Hugh Pennington


13 May 2019

The Measles Scandal

In 2004 I described the basis of attacks on the MMR vaccine as ‘unsubstantiated speculation masquerading as science’, and finished the piece: ‘I despair.’ Measles is now busier in Europe than it was fifteen years ago.


6 March 2019

What’s wrong with chlorinated chicken?

‘Chlorinated chicken’ is pejorative. Chlorine gas doesn’t come into it. The meat isn’t bleached. Poultry carcasses are washed with dissolved antimicrobials such as sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide and trisodium phosphate. The EU banned it in 1997, not because the washes leave the meat dangerous to eat but because it might incentivise poultry producers and processors to give hygiene a lower priority. This argument was used in the 1930s by opponents of milk pasteurisation.


15 February 2019

Not Enough Insects?

A recent review by scientists in Australia of 73 historical studies of insect decline concluded that insect biodiversity is threatened worldwide, and 40 per cent of insect species are threatened with extinction over the next few decades. But there is a puzzle. The classes that are declining fastest are butterflies, bees and dung beetles. No one is going out of their way to eliminate them. Other insects that we attack deliberately and for which extinction would be a cause for celebration are doing well.


27 November 2018

E. coli strikes America (again)

Romaine lettuce in the US is currently under the cosh of a Food Safety Alert: don’t eat it, whether head or heart or baby; don’t sell it; and don’t eat ready-mixed Caesar salad, which contains it. Contamination with E. coli O157:H7 is the reason. An outbreak started in October, with 50 cases across 11 states, as well as in Ontario and Quebec, with 13 in the US admitted to hospital. The lettuce may have been grown in California, unlike the produce that caused the first romaine outbreak this year, which was grown in Yuma, Arizona. That outbreak lasted from March to June, and was the biggest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the US for many years, with 201 cases (96 hospitalised) and five deaths.


13 April 2018

Novichok and Other Toxins

The UK has the highest incidence in the world of poisonings caused by the toxins produced by E.coli O157:H7. It killed 17 people in the outbreak centred on Wishaw in central Scotland in 1996, still a world record for lethality. My involvement in attempts to stop a repeat led to an invitation to visit the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Security was impressive. The heavily armed welcome at the gate left an abiding memory. It is reasonable to guess that the Russian chemical warfare facility at Shikhany is as well guarded. The notion that nasty substances of high purity could leave it without some kind of authorisation seems highly unlikely.


20 February 2018

Oxfam, Haiti and Miles’s Law

Oxfam is in serious difficulties. It is reasonable to speculate that the hard time it is being given by the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, is due to the workings of Miles’s law - 'Where you stand depends on where you sit' – in that it reflects forces in the British government and the Tory party hostile to the foreign aid programme. I sit as a microbiologist, and see the harmful events in Haiti following the arrival of foreigners after the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake very differently, both from a quantitative and from a political point of view.


9 October 2017

Trench Fever

Some reviewers of the film Goodbye Christopher Robin are saying that A.A. Milne had post-traumatic stress disorder. Yes, he was at the front during the Battle of the Somme; in August 1916 he was a signals officer there, and worked in no man’s land. But PTSD didn’t send him home. He was brought down by trench fever (bartonellosis). A bacterial infection spread by body lice (not those of the head or pubes), it causes a high fever, which repeats itself a few times every five days. It doesn’t kill, but sometimes leaves its victims feeling weak for many months. This happened to Milne. After being invalided home, he lost weight and developed fatigue, said to be caused by ‘overwork’, but much more likely due to the persistent effects of Bartonella quintana. In the early autumn of 1917 he spent three weeks at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, then a convalescent hospital for officers.


10 July 2017

Resident Pathogens

I lived for several years on the 10th floor of a tower block in Cumbernauld. It swayed a bit in the wind, but had been strengthened after the Ronan Point disaster. Ronan Point in Canning Town was built from large prefabricated concrete panels. Ivy Hodge was one of its first tenants, moving into a corner flat on the 18th floor on 15 April 1968. At 5.45 a.m. on 16 May, she struck a match to light her gas cooker. A friend had fitted the cooker. He tested for leaks using a lighted match, but had used a substandard nut, and there was a leak. The explosion blew out the external load-bearing walls of her living room and bedroom. The corner walls of the flats above collapsed and fell. Their weight took out all the corners of the flats below. Four people were crushed to death.


13 December 2016

Red Squirrels and Leprosy

The ‘much loved’ status of red squirrels in Britain probably won’t be damaged by the discovery that some of them are lepers. The finding that individuals on Brownsea Island are infected with a leprosy bacterium with a DNA sequence close to that of one circulating in medieval England seems unlikely to provoke significant concerns for public health, either. We don’t hunt, skin, eat or cuddle red squirrels so the opportunities for transmission are remote.


2 November 2016

Little fleas have lesser fleas

The announcement on 26 October that the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation and the UK, US and Brazilian governments will spend $21.7 million over the next two years releasing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín is excellent news. Wolbachia, a bacterium that lives in the reproductive systems of insects and worms, is one of the commonest parasites in the world. In some of its invertebrate hosts it either kills males or feminises them. For others, infection with it is essential for fertility. Discovered in 1923 in the ovaries and testes of mosquitoes from Boston and Minneapolis, it remained an entomological curiosity for half a century before its importance began to be realised. Now it has its own website, and the Anti-Wolbachia Consortium, A-WOL, is funded by the Gates Foundation.