South Koreans wear masks to protest against Mers. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
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As Mers hits the headlines, we have to ask: is this a golden age for pathogens?

It’s not just people who are at risk from the 21st-century way of life. Plants are suffering, too.

With billions of human beings living in close proximity – and with so many of them travelling in mass transport all over the globe so frequently – these are good times for pathogens.

South Korea and China are trying to halt the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers). The problem arose after a South Korean businessman picked up the pathogen on a trip to the Middle East and returned home. The man is known to have infected a couple of dozen people.

Worryingly, Mers was not known to be a particularly contagious disease. That is because the virus sits in the lower respiratory tract, making it difficult to pass on. It may be that the South Korean cases have arisen from a new strain that is more virulent than those encountered before. To investigate this possibility, researchers are sequencing the pathogen’s genome.

The Chinese government is particularly keen to get the outbreak controlled, as it has already arrived on the Chinese mainland. This occurred when a man who visited infected relatives at a hospital in Seoul flew to Hong Kong, then completed his journey to Guangdong Province by bus. The Chinese authorities have quarantined more than 80 people who might have been infected by the traveller.

It’s not just people who are at risk from the 21st-century way of life. Plants are suffering, too. Italian olive trees, for instance, are being plagued by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, a state of affairs so catastrophic that claims and counterclaims regarding the cause have led to a police investigation.

Xylella was first identified in Europe in 2013 after years of endemic status in South America, California and Costa Rica. It affects different plants in different ways, but in Puglia it has brought widespread withering and death to the region’s olive groves.

Local people have suggested that Italy’s agricultural scientists could be to blame. As a result, regional police have confiscated computers from research institutes and questioned several scientists about their practices. Even the country’s ministry of agriculture has had papers seized.

The chief concern is over whether the scientists imported the Xylella strain. Back in 2010, researchers brought in a sample of the Californian bacterium to carry out training for local agriculturalists. Their accusers claim that this was the source of the plague and that the scientists involved should be prosecuted. However, their science will almost certainly save them from a protracted investigation. Genetic analysis of the infected plants shows that the bacterium is identical to those found in ornamental coffee plants imported from Costa Rica.

Here’s another problem: consumer gardening. Researchers have traced the UK’s ash dieback problems to a similar desire for exotic ornamental plants. As with Xylella, the fungus involved in ash dieback peacefully coexists on many plants and is only a threat to some. Because of this, it can live undetected on plants being fast-grown for export in places such as China or southern Europe, then cause devastation when introduced to suburban gardens. Evolution also allows it to co-opt genetic resources available in the new environment, creating a pathogen never seen before.

We are unwittingly accelerating such developments. According to a paper by French researchers in the May issue of Annals of Forest Science, we are living in times when new diseases are occurring at an “unprecedented rate” because of human factors. They were writing about tree pathogens but the basics of biology dictate that it is true of all kinds: 21st-century life is convenient not only for human beings. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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