This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What is the Chance of Marriage Ending in Divorce in the US?

In Chapter 10 of my book, I note that "it has been estimated that about half of the marriages contracted since the 1970s will end in divorce," with a followup comment that the rate seems to have leveled off and so we are likely past the period of rising divorce rates. Today my attention was drawn to a website called "truthorfiction"claiming that the 50 percent figure is too high.
Let me say it straightforwardly: Fifty percent of American marriages are not ending in divorce. It's fiction. A myth. A tragically discouraging urban legend.
If there's no credible evidence that half of American marriages will end up in divorce court, where did that belief originate?
The author of this website goes on to note, correctly, that the US no longer routinely collects divorce data (a sign of its general irrelevance to society, I suppose), so we must rely on surveys and other data sources. The article provides a variety of other estimates, but actually does not come up with a solid number. One of the issues, of course, is that even if you were looking at vital statistics, you cannot compare divorces in this year with marriages, because most divorces occur after several years of marriage. So, we need a longitudinal type of analysis. We need something comparable to what the life table provides as a way of standardizing the average length of life. In this way we can capture both the timing and the tempo of divorce over the life course of marriages. The person who has done more of this type of analysis than anyone else is Robert Schoen, now Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Penn State. In 2006, he and co-author Vladimir Canudas-Romo of UC, Berkeley published a paper in the Journal of Marriage and Family (Volume 68, August, pp 749-758) in which they applied a life table approach to data for those years for which information was available, and then a set of simulations for years in which data are not available. There overall conclusion was that:
Adjusted values for recent years do not suggest a decline in the likelihood of divorce, with year 2000 values indicating a divorce probability of 0.43 – 0.46.
To be fair, this is a little less than 50 percent, but still pretty high and pretty close to "about half." Of course, in the absence of good data since 2000, you might well argue that the divorce rate has declined. But, in the absence of data, you could just as easily argue that it has gone up. In point of fact, most data suggest that there has been no change.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Asians in Southern California

On September 11th, 2001, my wife and I were packed and ready to fly to Singapore to visit our older son, who was teaching a course there at the time. The events of that day meant that we never got to Singapore because our flight was cancelled and our son returned to France, where he was living at the time. Since we wound up not going, we asked him to describe Singapore for us, and his response was: "A lot like like Southern California, but with fewer Asians!" I thought of that story today when reading a story in the New York Times about the growth of the Asian population in Southern California--as though this was a new phenomenon:
The transformation illustrates a drastic shift in California immigration trends over the last decade, one that can easily be seen all over the area: more than twice as many immigrants to the nation’s most populous state now come from Asia than from Latin America.
The only problem with this particular statement, however, is that it isn't true. I looked at the American Community Survey for the combined years of 2007-11, downloaded from www.ipums.org at the Minnesota Population Center. I used the same criterion of "recency" as does the updated Pew Research Center report on the rise of Asian Americans referred to in the NY Times story--namely that people have arrived since 2004. The results show that there are 657,000 Latin Americans in California who have arrived since 2004, compared to 517,000 Asians, with the single biggest group of Asians coming from the Philippines. 

Furthermore, the author of the story, Jennifer Medina, suggests that:
Much of the current immigration debate in Congress has focused on Hispanics, and California has for decades been viewed as the focal point of that migration. But in cities in the San Gabriel Valley — as well as in Orange County and in Silicon Valley in Northern California — Asian immigrants have become a dominant cultural force in places that were once largely white or Hispanic.
However, she fails to point out that the immigration debate is largely about undocumented immigrants, and the Pew Research Center's analysis suggests that Latin American (mainly Mexican) undocumented immigrants outnumber Asian undocumented immigrants by a ratio of 7 to 1. Nonetheless, it is useful to point out the conclusion drawn by the Pew Research Center in the report mentioned above about the Asian population in the United States:
Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success, according to a comprehensive new nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Urban Informality--People Making Do in Cities

Although the cities of developing countries are absorbing almost all of the population growth these days, and likely for the foreseeable future, this is not an easy process. Few countries have the resources to keep up with urban population growth and the result is what Ananya Roy and Nezar Alsayyad have called urban informality. This theme was also central to Mike Davis's book Planet of Slums. Today's New York Times takes a look at what is happening along these lines in New Delhi.
New Ashok Nagar is a typical crosscut of Indian urban chaos: Dust rises off battered, narrow lanes, tangles of telephone and electricity lines hang between poorly constructed, mismatched brick buildings. Sewage overflows from uncovered channels. And people are in the streets, in the doorways, everywhere.
What is also fairly typical about New Ashok Nagar is that it is not supposed to exist. The district, on the eastern edge of New Delhi, is an “unauthorized colony,” with an estimated 200,000 residents despite its lack of government approvals or full city services. Across New Delhi, as many as 5 million of the city’s 17 million residents live in unauthorized colonies, whether in slums, middle-class areas or even a few illegally constructed enclaves of the rich.
Accompanying the story is a photo slide show that helps illustrate the situation. Although the photos are from New Delhi, you could insert similar photos from almost any large city in the Global South.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life Expectancy Showing Signs of Improvement in Russia

