A suffocated nation

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Brazil is far from being a high suicide rate country. The rate of ‘self-induced death’ in the country is close to 5 per 100,000 – six times lower than the average observed in countries where suicide is a big problem like Lithuania and South Korea. However, the reality is completely different when its concerns to the indigenous peoples form Brazil. Among the natives, suicide rates are 20 times greater than the observed among non-indigenous.

Almost all deaths are from hangings, mostly young people and children. According to specialists who studies the matter, they are victims of a social problem profoundly linked to land disputes and poor health and living conditions.

To show this suffocated nation, this silence genocide, I wrote a story for the magazine I work for, Ciência Hoje. I have tried to listen as many specialists as possible, as well as indigenous peoples themselves and government’s official sources. But I didn’t stop there. This work is my first try on the new tendency of ‘data journalism’, using data to tell a story. I have spent months gathering data on the subject. In Brazil, the Ministry of Health is the organ that holds the information on the number of suicides among indigenous and non-ingenious. But the Ministry was not cooperative and did not’ seem to want to publicize this problem. I did several tries asking for data and for interviews, but they ended in nothing. In fact, I often had listen from the Minister’s press office that “suicide isn’t a subject that people want to hear about” and that should not spend my on that.

So I had to appeal to the Brazilian’s Freedom of Information Law, which pledges that all citizens have the right to access data held by the national government. With this approach and other efforts, I was able to gather the data I needed to build a general panorama of the indigenous suicides in Brazil. It resulted in an interactive map showing the indigenous suicides occurrences from 1996 to 2012 in Brazil. The map shows the main focus of the problem, the total numbers of deaths by county, as well the proportion of indigenous suicides and non-indigenous ones.

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Click to open the map in another tab

 

 

Some places stand out in the map, like the county of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, an Amazonian region in the Amazon state. There, 76% of the population is indigenous and the 95% of the suicides are indigenous. It means that an indigenous who live there has about five times more chance to commit suicide than a non-indigenous person does.

São Gabriel da Cachoeira is just one example. Many other locations, specially in poor and isolated areas of the North and in the West of the country shows high rates of indigenous suicide. In the indigenous land of Dourados, in the Mato Grosso do Sul state, in the west of Brazil, 14,000 guarani-kaiowá indians live squeezed in 375km2 – a population density of 3,4 people per square meter. The place hold a suicide rate bigger than any country in the world: between 90 and 75 deaths per 100,000.

With the numbers in hand, I wrote an extensive story on the subject. The story is published in Portuguese in the magazine Ciência Hoje and on its website.

Embargoed science (my first paper)

Many people does not know, but much of the news about research papers published in the major journals are not new at all for the journalists. Journalists receive the scientific papers of journals like Science and Nature at least one week ahead of publication. With them, we also receive a pack of press releases about the articles and the contacts of the authors. It happens because of a silence agreement between journalists and science journals called embargo system, in which the media professionals receive this exclusive material and promise to only make public the information in a specified date and hour to coincide with a journal’s publication date. Reporters are known for their hunger for scoops, but, in this case, they (we) sit on the information until the designated release time.

No one can deny (and no one does) that this system is designed to manage the flow of new scientific results to the public. But not only this. The journals says that they have this kind of system to improve the media coverage about science. They give reporters time to read and understand the papers, interview authors and prepare an accurate story. Of course it is good for the journals, that receive attention and have stories published about their articles. It is a free advertisement. It is also comfortable for reporters, who always have an infinite supply of stories to fill their schedule. However, is it this good?

One can think of many reasons to question this system. First, it creates an artificial urgency to publish news and makes the public believe that all is very fresh when it is not. We can see at least an ethical issue here. The embargo can also lead reporters to become a bit lazy, depending on embargoes and press releases and not pursuing scoops or more interesting and deeper stories. Second, when the media relay on the embargo system, the stories reflect a manipulated image of science, an image selected by the journals, which highlight only what they consider important.

For these reasons and many others, reporters should have a critical view of the embargo system and think in ways of using it (if they decide to use it) without became ‘addicted’ or being manipulated.

I must say that this theme holds my attention. Back in the university, I started to analyze the use of the embargo system by Brazilian journalists in major national newspapers and websites. In 2012, during my specialization course in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) I have analyzed the influence of embargo system on the journalistic coverage of two major Brazilian daily newspapers, O Globo and Folha de S. Paulo. I have looked to the stories published that were based on papers from Science and Nature and compared them with the original papers and press releases provided by these journals. My results are being published today (without embargo) in the online and open access Brazilian journal e-Compós.

