Cholera spreads as war and poverty batter Yemen

The New York Times reports: The Yemeni farm laborer was picking crops in a hot field when the call came. His children, all seven of them, had fallen gravely ill.

Some were vomiting, others had diarrhea, and all were listless, indicating that they had fallen victim to the latest disaster to afflict this impoverished corner of the Arabian Peninsula: one of the worst outbreaks of cholera infection in recent times.

The laborer, Abdulla Siraa, set about frantically trying to raise money to treat the children — $240, or about six times what he typically earns in a month — and raced as fast as he could on the 30 miles home over roads virtually destroyed in Yemen’s civil war.

“I spent the whole journey reciting Quranic verses and praying for the survival of my children,” he said.

But when he arrived, he learned that his 4-year-old daughter, Ghadeer, had already died, after hours of calling out for him, though the rest of his children would survive.

For much of the world, cholera, a bacterial infection spread by water contaminated with feces, has been relegated to the history books. In the 19th century, it claimed tens of millions of lives across the world, mainly through dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

That ended with modern sanitation and water systems. When it pops up now, it is usually treated easily with rehydration solutions and, if severe, with antibiotics.

But the war currently battering Yemen has damaged infrastructure and deepened poverty, allowing the disease to come roaring back. Cholera is also on the rise in the Horn of Africa because of long-simmering conflicts there. Yemen’s African neighbors, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, have had a total of about 96,000 cholera cases since 2014, international aid groups say.

The crises in Africa, however, pale in comparison to the one in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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The chimpanzees’ materia medica

Linda Nordling writes: Fancy eating a kroma fruit? How about a prickly badi? Or zoobo leaves?

If you are feeling unwell, perhaps you should. These West African plants are part of a ‘jungle pharmacy’ sought out by wild chimpanzees to treat ailments ranging from worm infestations to bacterial infections. And because humans share 98% of their DNA with chimps, and are susceptible to some of the same diseases, they might work on people too.

At least that is the theory behind a research project in Côte d’Ivoire that is screening such plants for possible human treatments. So far it has identified compounds that able to kill bacterial and yeast infections in a petri dish, and even some that seem to inhibit cancer development. Eventually, such discoveries could lead to new antibiotics, antifungals or cancer treatments.

But drug discovery is a long road, and these compounds have only passed the first hurdle says Constant Ahoua, the Ivorian botanist in charge of the project. Ahoua, a postdoctoral researcher at the Afrique One-ASPIRE programme based in Abidjan, has been studying chimp diets for a decade. For his PhD he screened 27 plant species eaten by wild chimps, specifically targeting those not already known to be used in traditional human medicine. Of the extracts he made from the plants, 18% were active against bacteria and 5% against yeasts.

Next up, Ahoua will publish a paper on the anti-cancer compounds he discovered in his research. “We found seven compounds that inhibit cancer-triggering enzymes, and two of them are completely new,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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Good news, despite what you’ve heard

Nicholas Kristof writes: Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations and improved nutrition and medical care. They’re no longer dying of malaria, diarrhea or unpleasant causes like having one’s intestines blocked by wriggling worms. (This is a good news column, but I didn’t say it wouldn’t be a bit gross.)

“There are deworming campaigns now, so it’s much rarer that we go into surgery for obstruction and see a big mass of worms,” explained Agatha Neufville, the nursing director at the Ganta United Methodist Hospital.

Nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty has been staying the same or worsening. So let’s correct the record.

There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.

Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.

Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. lags behind much of developed world in social progress

Bloomberg reports: America leads the world when it comes to access to higher education. But when it comes to health, environmental protection, and fighting discrimination, it trails many other developed countries, according to the Social Progress Imperative, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

The results of the group’s annual survey, which ranks nations based on 50 metrics, call to mind other reviews of national well-being, such as the World Happiness Report released in March, which was led by Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, or September’s Lancet study on sustainable development. In that one, Iceland, Singapore, Sweden, and the U.S. took spots 1, 2, 3, and 28—respectively.

