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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Are we looking at a flu epidemic or a new stage of societal development?

This year's flu season started early, and has hit the US with a vengeance.  But does that make it an epidemic, or is the media hyping it up? Certainly it is nothing like the 2009 Swine flu pandemic, which killed 302 people around the world. Are infectious diseases like different strains of influenza becoming more deadly to humans?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say we are looking at the worst flu outbreak in 10 years, and just recently, the mayor of Boston declared a health emergency over the number of flu cases (700) and deaths (18) they have in that state.

The demographic transition theory tells us that as societies become more developed, their death rates drop, particularly infant mortality.  People live longer, and then fertility rates drop. Death rates drop, in part, due to the elimination of infectious diseases - mostly because of improved sanitation and public health. So far, demographers who developed and who use the theory have tracked societal development through four stages. The US and other developed nations are in stage 4, with low fertility, increased longevity, population older on average, chronic diseases playing a much more significant role than infectious diseases.  Other counties, considered to be "rapidly developing," like China, Japan, and Korea, are moving though stage 3 very quickly into stage 4, which is why they are struggling to catch up to the aging of their populations.

What is not clear in this theory is what stage 5 or stage 6 will look like.  I often wonder, especially in light of the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and with the swine flu and avian flu pandemic scares of the past few years, and now watching this year's flu season here in the States, if stage 5 of the demographic transition will see a return of infectious diseases as a major influence on population health.  Food for thought. Which I would write about some more, except that (speaking of food) it's way past time for lunch, and I still haven't eaten.

In the meantime, watch out for this year's flu; it's a mean one.  Particularly for children and the elderly.   Eighteen children have died of the flu so far this season.  This type of statistic for the elderly is not reported by the CDC, although all four reported flu-related deaths in Boston have been among the elderly.

Here is some helpful information from the CDC on the 2012-2013 flu season.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Dalai Lama - religion or ethics in schools - what is really missing?

I heard this message from the Dalai Lama when he spoke here at Syracuse University last fall, and I have been mulling over it since then.  And certainly, I have been thinking about it in the wake of the Newtown, CT shootings.  Fundamentalist Christians are always quick to blame these horrific criminal acts on the absence of God in schools - more specifically, the removal of enforced prayer in the classroom or the introduction of student freedom to pray or not pray according to their own beliefs.  How they equate this freedom of religion in public school settings as the banishment of God from the schools, I am not sure.  I would think that an omnipresent, omnipotent God would be wherever it wanted to be, wherever it was called upon by believers, regardless of our human rules.  And I certainly think that God would be watching over innocent children, at the very least.

So, to me, the answer is not the reintroduction of enforced Christianity in public schools. Because that's what Fundamentalists are clamoring for.  They are not saying we should have Buddhism, or Islam, or Judaism, or any other faith, practiced in public schools.  They are talking about Christianity only, since they think their God is the only True Lord and Savior.

Anyway, the Dalai Lama has some very good ideas about secular ethics, or the teaching of a code of ethics that is not reliant on any one religion. And I think he has a very good point. The following is an excerpt from an article entitled Beyond Religion:

"Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.

This statement may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.

I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics. My confidence comes from my conviction that all of us, all human beings, are basically inclined or disposed toward what we perceive to be good. Whatever we do, we do because we think it will be of some benefit. At the same time, we all appreciate the kindness of others. We are all, by nature, oriented toward the basic human values of love and compassion. We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect and resentment?

In view of this, I am of the firm opinion that we have within our grasp a way, and a means, to ground inner values without contradicting any religion and yet, crucially, without depending on religion. The development and practice of this new system of ethics is what I propose to elaborate in the course of this book. It is my hope that doing so will help to promote understanding of the need for ethical awareness and inner values in this age of excessive materialism."