In contrast to the embargo stated goal, my results suggest that this system does not necessarily provide a good coverage of science, but, instead, leads to a journalist coverage highly influenced by the scientific journals, presenting a consensual view, without controversies and with low plurality of voices.

In many of the news I have analyzed one can see entire sentences and paragraphs copied from the press releases provided by the journals. The majority of the news, 61%, only shows quotes from the paper’s author, without any critical view of the research or from other interviewees. Moreover, in almost half of this news the quotes were not taken from an interview, but from a press release. Only approximately 20% of the news analyzed presented a quote from someone who was not involved in the research that was being announced.

Who is interested can read the article in Portuguese here.

09/21 – United for the climate

The day thousands of people took New York City’s streets asking for more attention to climate changes

Environmental activists, teachers, religious people, union people and curious people took the streets of Manhattan, New York, this Sunday (September 21st) in what is already being called the biggest climate protest ever. About 300,000 people attended the People’s Climate March, a couple days before the UN Climate Summit, which will gather world leaderships to take action and make pledges to stop global warming.

“There is no planet B”, “Forests aren’t for sale”, “Listen to indigenous peoples” and “Climate change is real, teach science” were some of the messages on the signs that marchers held while they shout: “Who are we? We are the people! What do we want? Climate Justice now!”

The disbelief on the UN meeting was disseminated among the demonstration. Many protesters said they were there to put pressure on world leaders to take concrete action on climate change. “I have little hope that something is really going to be done about the environmental issues, especially by the USA, and that is why we are here today, to show our dissatisfaction concerning the climate change and the capitalism”, said the Brazilian college teacher José Celso de Castro Alves.

Others were more optimistic and had more hope. “I am here because every social change begins when people get together in the streets”, said the biology teacher Elisa Lauterbur. “Together we can be heard and we can make the difference not only to people, but also to the planet.”

The teacher was one of the hundreds that were holding a sign asking for climate change to be teach in schools. “Here in USA the schools don’t discuss this subject. There is no understanding that climate change is a real problem, even in the universities.”

If there was one sentence to express all the hopes and expectations that led all that people to be there in a cloudy Sunday morning it would be “the union is the power”. Indeed, the popular saying was sung by the crowd, specifically by hundreds of union workers such as traffic man, teachers and health professionals who were claiming for “green jobs” – work that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity and minimize or avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution.

Besides the requests for more governmental action on climate, the march was full of diverse social groups claiming for specific causes. Judging by the amount of signs, one of the most highlighted issues was the fracking, a technique that uses clean water to extract gas from deep-rock formations. The process is forbidden in Europe because of its high risk of contamination and environmental impact, but it has been largely used in the USA and it is under consideration in Brazil. The technique has caused methane leaks into groundwater aquifers.

Forest protectors
Indigenous peoples from Peru, Mexico and Bolivia were also present in the demonstration. Wearing colorful traditional costumes and feather headdresses, they sang and played the bongo asking to be listened and recognized as forest protectors.

A small group of Brazilians who live in New York City joined the march and asked for attention to the victims of hydroelectric dams in Brazil. “We want climate justice, we want the rights of the dams’ victims to be respected and that the Brazilian government approves the ‘National Policy and Rights for the Populations Affected by Hydroelectric’, which is waiting the Congress approval for years”, claimed Saulo Araújo.

The mix of different social groups were so clear that one might call it a Noah’s Arch. In fact, the biblical arch was there. A replica of the boat made out of card box was carrying muslin woman covering their hairs, priests and Mormons announcing that the end was near for the human race and that it could be avoided if people start warring about global warming. Pagans, Hindus and Buddhists was also there.

One minute of silence
The incredible profusion of music, prays, indigenous songs and drums filled the air during the progression of the march for 44 blocks, from the 86th street west to the 42nd street west, in the world famous Times Square. Arriving in the temple of consumption, illuminated by its enormous LED outdoors, the protesters became silent.

With arms raised, they took one minute of silence to honor the people affected by climate change. In a city recently affected by the Sandy Hurricane, the moment of drama drew tears from some people.  “New York has seen closely what global warming can do and we don’t want to see it again”, said Danielle Horton, who had her house destroyed by the storm. “We don’t want no one to go through what we have been through and that is why I am here today.”

 * This post was originally posted in Portuguese here

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The hard reality of giving birth in Brazil

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Cesareans and unnecessary medical procedures are the daily reality of labor in Brazil. Here, 52% of all babies are born by cesarean, a rate three times bigger than the accepted as normal by the World Health Organization (WHO). When it comes only to the private health system the number is even higher: 88% of births are from cesareans. Brazil has a free and public health care system, but a quarter of the population (which has a wealthier condition) use a private insurance.