The Social Progress Index released this week is compiled from social and environmental data that come as close as possible to revealing how people live. “We want to measure a country’s health and wellness achieved, not how much effort is expended, nor how much the country spends on healthcare,” the report states. Scandinavia walked away with the top four of 128 slots. Denmark scored the highest. America came in at 18. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump ended up as a putrid bag of toxins

The Washington Post reports: President Trump reportedly eschews exercise because he believes it drains the body’s “finite” energy resources, but experts say this argument is flawed because the human body actually becomes stronger with exercise.

Trump’s views on exercise were mentioned in a New Yorker article this month and in “Trump Revealed,” The Washington Post’s 2016 biography of the president, which noted that Trump mostly gave up athletics after college because he “believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”

Exercise does deplete stores of glucose, glycogen and fats from the body’s tissues, but these fuels are restored when a person eats, said Michael Jonesco, a sports medicine and orthopedics specialist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. [Continue reading…]

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Mountains of the mind: ‘I’ve become part of the landscape and it’s become part of me’

Kevin Rushby writes: We begin in darkness and head up towards the light. It is that time just before the dawn when it’s neither day nor night. Down near Lake Coniston, I can hear an owl and a curlew calling, both claiming the hour for themselves. “I like to come this early,” says Sion. “There’s no one else around. I can’t handle crowds. I get confused.”

It’s 4.30am and I am with Sion Jair, 67, and his partner, Wendy Kolbe, 63, and we are heading up the Old Man of Coniston, an 803-metre Lake District fell noted for its sharp ascent and great panoramas of southern lakeland. Or at least we hope so: there are some clouds massing in the east.

For Sion, this has become a daily ritual, adopted seven years ago when a visit to the doctor changed his life for ever. “I had been feeling permanently tired, and suffering some memory problems. It meant I couldn’t get out walking, you see, and when I can’t walk, I really shut down.”

After tests, the doctor diagnosed chronic anaemia from vitamin B12 deficiency. Injections usually sort that out, but Sion reacted badly to the shots and, without them, was given three years to live. Determined not to give in, he set about walking in earnest, covering around 10 miles a day. “Eventually, it worked. I reckon it cured me of the chronic fatigue,” he says.

But there was another blow. The anaemia had been masking signs of dementia. Given the particular type of condition he was suffering from, he was warned that he could expect periods of total memory loss, mood swings and eventually the inability to look after himself. Sion had become one of the estimated 25 million people worldwide suffering this progressive neurodegenerative disease, as feared now as the Black Death was in its day.

“It was quite scary,” says Sion, adding, in something of an understatement, “I didn’t like the idea.”

Sion’s response was typical of him: he walked even more. Not just the Old Man, but other fells, too: Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Blencathra, Dollywaggon Pike – all the greats. “I’ve done them so often, I know them blindfolded.” And all this he did without any technological intermediaries, smartphone or GPS – just the steady rhythm of his feet. On one occasion he did 12 peaks and 28 miles in 22 hours, raising cash for his three favourite charities: the Alzheimer’s Society, Mountain Rescue and the Great North Air Ambulance. He also walked in Wales – he walked the Snowdon horseshoe more than 200 times – and Scotland, but it was in Coniston that he found his walking mantra. I suppose you could call it his Coniston Old Man-tra. [Continue reading…]

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‘Most non-communicable diseases are spread by big corporations’

Pacific Standard reported in 2016: [Cristin] Kearns is one of the only people who have found evidence that cane- and beet-sugar manufacturers contributed to public-health problems. That’s thanks in part to her having worked as a dentist both in private practice and in a low- income clinic, which helped her realize something was amiss when conversations about dental health rarely included considerations of sugar. But it’s more a tribute to her doggedness, her willingness to comb through even the most obscure corners of library archives, and her persistence even in the face of a large and well-funded target.

She’s also unusual in the world of academia, where she’s settled for now as a research fellow at the University of California–San Francisco. Most folks who study sugar and health at universities are chemists, biologists, or epidemiologists. They examine sugar’s effects on the body, or they analyze data about whether people who eat more sugar are more likely to be in poor health. No other academic researchers study the secret workings of sugar refiners’ science campaigns.

But companies’ activities — including how they formulate their food, how their advertising and marketing affect what people buy, and their scientists’ roles in crafting nutritional guidelines — could help explain a number of major public-health problems. They could be especially important to understanding so-called non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, which don’t spread from person to person the way cholera or the flu do.

