Monday, October 6, 2014

'In 1976 I discovered Ebola - now I fear an unimaginable tragedy'

Peter Piot was a researcher at a lab in Antwerp when a pilot brought him a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had fallen mysteriously ill in Zaire
Peter Piot
Professor Peter Piot, the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: ‘Around June it became clear to me there was something different about this outbreak. I began to get really worried’ Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP
Professor Piot, as a young scientist in Antwerp, you were part of the team that discovered the Ebola virus in 1976. How did it happen?
I still remember exactly. One day in September, a pilot from Sabena Airlines brought us a shiny blue Thermos and a letter from a doctor in Kinshasa in what was then Zaire. In the Thermos, he wrote, there was a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had recently fallen ill from a mysterious sickness in Yambuku, a remote village in the northern part of the country. He asked us to test the sample for yellow fever.
These days, Ebola may only be researched in high-security laboratories. How did you protect yourself back then?
We had no idea how dangerous the virus was. And there were no high-security labs in Belgium. We just wore our white lab coats and protective gloves. When we opened the Thermos, the ice inside had largely melted and one of the vials had broken. Blood and glass shards were floating in the ice water. We fished the other, intact, test tube out of the slop and began examining the blood for pathogens, using the methods that were standard at the time.
But the yellow fever virus apparently had nothing to do with the nun's illness.
No. And the tests for Lassa fever and typhoid were also negative. What, then, could it be? Our hopes were dependent on being able to isolate the virus from the sample. To do so, we injected it into mice and other lab animals. At first nothing happened for several days. We thought that perhaps the pathogen had been damaged from insufficient refrigeration in the Thermos. But then one animal after the next began to die. We began to realise that the sample contained something quite deadly.
But you continued?
Other samples from the nun, who had since died, arrived from Kinshasa. When we were just about able to begin examining the virus under an electron microscope, the World Health Organisation instructed us to send all of our samples to a high-security lab in England. But my boss at the time wanted to bring our work to conclusion no matter what. He grabbed a vial containing virus material to examine it, but his hand was shaking and he dropped it on a colleague's foot. The vial shattered. My only thought was: "Oh, shit!" We immediately disinfected everything, and luckily our colleague was wearing thick leather shoes. Nothing happened to any of us.
In the end, you were finally able to create an image of the virus using the electron microscope.
Yes, and our first thought was: "What the hell is that?" The virus that we had spent so much time searching for was very big, very long and worm-like. It had no similarities with yellow fever. Rather, it looked like the extremely dangerous Marburg virus which, like ebola, causes a haemorrhagic fever. In the 1960s the virus killed several laboratory workers in Marburg, Germany.
Were you afraid at that point?
I knew almost nothing about the Marburg virus at the time. When I tell my students about it today, they think I must come from the stone age. But I actually had to go the library and look it up in an atlas of virology. It was the American Centres for Disease Control which determined a short time later that it wasn't the Marburg virus, but a related, unknown virus. We had also learned in the meantime that hundreds of people had already succumbed to the virus in Yambuku and the area around it.
A few days later, you became one of the first scientists to fly to Zaire.
Yes. The nun who had died and her fellow sisters were all from Belgium. In Yambuku, which had been part of the Belgian Congo, they operated a small mission hospital. When the Belgian government decided to send someone, I volunteered immediately. I was 27 and felt a bit like my childhood hero, Tintin. And, I have to admit, I was intoxicated by the chance to track down something totally new.

Suspected Ebola patient in Monrovia  
A girl is led to an ambulance after showing signs of Ebola infection in the village of Freeman Reserve, 30 miles north of the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP Was there any room for fear, or at least worry?