For several decades now, life expectancy has been lower in Russia than in any other country of the Global North. Indeed, as I note in Chapter 5, the declines in mortality among infants and among men in Russia were among the early signs that the Soviet Union was in serious trouble, prior to its dissolution. But, things seem to be changing, finally. A team of researchers has just published a paper in Demographic Research showing that life expectancy has been steadily rising in Russia since 2004.
Like the previous mortality fluctuations that have occurred in Russia since the mid-1980s, the increase in life expectancy was driven by deaths at ages 15 to 60 from alcohol-related causes. Uniquely in the recent period, there were also improvements at older ages, especially in cerebrovascular disease mortality among women. In addition, there were reductions in deaths from avoidable causes, such as from tuberculosis and diabetes. The life expectancy gap between Russia and Western countries remains large, and is mostly attributable to deaths from cardiovascular disease, alcohol-related conditions, and violence. 
The authors note that the life expectancy gap between males and females remains very high--63 for men and 75 for women. On top of alcohol and violence, Russian men continue to smoke a great deal and that also contributes to the gender gap. 

An interesting side note is that Russia has been a strong supporter of Assad in Syria--almost certainly a key reason why the civil war there continues as intensely as it does. Yet, prior to the civil war, Syria actually had higher life expectancy than did Russia--71 for men and 77 for women.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Is H7N9 Avian Flu Going to be a Big Killer?

About three weeks ago a report came out indicating that two people in China had died from a new strain of Avian flu. It seemed early then to be too worried, but concern has spread quickly. As of yesterday, more than 100 people in China had been infected and, more crucially from a global perspective, it has now spread out of China into Taiwan. Cases in China have been concentrated on the east coast, as shown in this very cool map produced yesterday. More troubling is the concern over whether China is handling this potential epidemic in the best way possible. Nature News thinks that they are going a good job:
China deserves credit for its rapid response to the outbreaks of H7N9 avian influenza, and its early openness in the reporting and sharing of data.
A bad reputation is difficult to shake. A decade ago, China failed to report early cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and fumbled its initial response to the threat. Today, some commentators view its reaction to H7N9 with mistrust. But from all the evidence so far, China’s response to the virus, which had caused 104 confirmed human cases and 21 deaths asNature went to press, is next to exemplary.
Laurie Garrett, writing for Foreign Policy, is more concerned, although this is largely based on China's very slow and inadequate response to SARS. However, she does include a good quote that is a cautionary tale for everyone:
As the flu czar of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Keiji Fukuda, tersely put it to reporters last week, "Anything can happen. We just don't know."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

HIV Reduces a Woman's Childbearing

HIV/AIDS is obviously a health and mortality issue, so there has been relatively little discussion about its impact on fertility. The conventional wisdom would be that as HIV affects a community, the higher death rate will cause women to have more children in order to combat the high mortality. A paper just published in the Journal of Population Economics (and available for free download) draws a different set of conclusions. The authors use data from Demographic and Health Surveys in African countries where HIV testing is part of the survey to look at both individual and community effects of HIV infections on fertility.
The data allow us to distinguish the effect of own positive HIV status on fertility (which may be due to lower fecundity and other physiological reasons) from the behavioral response to higher mortality risk, as measured by the local community HIV prevalence. We show that although HIV-infected women have significantly lower fertility, local community HIV prevalence has no significant effect on noninfected women’s fertility.
Overall, the study suggests that the effects of HIV infections are that the infected women wind up with fewer children (probably a good thing for her and the community), along with reduced human capital and lower prospects for a good life (not a good thing either for her or her community).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Is Immigration Good For America?

This is almost a silly question, because the obvious answer is YES. Yet, for most of American history, including now in the midst of the latest discussions on immigration reform, it has not seemed obvious to a lot of people, despite the country priding itself on being a nation of immigrants. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the 1929 Immigration Act which severely limited immigration from anywhere but Europe (and which was not dismantled until 1965), Congress has been ambivalent, at best, about the value of immigration. Matthew Yglesias of Slate takes up this issue in a blog post emphasizing the point that immigration raises American incomes, no matter how the critics might try to twist the facts around.
There's an awful lot of issues about which reputable economics literature disagrees. One exception to that is the hot-button topic of immigration, where everyone's research indicates that immigration is economically beneficial to America. As I wrote last week, even immigration restrictionists' favorite labor economist George Borjas has done research that clearly shows this, requiring the application of a very strange moral calculus to make immigration look bad.
Without immigrants, services would be harder to come by, and most things related to everyday life would likely cost more.
Immigrants pick crops and build houses. They work in meatpacking plants and fast food restaurants. They clean hotel rooms. They also write computer software and treat sick people. It would be foolish to pretend that there's zero distributional impact of all this, but the idea that "users of immigrants" is some discrete class of people whose interests need to be weighed against those of wage-earners is a delusion. The big winner across the board would be retired people, who consume services but don't earn wages. Like the fact that the big economic loser from increased levels of immigration is previous immigrants (who face the most direct labor market competition) this should be a clear sign that immigration politics isn't about economics. If it were, you'd have a bunch of cantankerous old white people demanding open borders while young Latinos argue for pulling up the ladder of migration opportunity. In reality, you get exactly the reverse as people's policy preferences track their cultural affinities or phobias.
The latter point is the key to the debate, of course. Immigration discussions are not about economics, they are about the perception of cultural change. In the end, as I have said so often, it all comes back to xenophobia.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day 2013

