Lonesome George is back in Galapagos

Lonesome George
This awful photo of Lonesome George, taken in 2003, shows just how underwhelmed I was during our first encounter.

Lonesome George the giant tortoise, the last individual of his species, has returned to Galapagos after an absence of almost five years. Following his unexpected death in 2012, the Galapagos National Park agreed to send him to a top-end taxidermist in New York. After painstaking treatment, George went on show at the American Museum of Natural History in 2014. He is now back in Galapagos, the centerpiece of a new exhibition aimed at visitors to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz.

By the time I met Lonesome George during my first visit to Galapagos in 2003, he had become the face of extinction. I read the information panel around his enclosure: “Whatever happens to this animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things is in human hands.” I was not, however, overly impressed with this shy, retiring reptile and had no idea it was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Back at home in the UK, George’s influence on me started to grow. At the start of a career as a science journalist, I wrote about him, first a feature in Nature, then a popular science book called Lonesome George, until hardly a month would pass without me being called to comment on some aspect of his life. I should have become accustomed to George’s capacity to generate news, but every time he impressed me. There is no individual – animal or human – that could communicate the conservation message quite like George.

I love it that he’s still up to his old tricks, even in death. See also my Guardian blog Animal Magic.

Victory for Pandemrix victims and common sense

Finally. A victory for common sense. The Court of Appeal in the UK has ruled against the Department for Work and Pensions in favour of a boy who developed narcolepsy at the age of seven following vaccination with GSK’s swine flu vaccine Pandemrix in 2009. This judgment has significant implications for other Pandemrix children and their families.

The link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy in children began to emerge in the summer of 2010, with epidemiologists subsequently providing compelling evidence of a causal link. The child in this case – John, now 14-years-old – is just one of many to have applied to the DWP for compensation under the Vaccine Damage Act 1979, but his story reveals just how difficult it has been for Pandemrix victims to be taken seriously and just how ignorant otherwise intelligent people still are about what it’s like to live with narcolepsy.

Initially, the DWP denied John compensation, arguing that his disability was not sufficiently severe. John appealed to the First Tier Tribunal and won. The DWP appealed the First Tier Tribunal’s decision to the Upper Tribunal, now claiming that the judgment should be made solely on current disability rather than taking future disability into account. When this was rejected, the DWP had to pay out the one-off sum of £120,000, but made another effort to reverse the decision at the Court of Appeal. All this appealing is unappealing. Today, they lost.

“This important decision brings clarity to anyone who brings claims under the Vaccine Damage Payment Act in future,” the boy’s solicitor Peter Todd of Hodge, Jones & Allen said in a statement. “It will in particular bring welcome relief to those who developed narcolepsy as a result of taking the swine flu vaccination and who have been awaiting payment from the DWP scheme, but also has implications for anyone affected by other vaccines covered by the scheme.”

There are currently around 100 children in the UK identified as having developed narcolepsy following vaccination with Pandemrix.

The benefits of vaccination to society are beyond question. But when there are adverse reactions, they hit individuals and not society. In these rare cases, it seems only right that the government of the day should be supporting those affected in whatever way they can. It saddens me that the default position here seems to have been to argue that narcolepsy is not particularly disabling and that its impact on future life can be dismissed.

I have had narcolepsy for over 20 years and know these two assertions to be false. I am almost finished with my book on narcolepsy, sleep and sleep disorders, which I hope will help raise awareness of what it’s really like to live with this devastating neurological disorder. Stay tuned.

For more information on narcolepsy, please visit Narcolepsy UK.