Of course it was clear to us that we were dealing with one of the deadliest infectious diseases the world had ever seen – and we had no idea that it was transmitted via bodily fluids! It could also have been mosquitoes. We wore protective suits and latex gloves and I even borrowed a pair of motorcycle goggles to cover my eyes. But in the jungle heat it was impossible to use the gas masks that we bought in Kinshasa. Even so, the Ebola patients I treated were probably just as shocked by my appearance as they were about their intense suffering. I took blood from around 10 of these patients. I was most worried about accidentally poking myself with the needle and infecting myself that way.
But you apparently managed to avoid becoming infected.
Well, at some point I did actually develop a high fever, a headache and diarrhoea …
... similar to Ebola symptoms?
Exactly. I immediately thought: "Damn, this is it!" But then I tried to keep my cool. I knew the symptoms I had could be from something completely different and harmless. And it really would have been stupid to spend two weeks in the horrible isolation tent that had been set up for us scientists for the worst case. So I just stayed alone in my room and waited. Of course, I didn't get a wink of sleep, but luckily I began feeling better by the next day. It was just a gastrointestinal infection. Actually, that is the best thing that can happen in your life: you look death in the eye but survive. It changed my whole approach, my whole outlook on life at the time.
You were also the one who gave the virus its name. Why Ebola?
On that day our team sat together late into the night – we had also had a couple of drinks – discussing the question. We definitely didn't want to name the new pathogen "Yambuku virus", because that would have stigmatised the place forever. There was a map hanging on the wall and our American team leader suggested looking for the nearest river and giving the virus its name. It was the Ebola river. So by around three or four in the morning we had found a name. But the map was small and inexact. We only learned later that the nearest river was actually a different one. But Ebola is a nice name, isn't it?
In the end, you discovered that the Belgian nuns had unwittingly spread the virus. How did that happen?
In their hospital they regularly gave pregnant women vitamin injections using unsterilised needles. By doing so, they infected many young women in Yambuku with the virus. We told the nuns about the terrible mistake they had made, but looking back I would say that we were much too careful in our choice of words. Clinics that failed to observe this and other rules of hygiene functioned as catalysts in all additional Ebola outbreaks. They drastically sped up the spread of the virus or made the spread possible in the first place. Even in the current Ebola outbreak in west Africa, hospitals unfortunately played this ignominious role in the beginning.
After Yambuku, you spent the next 30 years of your professional life devoted to combating Aids. But now Ebola has caught up to you again. American scientists fear that hundreds of thousands of people could ultimately become infected. Was such an epidemic to be expected?
No, not at all. On the contrary, I always thought that Ebola, in comparison to Aids or malaria, didn't present much of a problem because the outbreaks were always brief and local. Around June it became clear to me that there was something fundamentally different about this outbreak. At about the same time, the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières sounded the alarm. We Flemish tend to be rather unemotional, but it was at that point that I began to get really worried.
Why did WHO react so late?
On the one hand, it was because their African regional office isn't staffed with the most capable people but with political appointees. And the headquarters in Geneva suffered large budget cuts that had been agreed to by member states. The department for haemorrhagic fever and the one responsible for the management of epidemic emergencies were hit hard. But since August WHO has regained a leadership role.
There is actually a well-established procedure for curtailing Ebola outbreaks: isolating those infected and closely monitoring those who had contact with them. How could a catastrophe such as the one we are now seeing even happen?
I think it is what people call a perfect storm: when every individual circumstance is a bit worse than normal and they then combine to create a disaster. And with this epidemic there were many factors that were disadvantageous from the very beginning. Some of the countries involved were just emerging from terrible civil wars, many of their doctors had fled and their healthcare systems had collapsed. In all of Liberia, for example, there were only 51 doctors in 2010, and many of them have since died of Ebola.
The fact that the outbreak began in the densely populated border region between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia ...
… also contributed to the catastrophe. Because the people there are extremely mobile, it was much more difficult than usual to track down those who had had contact with the infected people. Because the dead in this region are traditionally buried in the towns and villages they were born in, there were highly contagious Ebola corpses travelling back and forth across the borders in pickups and taxis. The result was that the epidemic kept flaring up in different places.
For the first time in its history, the virus also reached metropolises such as Monrovia and Freetown. Is that the worst thing that can happen?
In large cities – particularly in chaotic slums – it is virtually impossible to find those who had contact with patients, no matter how great the effort. That is why I am so worried about Nigeria as well. The country is home to mega-cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt, and if the Ebola virus lodges there and begins to spread, it would be an unimaginable catastrophe.
Have we completely lost control of the epidemic?
I have always been an optimist and I think that we now have no other choice than to try everything, really everything. It's good that the United States and some other countries are finally beginning to help. But Germany or even Belgium, for example, must do a lot more. And it should be clear to all of us: This isn't just an epidemic any more. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don't just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, jeeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilise entire regions. I can only hope that we will be able to get it under control. I really never thought that it could get this bad.
What can really be done in a situation when anyone can become infected on the streets and, like in Monrovia, even the taxis are contaminated?
We urgently need to come up with new strategies. Currently, helpers are no longer able to care for all the patients in treatment centres. So caregivers need to teach family members who are providing care to patients how to protect themselves from infection to the extent possible. This on-site educational work is currently the greatest challenge. Sierra Leone experimented with a three-day curfew in an attempt to at least flatten out the infection curve a bit. At first I thought: "That is totally crazy." But now I wonder, "why not?" At least, as long as these measures aren't imposed with military power.
A three-day curfew sounds a bit desperate.
Yes, it is rather medieval. But what can you do? Even in 2014, we hardly have any way to combat this virus.
Do you think we might be facing the beginnings of a pandemic?
There will certainly be Ebola patients from Africa who come to us in the hopes of receiving treatment. And they might even infect a few people here who may then die. But an outbreak in Europe or North America would quickly be brought under control. I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in west Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives during the virus's incubation period, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital there. Doctors and nurses in India, too, often don't wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.
The virus is continually changing its genetic makeup. The more people who become infected, the greater the chance becomes that it will mutate ...
... which might speed its spread. Yes, that really is the apocalyptic scenario. Humans are actually just an accidental host for the virus, and not a good one. From the perspective of a virus, it isn't desirable for its host, within which the pathogen hopes to multiply, to die so quickly. It would be much better for the virus to allow us to stay alive longer.
Could the virus suddenly change itself such that it could be spread through the air?
Like measles, you mean? Luckily that is extremely unlikely. But a mutation that would allow Ebola patients to live a couple of weeks longer is certainly possible and would be advantageous for the virus. But that would allow Ebola patients to infect many, many more people than is currently the case.
But that is just speculation, isn't it?
Certainly. But it is just one of many possible ways the virus could change to spread itself more easily. And it is clear that the virus is mutating.
You and two colleagues wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal supporting the testing of experimental drugs. Do you think that could be the solution?
Patients could probably be treated most quickly with blood serum from Ebola survivors, even if that would likely be extremely difficult given the chaotic local conditions. We need to find out now if these methods, or if experimental drugs like ZMapp, really help. But we should definitely not rely entirely on new treatments. For most people, they will come too late in this epidemic. But if they help, they should be made available for the next outbreak.
Testing of two vaccines is also beginning. It will take a while, of course, but could it be that only a vaccine can stop the epidemic?
I hope that's not the case. But who knows? Maybe.
In Zaire during that first outbreak, a hospital with poor hygiene was responsible for spreading the illness. Today almost the same thing is happening. Was Louis Pasteur right when he said: "It is the microbes who will have the last word"?
Of course, we are a long way away from declaring victory over bacteria and viruses. HIV is still here; in London alone, five gay men become infected daily. An increasing number of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. And I can still see the Ebola patients in Yambuku, how they died in their shacks and we couldn't do anything except let them die. In principle, it's still the same today. That is very depressing. But it also provides me with a strong motivation to do something. I love life. That is why I am doing everything I can to convince the powerful in this world to finally send sufficient help to west Africa. Now!
Der Spiegel

