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Vampire myths originated with a real blood disorder

The Conversation: The vampire myth is likely related to a medical condition with symptoms that may explain many elements of centuries-old folklore.

Bran Castle in Transylvania
Bran Castle in the Transylvania region of Romania is also referred to as 'Dracula's Castle'. (Unsplash/ Nomadic Julien)

The concept of a vampire predates Bram Stoker’s tales of Count Dracula — probably by several centuries. But did vampires ever really exist?

The ConversationIn 1819, 80 years before the publication of Dracula, John Polidori, an Anglo-Italian physician, published a novel called The Vampire. Stoker’s novel, however, became the benchmark for our descriptions of vampires. But how and where did this concept develop? It appears that the folklore surrounding the vampire phenomenon originated in that Balkan area where Stoker located his tale of Count Dracula.

Stoker never travelled to Transylvania or any other part of Eastern Europe. (The lands held by the fictional count would be in modern-day Romania and Hungary.)

The writer was born and brought up in Dublin. He was a friend to Oscar Wilde and William Gladstone. He was both a Liberal and a home-ruler — in favour of home rule for Ireland. He turned to theatre, and became business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London. It was his friendship with Armin Vambery, a Hungarian writer, that led to his fascination with vampire folklore. He consulted Vambery in the writing of Dracula, whose main character was loosely fashioned on Vlad the Impaler, a bloodthirsty prince born in Transylvania in 1431.

Medical source of the myth

Cover of Bram Stoker's Dracula
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has become the benchmark vampire. (Penguin Random House)

But where did the myth of vampires come from? Like many myths, it is based partly in fact. A blood disorder called porphyria, which has has been with us for millennia, became prevalent among the nobility and royalty of Eastern Europe. Porphyria is an inherited blood disorder that causes the body to produce less heme — a critical component of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body tissues. It seems likely that this disorder is the origin of the vampire myth. In fact, porphyria is sometimes referred to as the “vampyre disease.”

Consider the symptoms of patients with porphyria:

Sensitivity to sunlight: Extreme sensitivity to sunlight, leading to facial disfigurement, blackened skin and hair growth.

Fangs: In addition to facial disfigurement, repeated attacks of the disease causes the gums to recede, exposing the teeth, which then look like fangs.

Blood drinking: Because the urine of persons with porphyria is dark red, folklore surmised that they were drinking blood. In fact, some physicians had recommended that these patients drink blood to compensate for the defect in their red blood cells — but this recommendation was for animal blood. It is more likely that these patients, who only went out after dark, were judged to be looking for blood, and their fangs led to folk tales about vampires.

Aversion to garlic: The sulfur content of garlic could lead to an attack of porphyria, leading to very acute pain. Thus, the aversion to garlic.

Reflections not seen in mirrors: In the mythology, a vampire is not able to look in a mirror, or cannot see its reflection. The facial disfigurement caused by porphyria becomes worse with time. Poor oxygenation leads to destruction of facial tissues, and collapse of the facial structure. Patients understandably avoided mirrors.

Fear of the crucifix: During the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), 600 “vampires” were reportedly burned at the stake. Some of these accused vampires were innocent sufferers of porphyria. Porphyria patients had good reason to fear the Christian faith and Christian symbols.

Outline of Nosferatu in black against white
Elements of vampire folklore correspond to symptoms of porphyria. (Pixabay)

Acute attacks of the disease are associated with considerable pain, and both mental and physical disturbance. This condition has been ascribed to the English King George III, although subsequent analysis has shed some doubt on porphyria as the cause of his “madness.”

Porphyria

Nowadays, with our scientific knowledge of porphyria, instead of fearing these folks, we can love and care for them. Porphyria remains incurable, and treatment is mainly supportive: pain control, fluids and avoidance of drugs and chemicals that provoke acute attacks. Some success has been achieved with stem cell transplants.

Could Stoker have known of the existence of porphyria, and/or its link to vampire folklore? It was only in 1911, eight years before Stoker’s book appeared, that the diseases of porphyria (there are several types) were classified by H. Gunther. However, physician, researcher and author George Harley had described a patient with porphyria a few years earlier.

Through his gothic novel, Stoker surely wins the prize for the best example of myth entangled with medicine!

This story is an edited excerpt from the book Of Plagues and Vampires: Believable Myths and Unbelievable Facts from Medical Practice by Michael Hefferon.The Conversation

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Michael Hefferon, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Queen's University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Support for artists is key to returning to vibrant cultural life post-coronavirus

The Conversation: Policy makers and arts sectors together need to reimagine how we might organize contracts, leverage networks, and change supports to create more long-term opportunities for arts workers.

Three artists silhouetted on a theatre stage infront of a bright red curtain
Our society is vibrant in large part because it is infused with the work of artists and musicians. (Unsplash / Kyle Head)

Artists are crucial to the futures we’re imagining beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vitality of the societies we wish to return to are vibrant in large part because they sound and look vibrant, because they are full of artists thriving and sharing music in a variety of settings.

