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.

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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.”
Related from The Daily Beast

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