According to the WHO, cesarean must be the exception and not the rule. This procedure can indeed save lives, but must only be used when there are health risks for the baby or for the mother. Babies born from cesarean don’t have the chance to get the good microbes provided by the contact with their mother’s vagina during the labor. This exposure is vital for the maturation of the immune system. The lack of this contact is associated with increased risk of developing a series of diseases, such as diabetes and asthma.

Besides all the risks normaly involved in a surgery, the cesarean also leaves profound marks in the mother which can be harmful for future pregnancies. The uterine scar left by the C-section can affect the egg fixation and also increases the risk of uterine rupture and some placenta problems during another pregnancy.

According to the doctor Maria do Carmo Leal, who coordenated the bigger research ever done on pregnancies in Brazil, by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, what is happening is an ‘epidemic’ of unnecessary cesareans. “There is no clinical justification for a so high number of cesareans”, she says. “We are talking about health pregnancies. Women are being exposed to risks and the health system is having unnecessary costs to support a medical culture that prioritizes C-sections.”

In the private health system, the high number of cesareans can be explained by monetary reasons. For a normal delivery a physician may receive about R$440 (195 dollars) while for a cesarean the price can reach R$800 (355 dollars).

Another reason pointed out by doctor Silvana Granado, wich applies both to the private health system and the public one, is simply a matter of convenience for the doctor. “Physicians tend to choose cesareans because with this procedure they can finish more deliveries in less time”, she says. “Instead of losing 12 to 30 hours doing a normal delivery, they can schedule more than one cesarean delivery at the same time. I have visited public hospitals in small cities where there is the ‘C-section day’, when the doctor perform cesareans in all pregnant women.”

Despite being prevalent, cesareans aren’t the first choice between pregnant women in Brazil. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation research, which interviewed 23 thousand pregnant women before and after delivery, shows that only 28% of them wanted a C-section – most of them fearing the labor pain.

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The same research shows that the number of woman planning a cesarean increases significantly during the pregnancy progress. During the prenatal care, 36% of them change to cesarean. When arriving to the hospital, 67% reported wanting a cesarean. This change of mind may be influenced by doctor pressure.

“Lots of woman change their mind due to an inadequate prenatal care”, says Leal. “Unfortunately, many physicians don’t inform the woman about the real risks of a cesarean.”

Not normal

The reality is that it is becoming more and more difficult for women who desires a normal labor to deliver. Often the hospital has so many cesarean scheduled that there aren’t room for a woman who is waiting for a normal delivery and didn’t scheduled her delivery.

C., a 30 year old mother of a 3 year old child, pregnant for the second time, tells she always planned a normal birth, but she was persuaded by the doctor at the last minute. “I didn’t know at that time of the risks of a cesarean, so when the doctor told it would be better to do a cesarean I believed him”, she says. “I fell like I am not in control of my choices and I don’t want this to happen again.”

An extreme example of the tension between personal choice and medical decision happened two months ago in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul when Adelir de Góes was forced by the police to deliver by cesarean.

The doctors who performed the surgery said she and her baby were in danger and needed the procedure. On the other hand, she argued that she asked for proof of the risk and none wanted to show her the exams.

Regardless who is right or not in this particular case, having a baby by normal delivery in Brazil is not only hard to achieve but often unpleasant. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation study shows that in 66% of the normal deliveries in Brazil the hospital doesn’t offer anesthesia. Non pharmacological ways to relief the pain, as hot baths and massages, are even rarer, offered only in 26% of the country’s labors.

“When a woman is going to deliver, the first thing many hospitals do is tie her to the bed and put an needle in her arm”, says Granado. “She can’t eat and even drink water, despite the fact that there is no scientific reason for this.”

The use of the oxytocine hormone to speed up the delivery is also a frequent practice, present in 36% of the labors. The problem with this procedure is that it induces the delivery even when the body is not ready, causing pain and stress for the mother.

Even more serious is the artificial rupture of membranes (amniotomy) which is performed in 40% of the normal labors without risks. This intervention can increase the risk of infection, or umbilical cord prolapse and might turn the baby to breech position, making the birth more difficult.

To change this situation, Leal and Granado says that women must seek information and fight for their own welfair.  “The doctors need a better formation, but the mothers also need to inform themselves”, says Granado.

Bidding to rebuild the Brazilian Antarctic Station failed

The image shows the project of the new Brazilian Antartic Station facilities.
The image shows the project of the new Brazilian Antarctic research station facilities.