Who hasn’t missed the sound of people out and about, revelling in society, culture and the arts — whether we are talking about the sound of a band spilling out onto a nighttime street, or the sound of friends meeting before a concert? Our society is vibrant in large part because it is infused with the work of artists and musicians.

As musicologist Julian Johnson writes in his book Who Needs Classical Music? music facilitates “a relation to an order of things larger than ourselves.” Through music, the self, he writes, “comes to understand itself more fully as a larger, trans-subjective identity.”

These words, evoking togetherness, community and shared experience, have become even more powerful in this strange time of self-isolation and solitude. In its ability to draw us together to listen and experience together, live music performance is a crucial marker and facilitator of community.

$24,300 annual income

If we look at one particular arts field, that of classical artists (such as classical musicians, conductors or opera singers), we know that even before the age of COVID-19, these artists were struggling to sustain themselves financially.

Despite the fact that culture contributed over $53 billion to Canada’s economy in 2017, the median individual income for Canada’s artists was $24,300: 44 per cent less than the median for all Canadian workers ($43,500).

Only those artists with economic privilege can afford the precarity of the gig economy, and income data suggests that white and male privilege also mitigates its harshness. According to Canadian census 2016 data, artists who are women, Indigenous or from racialized communities report even lower median incomes.

This year, many artists won’t even earn this much: between February and May, for example, nearly 200,000 workers in information, culture and recreation industries lost their jobs.

The federal government recently extended the term of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) until the end of August. But many are concerned that even with these extended benefits, a return to performing might be months, if not years, away.

A Globe and Mail feature from the height of COVID-19’s first wave tells the heartbreaking stories of performers in various fields whose work has been put on hold as the result of the virus, also highlighting the terrifying scarcity of work and pay for musicians during this period.

The fragile, endangered ecosystem of music and musicians has been threatened by COVID-19, reported the New York Times.

Reticent audiences, even after the pandemic ends, will likely play a role in this: a survey conducted by the National Arts Centre and Nanos Research found that 34 per cent of Canadians are unsure when they will attend an indoor arts or cultural performance, even after venues have been reopened and are adhering to public health guidelines. This percentage is similar across age groups.

Gig economy

Many of these artists work in the gig economy and, as a result, have seen revenues evaporate — precious income they can ill afford to lose. Although many musicians are frustrated at the crisis created by COVID-19, those working in the arts were already in crisis. Quickly and starkly, the age of COVID-19 has not created, but rather has magnified, the precarious nature of creative work in our country.

Relief funding, both governmental and organizational, has been key, as are initiatives like the SaskMusic COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, the Canada Performs relief fund initiative and even sector-specific artist support like the Opera Artist Emergency Relief Fund. The arts should figure prominently in the federal government’s infrastructure stimulus package.

But as we anticipate moving into phases of less physical distancing and aim to resume some social and economic activities (with larger gatherings on the far horizon), we must continue to think about the systems we build with an eye towards increasing stability for performing artists. The COVID-19 crisis should serve as a wake-up call. Our long-standing characterization of the struggling, starving artist must change.

This ideal response to this artistic crisis is one that includes responses from a variety of sectors: in post-secondary education and training, in arts policies and structures, and in the financial support we offer our artists.

Policy crisis

To begin with, the present crisis has once again illuminated the need for contemporary classical artists to be multi-skilled. Many recent studies reveal that Canadian artists trained in post-secondary music programs must build what are known as “portfolio” careers, which effectively encompass work from a variety of fields or areas.

Since such portfolio careers are often created and arrived upon by happenstance, it is high time to ask how they might be more systematically embedded into educational and cultural policies and programs. Artists must be taught to think creatively and passionately, as well as pragmatically and strategically.

But the current crisis is also a policy crisis. It illuminates the need to support artists more fulsomely and creatively throughout the various stages of their careers. Central to this is imagining ways to limit the precarity of the gig economy which, perhaps surprisingly, characterizes the careers of even the highest echelon of performers, classical or otherwise.

Guaranteed work

There are proven ways to do this. Throughout Europe, for example, many opera singers sing in what are known as Fest contracts, which guarantee work at that opera house in a variety of roles over the course of a given season. This is accompanied by a monthly salary, with paid benefits and health insurance included.

While this may not be feasible in the Canadian context, examples like this might spur us to think creatively about how we might organize contracts, leverage networks and reimagine supports to create more long-term opportunities for cultural workers. We might also rethink the extent to which the public may be underpaying for arts and entertainment.

As we dream about reconnecting in person, we should take advantage of this opportunity for a collective reconsideration of arts policy. COVID-19 has brought us a unique opportunity to rebuild and reimagine a vibrant cultural sector. We need to collectively support artists if we believe in supporting the arts.The Conversation

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Colleen Renihan, Assistant Professor and Queen's National Scholar in Music Theatre and Opera, Queen's University; Ben Schnitzer, PhD Student, Cultural Studies, Queen's University, and Julia Brook, Assistant Professor in Music Education, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Examining healthy behaviours in youth

New survey reveals concerns about the mental health of girls and new types of risk behaviours reported by young people in Canada.