Today is Earth Day 2013, coordinated by the Earth Day Network. The emphasis this year is on climate change, which is obviously a huge issue, especially when there are so many people in the world who do not yet appreciate the impact that humans are having on the environment. Ever since my involvement in the first Earth Day in 1970, my focus has always been on population growth--reminding people of the underlying reason for our exponentially larger impact on the environment than ever before in history. Two hundred years ago there were scarcely one billion people on the planet--the same number that the Earth Day Network believes will be involved globally in today's celebration of the planet. By the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 the population had climbed to 3.7 billion--a 2.7 billion increase over the previous 170 years. That increase in population, coupled with clearly growing environmental problems, led to global alarm. Yet between 1970 and today, only 43 years later, we have added another 3.4 billion. We have nearly doubled in number since that first Earth Day (and, no, I don't think that Earth Day caused this!). How could we NOT have impacted the planet. The very same technology that allows us to live longer lives and thus grow exponentially in number also has serious side-effects that we tend to ignore, and of course we ignore them at our own peril. I'll repeat my comment from last year that every day needs to be Earth Day.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Demography Is or Is Not Destiny

The Economist has, over the years, helped to popularize the phrase "Demography is Destiny." A quick search of their website turns up 17 references to that phrase. Sometimes they think demography IS destiny, and sometimes, like last week, they think that demography is NOT destiny. The latter story deals with politics and demography in Texas. That state is currently a bastion of conservatism, but as its Latino population increases as a percentage of the total, it might become more "progressive" because Latinos are generally more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republican candidates. But the Economist columnist "Lexington" (the Economist continues its long-held tradition of not identifying its writers) notes that there is a real struggle going on in the state for the Latino vote.

In short, Republicans are bent on mitigating demographic shifts, and Democrats on harnessing them. The sheer scale of those shifts favours Democrats, unless Republicans go beyond tweaks to messaging and rethink core policies. Mayor Castro concedes that, on immigration, Republicans are moving. A year-and-a-half ago, “they were talking about electrified fences”, he recalls. Now some (though not Mr Cruz) are talking about paths to citizenship.
Yet Democrats risk a backlash, should Texans decide that the party is taking advantage of wrenching changes that are leaving their state unrecognisable. The solution is to find arguments that cut across ethnic lines, says Joaquín Castro. He cites the 30% of all Texan women who lack health insurance as an example of a unifying battle-cry. His brother urges Democrats to build a “big tent” and paint Republicans as extremists, with Mr Cruz as a prime example. The stakes are high. Texas may not be truly competitive for a few more years, but it is already a battleground.

As I have said before, the idea that demography is destiny does not mean that you can predict the future based on demographic trends. More subtly, and more importantly, demography shapes what the options for the future will be. Demography IS destiny in Texas politics because, as the Economist makes clear, the battle for the Latino vote is shaping the future.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

How Many Chechens Live in the US?

The discovery that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers were immigrants from Chechnya raises the obvious question of how many Chechens there are in the US. The answer turns out to be surprisingly hard to figure out. My first reaction was to download the latest American Community Survey from IPUMS.org (a wonderful source of data), but I discovered that there are few enough Chechens in the US that the ancestry questions on the ACS do not include Chechen or Chechnya as a response category. They are lumped into the category of North Caucasian, and there was no one in the 2007-11 pooled ACS data who indicated that ancestry. Part of the problem, of course, is that Chechnya is not an independent country (no matter what its aspirations might be along those lines), but rather is one of the republics of Russia--one of the pieces of the former Soviet Union that Moscow has kept under its wings, no matter how resistant the Chechens may be to that arrangement. So, Chechens are Russians as far as immigration statistics are concerned. It has been reported that the Boston bomber family was granted asylum a few years ago, but data from the US Office of Refugee Resettlement suggests that only a handful of refugees/asylees from Russia have been admitted over the past decaade.

