The murder that never was

Charlene Makaza went into hospital with an acute Aids-related condition in the first week of 2007. By the time the 10-year-old Zimbabwean girl died 18 hours later, doctors had decided she’d been murdered (Sunday Star Times, 25 May).

It took until 21 May 2008 for her uncle, George Gwaze, to be acquitted of the non-existent crime.

Charlene, who was cared for by her uncle and his wife after her parents had died of Aids, was frequently unwell. On the morning of 7 January she was found in her bed, having difficulty breathing, deeply unconscious and awash in white, chalky diarrhoea. Her aunt, Sifiso Gwaze, changed her into clean clothes and rushed her to an emergency clinic, but those clothes became soaked as well. By the time Charlene got to the clinic, she had a temperature topping 40 º C, a pulse over 180, and no recordable blood pressure. This resulted in her brain being starved of oxygen, a condition later attributed to suffocation. Things started to go wrong for George Gwaze when Charlene’s care was handed over to a new shift. Those on duty later lost sight of her first symptoms. When a rectal probe was inserted to take a more accurate temperature, medical staff discovered damage to Charlene’s rectal tissue related to her condition, but which were interpreted as signs of forced penetration.

GP and forensic physician (and Skeptic) Felicity Goodyear-Smith, the medical adviser for the defence, said that once the possibility of sexual abuse had been raised, other possible explanations were never considered.

“Once you get a particular line of thought, like this is sexual abuse, it colours thinking,” she said. “And these were very senior people saying it was abuse. If it is sexual abuse that doesn’t matter, but suddenly the possibility that it might not be isn’t on the table any more…”

Police recovered Charlene’s underwear, on which they detected traces of Gwaze’s sperm. Though this seemed damning, it became clear in the trial that modern DNA tests are so sensitive that enough sperm can be transmitted between items of clothing in the laundry to produce a positive test.

Had Gwaze been convicted, said defence counsel DNA adviser Arie Geursen, it would have been “a terrible travesty of justice. It would have been science and medicine gone astray”.

‘Arkeologist’ calls for kiwi help

On Auckland’s North Shore, two Mairangi Bay men who last year were involved in the hunt for Lord Lucan have now set their sights on Noah’s Ark (North Shore Times, 3 April).

Rod McCourt and Dave Ashworth run a business called Global Intelligence Solutions, which analyses satellite and aerial images and CCTV footage for law enforcement agencies and the military. In January they were approached by American professor and Ark-hunter Porcher Taylor, who has been excited by satellite images of a 300 x 52-metre ice shelf about 4000 metres up Mt Ararat, in eastern Turkey. The dimensions of the shelf fit those of the biblical ship, Porcher says. Interest in the feature, known to ‘arkeologists’ as the Ararat Anomaly (has a nice scientific ring to it, that) dates from 1949, when a US Air Force plane on patrol near the border of the former Soviet Union “inadvertently recorded” the images of the mountain top.

Dave Ashwood says aerial images taken in the 1950s were inconclusive but hopes modern technology will shed light on the so-called anomaly. They will receive new satellite images for analysis later this year. “Generally in nature things aren’t so symmetrical, so it’s unusual,” he says. “In 50 years of study no one has turned around and said it’s definitely not the ark.”

Last August the two used facial mapping to disprove allegations that 62-year-old Marton resident Roger Woodgate was long-lost murder suspect Lord Lucan.

At least Lord Lucan did once exist…

Workers safe from dioxin

A study of more than 1700 workers at the former Dow herbicide factory in New Plymouth has concluded their life expectancy was the same as that of the general population (NZ Herald, 17 April). The Otago University study, headed by David McBride, included blood tests on 346 people, which found that workers potentially exposed to the dioxin TCDD had higher levels of it in their blood-averaging 10 parts per trillion (ppt), but up to 100 ppt. The NZ-wide average in a 1997 study was 4ppt.

The study also found that while exposed workers’ death rates from cancer and heart disease appeared higher, the rise was not statistically significant. Death rates from lung cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes were lower than expected.

Dr McBride said the findings were good news for Dow workers and the people of New Plymouth. One of the study group’s scientific advisers, Professor Emeritus Sir John Scott, of Auckland University, said the large size and high local participation rate helped make the study a “definitive assessment” of dioxin exposure in the city.

The US Centres for Disease Control say an increased incidence of cancer in workers exposed to dioxin might be linked with blood levels of between 495 and 31,800 ppt.

Some former workers and local residents remain unconvinced, however. Neil Herdson, a former Dow factory worker, argued the study was unreliable because it only reported on death rates, and not full medical histories. Another local campaigner, Andrew Gibbs, observed that blood dioxin levels declined over time, and some workers may have initially had levels higher than the 495ppt minimum risk level set down by the USCDC.

Water’s health benefits all wet

Many widely-held beliefs about the health benefits of water are not backed by scientific evidence, say two Pennsylvania University researchers (Globe and Mail, April 4).

Although some claim drinking lots of water can help clear toxins from the body, reduce the frequency of migraines, ward off weight gain and even keep skin looking youthful, Stanley Goldfarb and Dan Negoianu were unable to substantiate the claims after scouring the medical literature.

“There is really no basis to even invoke the possibility that extra water consumption aids toxin removal or improves skin tone,” Dr Goldfarb said.

One study found that drinking water before eating can make you feel full during the meal, but not after it. But it didn’t establish whether drinking large amounts over the course of the day would decrease the number of ingested calories. As for the old story about drinking eight glasses of water a day, the pair couldn’t even be sure of the original source of this unfounded advice, which has already been debunked in earlier studies, they said.

Violent video game myths debunked

Video games are not as bad as they’re painted, according to a recently released book, reviewed in The Press (17 June).

Grand Theft Childhood: The surprising truth about violent video games, is the work of Lawrence Kumer and Cheryl Olson, co-founders and directors of the Centre for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. They report that video games are a normal part of teenage life, and teenage boys who play violent video games tend not to be socially isolated.

Kumer and Olson say what they found “surprised, encouraged and sometimes disturbed them”, but the book debunks a lot of popular misconceptions surrounding video games. They say they came across a lot of “muddle-headed thinking, misuse of scientific data and political posturing on the part of people from all points of view”.

For boys at least, it seems playing video games is a marker for social acceptance by their peers. Girls also enjoyed M-rated games.

The pair say that for most kids and parents, the bottom line can be summed up in a single word: relax.”

While concerns about the effects of violent video games are understandable, they’re basically no different from the unfounded concerns previous generations had about the new media of their day. Remember, we’re a remarkably resilient species.”

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