A group of school-age children run outside a school.
The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey is administered to students in Grades 6 to 10 from across the country. (Supplied Photo)

Findings from the 2018 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey (HBSC) show that mental health, home life and social media use each play an important role in the health of young people. Queen’s University researchers Wendy Craig (Psychology) and William Pickett (Public Health Scienceswere co-principal investigators on this Canada-wide study. 

For the last 25 years, Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) has been a unique source of information in Canada, describing the health experiences of young Canadians and the social contexts that impact their health. 

In Canada, the survey is administered to students in Grades 6 to 10 from across the country. It is coordinated by the Social Program Evaluation Group (SPEG) at Queen’s University, and researchers from Queen's University, the University of British Columbia, McGill University, McMaster University, the University de Montreal, the University of Prince Edward Island, the University of Waterloo, and the Public Health Agency of Canada collaborate on this ongoing study.  The survey team is part of an international network of like researchers, organized in Europe and affiliated with the World Health Organization.

When we as researchers are studying the health of young people, their voices and ideas are important, and are in fact protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," says William Pickett (Public Health Sciences). "While the themes that emerged from the HBSC survey findings are of great interest to us as researchers, so too are the views of young people, and their priorities.

Four key themes emerged from this year’s survey: 

  • First, the mental health and relationships of Grade 9 and 10 girls are of great concern. Girls in Grades 9 and 10 are consistently reporting the most negative health experiences. For example, they have the highest reported levels of issues like feeling hopeless, sad, nervous, and having low confidence, all symptoms of mental health problems.  
  • Second and more positivelythe majority of students in Canada report having a happy home life. They also report positive relationships with their parents and feel that they are generally understood by them.  
  • Third, profiles of risk-taking behaviours are changing. While young people report less engagement in many forms of risk-taking (e.g., cigarette smoking, sexual intercourse), engagement in other types of risk-taking and negative health behaviours are on the rise. One clear example is vaping, or e-cigarette use, which is now reported by about one in four young people by Grade 10. 
  • Fourth, social media use is a growing public health issue including addiction. Although social media can be used in positive ways to communicate, connect and engage with others, it can also be used negatively to engage in cyberbullying or teen dating violence. 

Understanding the experiences of young people is critical to ensure that they have the supports that they need to thrive and be successful," says Wendy Craig (Psychology).

In addition to the survey findings, researchers also asked young Canadians themselves about the issues that they felt were most influential on their health. Some of these paralleled the survey findings, and others were new. Gender, gender norms, and their impacts on health were on the top of young people’s list of themes. Illustrative examples included gendered ideals of body shapes and sizes and differing social expectations on boys and girls associated with physical activity, mental and spiritual health, and aggression.  

A second theme identified by youth surrounded the transition from childhood to young adulthood, and its perceived impacts on health and well-being. Such transitions were a source of worry to young people and had notable impacts on their self-confidence and sense of well-being, as young people navigated their disconnections from traditional adult supports as they themselves moved towards adulthood 

Like the survey findings, young people also emphasized the existence of both positive and negative aspects of technology in their lives, and the need for balance in the use of technology. And that social media was important to them. 

The survey was administered to about 22,000 students from across Canada. The study was conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) internationally and with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) nationally. 

Engineering researchers lauded for contributions

Two Queen’s University professors earn Canadian Academy of Engineering Fellowship for lifetime of critical research.

Two Queen’s University researchers have been inducted as Fellows of the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE), one of Canada’s national academies. Michael Cunningham is an internationally-recognized authority on sustainable polymer manufacturing and Jean Hutchinson has developed an international reputation for assessing and managing the risks associated with natural rock slope hazards, along rail corridors.

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham

The CAE is a national institution through which Canada's most distinguished and experienced engineers provide strategic advice on matters of critical importance to Canada. Fellows of the academy are elected by their peers.

“Election to the Canadian Academy of Engineering is one of the highest professional honours awarded to engineers in Canada,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research). “My sincere congratulations to Drs. Cunningham and Hutchinson on this well-deserved recognition.”

Dr. Cunningham’s (Chemical Engineering) research has contributed to producing materials using water-based rather than solvent-based processes. He collaborates and consults extensively with industry, and for 15 years has taught industry courses in North America and Europe.

His award-winning green chemistry/engineering work has important societal, economic, and environmental implications, and he has been recognized nationally and internationally, including as a recipient of the 2019 NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize with fellow collaborators from Queen’s. 

“I am honoured to be elected as a Fellow of the CAE and gratefully acknowledge my colleagues and current and former students with whom I've enjoyed stimulating and creative collaborations during my career,” Dr. Cunningham says. “I look forward to engaging with the CAE in its pursuit of promoting science and engineering principles in furthering the best interests of the country and quality of life for all Canadians.”

Jean Hutchinson
Jean Hutchinson

Dr. Hutchinson (Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering) and her team pioneered the use of new engineering approaches to support risk-based decision-making and rock slope stability assessment using remote sensing. Her most recent research applies novel tools such as remote sensing data collection on large and remote rock slopes, machine learning to analyze data streams and game engine based numerical simulation to assess and simulate rock slope hazards along rail corridors.

