Month: October 2011

Open Access week: October 24-31, 2011

For once, I won’t write about a day here but about a week: this week is the Open Access week¬†(OA week). In this fourth edition, it’s not time anymore to explain one more time what is Open Access (but if you still want to read about it, read the Wikipedia article or Peter Suber’s overview). This year, this week is defined as “an opportunity […] to continue to learn about the potential benefits of Open Access, to share what they‚Äôve learned with colleagues, and to help inspire wider participation in helping to make Open Access a new norm in scholarship and research“.

I was curious about what is the state of Open Access in Belgian universities. On the OA week website, only two Belgian events were registered: one workshop centered around¬†pending issues in the management of institutional repositories (organized by the national science funding body – FNRS) and one stream of activities at the University of Liege¬†(yipee, ULg is my Alma Mater!). The new thing (at least for me) is that both event are either captured on video or launched with a video. The launch video from the University of Liege includes interviews with researchers telling how Open Access helps them and others (it’s a pity the entry page for its library network is still the same as ten years ago).

Paul Thirion about the OA week at the University of Liege
Paul Thirion about the OA week at the University of Liege

If you look for the information, you’ll find that the University of Ghent is also participating in the Open Access week, with two professors describing Open Access in videos in Dutch and a website about it (in collaboration with the ULg): http://www.openaccess.be.

Other Belgian universities usually support Open Access without any specific action about this week (except ULB with a recap mainly on the financial benefits). Is it a sign that Open Access is losing momentum or just became part of everyday life in universities?

First promising results for a malaria vaccine

Malaria is the 5th cause of death in low-income countries (according to WHO). That’s why I’m very happy to read that a malaria vaccine showed promising results in a phase 3 clinical trial (in The Guardian, The New York Times or Google News). As usual, I find very interesting to get all the information at the source: the original scientific paper was just published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The main result of this study is that “the vaccine reduced malaria by half in [young] children […] during the 12 months after vaccination”. The study also showed that “the vaccine has the potential to have an important effect on the burden of malaria in young African children“. The conclusion of the article ends with “additional information on vaccine efficacy among young infants and the duration of protection will be critical to determining how this vaccine could be used most effectively to control malaria“.

Indeed, as highlighted by the timeline reproduced below, the clinical trial isn’t over yet. Some data still needs to be reported (regarding younger children and duration of protection, as stated above).

RTS,S malaria vaccine candidate timeline (Source: PATH MVI)
RTS,S malaria vaccine candidate timeline (source: PATH MVI)

If you want to follow what’s happening with this vaccine, the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative seeks “to accelerate the development of malaria vaccines and ensure their availability and accessibility in the developing world” and their website contains lots of useful information.

Disclaimer: I’m currently working for the pharmaceutical company that discovered and produced the RTS,S vaccine in this study. I’m however not part of the malaria team in any way. There is only publicly available information in this post.

Yesterday was International Day of Older Persons

On 14 December 1990, the United Nations General Assembly designated 1st of October the International Day of Older Persons. 1990 … it is already more than 20 years ago! People who signed the resolution at that time are now more than 20 years older. Some (most) of them probably are now considered as “old persons”. Do they still have the same view on elderly? Maybe the highlighted principles at that time (independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment, dignity, …) are too broad, too short, just enough?

So, already a century ago ūüėČ people were concerned by the dramatic changes in the composition of the world population. Thanks to progresses and greater availability of preventive measures and treatments more people are living longer and healthier. Even in countries where fertility rate is high, there will be less and less working-age adults per older adult. When you look at China, the percentage of people above 65 years old is projected to rise up to one fourth of the total population in only 40 years.

Actual and projected percentage of people above 65 in China
Actual and projected percentage of people above 65 in China (partial data from Leeder et al., Columbia University, 2005)

Imitating other countries like the USA, UK, the Netherlands, etc., Belgium recently launched its Open Data Initiative. Well, don’t expect fancy graphs nor any “web 2.0” widgets, it’s only a repository of data made available elsewhere. Most (if not all) data is provided “as it is”, in proprietary formats and not easily combined nor even visualized. So I welcome this initiative but just wish it will be at least maintained and updated or, better, grown into something better, just like other government open data websites. A dream will be to have at least direct data manipulation online, downloads in open formats, a clearly open license and why not an open API?

So, what about the elderly in Belgium? There is a section about population forecast by age (which comes from the economy ministry in Excel format).