“Most non-communicable diseases are spread by big corporations,” says Stanton Glantz, a public-health researcher famed for his analysis of tobacco industry documents in the 1990s, “because profit-maximizing behavior leads them to be out pushing products which end up causing disease.” Glantz is Kearns’ mentor at UCSF. “If you’re interested in disease control, in addition to understanding the detailed mechanics of how smoking causes heart disease or how smoking causes cancer at a molecular level, you’ve got to be looking up at what forces are out there that are promoting the disease because they’re making a lot of money doing it.”

Evidence of corporations’ influence on science can lead to certain policy changes that biological and epidemiological evidence alone cannot. “This kind of research is very useful to make the point that, yeah, you simply can’t have these guys at the table,” says Richard Daynard, an expert on public health law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. Simply knowing that a product can be bad for people’s health isn’t enough to convince the governmental organizations to remove industry folks from policy discussions. There must be evidence of company wrongdoing too. [Continue reading…]

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The Trump administration is ill-prepared for a global pandemic

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration has failed to fill crucial public health positions across the government, leaving the nation ill-prepared to face one of its greatest potential threats: a pandemic outbreak of a deadly infectious disease, according to experts in health and national security.

No one knows where or when the next outbreak will occur, but health security experts say it is inevitable. Every president since Ronald Reagan has faced threats from infectious diseases, and the number of outbreaks is on the rise.

Over the past three years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has monitored more than 300 outbreaks in 160 countries, tracking 37 dangerous pathogens in 2016 alone. Infectious diseases cause about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide.

But after 11 weeks in office, the Trump administration has filled few of the senior positions critical to responding to an outbreak. There is no permanent director at the CDC or at the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the Department of Health and Human Services, no one has been named to fill sub-Cabinet posts for health, global affairs, or preparedness and response. It’s also unclear whether the National Security Council will assume the same leadership on the issue as it did under President Barack Obama, according to public health experts.

“We need people in position to help steer the ship,” said Steve Davis, the chief executive of PATH, a Seattle-based international health technology nonprofit working with countries to improve their ability to detect disease. “We are actually very concerned.”

In addition to leaving key posts vacant, the Trump administration has displayed little interest in the issue, health and security experts say. The White House has made few public statements about the importance of preparing for outbreaks, and it has yet to build the international relationships that are crucial for responding to global health crises. Trump also has proposed sharp cuts to government agencies working to stop deadly outbreaks at their source.

The slow progress on senior-level appointments — even those, such as the CDC director, that do not require Senate confirmation — is hobbling Cabinet secretaries at agencies across the government. Temporary “beachhead” teams the White House installed are hitting the end of their appointments. The remaining civil servants have little authority to make major decisions or mobilize resources.

An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on personnel decisions. An NSC official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the administration recognizes that global health security is a national security issue and that America’s health depends on the world’s ability to detect threats wherever they occur.

Trump’s NSC does not have a point person for global health security as Obama’s did, but global health security is part of the overall portfolio of Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, another NSC official said.

Global health experts warn that a pandemic threat could be as deadly as a nuclear attack — and is much more probable. [Continue reading…]

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EPA chief, rejecting agency’s science, chooses not to ban insecticide

The New York Times reports: Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, moved late on Wednesday to reject the scientific conclusion of the agency’s own chemical safety experts who under the Obama administration recommended that one of the nation’s most widely used insecticides be permanently banned at farms nationwide because of the harm it potentially causes children and farm workers.

The ruling by Mr. Pruitt, in one of his first formal actions as the nation’s top environmental official, rejected a petition filed a decade ago by two environmental groups that had asked that the agency ban all uses of chlorpyrifos. The chemical was banned in 2000 for use in most household settings, but still today is used at about 40,000 farms on about 50 different types of crops, ranging from almonds to apples.