“It is my great pleasure and honour to be elected to the Canadian Academy of Engineering, which engages engineering excellence across many sectors and with diverse perspectives. I look forward to contributing to the CAE’s efforts to promote and lead responsible and transformative engineering contributions to society, considering environmental, societal and economic sustainability,” says Dr. Hutchinson.

For more information, visit the CAE website.

Collecting race-based data during pandemic may fuel dangerous prejudices

The Conversation: The coronavirus pandemic presents potentially concerning trajectories for race relations and many of these might originate within the medical profession.

Racially sorted patients are surveilled, often with negative consequences. (Shutterstock)
Racially sorted patients are surveilled, often with negative consequences. (Shutterstock)

Brian Sinclair wheeled himself into a Winnipeg emergency room in September 2008 seeking assistance with his catheter bag. He had a bladder infection, but instead of receiving treatment, remained in the waiting room for 34 hours until his body — now lifeless — finally received medical attention.

The Conversation logoSinclair was an Indigenous man who hospital staff believed was there “to watch TV,” appeared “intoxicated” and was simply “sleeping it off.” He was arguably triaged within what scholars of Indigenous histories Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry call a “highly racialized” health-care system.

Sinclair’s case shows how stereotypes of indigeneity in Canada can influence patient care with fatal consequences. More broadly, this adds to trends of cumulative disadvantage, where negative circumstances that affected population groups in the past continue to affect the same groups today.

Is there a risk that the COVID-19 pandemic will fuel such trends in Canada, especially against the backdrop of the country’s racialized past? As a sociologist, my answer to this question is yes.

As a researcher affiliated with the Surveillance Studies Centre, I am also concerned with how racially sorted patients are surveilled, often with negative consequences. Therefore, as a privacy and ethics officer evaluating health data for Ontario’s Pandemic Threat Response (PANTHR), I caution the Ministry of Health and its partners against the use of race- and ethnicity-based health data in dealing with COVID-19.

Collecting race data for good medicine?

Canada’s attention to race during the first 100 years of immigration policy shaped aspirations of a settler colonial “White Canada Forever.” Unsurprisingly, historical racial inequalities shape Canadian experiences in health care.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie of Toronto’s Wellesley Institute believes that race-based data is essential for “good medicine.” And many additional doctors and scholars believe that collecting race data might improve understandings of the social determinants of health.

However, when race data is collected to understand the social determinants of health, it could inadvertently legitimate biological understandings of race. This is an essentialist position that necessarily ties the racial attributes and behaviours of one person to another.

Further, when race data is used in these circumstances, it creates more scope to arrive at racist responses to a pandemic than it does to address social vulnerabilities like the poor work conditions of minority populations in essential services.

 

 

Linking race and health

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, acknowledges that systematic racism disadvantages certain populations. However, Hinshaw has not yet committed to collecting such data. Initially, her Ontario counterpart, Dr. David Williams, said the province would focus on age and chronic illness “regardless of race, ethnic or other backgrounds.” Ontario now says it will collect race-based data during the pandemic.

Williams’ revised position certainly eases tensions with a coalition of Black health leaders that has called for attention to race.

Endorsed by 192 organizations and 1,612 individuals, the coalition wrote an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and other provincial officials. It argues for “the collection and use of socio-demographic and race-based data in health and social services … as it relates to COVID-19.”

But the use of race data may be problematic because links between health conditions and race have been connected to discriminatory outcomes in the past.

Race-based medical practice

Diseases like Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia have discursively been described as a “Jewish disease” and “Black disease” respectively at least since the early 1900s, even though these associations with races can lead to inaccuracies in terms of who is deemed high risk. Moreover, racializing these diseases reinforced discriminatory notions of race that were tied to other policies of racial oppression, such as anti-immigrationism.

Because race data are routinely associated with medical conditions and treatment, many medical doctors turn to race as illness inducing, instead of examining an individual’s symptoms, individual patient history or family history.

Racial categories are therefore deemed scientific, despite their unscientific construction.

Racializing COVID-19

If race-based data collection is to be attached to COVID-19 in Ontario, then attention should be given to what happens when medical conditions are associated with one’s race.

What happens when a disease is racialized? One example of the racializing of COVID-19 are the many cases of anti-Asian racism across North America ignited by xenophobic hysteria.

Another example comes from China where a McDonald’s franchise in Guangzhou allegedly posted a sign in April reading, “We’ve been informed that from now on Black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant” because of “rumours” that coronavirus was spreading among African people.

If surveillance is the attention to human attributes and behaviours so that people can be “socially sorted” and potentially treated differently, then the systematic collection of race data is also a form of surveillance.

When rumours like those in the McDonald’s example are connected to reports generated through racial surveillance by leading health agencies that monitor COVID-19 by race (like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), then the racial dimensions of the virus can further fuel xenophobia.

