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Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Chinese Whispers: A Case of the Plague

On 22 July 2014, the news agency Agence France-Presse reports from Beijing that a “Chinese city has been sealed off and 151 people have been placed in quarantine since last week after a man died of bubonic plague, state media said. The 30,000 residents of Yumen, in the north-western province of Gansu, are not being allowed to leave, and police at roadblocks on the perimeter of the city are telling motorists to find alternative routes, China Central Television (CCTV) said. A 38-year-old man died last Wednesday [ 16 July 2014] , the report said, after he had been in contact with a dead marmot, a small furry animal related to the squirrel. No further plague cases have been reported. CCTV said officials were not allowing anyone to leave. The China Daily newspaper said four quarantine sectors had been set up in the city”. [1]

The AFP report explains that the “Bubonic plague is a bacterial infection best known for the Black Death, a virulent epidemic that killed tens of millions of people in 14th-century Europe. Primarily an animal illness, it is extremely rare in humans. The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) says modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague, but that without prompt treatment the disease can cause serious illness or death”.[2] Dr. Paul S. Meade, MD, who specialises in Anatomic & Clinical Pathology, states that the “Plague (Bubonic, Pneumonic, Septicemic)” is transmitted “[u]sually through the bite of infected rodent fleas. Less common exposures include handling infected animal tissues (hunters, wildlife personnel), inhalation of infectious droplets from cats or dogs with plague, and rarely, contact with a pneumonic plague patient . . . [and that the disease is e]ndemic in rural areas in central and southern Africa, central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the northeastern part of South America, and parts of the southwestern United States”.[3] In other words, these Chinese whispers represent nothing but a storm in a tea cup and much ado about nothing . . .


[1] “Chinese city sealed off after bubonic plague death”AFP (22 July 2014). http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/22/chinese-city-yumen-sealed-bubonic-plague-death.

[2] “Chinese city sealed off after bubonic plague death”.

[3] Paul S. Meade, “Plague (Bubonic, Pneumonic, Septicemic)” CDC. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2014/chapter-3-infectious-diseases-related-to-travel/plague-bubonic-pneumonic-septicemic.


Solar Roadways or the Path to the Future???

On Sunday, 25 May 2014, the New Zealand-based reporter Adrien Taylor states that a “company in the United States has raised more than $1 million to start making roads entirely out of solar panels. They say the panels could produce three times the electricity the US needs, and a New Zealand scientist says there’s potential for the technology here too. It may seem like science fiction, but the Solar Roadways project wants to make energy-generating roads a reality . . . Scott and Julie Brusaw have received more than $1 million in internet crowdfunding to begin production of their solar panel road system”.[i] The IndieGogo campaign was started on ‘Apr 21 and will close on May 31, 2014 (11:59pm PT)’.[2]

The dedicated IndieGogo page tells us that “Solar Roadways is a modular paving system of solar panels that can withstand the heaviest of trucks (250,000 pounds). These Solar Road Panels can be installed on roads, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, bike paths, playgrounds . . . literally any surface under the sun. They pay for themselves primarily through the generation of electricity, which can power homes and businesses connected via driveways and parking lots. A nationwide system could produce more clean renewable energy than a country uses as a whole (http://solarroadways.com/numbers.shtml). They have many other features as well, including: heating elements to stay snow/ice free, LEDs to make road lines and signage, and attached Cable Corridor to store and treat stormwater and provide a “home” for power and data cables. EVs will be able to charge with energy from the sun (instead of fossil fuels) from parking lots and driveways and after a roadway system is in place, mutual induction technology will allow for charging while driving’.[3] 