Late last year, and based in part on research conducted at Columbia University, E.P.A. scientists concluded that exposure to the chemical that has been in use since 1965 was potentially causing significant health consequences. They included learning and memory declines, particularly among farm workers and young children who may be exposed through drinking water and other sources. [Continue reading…]

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The hidden risks of Trump’s EPA cuts: Birth defects, bad air

Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign that he would only “leave a little bit” of federal rules that protect human health and the environment. Now about 50 former officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are firing back in a lengthy analysis that details, program by program, what amounts to a starvation diet for the EPA.

Calling themselves the Environmental Protection Network, they worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The group’s members are putting aside their differences over policies and programs to stop what they say “appears to be nothing less than a full-throttle attack on the principle underlying all U.S. environmental laws—that protecting the health and environment of all Americans is a national priority.”

Even before formally registering as a nonprofit organization, the network has put together a 50-page analysis of the president’s proposed EPA budget, based partly on the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint. The blueprint, released on March 16, sketched out top-line cuts of 31 percent of the agency’s budget and 21 percent of its staff. The new administration’s targeting of the agency requires an independent, expert assessment of what’s happening there, the group says. [Continue reading…]

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Why Obamacare defeated Trumpcare

Jonathan Chait writes: With the collapse of the House health-care bill, the cause of repealing Obamacare, a right-wing obsession for seven years and a day, has died. The flame will never be fully extinguished in the hearts of the true believers — after all, in right-wing think tanks and other places far removed from electoral politics, anti-government zealots still dream of phasing out Social Security or Medicare. But the political project dedicated to restoring the pre-Obamacare status quo, in which people too sick or poor to afford their own insurance without the subsidies and regulations of the Affordable Care Act could be safely ignored, is gone forever. And it is dead for the best possible reason, the reason that undergirds all social progress: because a good idea defeated a bad one.

Conservatives have already collapsed into mutual recriminations for their failure. Reporters have blamed Trump’s deal-making skills. Trump’s loyalists are loudly blaming Paul Ryan. “I think Paul Ryan did a major disservice to President Trump, I think the president was extremely courageous in taking on health care and trusted others to come through with a program he could sign off on,” Chris Ruddy, CEO of the right-wing site Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump’s, tells Bloomberg. “The president had confidence Paul Ryan would come up with a good plan and to me, it is disappointing.” David Brooks blames both Trump and Congress. “The core Republican problem is this,” he writes. “The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided.”

The American Health Care Act is a truly horrendous piece of legislation. But it did not become the vehicle for the Obamacare repeal effort because Trump, or Ryan, or anybody insisted on it over some other option. It became the repeal bill because nobody in the Republican Party had a better idea. [Continue reading…]

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New research identifies a ‘sea of despair’ among white, working-class Americans

The Washington Post reports: Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies, according to a study published Thursday by two prominent economists.

Anne Case and Angus Deaton garnered national headlines in 2015 when they reported that the death rate of midlife non-Hispanic white Americans had risen steadily since 1999 in contrast with the death rates of blacks, Hispanics and Europeans. Their new study extends the data by two years and shows that whatever is driving the mortality spike is not easing up.

The two Princeton professors say the trend affects whites of both sexes and is happening nearly everywhere in the country. Education level is significant: People with a college degree report better health and happiness than those with only some college, who in turn are doing much better than those who never went.

Offering what they call a tentative but “plausible” explanation, they write that less-educated white Americans who struggle in the job market in early adulthood are likely to experience a “cumulative disadvantage” over time, with health and personal problems that often lead to drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease and suicide. [Continue reading…]

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Doctors warn climate change threatens public health

E&E News reports: Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, Patrice Tomcik had never heard of Lyme disease — an infectious, flu-like illness transmitted by ticks.

But in the last few years, five of her friends have caught it, she’s had to have her dog vaccinated and she regularly finds herself pulling ticks off her children. It can be disconcerting, she said, having to worry about an illness that she had never been exposed to in the past.

“It’s getting warmer, so the season for ticks is lasting longer,” said Tomcik, a field consultant with Moms Clean Air Force. “There are so many more of them, and they just don’t die off. It’s a big issue here in Pennsylvania, because we have so much wood. Our family has 29 acres of land out in the woods, and I’m picking ticks off my dog and my kids like I’ve never seen before.”

