Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Unbelievable: Carelessness about meningococcal disease

What harm would precautionary antibiotics have done? A private doctor who failed to prescribe them in a risk situation would be sued for millions

The first rule to help doctors and nurses identify meningococcal disease is "listen closely to patients and friends", says an educational DVD that calls it the most rapidly lethal infectious disease known to man. But when George Khouzame raised concerns he might have passed on the illness to his girlfriend, Jehan Nassif, he was told he had probably only had the flu, the inquest into her death heard yesterday. Three days later Ms Nassif, 18, was dead.

Mr Khouzame and his cousin Elias had been overseas and both felt ill just before they returned to Australia. George's symptoms eased but Elias Khouzame became weak and had a headache, painful limbs and a fever. During a stopover he noticed red spots on his skin and suspected meningococcal disease. Back in Sydney, Elias went straight to hospital, while George attended a welcome-home party, where he kissed and cuddled Ms Nassif.

The next day a public health officer, Carla Ghezzi, spoke to George and his friends about their contact with Elias, who had been diagnosed with meningococcal disease, the inquest was told. George and his friends claim he told Ms Ghezzi he had had similar symptoms a day before his cousin and wondered whether he had passed the disease on to him. Ms Ghezzi allegedly told him: "If you had meningococcal you wouldn't be here now. You probably just had the flu." The inquest at Westmead Coroner's Court was told Ms Ghezzi also dismissed his concerns about Ms Nassif, though Ms Ghezzi had said she did not remember this part of the conversation.

Ms Nassif later briefly visited Elias in hospital, probably without wearing the prescribed face mask. National guidelines say anyone in close contact with a patient with meningococcal for at least four hours in the previous week should get antibiotics to prevent the spread of the disease, the court was told.


Friends of Israel dubious about Australian academe

There are fears our universities will produce a generation biased against the Jewish state, writes associate editor Cameron Stewart

The aftershocks of Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon beginning last July are being felt in Australian universities with ugly consequences. Jewish Labor MP Michael Danby and pro-Israeli groups say students of Middle Eastern studies are being fed an increasingly biased and distorted anti-Israeli view of the region by "Arabist" academics.

Their blunt claims, aired in parliament and in the Jewish press, have prompted one of these alleged Arabists, Andrew Vincent of Sydney's Macquarie University, to hit back at his accusers. "(They) are trying to frogmarch not just the whole Jewish community but the whole community in general into supporting a government which not all Israelis support, let's face it," said Vincent, who heads the university's Centre for Middle East Studies, on SBS's Dateline program last month.

This dispute over academic balance in relation to Israel has been simmering for years on Australian campuses but it is the war in Lebanon that has brought it to a flashpoint. It is a clash that raises raw and sensitive questions about the freedoms and the responsibilities of academe as well as the power of the pro-Israel lobby. "Because of public commentaries about Israel's war in Lebanon in July, a lot of Israel's supporters thought that Israel was being unfairly attacked," Vincent tells Inquirer. "So they circled the wagons and attacked the attackers."

Danby entered the fray in August after hearing a radio interview in which Vincent called on Prime Minister John Howard to de-list Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. It was a provocative comment to make in the heat of the Lebanon war and one that was sharply at odds with both sides of Australian politics at the time. So Danby stood up in federal parliament and let rip: "I grieve for the state of Middle Eastern studies in Australia, and the effect that some poor judgments and poor teaching have had on policy decisions as it affects decision-making in Australia." He was joined by conservative analyst Ted Lapkin of the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council, who wrote a scathing piece in Quadrant magazine saying that Australian academe was a "rogue's gallery of anti-Zionists".

This ideological row might be dismissed as an academic storm in a teacup, except Danby and Lapkin believe it could have very real implications for Australian policy in the years ahead. Danby says Australian universities are guilty of producing "endless one-sided propaganda" that "produces graduates who move into the Department of Foreign Affairs and other organs of government with a one-sided view of the conflict in the Middle East". Lapkin is more blunt, warning: "The best and brightest of Australia's youth are exposed to virulent anti-Zionism throughout their university years. It remains to be seen what effect this indoctrination will have on the next generation of Australian leaders."

But what precisely is the basis for these claims that universities are running courses that are pro-Arab and anti-Israeli? Danby's and Lapkin's criticisms are focused largely on the two best known Middle East study courses in the country: Vincent's Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Macquarie and the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, directed by Amin Saikal.

Lapkin accuses Saikal of pursuing an "anti-Zionist agenda" that decrees that "Israel can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong". Among other things, Saikal is said to be highly critical of Israel's conduct in Lebanon while praising aspects of Iranian democracy in an Islamic context. Saikal does not dispute this, but says his criticisms of Israel in Lebanon are not unreasonable and they do not mean he is anti-Israeli. "Most of the things we have said in terms of criticising Israel have been voiced by Israelis themselves inside Israel," he says. "But the (pro-Israel) lobby group here cannot tolerate any form of criticism whatsoever. They don't want an objective assessment of Israel in this country and if you make one then they attack you and call you anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist. "I think at times, particularly in the wake of the Lebanese crisis, they have said some things which could be interpreted as crossing the line."

Saikal and Vincent say hostile emails have been sent to their respective university vice-chancellors calling for them to be sacked. However, ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb defends Saikal, saying he has been "attacked personally ... because (his) views are unsavoury to others who have closed their mind. This is a fragile period in world relations, the very time when understanding and reason are needed to prevail over prejudice and ideology."

Danby strongly disputes suggestions that he or other pro-Israel advocates are trying to stifle free speech or otherwise censor debate on Israel and the Middle East. "I encourage debate," he says. "It is through criticism of these courses that the public will arrive at a judgment themselves about their worth. My concern is that you are not getting a full range of opinions on campus, you are not getting a wide range of views." Danby says undergraduate students are frustrated by what they see as a pro-Arab bias in these courses. "Undergraduates feel very disadvantaged, their lectures are often very anti-Israel and very anti-American," he says.

Vincent questions this, saying he has not received any complaints from his students about bias despite having many Jewish students in his course. Australia's Jewish community is politically conservative - often more so than in Israel - and it has long been frustrated with the inherently left-wing bias perceived in Australian universities. It hopes that this public challenge to the nation's universities will ultimately lead to less strident criticism of Israel in academe.

But the pro-Israel lobby also risks overplaying its hand and being perceived as using bullying to impose its own agenda. Their complaints inevitably will be interpreted by some as an attempt to muzzle academic debate rather than simply encourage greater diversity of ideas on campus. Regardless of one's views on the war in Lebanon, which ended in August, the reality is that the conflict has done great harm to Israel's international image. This will naturally be reflected in academic studies, just as it has in the media and in mainstream public opinion. The question is to determine when such views go beyond reasoned argument and into the realm of anti-Israeli bias. The answer, like so many Middle Eastern issues, lies squarely in the eyes of the beholder.

Danby accuses Vincent of selectively inviting guest lecturers who are pro-Arab and anti-Israel. "Speakers at Macquarie University this year have included the Syrian ambassador, (left-wing journalist and author) Robert Fisk, former Australian ambassador Peter Rogers and a United Arab Emirates minister, Sheikha Lubna al-Qassimi," Danby says. "All of these people seem to be putting only one side of the debate."

Vincent argues that his speakers have included "a variety of Israelis who are very much in tune with current Israeli thinking". He says that earlier this year he invited Israeli's ambassador in Canberra to speak but the offer was never taken up. But Vincent has been under growing pressure since NSW schools last year dropped a simulation exercise devised by his centre after parents complained it was creating racial tension and painted terrorists in a sympathetic light. Parents alleged the exercise, in which students played Arabs and Israelis, gave positive descriptions of groups such as Hamas's Qassam Brigades and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad without telling students that the groups were listed terrorist organisations.

Tertiary students who take Vincent's course Introduction to Middle East Politics are also asked questions that some may consider loaded against Israeli and US policy in the Middle East. These include: "Israel is sometimes accused of intransigence, why is this?"; "Should local opposition to (a democratic Iraq) be dismissed as terrorism?"; and "What is the neo-conservative agenda, and is it still in place in President Bush's second term?" Yet the same questionnaire also asks: "Do the governments of the Arab world lack legitimacy? Why?" Vincent fears that this debate, if unchecked, could take Australia down the path of the US, where an aggressive website called Campus Watch asks students to expose academics who they believe are anti-Israel. The website, run by influential Israel supporter Daniel Pipes, admits that it pays special attention to those academics who are up for tenure or promotion. "Campus Watch is frightening," Vincent says. "I am sure some people in Australia would like to have Campus Watch here."

But Danby distances himself from Campus Watch, saying there is no parallel with that organisation and the present debate in Australia. "We need to have a balanced view on the issue of the Middle East. As pressure has been on the ABC (not to show bias), so should it be on these faculties of Middle Eastern studies."


The West is master of slave trade guilt

Europe is becoming an example of how a sense of historical responsibility can mislead present generations, writes Rebecca Weisser. In fact it is Leftist attention-seekers rather than the West as a whole that is ignoring reality

Andrew Hawkins has turned hand-wringing into performance art. In June the youth theatre director took a guilt trip to Gambia, where he donned a yoke and chain, knelt in front of 16,000 Africans in a football stadium and apologised for what he calls the African holocaust. Hawkins claims to be descended from Britain's first slave trader, John Hawkins. "God would consider what Sir John Hawkins did to be an abomination," Hawkins said. "It's never too late to apologise."

The "sorry" movement, which reached its zenith in Australia at the 2000 march for Aboriginal reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge, has gone global. In much of western Europe, the US and Canada, inherited culpability for slavery, colonialism, the treatment of indigenous people and the Palestinian question has merged with modern guilt over Third World poverty in an orgy of muddled self-castigation.

As Britain gears up to commemorate the 200th anniversary next year of the abolition of the slave trade in the former British Empire, it has been difficult to make the point that the anniversary should be seen as the celebration of a great and hard-fought victory. As Patrick West wrote in his book Conspicuous Compassion: "While slavery was not a distinctly Western phenomenon, the campaign to abolish it was. And the West was the first to do so." It is the guilt and shame of the slave trade rather than the triumph of Enlightenment values that has dominated the public domain. Earlier this year, Liverpool councillors debated whether to rename several streets in the city, including Penny Lane of Beatles fame, which had been named after notorious slave traders.

This week, Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to New Nation newspaper in Britain to express his "deep sorrow" that the slave trade happened. "It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time," he wrote. "Personally, I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was ... but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened, and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today."

His statement hasn't gone far enough from activists who want "an apology of substance"; in other words, money. "Blair's article is taking a backward step from Britain's official position in 1807 when it abolished the trade and expressed regret for what had happened," says Mawuli Klu of Rendezvous of Victory, a British African-led, and community based lobby group. "This has heightened feelings among people in the African community. We want an apology of substance that addresses the demands for African reparations."

There is a broader dimension to the call for reparations. Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International calls for states that benefited economically from the slave trade to write off the debts of poor countries harmed by slavery. The push to "drop the debt" for Africa, championed by celebrities such as U2's Bono, is driven by the underlying idea that Africa is poor because it has been exploited through colonialism, of which slavery is the most horrific and graphic example. Britain, along with other Group of Eight countries, has responded by agreeing to double aid to Africa by 2010 and write off debts to the poorest countries.

Yet African countries that participated in the slave trade were enriched by it just as European countries were. In his history of the Atlantic slave trade, author Hugh Thomas notes that the trade was possible only because of the participation of many Africans, such as the rulers of Benin and the kings of Ashanti, Congo and Dahomey, as well as European merchants and politicians. Indisputably, African slave traders were enriched not just with the money they earned selling slaves but by the land they expropriated from those enslaved. Thomas quotes King Gezo of Dahomey, who said in 1840: "The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people" and "it has been the source of their glory and wealth".

Britain is not alone in struggling with a guilty conscience. The French have been debating whether Napoleon committed genocide on a par with Hitler, trying to wipe out the adult black population of the former French colony of San Domingo (now Haiti) after a bloody uprising at the start of the 19th century. French historian Claude Ribbe, in a book called The Crime of Napoleon, challenges the accepted view of Napoleon as a military genius and founder of the modern French state and presents him as an anti-Semitic racist who reintroduced slavery after its abolition in 1794, ordered the extermination of the Haitian population and founded an empire that could prosper only through slavery.

Even more contentious is whether French history teachers should be obliged by law to teach the positive benefits of colonialism. A law passed in the French parliament stipulates that French history textbooks should "recognise the positive role of the French presence in its overseas colonies, especially in North Africa". The law sought to acknowledge Algerian Muslims who fought on the French side in the Algerian war but provoked so much ire in France and Algeria that talks on a friendship treaty between France and Algeria broke down. French President Jacques Chirac inaugurated a Slavery Remembrance Day on May 10 this year, the fifth anniversary of the passing of a law by the French Senate recognising slavery as a crime against humanity.

The French and British history wars underline the common themes in a debate that is not limited to former colonial powers. Former colonies such as Australia and the US have been caught up in the same debate that has become part of the great Western guilt complex. And along with the guilt come the apologies. Blair has apologised for the Potato Famine, Bill Clinton apologised to the Sioux people, pope John Paul II apologised for everything from the persecution of Galileo and the execution of Jan Hus to Catholic involvement in the slave trade.

Yet the guilt complex seems to be a Western phenomenon. It is often said that Jews invented guilt and Catholics perfected it, but although Muslims are, like Christians and Jews, "children of the book", there have been few apologies emanating from the Islamic world or, for that matter, other cultures. Arabs, Persians, Berbers, Indians, Chinese and Africans were all involved in the African slave trade from the 8th century through to the present, with few proclamations of public guilt or effective action to eliminate slavery that exists largely in Africa and Asia.

Even using the narrowest definitions that exclude bonded and forced labour and servile concubinage, there are estimated to be 2.7 million slaves in the world today. Including bonded labourers, there are estimated to be 27 million slaves, and including all categories of trafficked women and children there are estimated to be 100 million slaves. The Anti-Slavery Society estimates there are 8000 female slaves in West Africa who are hierodules; that is, religious sex slaves. In West Africa children are kidnapped or bought for $20 to $70 in Benin and Togo, then sold into slavery for sex or domestic labour in oil-rich countries such as Nigeria and Gabon for $350. Hierodules also exist in India despite efforts to suppress the practice. Young women who are trafficked to the Middle East and North Africa from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal are sold for $3000 to $10,000. Imprisoned in a room by their owner for the sadistic use of himself and his friends, these women survive on average for about two years.

In response to such shocking statistics, the contrast between practical assistance and self-aggrandising symbolism is striking. While Hawkins is fundraising for another guilt trip, walking in yokes and chains, the Anti-Slavery Society, one of whose earliest members was William Wilberforce, is raising funds to purchase the emancipation of modern slaves and stamp out modern-day slavery. Wilberforce, a profoundly religious and deeply conservative man who fought all his life not just for the abolition of slavery but against child labour, cruelty to animals and discrimination against Catholics, was on his death bed when the bill he fought for, for so many years, was finally passed abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire. He said, "Thank God that I have lived to witness the day in which England is willing to give pound stg. 20 million for the abolishment of slavery." It was one of the great benefits of colonialism, an achievement of which Britain and the West should be proud, and an inspiration to present generations to continue to fight to eliminate slavery and spread the spirit of the Enlightenment throughout the world.


Men fight stereotypes

MENINISM is the catchcry of a movement of males who will storm the streets and burn their ties, rallying against the "all men are bastards" image that has an entire sex pigeonholed as violent, heartless and untrustworthy. This is according to a new study saying there is a competing interest to the feminist struggle for equality; men and boys are now the target of negative stereotypes. The research shows almost 70 per cent of social commentary on the male gender is unfavourable - portraying men as violent, sexually abusive, unable to be trusted with children, "deadbeat dads" and commitment-phobic. In the largest Australian study of its kind, Dr Jim Macnamara analysed more than 2000 media articles and programs and found men were mostly positioned as villains, aggressors, perverts or philanderers.

Yes, well, any women's magazine will tell you that. Male-bashing is a vital part of female bonding; it brings us together, gives us a common point of reference as well as something to complain about. And the much maligned male so thoughtfully gives us so much material to choose from.

Affectionate bitching is one thing - the male bashing is now taking a more serious turn where boys are growing up in a world where they are faced with a distinct lack of role models. According to Dr Macnamara, even the positive images of men in the media are delivered as a backhanded compliment with there being only one version of the "good men"; the sensitive metrosexual who is in touch with his feminine side. Not much to choose from really; the unemotional, aggressive commitment freak or the moisturised, dithering doormat.

The media's limiting rendering of men is alarming says the University of Western Sydney academic because social policy works hand in hand with social stereotyping. "Legislation is developed by government and largely driven by what is being said in society - it is already beginning to affect social policy if you look at child access and child custody issues. "There is overwhelming discourse that men cannot be trusted with children - there is a lot of concern about men being alone in the company of a child."

Despite the tide of opinion positioning men as the perpetrators of crime, Dr Macnamara says when it comes to violence against children - women are often responsible. "What we are doing is creating a society that believes 90 to 95 per cent of violence is committed by men and it's not true," he says. "Research shows violence against children is more often committed by women - I'm not trying to push the blame back to women. I'm saying that as a society we need to look at the image that we are creating for young boys."

University of Sydney media department Associate Professor Catherine Lumby was practically waving a Meninism placard along with Dr Macnamara until she heard that comment. "I'm sorry, if you want better statistics on this go to some experts," she says - a touch aggressively. "The statistics are overwhelming; the majority of sexual violence and domestic assaults is committed by men. That is sad, I don't blame men, I don't think they are some terrible, natural force who are evil. "Yes, some women are violent but for most women the problem is they are victims of violence."

A mother of two young sons, Dr Lumby says the media minefield is littered with unrealistic stereotypes for both males and females - and that rather than counter them by censorship, we should be teaching the youth how to navigate negative cliches. "I'm very, very conscious that there is a set of masculine stereotypes; are they a sports brain? Straight? Gay? "My concern as a parent is that my boys are able to find out who they are and (not) feel constrained by these preset, pre-fabricated ideas," she says.

But Dr Macnamara says the problem is more serious than men contending the "boys don't cry" mentality. The lack of good role models in the media is aggravated by a lack of positive role models in real life. He points to the increasing numbers of absentee fathers and the shortage of male teachers. "They are branded as troublemakers in schools - and they often have no role models in the home because of the high rate of single-parent households - and then in the media the role models they see are overwhelmingly negative."

And the trend towards "demonising, marginalising and trivialising of men and male identity" could turn into a tug-of-war with serious mental health consequences for a generation of young boys. "We are probably having a negative impact on young men's esteem and we are definitely having an impact on young boy's self esteem," he says. "Ultimately such portrayals could lead to negative social and even financial costs for society in areas such as male health, rising suicide rates and family disintegration."


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