Health Information Online

As you all may know, I am a master’s student in bioethics.  Our curriculum covers a wide array of subjects and I am currently in a public health class learning about health communication campaigns (really quite an interesting subject!).  One of the major questions asked by public health communicators now is how reliable is the health information one finds online?  Today, in the United States, about half of the nation has looked online for health information, and over half of all adults have.  Eight of every ten Internet users have searched the Internet for health information.  I, of course, am wary of health information found online and try to avoid taking any advice from online–really it is best to only research maladies and symptoms rather than cures and remedies.  Always consult a doctor about modes of treatment.

I recently became aware of an organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that strives to provide certification to reliable health information websites, such as WebMd.  This organization, called “Health On the Net Foundation,” evaluates websites in English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese.  The HON Foundation was established  in 1995, went live online in 1996, and is accredited to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.  The HON Foundation evaluates websites upon request for free and gives passing websites an HONcode Seal of Accreditation.  For instance, if you visit WebMD, take a look at the bottom of the page and you will see the HONcode seal.  (Other accreditations include URAC, which is an American based health care management foundation.  The HON Foundation reflects a more worldwide view of health information and focuses more on accuracy of information rather than care management.)

One of the most helpful features, for individuals, offered by the HON Foundation is the HONcode toolbar.  This toolbar can be downloaded for FireFox and Internet Explorer web browsers.  The user simply types in the search phrase (for example, “Pap smear”) and the toolbar then searches websites that have active accreditation from the HON Foundation.  HONcode websites can also be searched through the main page of the HON Foundation’s website, in case you don’t care for extra toolbars clogging up your web browser.  (Here are the results for the search phrase “Pap smear.”)

While the HON Foundation does have its weaknesses, it is, overall, a very useful tool for helping ensure the quality and accuracy of health information that individuals access through the Internet.  So check it out and remember it the next time you are searching for health information on the web.  Have questions, comments, or otherwise?  I would love to hear from you.

Diet and Gender Determination

I have been hearing and reading for some time now about the belief by some that a mother’s diet can help determine the gender of a fetus.  Generally, this possibility is rejected by scientists and physicians alike.  I too reject this notion–in general.  A British study performed in 2008 argues that “you are what your mother eats.”  In a nutshell, the study argues that women who eat more calorie-dense foods such as cereal are more likely to give birth to a boy.

In a recent string of articles, skeptics and supporters alike have issued responses to this new study.  A recent piece by NPR presented both sides of the issue, but tended to give enough of a shadow of doubt so that the British study remains credible.  However, an article on WebMD is more dismissive of this study.  One researcher interviewed for this article said that trying to influence the sex of an unborn baby has been “of enormous interest forever [and] if something as simple as eating cereal would have made any difference, we probably would have figured it out by now.”  A fertility specialist interviewed for the article added,”What we’ve learned about sex selection in the recent past is that it’s ultimately determined by the father,” although he adds that there may be some factors in the mother’s reproductive tract that may make it more likely for “girl” or “boy” sperm to meet the egg.

It should be pointed out that the impetus for the study was the research done in mammalian biology that indicates that the females of other species of mammals do bear more male offspring when resources are plentiful and/or the mother is high-ranking within the group.  Within the laboratory setting, there has been some evidence that nutrition does directly influence gender-based changes in rats.  However, within humans, there is still no hard evidence that indicates that diet, or anything other than the chance of sperm, influences the determination of gender.

Going back what the fertility specialist commenting in the WebMD article argued, it is probably of most interest and use to study what, if anything, affects the uterine-vaginal-fallopian environment that may prohibit or inhibit the promotion of sperm based their chromosomal contents.  On the surface, it appears unlikely that there is any way that vaginal conditions can differentiate between X-sperm and Y-sperm as there is no real structural or outward difference between X- and Y-sperm.  (Remember the blog entry on sperm.)

So, yet another purported way of predicting or influencing the gender of a baby that has cropped up but is being shot down by scientists.  (Another such proposed way of influencing the gender of the baby is the timing and positioning of sexual intercouse.)  Do you have any theories about this subject?  I would like to hear from you.  Other comments or questions?  My ears are open.