A story in today's New York Times by Oliver Bullough seems to confirms the idea that there are relatively few Chechens in the US:
There are thousands of Chechen refugees in Austria, and thousands more in Poland, France, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Dubai and elsewhere (as well as scattered communities in the United States). Wherever they are, they stand out, a nation apart.
The word most linked to “Chechen” is “terrorist,” because of the attacks against the audience at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002, against children in Beslan, North Ossetia, in 2004, and now the marathon in Boston. But terrorists were only ever a tiny fraction of the population. A more accurate word to link to “Chechen” would be “refugee.” Perhaps 20 percent, perhaps more, of all Chechens have left Chechnya in the last 20 years.
A story in USA Today suggested that the number of Chechens in the may be very small, indeed.
There are probably fewer than about 200 Chechen immigrants in the United States, and most of them are settled in the Boston area, as many U.S. cities have refused to accept asylum applicants from the war-torn area of southern Russia, says Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation.
About 70% of the Chechen immigrants are women, Howard says. Very few men are granted asylum because of U.S. anti-terrorism policies and because Russia often protests when ethnic Chechens try to settle in the U.S., he said. The U.S. admitted only 197 refugees from all of Russia in 2012.
Overall, the Chechen population in Russia is not large, but there is considerable variability in estimates of its size. Information from the Russian Embassy in the UK suggests that in 2002, there were 1.3 Chechens in Russia, whereas a source purporting to have data from the 2010 census suggests that there may be nearly 8 million Chechens in Russia. We do know that most Chechens are Muslim, but we don't yet know whether religion played any role in the Boston bombings.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Americanization is Bad for Your Health

Many years ago, Rubén Rumbaut and I published a paper (actually a chapter in a book) titled "Children of Immigrants: Is Americanization Hazardous to Infant Health?" The answer to the question was, of course, yes. Children born to immigrant mothers were apt to be more healthy than those born to mothers who had grown up in the US., but the second generation mothers--those born in the US--lost that protective coating, and wound up at a disadvantage. Our research focused on infants, but Rubén has continued to research the trajectories of migrants, especially from Latin America, and the conclusion is clearly applicable not just to infants, but to some adults, as well. This point was made yesterday in a story published online by The Chronicle of Social Change.
In the United States of America, immigrant Latino families are being torn asunder, and research shows that the strengths they bring to this country are quickly lost to powerful and often damaging acculturation.
“Despite cross generational gains in economic integration, there are negative consequences to integration,” University of Illinois at Chicago researcher Alan Dettlaff wrote in a 2009 study on the subject. “Drug abuse, bad parenting skills, recent history of arrest and high family stress, all those things are more likely in U.S.-born Latino families than foreign born families.”
In 2010 the number of Latinos in the U.S. exceed 52 million, or 17 percent of the total population. Nearly one quarter of the 74 million children in America were of Latino decent. One in two babies born in America today is Latino.
“The increase of Latino children in the child welfare system is likely due in part to a growing population of third generation Latino children, who are at greater risk of child welfare involvement than their first and second generation counterparts,” Dettlaff says. The longer your family lives in the United States: the more your children are exposed to child maltreatment.
Keep in mind, however, that Latinos represent an increasingly diverse group, so we do need to be careful about the generalizations that we make. Some groups may be more susceptible to the downside of Americanization than others.
But understanding why this is happening requires a deeper look at how “Latinos” are categorized. Ruben Rumbaut, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California Irvine, who has devoted much of his career to studying Latino population growth in the United States, says that this is an issue that will require much more than research based on amorphous groupings by ethnicity of race.
Unfortunately, it seems as though we are going to be hearing a lot more about these issues as time goes by.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Birth Rates and the American Economy

I have mentioned on several occasions (click here for the most recent comment) that Americans (especially white males) seem overly concerned about the birth rate in the United States. It is low by historical standards, but scarcely below replacement level and, given the number of women of reproductive age, we continue to have many more babies born each year than there are people dying. In today's New York Times, Derek Hoff of Kansas State University offers the more reasoned view that the birth rate is not really the big problem in the United States. His Op-Ed is largely in response to the claims by many people, including conservatives, that supporting immigration reform is a good idea because we need more immigrants and their children to help keep the American economy going.
Unlike many wealthy nations that will see their populations stabilize or decrease in coming decades, the United States, the world’s third most populous country, is expected to grow — to to 420.3 million by 2060 from 315.7 million people today. Our fertility rate (1.9 births per woman, slightly below the “replacement rate” of 2.1) has dipped since the Great Recession but is still among the highest of rich countries’ and ties or exceeds fertility rates in middle-income countries like Brazil, Iran, Thailand and Vietnam.
If you follow the link to the Census Bureau website in the above quote (where it says "expected to grow") you realize, of course, that the Bureau's population projections already account for expected immigration. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that the immigration legislation currently being discussed in Congress is likely to increase the overall level of immigration. It will eventually make legal migrants out of currently undocumented ones, but it probably will not have a huge impact beyond that. Indeed, if the idea of stricter border enforcement (assuming that were possible) were put into effect, the current legislation would slow down immigration, not increase it.