Lyme disease isn’t the only contagious illness that is venturing into new territories under a shifting climate. Across the country, physicians are noticing an influx of patients whose illnesses, they say, are directly or indirectly related to climate change. Now, 11 medical associations — representing around half the doctors and physicians in the country — are creating a group that intends to address the links between climate change and health risks. [Continue reading…]

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This climate lawsuit could change everything. No wonder the Trump administration doesn’t want it going to trial

Chelsea Harvey reports: A groundbreaking climate lawsuit, brought against the federal government by 21 children, has been hailed by environmentalists as a bold new strategy to press for climate action in the United States. But the Trump administration, which has pledged to undo Barack Obama’s climate regulations, is doing its best to make sure the case doesn’t get far.

The Trump administration this week filed a motion to overturn a ruling by a federal judge back in November that cleared the lawsuit for trial — and filed a separate motion to delay trial preparation until that appeal is considered.

The lawsuit — the first of its kind — argues the federal government has violated the constitutional right of the 21 plaintiffs to a healthy climate system.

Environmental groups say the case — if it’s successful — could force even a reluctant government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other measures to counter warming.

“It would be huge,” said Pat Gallagher, legal director at the Sierra Club, who is not involved in the case. “It would upend climate litigation, climate law, as we know it.” [Continue reading…]

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Syrian children suffering staggering levels of trauma, report warns

The Guardian reports: Children in Syria are suffering from “toxic stress”, a severe form of psychological trauma that can cause life-long damage, according to a study that charts a rise in self-harm and suicide attempts among children as young as 12.

A report by Save the Children and its partner agencies in Syria paints a harrowing picture of the country’s children, 5.8 million of whom are in need of aid, after a war which reaches its sixth year next week.

Authors of the study, the largest of its kind to be undertaken during the conflict, warned the nation’s mental health crisis had reached a tipping point, where “staggering levels” of trauma and distress among children could cause permanent and irreversible damage.

More than 70% of children interviewed experienced common symptoms of “toxic stress” or post-traumatic stress disorder, such as bedwetting, the study found. Loss of speech, aggression and substance abuse are also commonplace. About 48% of adults reported seeing children who have lost the ability to speak or who have developed speech impediments since the war began, according to the report, entitled Invisible Wounds (pdf). [Continue reading…]

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Why 2017 may be the best year ever

Nicholas Kristof writes: There’s a broad consensus that the world is falling apart, with every headline reminding us that life is getting worse.

Except that it isn’t. In fact, by some important metrics, 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity. And 2017 will probably be better still.

How can this be? I’m as appalled as anyone by the election of Donald Trump, the bloodshed in Syria, and so on. But while I fear what Trump will do to America and the world, and I applaud those standing up to him, the Trump administration isn’t the most important thing going on. Here, take my quiz:

On any given day, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty:

A.) Rises by 5,000, because of climate change, food shortages and endemic corruption.

B.) Stays about the same.

C.) Drops by 250,000.

Polls show that about 9 out of 10 Americans believe that global poverty has worsened or stayed the same. But in fact, the correct answer is C. Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. [Continue reading…]

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How a UN health agency became an apologist for Assad atrocities

Annie Sparrow writes: For years now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been fiddling while Syria burns, bleeds and starves. Despite WHO Syria having spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the conflict began in March 2011, public health in Syria has gone from troubling in 2011 to catastrophic now.

To put this in perspective, while life expectancy for someone born in the United States has risen half a year from 78.7 years in 2010 to 79.3 years in 2015, over the same time period in Syria, it has plummeted more than 15 years from 70.8 years in 2010 to 55.4 years in 2015.

This new and devastating figure is comparable with South Sudan (57.3) and considerably lower than Afghanistan (60.5), Rwanda (66.1), and Iraq (68.9) while disturbingly, the global average life expectancy for babies born in 2015 is 71.4 years, baby boys in Syria can expect to live just 48 years, baby girls, 65 years.

Even Haitian babies can expect to live an average of 63.5 years, despite two centuries of political turmoil and the worst rates of infectious diseases such as HIV and cholera in the Western hemisphere.

The reason for Syria’s plummeting public health can be illustrated by the final, devastating fall of eastern Aleppo. [Continue reading…]

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