Additionally, the following information can also be found on IndieGogo page: ‘ Solar Roadways has received two phases of funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for research and development of a paving system that will pay for itself over its lifespan. We are about to wrap up our Phase II contract (to build a prototype parking lot) and now need to raise funding for production. Our glass surface has been tested for traction, load testing, and impact resistance testing in civil engineering laboratories around the country, and exceeded all requirements. Solar Roadways is a modular system that will modernize our aging infrastructure with an intelligent system that can become the new Smart Grid. We won the Community Award of $50,000 by getting the most votes in GE’s Ecomagination Challenge for “Powering the Grid” in 2010. We had the most votes again in their 2011 Ecomagination Challenge for “Powering the Home”. On August 21, 2013, Solar Roadways was selected by their peers as a Finalist in the World Technology Award For Energy, presented in association with TIME, Fortune, CNN, and Science. Solar Roadways was chosen by Google to be one of their Moonshots in May of 2013. Solar Roadways was chosen as a finalist in the IEEE Ace Awards in 2009 and 2010. Solar Roadways has given presentations around the country including: TEDx Sacramento, Google’s Solve for X at Google’s NYC Headquarters, NASA, Keynote Speaker for the International Parking Institute’s Conference and much more . . . Solar Roadways is tackling more than solar energy: The FHWA tasked us with addressing the problem of stormwater. Currently, over 50% of the pollution in U.S. waterways comes from stormwater. We have created a section in our Cable Corridors for storing, treating, and moving stormwater. The implementation of our concept on a grand scale could create thousands of jobs in the U.S. and around the world. It could allow us all the ability to manufacture our way out of our current economic crisis’.[4] Yes, it is true . . . it just sounds to good to be true, or does it???

The New Zealand solar energy researcher Dr Justin Hodgkiss throws a spanner in the works by saying “[i]f the roads got dirty then the cells [wouldn’t] work”.[5] And that means that a dedicated clean-up crew would have to be on call 24/7, or more jobs in the offing, which cannot be all that bad . . . perhaps. The journalist Taylor. for his part, says that the “Solar Roadways team concede their system would be expensive, but say it would pay itself off through energy production and lower maintenance than traditional roads. And with the amount of money that’s been pledged to their project, it’s clear they’re not the only ones who think it’s worth investing in”.[6]


[1] Adrien Taylor, “Backers pledge more than $1M for solar” 3 News (25 May 2014). http://www.3news.co.nz/Backers-pledge-more-than-1M-for-solar-roads/tabid/417/articleID/345694/Default.aspx.

[2] “Solar Roadways” IndieGogo. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/solar-roadways.

[3] “Solar Roadways”.

[4] “Solar Roadways”.

[5] Adrien Taylor, “Backers pledge more than $1M for solar”.

[6] Adrien Taylor, “Backers pledge more than $1M for solar”.

Climate Change: Talking to Tim DeChristopher

‘An Interview with Tim DeChristopher, the founder of Peaceful Uprising who is widely known known for one of the more creative acts of non violent insurrection and civil disobedience in recent memory when he disrupted a government oil and gas lease auction in order to protect fragile land in southern Utah from long term damage. That story became the subject of the documentary Bidder 70, and that act resulted in DeChrispher spending 21 months in federal custody. Tim is among the organizers calling for a Global Climate Convergence for People, Planet and Peace over Profit, whose mission is “an education and direct action campaign beginning this spring, with “10 days to change course,” running from Earth Day to May Day. It provides coordinated action and collaboration across fronts of struggle and national borders to harness the transformative power we already possess as a thousand separate movements. These grassroots justice movements are sweeping the globe, rising up against the global assault on our shared economy, ecology, peace and democracy. The accelerating climate disaster, which threatens to unravel civilization as soon as 2050, intensifies all of these struggles and creates new urgency for collaboration and unified action. The Convergence creates a unifying call for a solution as big as the crisis barreling down on us — an emergency Green Economic Transformation through a Global Green New Deal including universal jobs, health care, education, food and housing security, economic and political democracy, demilitarization, an end to deportations, and 100% clean renewable energy by 2030.” (18 Feb 2014)’.