Friday, October 3, 2014

HIV pandemic's origins located: It may have emerged in Congo in 1920s

 Scanning electron micrograph of an HIV-infected H9 T cell. Credit: NIAID

The HIV pandemic with us today is almost certain to have begun its global spread from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to a new study.
An international team, led by Oxford University and University of Leuven scientists, has reconstructed the genetic history of the HIV-1 group M , the event that saw HIV spread across the African continent and around the world, and concluded that it originated in Kinshasa. The team's analysis suggests that the of group M is highly likely to have emerged in Kinshasa around 1920 (with 95% of estimated dates between 1909 and 1930).
HIV is known to have been transmitted from primates and apes to humans at least 13 times but only one of these transmission events has led to a human pandemic. It was only with the event that led to HIV-1 group M that a pandemic occurred, resulting in almost 75 million infections to date. The team's analysis suggests that, between the 1920s and 1950s, a 'perfect storm' of factors, including urban growth, strong railway links during Belgian colonial rule, and changes to the sex trade, combined to see HIV emerge from Kinshasa and spread across the globe.
A report of the research is published in this week's Science.
'Until now most studies have taken a piecemeal approach to HIV's genetic history, looking at particular HIV genomes in particular locations,' said Professor Oliver Pybus of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, a senior author of the paper. 'For the first time we have analysed all the available evidence using the latest phylogeographic techniques, which enable us to statistically estimate where a virus comes from. This means we can say with a high degree of certainty where and when the HIV pandemic originated. It seems a combination of factors in Kinshasa in the early 20th Century created a 'perfect storm' for the emergence of HIV, leading to a generalised epidemic with unstoppable momentum that unrolled across sub-Saharan Africa.'
'Our study required the development of a statistical framework for reconstructing the spread of viruses through space and time from their genome sequences,' said Professor Philippe Lemey of the University of Leuven's Rega Institute, another senior author of the paper. 'Once the pandemic's spatiotemporal origins were clear they could be compared with historical data and it became evident that the early spread of HIV-1 from Kinshasa to other population centres followed predictable patterns.'
One of the factors the team's analysis suggests was key to the HIV pandemic's origins was the DRC's transport links, in particular its railways, that made Kinshasa one of the best connected of all central African cities.
'Data from colonial archives tells us that by the end of 1940s over one million people were travelling through Kinshasa on the railways each year,' said Dr Nuno Faria of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, first author of the paper. 'Our genetic data tells us that HIV very quickly spread across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a country the size of Western Europe), travelling with people along railways and waterways to reach Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi in the extreme South and Kisangani in the far North by the end of the 1930s and early 1950s. This helped establishing early secondary foci of HIV-1 transmission in regions that were well connected to southern and eastern African countries. We think it is likely that the social changes around the independence in 1960 saw the virus 'break out' from small groups of infected people to infect the wider population and eventually the world.'
It had been suggested that demographic growth or genetic differences between HIV-1 group M and other strains might be major factors in the establishment of the HIV pandemic. However the team's evidence suggests that, alongside transport, social changes such as the changing behaviour of sex workers, and public health initiatives against other diseases that led to the unsafe use of needles may have contributed to turning HIV into a full-blown epidemic – supporting ideas originally put forward by study co-author Jacques Pepin from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada.
Professor Oliver Pybus said: 'Our research suggests that following the original animal to human transmission of the virus (probably through the hunting or handling of bush meat) there was only a small 'window' during the Belgian colonial era for this particular strain of HIV to emerge and spread into a pandemic. By the 1960s transport systems, such as the railways, that enabled the virus to spread vast distances were less active, but by that time the seeds of the pandemic were already sown across Africa and beyond.'
The team says that more research is needed to understand the role different social factors may have played in the origins of the HIV pandemic; in particular research on archival specimens to study the origins and evolution of HIV, and research into the relationship between the spread of Hepatitis C and the use of unsafe needles as part of public health initiatives may give further insights into the conditions that helped HIV to spread so widely.
More information: The early spread and epidemic ignition of HIV-1 in human populations, Science, 2014.… 1126/science.1256739
Journal reference: Science search and more info website
Provided by Oxford University search and more info website