Therefore, a call for increased racial surveillance potentially fuels racism.

Measuring race, fuelling racism

Health scholars have raised concerns about “… how anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism and other forms of intersectional violence will impact the health of our communities during this crisis.”

In the open letter from the coalition of Black health leaders to Ontario’s political leaders, a case is made for collecting race data because, “We cannot address what we cannot measure.” But can race be measured?

What determines the boundary between one race and another, especially if self-identification means that race is a subjective term, not a medically objective one?

Prejudicial inferences from race-based data are of significant concern. It is these prejudices, contributing to historical trends of racism, that we are reminded of when recalling Brian Sinclair’s tragic death in a Winnipeg ER.

It is these prejudices that are fuelled by collecting race data for health care, especially when coupled with public hysteria during a pandemic.The Conversation

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Sachil Singh, Adjunct Assistant Professor (Sociology), and Associated Faculty member (Surveillance Studies Centre), Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Conversations Confronting COVID-19 Virtual Event Series

With its first event on June 24, the new series aims to address some of the challenges and opportunities presented by the global pandemic

Watch the Discussion:


Since the global pandemic hit earlier this year, Canadians and global citizens have been confronted with a myriad of questions – from how to understand and treat the virus, to how to cope with life in quarantine, and what life will look like when we surface from this international crisis.

A new virtual event series, Conversations Confronting COVID-19, has been launched as part of the Discover Research@Queen’s campaign to examine these questions at the forefront of our minds and assess both challenges and unique opportunities the situation has presented.

Launching on Wednesday, June 24 at 11:30 EDT, the first installment of the monthly series will focus on the theme of Innovation Pivots and feature members of the Queen’s community who have effectively pivoted their research and programs to come up with creative and innovative solutions to the pandemic.

The open, free session, moderated by Jim Banting, Assistant Vice-Principal (Partnerships and Innovation), will take a deep dive into three initiatives that are working to confront various aspects of COVID-19:

  • The Mechanical Ventilator Milano initiative, an international project aimed at developing a low-cost, easy-to-build ventilator to treat COVID-19. The project has gained international media attention, and the Canadian arm of the collaboration is being led by Queen’s Nobel Laureate, Dr. Arthur B. McDonald. Represented by Dr. Tony Noble, Professor, Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy, and Scientific Director, Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute
  • The Hand Sanitizer Initiative mobilized by Queen’s researchers and industry partners to support Kingston hospitals. Represented by Ms. Emily Albright, PhD Candidate, Chemistry, and Dr. Richard Oleschuk, Professor, Chemistry

“We are excited to share, with our alumni and the greater Queen’s community, the important work that our researchers, students, and affiliates are doing in our fight to understand and confront the challenges associated with the pandemic,” says Karen Bertrand, Vice-Principal (Advancement).

The Conversations Confronting COVID-19 series is free and open to the public. To register for the event on Wednesday, June 24, please visit the Queen’s Alumni website. To learn more about the projects featured in the event, visit the Research@Queen’s website.

Supporting Rapid Response research

The Vice-Principal (Research) announces the second round of internal funding for projects supporting medical and social coronavirus-related solutions.

A second round of funding for COVID-19-related research has been allocated as part of the Rapid Response competition, announced by the Vice-Principal (Research) in late-March. Thirteen projects that contribute to the development, testing, and implementation of medical or social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19 have already been funded through the program. Now, seven more applicants have received funding in a second round of the competition.

The diverse projects cross several fields and disciplines. They range from learning how Indigenous peoples living with chronic health issues are impacted by COVID-19 to studying the psychosocial implications of the pandemic among cancer survivors.  

The successful projects are:

  • Chantelle Capicciotti (Chemistry) – Developing sweet prophylactics: targeting glycans to prevent COVID-19 spread
  • Amrita Roy (Family Medicine) – Indigenous peoples living with chronic health issues during the COVID-19 era – examining experiences in Katarokwi (Kingston, Ontario area)
  • Jacqueline Galica (Nursing) – The psychosocial implications of COVID-19: How are cancer survivors coping?
  • Kristy Timmons (Education) – Using social and behavioural science to help teachers and principals mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 in K-12 contexts
  • Elaine Power (Kinesiology & Health Studies) – Leave no one behind: Income security for the 21st century
  • Elijah Bisung (Kinesiology & Health Studies) – Mobilizing local stakeholders to address COVID-19 misinformation and mistrust in Ghana
  • Stephen Vanner (Medicine) – COVID-19 testing of health professional students: Informing testing and public policy for universities and society

For more information on the Rapid Response competition, visit the Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)  website.  

Chronic stress during pandemic can cause strange physical symptoms

The Conversation: If you've been experiencing unusual physical symptoms recently, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the reason.

Woman in a mask is stressed out.
Chronic stress can lead to inflammation, which can result in physical symptoms as well as mental health symptoms. (Unsplash / Engin Ankyat)

During the current COVID-19 pandemic have you been wondering why you’re getting headaches more often? Or stomach aches? Or feeling itchy or getting pimples? Or why your periods are irregular or more painful than usual? Exciting recent science suggests that the answers may lie in our body’s biological reactions to stress.

