Bone Metabolism at the University of Sheffield and a co-author of the study, said that the findings provided potential good news for thousands of women. "The ability to only have the treatment once a year does mean that it simplifies the whole regimen. There is no doubt that Aclasta reduces vertebral fracture, hip fracture and other breaks," he said.

David Reid, of the University of Aberdeen and a co-author, said that the hip fracture data was particularly relevant. "Preventing hip fractures remains the holy grail of treating osteoporosis, as we know that six months after a hip fracture, nearly a fifth of patients will be dead. Reducing hip fractures by 41 per cent is therefore highly clinically significant."

Professor Juliet Compston of Cambridge University, a specialist in osteoporosis, said that the intravenous administration of Aclasta ensured that treatment was delivered correctly. The side-effects of the infusion appeared to be manageable, although Professor Compston was concerned about a rise in atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm disturbance) in some patients, but this could be due to chance, she said.

Aclasta is made by Novartis, which funded the study. It is currently licensed for use in Britain in the treatment of Paget's disease of the bone, and a 100ml infusion containing 5mg of the drug (the dose in the trial) costs the NHS 284 pounds.


Marijuana both good and bad?

A chemical found in cannabis could be used to treat schizophrenia with fewer side-effects than existing antipsychotic drugs, research suggests. Though cannabis can provoke psychotic symptoms, these effects appear to be caused chiefly by one of its components; and another compound that damps down its effects has potential as a medicine, scientists said.

The findings, to be announced at a conference that opens in London today, offer a possible explanation for anecdotal reports of increasing cases of psychosis and schizophrenia triggered by the drug. As concentrations of tetra-hydracannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive element that can provoke psychosis, have risen, levels of the beneficial chemical, cannabidiol (CBD) have fallen. This could mean that users are being exposed to higher doses of the damaging chemical, while receiving less CBD, which tends to balance THC's effects.

"There is a possibility that there are good guys and bad guys in cannabis," said Markus Leweke, of the University of Cologne. "THC is the bad guy, but there is a small body of literature that suggests CBD may prevent the induction of psychotic symptoms. Our study supports that view." There are no official statistics on how cannabis use is affecting levels of mental illness, but there is growing evidence that the drug can induce psychosis and schizophrenia.

Scientists also report anecdotal evidence that more young people are developing schizophrenia as a result of using the drug. Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry, said: "There is no robust evidence on cannabis-induced psychosis, but there are a lot of anecdotal reports it is increasing. Psychiatrists specialising in adolescence who used to have no interest in psychosis are now holding clinics with lots of patients with psychosis related to drug use." Comparisons of US drugs seizures in the 1960s and the 1990s show that THC levels have increased significantly as growers breed plants with more powerful psychoactive effects, and it is known that CBD content goes down as THC increases.

In the research, which will be presented at the Institute of Psychiatry's international conference on cannabis and mental health, Dr Leweke investigated the effects of CBD on 42 patients with acute schizophrenia. Some were given CBD, while others received a standard anti-psychotic drug called amisulpride. Both groups had fewer psychotic symptoms, but the CBD group also experienced fewer side-effects. Common side-effects of amisulpride include weight gain, sexual dys-function and liver problems.

In two studies to be presented to the conference, scientists have found new evidence linking THC to psychosis. Philip McGuire and Zerrin Atakan, of the Institute of Psychiatry, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of patients who took THC, and found that it reduced activity in a region involved in inhibiting inappropriate behav-iour. As activity in this region dropped, the subjects became progressively more paranoid. A second study, by Deepak Cyril D'Souza, of Yale University, found that THC administered intravenously worsened the symptoms of patients with schizophrenia.


Englishman's castle no longer exists: "The state now has 266 powers to draw upon when its agents want to enter homes, according to research. A report from the Centre for Policy Studies says that an Englishman's home is less his castle and more "a right of way'' for police, local government officials and other bureaucrats. In the 1950s just 10 new powers of entry were granted by statute. In the 1980s and 1990s an extra 60 were added. For the first time, Harry Snook, a barrister and the author of the study, Crossing the Threshold, has drawn together the full list of entry powers in the state's possession. Force can be used in most cases. The research comes at a time of heightened concern over the lengthening arm of the state, with ID cards around the corner and more sophisticated surveillance equipment being used to watch people. One of the most powerful bodies is HM Revenue and Customs whose officers can exercise a "writ of assistance" with almost unlimited rights of access. Its holders can break into any private house to seize any goods which the customs officers believes are liable to be forfeit without seeking prior judicial approval."

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