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ebola virus: 'Biological war' in Liberia

Health workers carry body of woman suspected to have died of Ebola in Clara Town, Monrovia (10 September 2014) 
 Ebola robs death of its dignity as victims' bodies are quickly
 burnt with the plastic suits they are wrapped in
With warnings from officials that the Ebola virus is "spreading like wildfire" in Liberia, Sarah Crowe, who works for the UN children's agency (Unicef), describes her week on the Ebola front line:
Flights into disaster zones are usually full of aid workers and journalists. Not this time.
The plane was one of the first in after some 10 airlines stopped flying to Liberia because of Ebola, and still it was empty.
When I was last in Liberia in 2006, it was to work on reintegration of child soldiers in a time of peace. Now the country is fighting a "biological war" from an unseen enemy without foot soldiers.
As we enter the airport, an unnerving sight - a team of health workers kitted out with masks and gloves asks us to wash our hands with a chlorine solution and takes our temperatures.
Health worker being sprayed with disinfectant  
Health workers themselves have to be frequently sprayed with disinfectant
It was to be the start of a new routine - the hours and days since, I have had my temperature taken about 15 times and have had to wash my hands with chlorine at the entrance to every building, every office, every store, and every hotel.

Start Quote

It was a normal pregnancy, but she was turned away by every hospital as staff were too afraid to take her in case she had Ebola”
Even in small villages. And yet ironically, despite all this, few health facilities are properly functioning.
The next morning, the breakfast room at the hotel is buzzing - a large group of scientists from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) huddle around computers animatedly talking, checking charts and data.
The world's Ebola experts are here - writing the first draft of Ebola history in real time.
The capital, Monrovia, reveals itself as a city branded by Ebola posters shouting out what people know all too well by now - Ebola is deadly, protect yourself, wash your hands.
Human booby traps The talk in the car, on the radio is only about Ebola - people calling in want to know what to do when their child gets sick, they either fear health centres and hospitals or they are not treated.
Ebola virus disease (EVD)
Ebola virus
  • Symptoms include high fever, bleeding and central nervous system damage
  • Spread by body fluids, such as blood and saliva
  • Fatality rate can reach 90% - but current outbreak has mortality rate of about 55%
  • Incubation period is two to 21 days
  • There is no proven vaccine or cure
  • Supportive care such as rehydrating patients who have diarrhoea and vomiting can help recovery
  • Fruit bats, a delicacy for some West Africans, are considered to be virus's natural host
A colleague tells me she has just lost a family member about to give birth.
It was a normal pregnancy, but she was turned away by every hospital as staff were too afraid to take her in case she had Ebola.
She did not have the virus, but she died because of delivery complications. Her baby at least survived.
News of the US obstetrician in Liberia who contracted the deadly disease while delivering a baby has helped fuel such worries.
So far 169 Liberian health care workers have been affected by Ebola and 80 have died - a massive blow to a fragile health system.
Next I prepare to go up country to Lofa county where more warehouse space was needed - Unicef has delivered tonnes of equipment, including personal protective suits, chlorine and oral rehydration salts to Liberia - and more monitoring was required of those other now-neglected childhood killers like measles, diarrhoea and cholera.
Ebola has turned survivors into human booby traps, unexploded ordinance - touch and you die. Ebola psychosis is paralysing.
Liberian health worker disinfects taxi (9 September 2014) 
The workers often look like crop sprayers
Heavy rains lash down over the weekend - I shudder to think of Medecins Sans Frontieres and health ministry workers and patients battling under plastic sheeting in such rains.
Luckily the skies over Monrovia clear for the hour-and-a-half helicopter ride to the hot-zone border between Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.
In Voinjama, I'm out with a team of social mobilisers who interact and educate communities.
They are playing our song - Ebola Is Here - on a megaphone through the village.

Millions more at risk in Ebola outbreak, British study finds

Research by the University of Oxford reveals how 15 more countries across Africa could be hit by the Ebola virus


The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history could spread to a further 15 countries in West and Central Africa, putting up to 70 million people at risk of infection, a ground-breaking study has found.
Research by the University of Oxford compared historic outbreaks to the virus’ possible transmission in bats and chimpanzees to predict how the disease could spread through its vast animal reservoir.
It is the first time scientists have attempted to explain how the virus, which is contracted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has travelled westward across Africa.
The resulting map shows how the populations of the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Ghana and a dozen more countries could be hit by the outbreak, which has already killed nearly 2,300 people in 2014.
Several species of bat are suspected of carrying the virus through the jungles of West and Central Africa without showing symptoms, passing the disease onto other animals which are eaten by some communities as “bush meat”.
Researchers said transmission to the human population was not “inevitable”, but that environmental factors in many more countries than previously considered made it possible for further Ebola outbreak outbreaks.
According to the Oxford study, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Angola, Tanzania, Togo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar and Malawi could also join those countries already affected.
More than 1,000 people have so far died in Liberia, where the country’s Defence Minister Brownie Samukai has said the disease threatens the country's very existence.
"Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence. The deadly Ebola virus has caused a disruption of the normal functioning of our State," he said yesterday.
Further deaths have been reported in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Guinea and one case has recently been confirmed Senegal.
The Oxford study’s author Nick Golding, a researcher at the University’s Department of Zoology, said: "Our map shows the likely ‘reservoir’ of Ebola virus in animal populations, and this is larger than has been previously appreciated.
"This does not mean that transmission to humans is inevitable in these areas; only that all the environmental and epidemiological conditions suitable for an outbreak occur there.