Projected aging of population in Belgium
Projected aging of population in Belgium (data from http://data.gov.be)

The Belgian population will continue to increase. The older population in Belgium will increase faster than the younger population. But seen like this, the growth will not be very dramatic.

Actual and projected percentage of people above 65 in Belgium (data from http://data.gov.be)
Actual and projected percentage of people above 65 in Belgium (data from http://data.gov.be)

If we look at the projected percentage of people above 65 years old, we see that Belgium in 2010 is already at the same status as China in 2040. If experts say China will have an alarming percentage of old people in the future, the future is already here in Belgium! But it’s also true that Belgium took many decades to achieve this allowing some adaptations to take place. China will achieve it in only a few decades and will have to cope with these changes very quickly.

UN highlighted some challenges and ways to overcome them at a country / government level. The main issues will be to maintain older people as much as possible the same levels of health and independence as they enjoyed during their active lives.

N.B. For other sources of data in Belgium, one may be interested in visiting the Bureau fédéral du Plan, Statistics Belgium and the Statistics section of the National Bank of Belgium.

NCDs account for the majority of deaths worldwide

A few days before my last post and still about the UN High Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, The Economist issued a daily chart showing that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) account for the majority of deaths worldwide. I copy the chart below:

The Economist: non-communicable diseases account for the majority of deaths worldwide
The Economist: non-communicable diseases account for the majority of deaths worldwide

I have nothing to add about the chart on the left (except I don’t think stacked bars are really useful to visually distinguish between quantities ; ok, I added something). My first reaction to the chart on the right was: these countries in the lower middle income group should really do something to tackle non communicable diseases: they represent more than the double amount of deaths than the total number of deaths in other income groups. Even for communicable diseases, they should do something: from the chart, it seems to be a bit less than 10m deaths from communicable diseases, i.e. approximately the same amount as the total number of deaths in other income groups too!

Just for you information (and because I also had to recall which countries were in that lower middle income group), here are some countries in the various groups (*):

  • Low income group: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, North Korea, Nepal, Somalia, Togo, a.o.
  • Lower middle income group: Angola, Bolivia, Congo, Georgia, India, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Sudan, Ukraine, Vietnam, a.o.
  • Upper middle income group: Algeria, Brazil, China, Cuba, Libya, Malaysia, Russian Federation, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand, a.o.
  • High income group: E.U. countries, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, USA, a.o.

(*) Technically it follows the way the World bank classifies countries: economies are divided according to 2010 GNI per capita, calculated using the World Bank Atlas method. The groups are: low income, $1,005 or less; lower middle income, $1,006 – $3,975; upper middle income, $3,976 – $12,275; and high income, $12,276 or more.

Then you realize that if you just take the absolute number of deaths and compare these group of countries (as it’s done in the chart on the left), you don’t compare exactly on the same basis. What if some groups have more countries or lower/higher population? What if the total surface of countries in one group are much higher (lower) than in other groups? Idem for the population density, etc.

Fortunately, the WHO has a parameter one can use in order to objectivize a little bit this issue: the “Age-standardized mortality rate by cause (per 100 000 population)”. If you plot this parameter in the same way as above, you obtain this chart:

Age-standardized mortality rate by cause (per 100 000 population) per income group
Age-standardized mortality rate by cause (per 100 000 population) per income group

From this you can now say that low income countries should really do something about NCDs but also communicable diseases, etc.

Presented like this, the number of deaths due to injuries and communicable diseases (per 100,000 pop.) decreases if the income of the country increases. In other word, more income you have, relatively less risk you have to die from injuries or communicable diseases. That explains why 1 death under a fallen wall is reported as a big sad news in Belgium while 60 deaths in a bus crash are not even reported in the news in India.

Another striking conclusion is that in low income countries there is approximately the same number of deaths (per 100,000 pop.) due to NCDs and due to communicable diseases (+/- 20%). We are all aware of tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS/HIV, etc. in less rich countries but it seems NCDs are an equally important issue.

But the most frightful conclusion from these numbers is that there is approximately the same number of deaths (per 100,000 pop.) due to NCDs in all income groups (674 ¬Ī 75) except the high income one. In other words, irrespective of you location or your income (except high income), you have the same chances to be affected by a non communicable disease. And irrespective on your income (and this time, even for high income countries), you have more chances to die from a non communicable disease than a communicable disease.

Ways to mitigate risk factors for NCDs (end of previous post) are still on.

N.B. WHO numbers are from 2008 for both charts.