Our biological stress response system — the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — evolved hundreds of millions of years ago to help our vertebrate ancestors quickly mobilize energy to confront imminent, life-or-death threats, such as predator attacks. In the short term, this system is exquisite in its efficiency and crucial to survival.

The ConversationThe problem with our current situation is that it has been going on for months, and the end is not clearly in sight. Chronic stress sends the HPA axis into overdrive, with effects felt throughout the body. These symptoms can even serve as further sources of stress. Understanding why our bodies are reacting in these ways can help us develop strategies to prevent stress from getting under our skin.

The biological stress response

When animals perceive a threat in their environment, the HPA axis stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, along with adrenaline, work to pump oxygen to the major muscles to enable the animal to fight or escape.

This “fight/flight” response produces physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and chest tightness (the heart pumping oxygen to the major muscles), and stomach butterflies, nausea and tingling (blood leaving the stomach and extremities to get to the major muscles).

The HPA axis also interacts with the immune system to help with the aftermath. Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory and binds to large numbers of receptors in the skin to help repair wounds and fight infection.

The HPA axis doesn’t know the difference between the life-or-death threat of a predator attack and modern stressors. So, in the early stages of this crisis, if your stomach did flip-flops, or you felt your heart racing, when reading about surges in COVID-19 cases, your body was doing what it was designed to do even though at that moment you were not in any imminent physical danger.

The problem of chronic stress

A predator attack is time-limited. In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for weeks, and may be compounded by social isolation, job or financial insecurity and care-taking responsibilities. Unfortunately, all the HPA axis knows is that it needs to release stress hormones when we perceive a threat in our environment. So, if we perceive our environment as threatening all the time, then the HPA axis will release these chemicals all the time.

One of the most pronounced effects of long-term cortisol release is glucocorticoid resistance. This is when cells in the immune system become less sensitive to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol. As a result, cortisol starts to increase inflammation throughout the body and brain.

So, your itchiness and rashes? All of the cortisol receptors in your skin may no longer be receptive to cortisol’s anti-inflammatory effects and instead, chemicals are released that inflame the skin.

Your headaches or stomach aches? Painful periods? All of these symptoms can also be the result of inflammation in these organ systems caused by chronic HPA axis activation.

Even psychological symptoms, such as feelings of depression or loneliness, have been linked to the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals caused by chronic stress.

A woman jogs in a park with green grass.
Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise reduces inflammation and has strong mood-lifting effects. (Unsplash / Arek Adeoye)

Taking control of your stress response

Much of what is perceived as stressful on a day-to-day level is not specific to contracting the COVID-19 virus, but instead is the result of changes that we have had to make in our lives. A switch to working from home, or not working, has disrupted our sleeping, eating and activity schedules that regulate our internal circadian clock. Staying indoors means lower exercise and activity levels. Many people, especially those living alone, are socially isolated from friends and loved ones.

Disrupted circadian routines, lack of exercise and social isolation have all been strongly linked to dysregulation of the body’s stress and immune systems, and release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body and brain.

Fortunately, even small positive changes in these areas can have strong stress-reducing effects. Keeping a regular routine by going to bed, getting up and eating at consistent times each day has been linked to greater overall health by promoting healthy function of the HPA axis and immune system. Even 20 minutes of moderate exercise, which inside could include exercise videos or jogging around at home, regulates the HPA axis, reduces inflammation and has strong mood-lifting effects.

Finally, talking regularly with friends and loved ones, even remotely or at a distance, is one of the best things you can do to protect against the biological and psychological effects of stress. Remember, we’re all in this together!The Conversation

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Kate Harkness, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Director of the Mood Research Laboratory, Queen's University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Showcasing the Art of Research – photo essay

The Queen’s Art of Research photo contest celebrates its fifth year, with the selection of ten winning images.

It was another record-breaking year for the Art of Research photo contest, with more than 100 faculty, staff, students, and alumni submitting engaging and thought-provoking research images. The 2020 competition is the largest in the contest’s five-year history, with images winning 10 category and special prizes.

The Art of Research image take us behind-the-scenes of the everyday research experience. From images capturing remote fieldwork to invisible particles under the microscope, the Art of Research seeks to spark curiosity and visualize the ground-breaking research happening at Queen’s. The contest strives to represent the diversity and creativity of Queen’s research, with winners representing multiple disciplines and submissions highlighting research happening at all career stages. This year’s winners will be featured in a digital photo gallery showcasing the contest’s winners and top submissions from the past five years on the Research@Queen’s website.

Category: Invisible Discoveries

[Photograph is of a water-swollen hydrogel particle]

Porous Plastic Particle

Submitted by: Ross Jansen-van Vuuren, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Chemistry

Location of Photo: Bruce Hall, SEM Lab, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: The photograph is of a water-swollen hydrogel particle created in our chemistry laboratory, taken with an instrument called a Scanning Electron Microscope, which allows us to zone in and see important details on the surface of the hydrogel. A hydrogel is essentially a plastic material that is able to absorb very large volumes of water (up to 800 times its weight!) – much like a baby diaper, swelling as it does so. From the image, the surface of the hydrogel is seen to possess large, distinctive pores, which help us understand how and why hydrogels absorb so much liquid.

Category: Out in the Field

[Aerial view algal blooms in South Frontenac County]

Nature's van Gogh

Submitted by: Hayden Wainwright, Student (MSc), Biology

Location of Photo: South Frontenac County, Ontario, Canada

Description of Photo: Algal blooms appear as smears of green slime from the ground, but are beautiful pieces of abstract art from an aerial view, painted by wind and sunlight. My research takes me to lakes on the Canadian Shield affected by blooms, where I photograph them with a drone while assistants help me collect water samples. By uncovering when, where, and why they appear, we hope to restore some of Canada’s most beautiful lakes to their pristine states.

Category: Best Description

[Aerial photograph of the Adelabu Market in Ibadan, Nigeria]

Under the Umbrella

Submitted by: Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin, Faculty, Gender Studies; Geography and Planning

Location of Photo: Ibadan, Nigeria

Description of Photo: On a very hot day, I went to the Adelabu Market in Ibadan, Nigeria, to meet Sarah. Several phone calls later, we found each other. She brought me inside a nearly abandoned plaza. “Less noisy,” she said. We climbed up to the highest floor. During the interview, she told me her livelihood as a market woman funded her children’s education. Rain or shine, she is at the market every day, under her umbrella. When we finished the interview, I looked down. What a view! As I snapped a photo, I wondered: “What are the stories of the other people under the umbrellas?”

Category: Art in Action

[Diffusion Spectrum Imaging (DSI) depicting diffusion of water throughout the brain]

The Wiring of the Brain

Submitted by: Donald Brien, Staff, Centre for Neuroscience Studies

Location of Photo: Centre for Neuroscience Studies, MRI Facility, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: An example of Diffusion Spectrum Imaging (DSI) from Queen’s new Prisma Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Some of the most beautiful images generated by MRI are created by imaging the diffusion (movement) of water throughout the brain. From this diffusion, we can generate maps of the neuron connections that are responsible for carrying messages from one area of the brain to another. Seen here, they are coded by direction, such that blue tracts move from foot to head, red tracts move from left to right in the head, and green tracts move from the front to the back of the head.  There are 30,000 tracts displayed in this image. By adulthood, the average person has ~160,000 km total length of these tracts.

Category: Community Collaborations

[A group of researchers collaborating in a space with mobile robots]

Researchers at Offroad Robotics

Submitted by: Heshan Fernando, Student (PhD), Mechanical and Materials Engineering

Location of Photo: Jackson Hall, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: A group of multidisciplinary engineering researchers with expertise in mining and construction applications, mechanical and mechatronics systems, as well as electrical and computer engineering collaborate to develop the next generation of field and mobile robots.

Category: People's Choice

[Researchers and community members travelling on snowmobiles]

Learning from the Land

Submitted by: Sarah Flisikowski, Student (MES), School of Environmental Studies

Location of Photo: Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada

Description of Photo: The transmission and documentation of traditional knowledge and skills is of great importance to Inuit, especially considering the continuing social, environmental, and economic changes in the Arctic. I am examining how Inuit traditional knowledge is generated and shared through a case study of an existing project in Ulukhaktok called Nunamin Illihakvia, which means "learning from the land" in Inuinnaqtun. Participants from other Inuvialuit communities were invited to travel to Ulukhaktok in February 2020 to participate in cultural activities that promoted discussion on what a cultural learning program should include. This photo shows our first trip out on Queen's Bay together.

KHGRI Prize

Sponsored by Kingston General Health Research Institute

[Patient care simulation depicting one researcher and one patient]

This is EPIC: Simulation Education with Patient Actors to Improve Care

Submitted by: Monakshi Sawhney, Faculty, School of Nursing

Location of Photo: Education and Research Centre, North York General Hospital, Toronto, Ontario

Description of Photo: Simulation education, using standardized patient actors, is a unique way to provide education in health care settings to practicing clinicians. It is an opportunity to practice assessment skills and critical thinking in a safe environment that mimics the patient care setting. Our team implemented this concept at a hospital in Toronto, with a focus on researching the outcomes of a simulation intervention for nurses who care for patients receiving epidural analgesia for pain management after surgery. This photograph depicts the real-to-life patient care environment that was created for this study.

Graduate Studies Prize

Sponsored by the School of Graduate Studies

[Fish eye lens photograph of Dog Lake]

Shattered Planet

Submitted by: Allen Tian, Student (MSc), Biology

Location of Photo: Milburn Bay, Dog Lake, South Frontenac County, Ontario, Canada

Description of Photo: The impact of human activity on our planet is often difficult to see in the moment, and requires a long-term, overlooking, view. This photo is a drone panorama of my field site on the Rideau Canal System, where I investigate the impact of human activity on aquatic ecosystems, particularly the development of toxic algal blooms. Activities such as fishing, property development and farming have fragmented and altered this ecosystem, and we need a holistic, broader view to piece together how we can protect our delicate, beautiful, world.

Innovation, Knowledge Mobilization, and Entrepreneurship Prize

Sponsored by Partnerships and Innovation

[Photograph of a leg being prepared for dynamic X-ray video]

Propelling Research

Submitted by: Lauren Welte, Student (PhD), Mechanical and Materials Engineering

Location of Photo: Skeletal Observation Laboratory, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: Our feet make contact with the ground millions of times within our lifetime, yet we still do not completely understand how they function. Using dynamic X-ray video, we image foot bones in ways we could only previously imagine.  Recent work has questioned several popular theories about soft tissue function in the arch. Ongoing research aims to understand healthy foot function, to better inform treatments for foot pain. This research has the capacity to propel our understanding of foot function forward.

Health Sciences Prize

Sponsored by the Faculty of Health Sciences

[Microscopic photo of cells within a brain region]

A Glance in the Brain

Submitted by: Natalia de Menezes Lyra e Silva, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Neuroscience Studies

Location of Photo: Centre for Neuroscience Studies, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: The primate brain is highly specialized, allowing us an incredible range of experiences. This microscopic photo captures cells within a brain region, the hippocampus, involved with learning and memory. Every lived experience that we are able to remember has boosted the formation of new connections in our brains. These connections are affected in diseases that impair memory, such as Alzheimer's disease (AD). Here, we can observe cells involved with the brain inflammatory response. These cells are upregulated in the brains of AD patients. This technique allows us to better understand how our brains work and how they are altered by diseases.

 

To learn more about this year’s winners and explore past winners and top submissions, visit The Art of Research Photo Gallery on the Research@Queen’s website.

Examining COVID-19’s economic impact on Ontario

New modelling tool shows a loss exceeding $40 billion across the province through May.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Queen’s University economists are helping policymakers build a roadmap for economic recovery efforts. The focus is on providing local and provincial leaders with the best available high-frequency economic projections to use alongside health projections when making decisions.  

Through Limestone Analytics, a Kingston-based research and analytics firm, the group of Queen’s researchers has developed a COVID-19 policy analysis tool. Already adapted for Ontario the preliminary  estimates imply that COVID-19 led to a loss in Ontario’s GDP of 9.4 per cent in March, 23.7 per cent in April, and 26 per cent in May compared to what would have been expected. This implies a loss of over $40 billion across the province or $7,500 per household. 

“These are huge numbers, and that is just where we are after May,” said Huw Lloyd-Ellis (Economics). “Losses will accumulate going forward. How big they end up being depends on how quickly the province can relax restrictions on various industries, and how the behavior of firms and consumers change going forward.” 

The team refers to their framework as the STUDIO model, a flexible framework that can be adapted for a wide variety of scenarios. The acronym stands for “Short-Term Under-capacity Dynamic Input-Output” model, reflecting its intended use for month-to-month scenario building during economic disasters. 

“We don’t pretend that we can predict the future in terms of how the disease will spread, or how government policy, and consumer and firm behavior will change in the coming months,” says Christopher Cotton (Economics), the Jarislowsky-Deutsch Chair in Economic & Financial Policy at Queen’s. “The strength of STUDIO is in its flexibility, and its ability to provide economic projections for any number of alternative scenarios that we may throw at it.”  

The model produces an array of projections to show what will happen to the economy in different situations, depending on how the disease spreads, and how governments, consumers and firms respond to it. Understanding how economic outcomes respond to policy choices under alternative scenarios will help governments plan their response to COVID-19 over the coming months.  

Even under a very optimistic scenario, where the economy reopens rapidly and largely recovers by the end of the year, the preliminary estimates are that Ontario will experience a 9.9 per cent loss in its annual GDP, which amounts to over $83 billion in total or almost $15,000 per household. While, as always, these estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty, they are consistent with several other private and public sector forecasts.  

Potential jumps in the transmission of the disease or delays in reopening the economy could easily increase these numbers. The model’s projections under a more pessimistic schedule for reopening the economy shows an average GDP loss exceeding $20,000 per Ontario household.  

The researchers are also extending their analysis to the local level and breaking down the results by industrial sectorFor Kingston and Frontenac County, for example, the projected GDP losses are slightly less than the Ontario average, but certain industries such as those related to travel and healthcare, are taking a big hit. Such insights can help policymakers direct support to the places and the people that need it most. 

The team has made some of their projections available through an interactive dashboard on the Limestone Analytics website 

“The dashboard provides just a taste of what the model can do,” says Bahman Kashi (Economics), President of Limestone Analytics. “We are expanding our analysis across regions, provinces and states in North America, and we are adapting our models for use in developing countries. We are also partnering with several organizations and other groups at Queen’s to build a comprehensive policymaking dashboard that will bring together both economic and health projections in one place for all of Canada.” 

The team has worked closely with members of the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council to understand the data needs of local leaders, and Mitacs to help support graduate student participation on the project. 

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