Spinosaurus fossil: 'Giant swimming dinosaur' unearthed

Artist's impression of Spinosaurus 
 Spinosaurus is thought to be the largest known carnivore and would have feasted on huge fish and sharks

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A giant fossil, unearthed in the Sahara desert, has given scientists an unprecedented look at the largest-known carnivorous dinosaur: Spinosaurus.
The 95-million-year-old remains confirm a long-held theory: that this is the first-known swimming dinosaur.
Scientists say the beast had flat, paddle-like feet and nostrils on top of its crocodilian head that would allow it to submerge with ease.
The research is published in the journal Science.
Lead author Nizar Ibrahim, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, said: "It is a really bizarre dinosaur - there's no real blueprint for it.
"It has a long neck, a long trunk, a long tail, a 7ft (2m) sail on its back and a snout like a crocodile.
"And when we look at the body proportions, the animal was clearly not as agile on land as other dinosaurs were, so I think it spent a substantial amount of time in the water."

While other ancient creatures, such as the plesiosaur and mosasaur, lived in the water, they are marine reptiles rather than dinosaurs, making Spinosaurus the only-known semi-aquatic dinosaur.
Spinosaurus aegyptiacus remains were first discovered about 100 years ago in Egypt, and were moved to a museum in Munich, Germany.
However, they were destroyed during World War II, when an Allied bomb hit the building.
A few drawings of the fossil survived, but since then only fragments of Spinosaurus bones have been found.
The new fossil, though, which was extracted from the Kem Kem fossil beds in eastern Morocco by a private collector, has provided scientists with a more detailed look at the dinosaur.
"For the very first time, we can piece together the information we have from the drawings of the old skeleton, the fragments of bones, and now this new fossil, and reconstruct this dinosaur," said Dr Ibrahim.

Reconstruction of Spinosaurus  
The dinosaur has a number of anatomical features that suggest it was semi-aquatic 
Life-size reconstruction of Spinosaurus 
  A life-size reconstruction of Spinosaurus is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC
The team says that Spinosaurus was a fearsome beast.
The researchers say that, at more than 15m (50ft) from nose to tail, it was potentially the largest of all the carnivorous dinosaurs - bigger even than the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.
Scientists had long suspected that the giant could swim, but the new fossil offers yet more evidence for its semi-aquatic existence.
Dr Ibrahim explained: "The one thing we noticed was that the proportions were really bizarre. The hind limbs were shorter than in other predatory dinosaurs, the foot claws were quite wide and the feet almost paddle shaped.
"We thought: 'Wow - this looks looks like adaptations for a life mainly spent in water.'"
He added: "And then we noticed other things. The snout is very similar to that of fish-eating crocodiles, with interlocking cone-shaped teeth.
"And even the bones look more like those of aquatic animals than of other dinosaurs. They are very dense and that is something you see in animals like penguins or sea cows, and that is important for buoyancy in the water."
Its vast spiked dorsal sail, though, was probably more useful for attracting mates than aiding swimming.

Kem Kem fossil beds  
The fossil was unearthed from the Kem Kem fossil beds in Morocco
The researchers say that Spinosaurus lived in a place they describe as "the river of giants", a waterway that stretched from Morocco to Egypt.
They believe it would have feasted on giant sharks and other car-sized fish called coelacanths and lungfish, competing with enormous crocodile-like creatures for its prey.
Commenting on the research, Prof Paul Barrett, from London's Natural History Museum, said: "The idea that Spinosaurus was aquatic has been around for some time and this adds some useful new evidence to address that issue.
"But finding a more complete skeleton after the best material was destroyed in a WW2 bombing raid is significant, and this has allowed some surprising things to be found out about this animal.
"One of the things about this paper that struck me as particularly neat was the suggestion that Spinosaurus was a quadruped - all other meat-eating dinosaurs were bipeds. It would have moved in a really freaky, weird way in comparison with its relatives - whether on land or in water.
"One issue though, due to the way it was obtained - through a private collector - is that it would be good to get confirmation, such as the original excavation map, to show that all of the parts definitely came from a single skeleton."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ebola’s Terrifying Evolution