In order to provide some context to the above interview, I would like to quote the independent journalist and climate activist a Wen Stephenson explaining in the Boston-based Phoenix that on “July 26, 2011. Inside a federal courtroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, a 30-year-old climate activist named Tim DeChristopher is sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases back in December 2008. Registered as Bidder #70, he managed to win bids worth $1.8 million for some 22,000 acres of public land near Canyonlands National Park — bids he had no way of paying. He had acted spontaneously, on his conscience, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the heedless new extraction of fossil fuels that are catastrophically heating the planet and threatening innumerable innocent lives. Weeks before his sentencing, DeChristopher  told Rolling Stone‘s Jeff Goodell: ‘I’m a climate-justice activist. . . . We want a radically different world. We want a healthy, just world’. But first, he said,’we need to get the fossil fuel industry out of the way. First we’ve got to overthrow the corporate power that is running our government’. He understands what that requires. ‘It will involve confrontation and it will involve sacrifice’. At his sentencing, standing before the federal judge, DeChristopher concludes a long, eloquent statement that spreads across the Internet and galvanizes a growing climate-justice movement: ‘This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on'”.[1]

[1] Wen Stephensonm ” The New Abolitionists: Global warming is the great moral crisis of our time” The Phoenix (12 March 2013). http://thephoenix.com/Boston/news/151670-new-abolitionists-global-warming-is-the-great/.

Alcohol Around the World #2: The Lancet Vodka Report

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that a “new report detailing the devastating toll of vodka on male life expectancy in Russia has been published, just as the country marks the unofficial 149th anniversary of the spirit’s invention. The study published Friday [, 31 January 2014] in British medical journal The Lancet has found that 25 percent of Russian men die before the age of 55, compared with only 7 percent of men in the United Kingdom. Many of those deaths are thought to have been caused by Russia’s long-abiding devotion to heavy drinking. Average life expectancy for men in Russia is 64 years, compared to 78.5 for British men”.[1]

The report in question was prepared by Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov and many others.[ii]  On the periodical website the following summary can be read: “Russian adults have extraordinarily high rates of premature death. Retrospective enquiries to the families of about 50 000 deceased Russians had found excess vodka use among those dying from external causes (accident, suicide, violence) and eight particular disease groupings. We now seek prospective evidence of these associations . . . In three Russian cities (Barnaul, Byisk, and Tomsk), we interviewed 200,000 adults during 1999—2008 (with 12,000 re-interviewed some years later) and followed them until 2010 for cause-specific mortality. In 151,000 with no previous disease and some follow-up at ages 35—74 years, Poisson regression (adjusted for age at risk, amount smoked, education, and city) was used to calculate the relative risks associating vodka consumption with mortality. We have combined these relative risks with age-specific death rates to get 20-year absolute risks . . . Among 57 361 male smokers with no previous disease, the estimated 20-year risks of death at ages 35—54 years were 16% (95% CI 15—17) for those who reported consuming less than a bottle of vodka per week at baseline, 20% (18—22) for those consuming 1—2·9 bottles per week, and 35% (31—39) for those consuming three or more bottles per week; trend p<0·0001. The corresponding risks of death at ages 55—74 years were 50% (48—52) for those who reported consuming less than a bottle of vodka per week at baseline, 54% (51—57) for those consuming 1—2·9 bottles per week, and 64% (59—69) for those consuming three or more bottles per week; trend p<0·0001. In both age ranges most of the excess mortality in heavier drinkers was from external causes or the eight disease groupings strongly associated with alcohol in the retrospective enquiries. Self-reported drinking fluctuated; of the men who reported drinking three or more bottles of vodka per week who were reinterviewed a few years later, about half (185 of 321) then reported drinking less than one bottle per week. Such fluctuations must have substantially attenuated the apparent hazards of heavy drinking in this study, yet self-reported vodka use at baseline still strongly predicted risk. Among male non-smokers and among females, self-reported heavy drinking was uncommon, but seemed to involve similar absolute excess risks”.[3]

