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What happens when your prescription drug becomes the center of covid misinformation

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What happens when your prescription drug becomes the center of covid misinformation


Friedman says has been forced to change how he talks to patients when he needs to prescribe hydroxychloroquine. “I’ve now worked into my scripting: ‘Hey, I want to start you on this medicine. You may have heard about it related to covid, that it was being used as a cure and it’s not,’” he says. “It got a lot of negative press. However, in dermatology we’ve been using it for decades for these different things.” 

To understand the extent to which this confusion might also be ivermectin’s future, I went to r/Rosacea, the subreddit for advice on dealing with the chronic condition. 

Categorically different

People with rosacea know ivermectin not as an unproven covid drug, but as a proven and effective treatment that helps some people with a type of rosacea that causes bumps on the skin. On the subreddit, one user was confused by the sudden influx of attention, asking: “Why are ivermectin memes popping up everywhere right now? And how does the mainstream know what it is?” 

For people on the subreddit, ivermectin is a pretty persistent topic of discussion. There’s an expensive topical cream called Soolantra that contains the drug, and a generic version was released this summer. But a subset of those users also knew that the same drug was in horse paste, because some people diagnosed with rosacea have also bought the veterinary form—usually because they can’t otherwise get access to the creams or can’t afford a prescription. 

This practice is controversial among people with rosacea, and dermatologists have raised concerns about experimenting with a product that contains an inappropriate dosage or untested ingredients with potentially adverse effects. However, Friedman says, a person with rosacea turning to horse paste for cost reasons is in a categorically different medical and ethical universe from the one in which people are eating horse paste to “cure” covid. For diagnosed rosacea patients who need ivermectin to control the condition, Friedman says, “unfortunately, the best medication is the one patients can get.” 

People who use Soolantra or the generic version of ivermectin topically are, as of right now, unlikely to be encountering shortages, says Friedman. There are reports of farm supply stores running short on horse paste, however. In addition to some practical issues of access—while reporting this story, I spoke to one person who had to purchase horse paste from the UK in order to treat his pet rats for mites a few weeks ago—there’s now an added layer of scrutiny and stigma. How do you explain that you use horse paste on yourself, but not like that?

“Attached to this oversimplified idea”

The subreddit’s moderators were already pretty familiar with misinformation about ivermectin. 

“We’ve seen some pretty crazy things, like people recommending wearing flea collars or using pesticides on their face.”

Ryan, a moderator on the r/rosacea forum

People use the site, like many online communities, to discuss and trade information based on their experience: for example, discussing the best facial cleansers, asking how to avoid triggering a flare-up, or sharing how their treatment is progressing over time. But they can also incubate and promote misinformation, which moderators have to monitor and remove.

Although there are some Facebook groups that promote horse paste for those with rosacea, the r/Rosacea subreddit neither encourages nor bans discussion of its use. One moderator told me the biggest risk is that people will self-diagnose with rosacea and decide to treat themselves with a DIY version of a medication that, even in a form intended for use by humans, should only be used with the guidance of a physician. 

Not all rosacea is the same, however, and the reasons ivermectin might work for some is still a subject of scientific debate.

There is a connection between rosacea and demodex mites, which live in the hair follicles on more or less everyone’s face. in people with any form of rosacea, those mites are there in excess. But the exact relationship isn’t clear. “The question is chicken or egg,” Friedman says. Are people with rosacea ideal environments for demodex mites to live in excess, or “or is it this overgrowth that then exacerbates rosacea?” 

That uncertainty has led to some pretty dangerous suggestions online, said Ryan, a Reddit moderator who asked that I withhold his last name. 

“People get attracted and attached to this oversimplified idea that if they just kill the mites, their rosacea and their problems will go away,” he said. “We’ve even seen some pretty crazy things, like people recommending wearing flea collars or using pesticides on their face.” 

Data voids and poisoned wells

Online peddlers of misinformation often exploit a data void, telling people to search for specific terms that they know will lead to results that promote what they’re trying to say. At worst, as the misinformation researcher Renee DiResta has written in the past, the top results can end up coming entirely from people who believe in and promote the misinformation. 

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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