The Daily Beast
Ebola’s Terrifying Evolution
In a paper released Wednesday afternoon titled Ebola Then and Now, two doctors on the frontlines of the 1976 outbreak in Zaire recall the meticulous procedures that kept the climax of the outbreak to 318 people. While the piece offers valuable information for those fighting the current Ebola outbreak, it underscores just how dangerous it has become. That was then, this is now. Here, juxtaposed with the New England Journal of Medicine’s report, is today’s response.
1. Delayed Response Time
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The study’s authors, Dr. Joel G. Breman and Karl M. Johnson, arrived in Zaire in 1976 equipped with new virologic and immunologic tests that helped them immediately identify the (then new) agent. “In Zaire, we became, respectively, the chief of surveillance, epidemiology, and control and the scientific director of the International Commission for the Investigation and Control of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever in Zaire,” they write. Immediately upon arrival, five commission members were sent to the village of Yambuku—the original site of the outbreak—to map the extent of the outbreak. The other 70 members remained at the hospital base.
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On March 23, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported what they called a “rapidly evolving outbreak” of Ebola in West Africa, where 49 cases and 39 deaths had been recorded. One month later, the number of cases had quadrupled, with WHO showing more than 208 cases and 130 deaths. It wasn’t until August 6, with 1,779 cases and close to 1,000 deaths, that WHO began discussing whether or not the outbreak constituted an international health emergency. By the time it did a few days later, which made it nearly six months after the initial outbreak, it was too late.
2. Infective Quarantine
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When Breman and Johnson arrived on the scene, the government had already quarantined 275,000 people in the Bumba Zone. Planes, boats, cars, strangers—all were banned from entering the cordoned off area. At first, the doctors write, the villagers were “fearful and agitated,” lacking the basic necessities needed to survive. When members of the International Commission arrived to help, the community was wary. But with an electron micgrograph to illustrate what was fueling the outbreak, they were able to gain the trust of the people. “People along the road from the town …were relieved when we said we’d come to stop the disease’s spread, treat patients, and meet their families,” the paper reads. Inside the quarantine zone, even more specific procedures were outlined to keep those within the bounds of it safe.
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Attempts to quarantine during the current outbreak, led by the local armies and police, have been catastrophic. When the Liberian government attempted to contain the outbreak in Liberia through a quarantine in West Point—an exceptionally impoverished area near Monrovia—they did the opposite. With anywhere from 70K to 120K residents living in tiny shacks without running water, sanitation, or electricity, they left a struggling demographic without the means to protect themselves—many, without knowledge of what it was that necessitated protection. With people fighting for food, violent outbreaks between Liberians and the army began to heat up at the 10-day mark. When four were injured and one killed, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf officially lifted the quarantine.
3. Mistrust from Communities
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For those outside of the quarantine zones, Drs. Breman and Johnson laid out specific guidelines to community members to help reduce the risk of the infection’s spread. Family members who became infected with the disease were placed in “huts outside their villages,” a procedure that allowed victims to be isolated outside of a hospital. The doctors then suggested one family member, “preferably someone who had recovered from the illness,” deliver food, water, and medicine to the patient each day until a medical professional could arrive on the scene. With the help of other community members, the doctors successfully educated the families of those who died about the dangers of handling the body in typical ritual fashion. “Credibility was gradually restored,” the authors write. “Especially when we began visiting villages accompanied by the three remaining nuns.” Bodies were covered with bleach and buried, and isolation huts burned. An already-local tradition of shaving one’s head in mourning for a lost family member became dual purpose—used to flag potential carriers of the disease.
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With the virus already widespread when international relief began pouring into West Africa, spending individual time in affected communities was not an option. Without this crucial period of trust building, many in the communities spent months under the impression that Ebola was either a hoax or a disease brought to West Africa by American nurses and doctors. The fallout of this loss of trust has had an enormous impact on the outbreak. Without a clear understanding of how Ebola is spread and when it is contagious, family members continued to bury their loved ones—who, at that point, are the most contagious—with typical burial rites such as washing, touching, and even kissing the corpses. While doctors in West Africa now report success educating the communities and persuading them not to perform burials, the amount of burials already performed have infected hundreds if not thousands.
At the end of the report, which highlights stirring images from the original 1976 outbreak, the authors offer suggestions for where the international community should focus their support. “We believe the main priorities should be adequate staff for rigorous identification, surveillance, and care of patients and primary contacts,” they write. “Strict isolation of patients; good clinical care; and rapid, culturally sensitive disposal of infectious cadavers.”
Breman, who got wind of the current outbreak when a CDC officer stationed in Guinea called him for advice in March, is still optimistic. Most of his positivity rests on the news that people in the villages have finally begun to trust that the outbreak is real, and that the health workers are there to stop it. And with the announcement that the U.S. plans to send a “surge” of workers into West Africa armed with $22 million from the Pentagon, America now looks poised to fight back against Ebola.
“These are the darkest days, they know what they’re doing,” Breman tells me of the health care workers in the field. “They know the dangers. There are dangers at the front lines. It’s a war zone, and Ebola is the enemy.”
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Monday, September 1, 2014

Could Dinosaurs Have Survived?