The report conclusion, as reproduced on the internet, is pretty stark: “This large prospective study strongly reinforces other evidence that vodka is a major cause of the high risk of premature death in Russian adults”.[4]  The BBC’s Global health reporter Tulip Mazumdar insightfully remarks that in “1985, the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut vodka production and did not allow it to be sold before lunch-time. Researchers say alcohol consumption fell by around a quarter when the restrictions came in, and so did overall death rates. Then, when communism collapsed, people started drinking more again and the death rates also rose. Sir [Prof Sir Richard Peto, one of the report’s many co-authors] said: ‘When President Yeltsin took over from President Gorbachev, the overall death rates in young men more than doubled. This was as society collapsed and vodka became much more freely available. There was a huge increase in drinking and they were drinking in a destructive way. They were getting drunk on spirits and then buying and drinking more, producing a big risk of death'”.[5]

The BBC’s Mazumdar continues that the ” consumption rates for women also fluctuated according to political events, but they drank less so mortality rates were also lower. Most drinkers were smokers as well which researchers say ‘aggravated’ the death rates. Russia brought in stricter alcohol control measures in 2006, including raising taxes and restricting sales. Researchers say alcohol consumption has fallen by a third since then and the proportion of men dying before they reach 55 years old has fallen from 37% to 25%. Half a litre of vodka costs around £3.00 (150 rubles). Heavy drinkers in this study were getting through at least a litre and a half of vodka a week. In 2011, each Russian adult drank on average 13 litres of pure alcohol every year, of which eight litres was in spirits, mainly vodka. In the UK the comparable figure is 10 litres per adult – but just less than two litres of that is in spirits. Researchers say the key problem driving the high death rate is the way Russians drink alcohol”.[6]

[1] “Vodka Blamed for Dismal Russian Life Expectancy Figures” RIA Novosti (31 Jan 2014). http://en.ria.ru/russia/20140131/187079194/Vodka-Blamed-For-Dismal-Russian-Life-Expectancy-Figures.html.

[2] Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov, et al., “Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151 000 adults” The Lancet (31 Jan 2014). http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)62247-3/fulltext.

[3] Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov, et al., “Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151 000 adults”.

[4] Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov, et al., “Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151 000 adults”.

[5] Tulip Mazumdar, “Vodka blamed for high death rates in Russia” BBC News (31 Jan 2014). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25961063.

[6] Tulip Mazumdar, “Vodka blamed for high death rates in Russia”.

CARTA :The Evolution of Human Nutrition

Tracing the evolution of the human diet from our earliest ancestors can lead to a better understanding of human adaptation in the past. It may also offer clues to the origin of many health problems we currently face, such as obesity and chronic disease. This fascinating series of talks focuses on the changing diets of our ancestors and what role these dietary transitions played in the evolution of humans. Leslie C. Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation) begins with An Overview of Diet and Evolution, followed by Richard Wrangham (Harvard Univ) on Fire, Starch, Meat, and Honey, Steven Leigh (Univ of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) on Diets and Microbes in Primates. – Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny.

The Global Current on 30 September 2012

The Global Current is an independent, international news show, and is comprised of an all-student staff from Seton Hall University.   The Global Current airs on WSOU 89.5FM every Saturday at 8:00AM. This week on the Global Current, we report on the new SARS-like virus, the opening speeches from the General Assembly, and the Venezuelan elections. We also speak with Akira Tokuhiro, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho about the changing face of nuclear energy (30 September 2012).