But another of Hoff's points is a particularly important one: Economic growth is not driven by population growth. Rather, it is driven more by increases in human capital (especially investments in education) of the existing population.
Conservatives and liberals alike generally assume that population growth drives economic growth. But until the triumph of the new laissez-faire economics in the 1970s and 1980s, most economists agreed that what mattered was not the size of a population but its human capital and its savings, investment and consumption practices. Indeed, many mainstream economists argued that a smaller but more productive population would enhance growth and lead to a more just society. It is strange that we talk on one hand about an innovation- and knowledge-based economy while still thinking about economic growth in terms of sheer body count. Moderate levels of immigration can help us maintain a highly skilled work force, but so, too, can investing more in educating our young.
Actually, I could write a whole book about what is correct and incorrect about that paragraph. Oh, that's right! I already did! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Hondurans: The "Other Mexicans"

Many of the Central American undocumented immigrants that you might see in the United States, especially in the southern states, are from Honduras, not from Mexico. This phenomenon is discussed in detail in a new report just out from the Migration Information Source in Washington, DC.
A small number of Hondurans had been residing in the United States since the 1950s and 1960s. But it was not until the late 1990s and early 2000s that their numbers swelled, growing from approximately 109,000 in 1990 to 283,000 in 2000, peaking at close to 523,000 in 2010, and then dropping to around 491,000 in 2011.
It is important to note that the Honduran immigrant community in the United States was established after the US legalization program of the late 1980s, and much of it after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America's Northern Triangle in 1998. In large part because of their "late" timing, Honduran flows to the United States have been largely illegal. In 2011, more than three-quarters of Hondurans in the country were believed to lack legal status, the largest share among all Central American immigrant groups in the United States. Hondurans are thus disproportionately affected by US deportations. The large numbers of deportees — with or without their families — find it difficult to reintegrate into Honduran society.
The author, Daniel Reichman, an anthropologist at Rochester University, has done a nice job of showing how this migration has transformed families--indeed maybe the whole society--in Honduras. 
A new social order has emerged across Honduras. Many of the markers of status that defined life before the migration boom — such as land ownership, advanced age, education, and political connections — are being replaced by knowledge of how to migrate successfully to the United States and remit earnings to family members in Honduras. Migrants and returnees have become the very models of success for young people in rural areas. At the same time, new forms of social differentiation are emerging. The meaning and value of education, lawful citizenship, and family responsibility have been redefined in the context of the migration phenomenon.
For these and other reasons, remittance dependency poses a great challenge to Honduran society. While remittances (mainly from the United States) prop up the economy, a large percentage of Hondurans still live in poverty. Remittances may be a stop-gap solution for a weak Honduran economy, but this does not mean that a "migration economy" — especially one that depends so heavily on dangerous, illicit channels of migration — is sustainable in the long term. In the short term, meanwhile, any significant decrease in remittance flows would shock the economy.
The plight of many of these immigrants is, of course, a result of the mixed up immigration policy of the United States, which closes the legal door to workers even though their labor is in demand by the US economy. Will Honduras be a better or worse place in the future because of this? That's a tough one to call.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Controlling Pneumonia and Diarrhea

A key message about the rise in life expectancy throughout the world over the past 200 years, but especially since World War II, has been keeping children alive. While the progress has obviously been phenomenal in general, there are still many areas of the world that are lagging behind and where children still die earlier than they should. This past week a concerted effort was launched to deal with this situation: The Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhea (GAPPD) from WHO and UNICEF. This is funded in part by USAID, which sponsored a Washington, DC launch (there were also launch events in London and Geneva). The US event from the National Press Club is available as a webcast at this site.

Accompanying the launch was a special issue of the Lancet, which included papers emphasizing the importance of pneumonia and diarrhea as causes of death among children. The papers were summarized by Futurity.org:
Together, diarrhea and pneumonia—regarded as relatively minor illnesses for most people in high-income countries—are the leading causes of death worldwide for children under age five. They account for about 29 percent of all childhood deaths, with the highest mortality among children under two years old.
The research consortium, led by Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta of Aga Khan University in Pakistan, determined that sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia experienced the highest burden of the two diseases, with nearly three quarters (74 percent) of deaths from diarrhea and pneumonia occurring in just 15 countries.
Although mortality rates from the diseases are falling in most areas, some countries are still experiencing increasing numbers of deaths each year, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Chad, and Mali.
While diarrhea and pneumonia have different symptoms and causes, the researchers said, several risk factors for the two diseases are the same, including under-nutrition, sub-optimal breastfeeding, and zinc deficiency—all of which could be “effectively prevented and treated as part of a coordinated program.”
The authors estimate that nearly a third of episodes of severe diarrhea could be prevented by widespread vaccinations against rotavirus and cholera, and up to two-thirds of pneumonia deaths could be prevented by vaccines.
Powerpoint summaries of the papers are available at the same site as the webcast from the National Press Club.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Flu Hot Spot Picks: Egypt and China

It turns out that if you wanted to put money on where the next flu hot spots would be, a team of researchers at UCLA would pick Egypt and China, according to a story in the LA Times.
UCLA postdoctoral researcher Trevon Fuller and colleagues published their work online on March 13 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The thinking behind their research goes something like this:
Dangerous influenza outbreaks, including pandemics in 1957 and 1968 that killed around a million people apiece, arise when new, aggressive flu strains arise through a process known as reassortment. A single animal is infected with several flu viruses at the same time -- which then swap genetic bits to create new and sometimes deadly strains. 
The UCLA-based research team, which also included scientists from Belgium, China and Egypt, looked at reports of cases of H3N2 in people and H5N1 in birds to see where both were high in a particular area. They also looked at how many pigs were present (because they can host co-infections of both flus) in some regions of interest and at other factors such as human, duck and chicken population density.
The flu surveillance wasn't always robust, but in the end, they found coastal and central China and the Nile Delta -- as well as major cities in India, Japan and Korea -- all could have the right mix of flu strains and other conditions to permit the H3N2 and H5N1 viruses to exchange genetic material and spawn a dangerous influenza.
This is obviously a very clever and useful bit of detectiion/surveillance because knowing that it could happen is the first step towards trying to ensure that it does NOT happen. Let's hope that is the bet to make.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Food Prices on the Climb Again

This week, the Population Association of America meetings are being held in New Orleans, a city famous for great food. For most of us in richer countries, the issue of food is whether it is healthy for us, including questions about the safety of GMOs. For a larger number of humans, however, the issue remains simply getting enough affordable food--food security in its broadest sense. Two reports out this week emphasize that the price of food is climbing globally, and this cannot be good news for a lot of poor people.Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University has a blog post on "The Damaging Links Between Food, Fuel, and Finance." The issue is that food crops are being diverted to biofuels, especially since there is more money in energy than in agriculture, and there is a growing trend for big commercial enterprises to buy up agricultural property, which then threatens the free market for food.

Worldwatch has come out with a report covering similar themes:

Perhaps most significant has been an increase in biofuels production in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2011, global biofuels production increased more than 500 percent, due in part to higher oil prices and the adoption of biofuel mandates in the United States and European Union (EU). According to a 2012 study by the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research, if biofuel production continues to expand according to current plans, the price of feedstock crops (particularly maize, oilseed crops, and sugar cane) will increase more than 11 percent by 2020.
Large-scale imports of agricultural commodities in 2007–08 and 2011 were important factors in the global food price spikes in those years. High Chinese imports of soybeans, for instance, contributed to the 2011 spike. National export restrictions, including taxes and bans, also drove up food prices; policies enacted in 2007–08 in response to the price spike generated panic in net-food importing countries and raised grain prices by as much as 30 percent, according to some estimates.
And, of course, fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation (pumping especially) are energy-dependent. So, on the one hand, we do need alternative sources of energy in an increasingly energy-dependent world, but on the other hand we can't build that dependence on food, because we depend on food for food.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Food May Kill You

Like all animals, we need food to survive. But some foods are obviously better than others, while some may be downright dangerous. A study published this week in Nature suggests that too much lean red meat, thought by some to be a good source of protein, may not be very good for your health.
Consumption of red meat has been found to increase the risk of death from heart disease, even when controlling for levels of fat and cholesterol2. To find out why, [co-author] Hazen and his colleagues gave the nutrient l-carnitine — found in red meat and dairy products — to 77 volunteers, including 26 who were vegans or vegetarians. One committed vegan even agreed to eat a 200-gram sirloin steak.
But even when they took l-carnitine supplements, vegans and vegetarians made far less TMAO than meat eaters. Faecal studies showed that meat eaters and non-meat eaters also had very different types of bacteria in their guts. Hazen says that a regular diet of meat probably encourages the growth of bacteria that can turn l-carnitine into TMAO.
The finding should give pause not only to meat lovers, but also to people who take l-carnitine supplements, which are marketed with the promise that they promote energy, weight loss and athletic performance, says Hazen. “None of those claims have been proven,” he says. “I see no reason why anyone needs to take it.”
And, of course, chickens may be harmful to our health, too, as witnessed by news this week that a new Avian flu has been discovered in China. So far it has killed two people, but too little is yet known about the disease to understand how it might spread. The evidence suggests, however, that it is spreading from domestic poultry, largely being raised for human consumption, rather than from wild birds.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Suburban Inequality

This week. Los Angeles is hosting the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers and so when I saw an article in the New York Times about suburban inequality that focuses on Los Angeles, I assumed that it must have been written by geographers. In fact, one of the authors, Andrew Wiese, is a colleague of mine in the History Department here at SDSU. He and his co-author, Becky Nicolaides of UCLA, specialize in suburbs and their point is that income inequality in the United States shows up most pointedly in contrasting suburbs.
Today’s suburbs provide a map not just to the different worlds of the rich and the poor, which have always been with us, but to the increase in inequality between economic and social classes.
From the historian’s perspective, these patterns also reveal another truth about suburban places: their tendency to sustain and reinforce inequality. Bradbury [a rich LA suburb] and Azusa {a nearby poor LA suburb] have maintained their spots in the top and bottom tiers of the Los Angeles suburbs for decades. The sociologist John Logan described this “stratifying” feature long ago, noting that localities held on to social advantages and disadvantages over time. Patterns are established, and successive waves of pressure — fiscal, political, social — tend to keep things moving in the same direction.
They go on to suggest that somehow public policy needs to be at work lowering the social distance between geographically contiguous neighborhoods. I certainly agree that inequality like this is not desirable, but the solution has to come from the income side, not from the housing policy side. Unfortunately, as I have noted before [and just search for "jobs" here in the blog], population growth in developing countries has taken a lot of those middle-income jobs "off-shore" and it is hard to see when they will be coming back. Until they do, it seems unlikely to me that the suburban inequality is going to change very much.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Another Kind of Chinese "Invasion" of Africa

China has been making huge investments in sub-Saharan Africa over the past few years, as I have noted before. It is not clear yet whether this will be good for Africa, or only good for China. A piece of news reported this week in Nature suggests a gloomier, rather than a brighter conclusion. Christopher Pala summarizes a study by Canadian fisheries scientists suggesting that China has been vastly underreporting the amount of fish that it is catching in the waters off of West Africa.
Fisheries experts have long suspected that the catches reported by China to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome are too low. From 2000 to 2011, the country reported an average overseas catch of 368,000 tonnes a year. Yet China claims to have the world’s biggest distant-water fishing fleet, implying a much larger haul, says the study, which was funded by the European Union (EU). Pauly and his colleagues estimate that the average catch for 2000–11 was in fact 4.6 million tonnes a year, more than 12 times the reported figure (see ‘A colossal catch’). Of that total, 2.9 million tonnes a year came from West Africa, one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds.
Ironically, it was Pauly’s team that 12 years ago found that China had been over-reporting its domestic catch by at least 6 million tonnes. Pauly says that mid-level bureaucrats in the country often exaggerate their achievements.
But he says that China’s under-reporting of the distant-water catch is the more important problem. “It shows the extent of the looting of Africa, where so many people depend on seafood for basic protein.”
These estimates required a great deal of detective work, detailed in the article, and of course there are skeptics. But even if the estimates are too high, they are still so far beyond the reported catch that they almost certainly tell us that there is a huge level of overfishing of West Africa by China.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A New Plan for Plan B

Reproductive rights are under constant attack in the United States, but the latest round actually features a federal judge ruling that the Obama Administration was out of line when it decided that the Plan B Emergency Contraception should remain hard to get for girls under the age of 17. NBC News carried the story today:
A federal judge on Friday reversed a contentious Food and Drug Administration ruling and ordered the agency to make the so-called "morning-after pill" available without a prescription to all girls of reproductive age, including those younger than 17.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in Brooklyn, New York, comes in a lawsuit brought by reproductive-rights groups that had sought to remove age and other restrictions on emergency contraception.
Currently, only women aged 17 and or older can obtain emergency contraception without a prescription. For those women, the medication is available only at health clinics or pharmacies and they're required to show identification to obtain it.
I think most people would agree that it would be better all around for society if girls under 17 were not engaging in sexual intercourse, particularly unprotected intercourse. But, of course, it does happen and may put a young person in the position of facing an unwanted pregnancy that could be avoided with Plan B. Significantly, emergency contraception does not produce an abortion.
Emergency contraception uses high doses of the same hormones used in birth control to prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. It can prevent or delay ovulation, prevent fertilization or, in some cases, prevent implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of the uterus. It does not cause miscarriages or abortions and would have no effect if a woman were already pregnant, medical experts say.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reforming Our Thinking About Immigration Reform

As immigration reform legislation works its way somewhat mysteriously through the US Congress, level heads have popped up to remind us that things really aren't like they used to be when it comes to immigration, and thus when it comes to reforming the legislation. Yesterday's New York Times carries a story reminding us that the demography of Mexico has changed rather dramatically over the past several decades in which Mexicans (who are the main targets of immigration reform) have been moving north.
“It’s a new Mexico, it’s a new United States, and the interaction between them is new,” said Katherine Donato, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who specializes in immigration. As for Congressional action spurring a surge of illegal crossings, she added: “You’re just not going to see this massive interest. You don’t have the supply of people. You have a dangerous trip that costs a lot more money, and there has been strong growth all over Latin America. So if people in Central America are disenfranchised and don’t have jobs, as was the case in Mexico three or four decades ago, they might decide to go south.”
Furthermore, there is a lot of talk about the idea that any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the US must include them going to the "end of the line." But, it turns out that there isn't exactly a single line. It's a lot more complex than that, as a briefing from the Migration Policy Institute makes clear. If Congress does not increase the number of visas currently allowed in various categories, it could take up to 19 years to clear the current backlog of applications, even if no new applications were forthcoming. So, if this is going to be "real," the annual visa limit will have to be revised upward--perhaps substantially so.

And, in Mexico, there are proposals for the government of that country to step up more aggressively to protect the human rights of its migrating citizens, including those who are victimized trying to cross the border, and those who are victimized after crossing the border.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is Demographic Contraction Good for Russia?

Thanks to Abu Daoud for pointing out a recent online interview in which Merrill Lynch's chief economist in Russia suggests that the country's demographic contraction will be good for the economy.
VLADIMIR OSAKOVSKIY – Yes, we put out this "Russia in 2020" report and the main message, I think, is that we do, first of all, view Russian demographic contraction as a short- to medium-term advantage because this demographic contraction effectively removes the problem of unemployment off the list of economic problems. This is a trend, which we think will support a long-term creation of a Russian middle-class. We expect the Russian middle-class to actually triple in size, for it to become a dominant layer of the general population by 2020. That is a major thing. A second thing is that we do think the Russian government will increase the general level of taxation basically in order to fulfill the pre-election promises of President [Vladimir] Putin, which are quite a lot. Therefore, we do think that the general level of taxation in the economy will be much higher then it is right now.
Low unemployment is typically associated with a robust economy, and the rise in the proportion of people in the middle class also implies a robust economy. In theory, of course, if the economy stays exactly the same and the number of people declines, then per person income will rise. This seems to be the basis for Mr. Osakovskiy's view of the situation. The UN Population Division projects that Russia's population aged 15-59 will decline from 95 million in 2010 to 81 million in 2030, despite net in-migration from the former Soviet republics, and from China. At the same time, the population 60+ will increase from 25 million to 33 million. The projected tax increases discussed above almost certainly will include transfer payments to help support the aging population, with the caveat that the elderly don't live quite as long in Russia as in most other European countries.

None of the demographic numbers look very good for Russia's economic future, as nearly as I can tell, but it is certainly understandable that Merrill Lynch hopes to create a self-fulfilling prophecy--invest in Russia because its demographics suggest a bright economic future! The wealthy Russians who have their money parked offshore in Cyprus may see the world differently.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Who Are Those Brazilians, Anyways?

It is generally accepted that the indigenous population of the Americas arrived 15-20 thousand years ago via the Bering Strait land bridge. But a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported in Nature News, suggests that at least one group in Brazil may have a more varied background.
One broad group of these Palaeoamericans — the Botocudo people, who lived in inland regions of southeastern Brazil — stands out, having skull shapes that were intermediate between those of other Palaeoamericans and a presumed ancestral population in eastern Asia.
Now, a genetic analysis sheds light on the possible heritage of the Botocudo. Pena and his colleagues studied short stretches of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in samples drilled from teeth in 14 Botocudo skulls kept in a museum collection in Rio de Janeiro. By analysing material from inside the teeth, the team minimized the possibility of contamination with DNA from the numerous people who have probably handled the skulls since they arrived at the museum in the late 1800s.
The mtDNA from 12 of the skulls matched a well-known Palaeoamerican haplogroup. But mtDNA from two of the skulls included a haplogroup commonly found in Polynesia, Easter Island and other Pacific island archipelagos...
It seems unlikely that Polynesians ever crossed first the ocean and then the Andes to get to Brazil, so a more likely explanation put forth by the researchers is that this group of people may have provided refuge for Polynesian slaves brought to Brazil in the 19th century. I admit that I was not previously aware of this tragic piece of history about the enslavement of Polynesians, but a Google search quickly brought up a lot of links, including an horrific story from the New York Times in 1871. As a species, we have a lot to answer for, I'm afraid.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Air Pollution a Big Killer in China

Let's put together a story that I noted a year ago on the likely rise in deaths from urban air pollution, with a more recent story about terrible air pollution in Beijing. What you get is the story in today's New York Times that air pollution is a huge killer in China.
Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.
Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.
The study itself is part of the latest analysis of the global burden of disease data by Christopher Murray and his colleagues, reported in the Lancet a few months ago, as I discussed at the time.
The authors decided to break out numbers for specific countries and present the findings at international conferences. The China statistics were offered at a forum in Beijing on Sunday.
To be sure, every country that has gone through industrialization has gone through the pain of the pollution that is the byproduct of using a lot of fossil fuels to power a growing economy. Post-industrial societies have managed to reduce pollution partly through improved technology (which China has been slow to adopt, largely because it is expensive and thus drives up the prices of the goods sold), and partly by shipping those economic functions off to other places--like China. If China is unable to off-load its polluting industries to some other place (India, for example?) then it may be forced to adopt new fuels and new technology, or else find that its population will be growing even more slowly as the death rate climbs.