Two years ago a fire destroyed the Brazilian Antarctic research station know as Comandante Ferraz base on King George Island. Plans were made to reconstruct the base until the Antarctic summer of 2015. A new architectural project was developed by Brazilians and it was chosen by the Navy in a contest. Last year the Navy opened a construction bidding to select a company to rebuild the base. Yesterday was the last day to bid, but no one showed up. 

Companies from all over the world could take part if together with a Brazillian enterprise. People from the construction field speculate that the lack of interest in the bidding was because Brazilian enterprises doesn’t know how to build in such a hostile climate. Antarctica has the lowest temperatures on the planet, winds of up to 300 km per hour and 90% of its surface is covered by an ice cap 2,500 metres thick. Besides, the costs and the infrastructure needed to transport materials and people to the island would be too high.

The Navy didn’t announced what they will do from now on. Probably, they will be free to decide what company will build the station without a new bidding. But the selection process could take a wide and the delivery of the base could be delayed.

For now, Brazilian researches are staying in temporary modules.
For now, Brazilian researchers are staying in temporary modules.

The project of the new station is estimated to cost around 146 million reais (60 millions dollars). The main building is expected to cover 4,500 sq. metres and other facilities, as wind turbines to produce electrical power and a heliport should cover 500 sq metres more. The new base will have 18 laboratories, seven isolated research units and a living space to lodge 64 people.

Meanwhile, Brazilian Antarctic researchers are sheltered in emergency modules made out of ship containers. There are six dormitories, one kitchen, a dinning hall and one laboratory. In addition, the Brazilian Navy has recent acquired a new research ship called Almirante Maximiano. Now the Antarctic researchers have two scientific ships where 20 studies are being conducted.

Hidden in plain sight

Brazilian researchers describe a new dolphin from the Araguaia River, in the Amazon forest. The animal is the fifth species of a river dolphin discovered in all the world and is already endangered.

A group of pinkish skin river dolphins, two meters long and 440 pounds each is difficult not to be seeing. Even if this animal lives in a region of Brazil where people claim that just looking at them in the eye may cause a lifetime of bad luck. So, how could a distinguished animal like this passed unnoticed until now?

The truth is that everyone knew they existed, but people believed the river dolphin of the Araguaia River were from the same species as the one that lives at the Amazon river, the so called ‘pink boto’, boto-cor-de-rosa in Portuguese (Inia geoffrensis).

The misunderstanding was only resolved when Brazilian researchers from the Federal University of Amazonas and the National Institute of Amazonian Research decided to study the group of dolphins from the Araguaia River and compared them to the dolphins from the Amazon river.

By analyzing DNA samples from more than 120 dolphins of both rivers, the team concluded the Araguaia river creature was indeed a whole new species, despite their physical resemblance.

“The result was, in a way, surprising”, says Tomas Hrbek the lead author of the study published this week in the journal Plos One. “The new species was not discovered in a desert place. They live in an inhabited location, people see them all the time; the thing is nobody really looked.”

There were two known species of river dolphin in Brazil until now: the pink dolphin (I. geoffrensis) and the Bolivian dolphin (I.boliviensis). They are very similar except for little differences in body size and in the shape of their heads. When it comes to the new dolphin, the researches says he is just like the pink dolphin.

“The pink dolphin has only some teeth differences when compared to the araguaian dolphin”, says Hrbek.  “It is impossible to differentiate them just by looking. No one goes around opening dolphin’s mouths in the river to check it.”

Distant related
Hrbek believes that the araguain dolphin species was separated from the pink dolphin species more than two million years ago when the Amazon river and the Araguaian river — that used to be part of only one basin — became disconnected.

Scientists believe that the araguain dolphin diverged from the pink dolphin (above) 2 million years ago.
Scientists believe that the araguain dolphin diverged from the pink dolphin (above) two million years ago.

“Today the Araguaia river basin is almost completely disconnected from the Amazon river basin and the contact points between the two basins are full of rapids that isolate the dolphins”, explain the researcher. “After centuries of isolation, it is probable that the two groups of dolphins had evolved independently.”

The araguaian dolphin is the first river dolphin discovered in the last century. And it is already in danger.

Scientist estimate that there are about 1,200 of these animals living in the Araguaia river. All of them suffering the impact of human development. “Since the 60’s the river dolphins of this area are endangered because of the industries, the agriculture, the illegal fishing and the construction of dams”, says Hrbek. The scientist believes that as a result of these threats, the new species should be categorized as ‘vulnerable’ on the Red List.

“This study shows us the importance of preservation”, says Hrbek. “We think that we know our biodiversity, but maybe there are lot of other species out there to be known.”