The Upcoming Influenza Pandemic: Bird Flu Mutations

On Tuesday, 24 July, NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce writes that ‘[t]op influenza researchers around the world published a statement back in January [2012] saying they would temporarily hold off on any work with contagious, lab-altered forms of a particularly worrisome form of bird flu. The unusual voluntary moratorium was supposed to last only 60 days, but it’s been more than six months. And scientists don’t agree on what should happen next. Some scientists and researchers say these mutant bird flu viruses could cause a devastating pandemic if they ever got out of the lab. Others argue that the work is vital to help public health officials get ready for the possible threat of a flu pandemic that might emerge naturally, as bird flu viruses mutate in the wild. Flu researchers are going to New York next week for the annual conference of the government-funded Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS). Researchers who made the mutant viruses will be there, plus others who signed the voluntary moratorium’.[1]

And to remind ourselves what we are talking about, let’s go back to 2006 and read Debora Mackenzie’s words: the “H5N1 strain of influenza – often referred to as bird flu – is first known to have jumped from chickens to humans in 1997. Since 2004 it has ripped through poultry and wild bird populations across Eurasia, and had a 53% mortality rate in the first 147 people it is known to have infected. Health authorities fear this strain, or its descendent, could cause a lethal new flu pandemic in people with the potential to kill billions. Flu has been a regular scourge of humanity for thousands of years. Flu viruses each possess a mere 10 genes encoded in RNA. All of the 16 known genetic subgroups originate in water birds, and especially in ducks. The virus is well adapted to their immune systems, and does not usually make them sick. This leaves the animals free to move around and spread the virus – just what it needs to persist. But sometimes a bird flu virus jumps to an animal whose immune system it is not adapted to. In chickens – originally a forest bird and not a natural host – it causes a moderate disease but can readily mutate to a more severe, highly pathogenic strain. Just such a strain of H5N1 flu, named after its surface proteins, began rampaging through large chicken farms in east Asia sometime before 2003”.[2]

Viruses are wily creatures, in fact there is some debate as to whether a virus lives or is a mere chemical reaction. The virology professor Vincent Racaniello explains on his blog that “Viruses are not living things. Viruses are complicated assemblies of molecules, including proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates, but on their own they can do nothing until they enter a living cell. Without cells, viruses would not be able to multiply. Therefore, viruses are not living things”.[3]  It is a strange world we live in, as Racaniello explains: when “a virus encounters a cell, a series of chemical reactions occur that lead to the production of new viruses. These steps are completely passive, that is, they are predefined by the nature of the molecules that comprise the virus particle. Viruses don’t actually ‘do’ anything. Often scientists and non-scientists alike ascribe actions to viruses such as employing, displaying, destroying, evading, exploiting, and so on. These terms are incorrect because viruses are passive, completely at the mercy of their environment”.[4]

And now to get back to the possible lifting of the moratorium on altering the flu virus in laboratory environments that might be decided upon next week . . . The Stanford University microbiologist David Relman states unequivocally: [if the moratorium is lifted right after the upcoming meeting], “I’d be concerned”.[5]  Sentiments which are echoed by the Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch: “But the risks are not to scientists. The risks are to the world. The risks are that one of these viruses gets out of a laboratory and starts to spread from person to person. And so the people who have something at stake are not the scientific community only”.[6]  In other words, if the moratorium were lifted next week, there is very little that would prevent a Twelve Monkeys scenario from being enacted . . . On its Facebook page, CEIRS announces that the ‘2012 6th Annual CEIRS Network Meeting (Mount Sinai) to be held in New York City, July 29-August 1, 2012’.[7]

[1] Nell Greenfieldboyce, “Bird Flu Researchers To Meet About Research Moratorium” NPR (24 July 2012). http://m.npr.org/programs/all/3/157130835.

[2] Debora Mackenzie, “Introduction: Bird Flu” New Scientist (04 September 2006). http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9944-introduction-bird-flu.html?full=true.

[3] Vincent Racaniello, “Are Viruses Living?” virology blog (09 June 2004). http://www.virology.ws/2004/06/09/are-viruses-living/.

[4] Vincent Racaniello, “Are Viruses Living?”.

[5] Nell Greenfieldboyce, “Bird Flu Researchers To Meet About Research Moratorium-2”. http://m.npr.org/programs/all/3/157130835?page=1.

[6] Nell Greenfieldboyce, “Bird Flu Researchers To Meet About Research Moratorium-2”.