The feathered dinosaur Microraptor pounces on a nest of primitive birds. Both species lived around 120 million years ago in what is now northern China. Credit: Brian Choo
The feathered dinosaur Microraptor pounces on a nest of primitive birds. Both species lived around 120 million years ago in what is now northern China. Credit: Brian Choo
Dinosaurs last lived on Earth about 65 million years ago. For many years, scientists have debated how and why dinosaurs disappeared. But improved tools and records of fossil remains have led some experts to agree about the disappearance of these ancient creatures. We get more from Jeri Watson.
University of Edinburgh researcher Steve Brusatte led the team of experts. They blamed a huge rock from space – a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid -- for the dinosaursdisappearance. Their findings appeared in the journal Biological Reviews.
“The asteroid did it.  But that asteroid probably hit at a particularly bad time.”
Steve Brusatte says the rocky object was responsible for environmental damage worldwide.  He says the asteroid caused tsunami waves, earthquakes, wildfires, acid rain and sudden temperature changes.                          
Mr. Brusatte and his team proposed that if the asteroid had struck the Earth a few million years earlier, the dinosaurs might have been better able to survive. By the time the asteroid struck, dinosaurs had already lost some of their strength
“A lot of the big plant eating dinosaurs, those horned dinosaurs like triceratops, the bottom of the food chain dinosaurs, the base of dinosaur ecosystems, those dinosaurs had declined a little bit in their diversity.”
He notes that dinosaur populations had grown and then decreased in number over 150 million years
His team’s report appears in the journal Biological Reviews.
But some plants and animals DID survive through the period of dinosaur extinction. Another study looks at one group of dinosaurs that lived through the disasters. It shows how large cold-blooded, meat–eating animals like Tyrannosaurus Rex may have developed into small, warm-blooded birds.                                              
Biologist Michael Lee works jointly with the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide.  He was the lead writer of the study.  He and his team centered their efforts on one group of dinosaur, meat-eating theropodsThey examined 120 species.
One group of dinosaurs was evolving, changing four times as fast as all the other dinosaurs living during that period.  And over time, the fast-evolving group became birds
The scientists studied how those changes took place over 50 million years. They say that during that time, each generation got smaller and smaller. Michael Lee says that by the time the asteroid hit, the earliest birds had been living for about 100 million years.
“The bird ancestor started exploring a new kind of lifestyle which involved smaller body size, greater agility and greater ability to regulate their body heat using things like feathers and various other things.’
Mr. Lee said smaller body size was responsible for the changes.  And that, in turn, it would have made way for changes in their body structure like the addition of wings and flight feathers.  He also noted other changes seen in modern birds, such as wish bones.
About 10,000 species of birds now live on the planet.

This story was based on a report by VOA Correspondent Rosanne Skirble and adapted for Learning English by Jeri WatsonGeorge Grow was the editor

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ebola 'moving faster than efforts to control it': WHO warn virus could spread to other countries causing 'catastrophic' loss of life

  • WHO chief warns virus could spread to other countries causing loss of life
  • Says that Ebola is moving faster than their efforts to control it
  • Added that the response to the virus had been 'woefully inadequate'
  • Made the comments at a summit in Guinea to discuss the infection
  • Around 700 people have died from the virus so far, with 1,201 reported cases
The World Health Organisation has warned that the deadly Ebola virus was spiralling out of control in West Africa and could spread to other countries causing catastrophic loss of life.
The warning came from the head of the WHO Margaret Chan who said that the epidemic was moving faster than their efforts to control it.
Dr Chan made the stark warning at a regional summit of the leaders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in the Guinean capital of Conakry, where she also said the response the virus had been 'woefully inadequate.'
Medical workers in Sierra Leone wear protective clothing while treating patients infected with the Ebola virus in Kenema District
Medical workers in Sierra Leone wear protective clothing while treating patients infected with the Ebola virus in Kenema District
A government worker in Liberia mixes disinfectant to spray the streets of Monrovia to try and bring the Ebola virus under control
A government worker in Liberia mixes disinfectant to spray the streets of Monrovia to try and bring the Ebola virus under control
Dr Margaret Chan arrives at Conakry airport in Guinea for talks with the leaders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia about the Ebola virus
Dr Margaret Chan arrives at Conakry airport in Guinea for talks with the leaders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia about the Ebola virus

She explained: 'If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.
'It is taking place in areas with fluid population movements over porous borders, and it has demonstrated its ability to spread via air travel, contrary to what has been seen in past outbreaks.
'Cases are occurring in rural areas which are difficult to access, but also in densely populated capital cities. This meeting must mark a turning point in the outbreak response.'
However, she did emphasise that the general public is not at a high risk of infection.
The warning came from the head of the WHO Margaret Chan who said that the epidemic was moving faster than their efforts to control it
The warning came from the head of the WHO Margaret Chan who said that the epidemic was moving faster than their efforts to control it

She added: 'Constant mutation and adaptation are the survival mechanisms of viruses and other microbes.
'We must not give this virus opportunities to deliver more surprises.'
The leaders of the three countries at the summit hoped to organise the deployment of hundreds of extra medical personnel as part of a $100million emergency response to the epidemic, which has claimed more than 700 lives.
The outbreak, which has been described as the largest ever in the nearly four-decade history of the disease with 1,201 Ebola cases reported in the three countries, starts with flu-like symptoms before evolving to cause catastrophic internal bleeding.
Dr Chan's warning comes as Sierra Leone today declared a public health emergency to tackle the deadly virus and called in security forces to quarantine infected areas.
Soldiers have been deployed to the streets of Liberia to prevent panic as fears spread about the deadly virus
Soldiers have been deployed to the streets of Liberia to prevent panic as fears spread about the deadly virus
Health officials in the U.S. have warned Americans not to travel to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea
Health officials in the U.S. have warned Americans not to travel to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea

President Ernest Bai Koroma said the measures resembled a tough anti-Ebola package announced by neighbouring Liberia last night.
Mr Koroma also announced he was cancelling a visit to Washington for a U.S.-Africa summit next week because of the crisis.
The first cases of Ebola emerged in Guinea in March, and later spread across the borders to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Outbreaks of the virus in previous years had occurred in other parts of Africa.
The virus has infected three African capitals with international airports and officials are trying to step up screening of passengers.
Medical vehicles in Liberia drive through the streets with posters on them saying 'Ebola must go' as the virus spreads
Medical vehicles in Liberia drive through the streets with posters on them saying 'Ebola must go' as the virus spreads
The outbreak has been described as the largest ever in the nearly four-decade history of the disease, with 1,201 Ebola cases reported
The outbreak has been described as the largest ever in the nearly four-decade history of the disease, with 1,201 Ebola cases reported

Experts say the risk of travellers contracting it is considered low because it requires direct contact with bodily fluids or secretions such as urine, blood, sweat or saliva. Ebola can't be spread like flu through casual contact or breathing in the same air.
Patients are contagious only once the disease has progressed to the point they show symptoms, according to the WHO. The most vulnerable are health care workers and relatives who come in much closer contact with the sick.
In Liberia, authorities say 28 out of the 45 health workers who have contracted the

Study traces dinosaur evolution into early birds

Associated Press

This undated artist rendering provided by the journal Science shows the dinosaur lineage which evolved into birds shrank in body size continuously for 50 million years. From left are, the ancestral neotheropod, the ancestral tetanuran, the ancestral coelurosaur, the ancestral paravian and Archaeopteryx. Scientists have mapped how one group of dinosaurs evolved from the likes of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex and primitive Herrerasaurus to the welcome robin and cute hummingbird. The surprisingly steady shrinking and elegant evolution of some Triassic dinosaurs is detailed in the journal Science on Thursday. Comparing fossils of 120 different species and 1,500 skeletal features, especially leg bones, researchers constructed a detailed family tree of theropod dinosaurs. That suborder of dinos survives to this day as birds, however unrecognizable and improbable it sounds. (AP Photo/Davide Bonnadonna, Science)

This undated artist rendering provided by the journal Science shows the
 dinosaur lineage which evolved into birds …

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists have mapped how a group of fearsome, massive dinosaurs evolved and shrank to the likes of robins and hummingbirds.
Comparing fossils of 120 different species and 1,500 skeletal features, especially thigh bones, researchers constructed a detailed family tree for the class of two-legged meat-eaters called theropods. That suborder of dinos survives to this day as birds, however unrecognizable and improbable it sounds.
The steady downsizing and elegant evolution of the theropods is detailed in the journal Science on Thursday.
"They just kept on shrinking and shrinking and shrinking for about 50 million years," said study author Michael S. Y. Lee of the University of Adelaide in Australia. He called them "shape-shifters."
Lee and colleagues created a dinosaur version of the iconic ape-to-man drawing of human evolution. In this version, the lumbering large dinos shrink, getting more feathery and big-chested, until they are the earliest version of birds.
For a couple decades scientists have linked birds to this family of dinosaurs because they shared hollow bones, wishbones, feathers and other characteristics. But the Lee study gives the best picture of how steady and unusual theropod evolution was. The skeletons of theropods changed four times faster than other types of dinosaurs, the study said.
A few members of that dino family did not shrink, including T. rex, which is more of a distant cousin to birds than a direct ancestor, Lee said.
He said he and colleagues were surprised by just how consistently the theropods shrank over evolutionary time, while other types of dinosaurs showed ups and downs in body size.
The first theropods were large, weighing around 600 pounds. They roamed about 220 million to 230 million years ago. Then about 200 million years ago, when some of the creatures weighed about 360 pounds, the shrinking became faster and more prolonged, the study said. In just 25 million years, the beasts were slimmed down to barely 100 pounds. By 167 million years ago, 6-pound paravians, more direct ancestor of birds, were around.
And 163 million years ago the first birds, weighing less than two pounds, probably came on the scene, the study said
Paul Sereno, a dinosaur researcher at the University of Chicago who wasn't part of this study, praised Lee's work as innovative.
The steady size reduction shows "something very strange going on," Sereno said. "This is key to what went on at the origin of birds."
People may think bigger is better, but sometimes when it comes to evolution smaller can be better because bigger creatures are more likely to go extinct, Sereno said.
And when the theropods started shrinking there weren't many other small species that would compete with them, Lee said.
"The dinosaur ancestors of birds found a new niche and a new way of life," Lee said.
Sereno added, "When you are small, it's a totally different ball game. You can fly and glide and I think that's what drove it."
The journal Science: