A new reports says that up to half of all U.S. residents may be ineligible for smallpox vaccination because of the growing incidence of eczema. In a report appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Dr. Renata J.M. Engler from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, and colleagues note that in people with eczema, exposure to vaccinia — a relative of smallpox used to inoculate people — or even contact with someone who was recently vaccinated can cause a condition that can lead to scarring, blindness and even death. “A major challenge lies in the ability to protect the population from the disease while minimizing the considerable side effects from the vaccine,” Reuters quotes from their report. The researchers say more studies should be conducted to help identify people who are prone to side vaccinia effects. Others who should avoid smallpox vaccination include people with immune deficiency diseases such as AIDS, and those on immune system-suppressing drugs, such as transplant patients.
Dual use technology usually starts out with a military use that civilians find a way to commercialize. The U.S. Navy is hoping to turn that equation around with a $5 million program to improve breast cancer detection. As it happens, looking for a cancerous cell in a human breast relies on a lot of the same science as identifying targets in spy satellite photos. And since the Navy believes its current pick-’em-out technology has hit a ceiling, it hopes to develop advances in breast cancer screening that can be applied to spotting Osama bin Laden from space. Wired has a terrific story on this, and notes that real-world applications are already emerging.
A Los Angeles County woman has tested positive for West Nile virus in what is likely to be the first case of a person contracting the illness west of the Rockies, state health officials said today. Today’s preliminary results are expected to be confirmed by further tests next week. The unidentified woman, who is being treated for meningitis, had not traveled outside the region, which would indicate that the infection, if confirmed, occurred locally. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 people have died so far this year from the disease, which is spread by mosquitos (or possibly through organ transplants).
From Barney W. Greinke in Berkeley:
“When people point out the great technological accomplishments of the 20th century, they usually think it’s the big things that are the most important ones. The atom bomb, jet airplanes, the Salk vaccine, electronic computing, DNA, men on the moon.
“How incredibly wrong they are.
THOMPSON SAYS FOOD SUPPLY VULNERABLE TO ATTACK
The number of U.S. food inspectors has risen over the last year, but Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the nation is still vulnerable to an attack on its food supply. It was clear even before Sept. 11 that the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system had big holes, the Associated Press reports, with 150 inspectors together examining less than one percent of the nation’s food. After last fall, Congress opened the purse strings enough to hire 750 additional inspectors, and new technology has made some inspections faster. But Thompson said danger remains. “I still believe that is the area we are subject to a terrorist attack in the future and one that could cause problems.” In perhaps the most shocking part of Thompson’s coments, he blamed the previously low number of inspectors on a vindictive Congress that punished the agency for former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s efforts to regulate the tobacco industry.
DUST-SIZED CHIPS TO COMBAT BIOTERRORISM
Silicon chips the size of dust particles that can quickly detect biological and chemical agents have been developed by University of California, San Diego scientists. As reported by HealthScoutNews, the versatile chips can identify substances that can be dissolved in drinking water or sprayed into the air during a bioterrorist attack. “The idea is that you can have something that’s as small as a piece of dust with some intelligence built into it, so that it could be inconspicuously stuck to paint on a wall or to the side of a truck or dispersed into a cloud of gas,” UCSD researcher Michael Sailor said. Each chip is barcoded, and can be read using a laser detector to see what if any reaction has occurred. “When the dust recognizes what kinds of chemicals or biological agents are present, that information can be read … to tell us if the cloud that’s coming toward us is filled with anthrax bacteria or if the tank of drinking water into which we’ve sprinkled the dust is toxic,” Sailor said.
Chalk up mass-washings as another activity wrecked by the spectre of terrorism. Thirty years ago, a call for volunteers to strip to their skivvies, as the coy Washington Post puts it, would have signaled some post-Summer of Love fun. These days, it refers to a far more sober scrubbing: the debut of a new $350,000 chemical, biological and radiation decontamination facility at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia.
In Britain a central rationale in support of fox hunting has been challenged by a scientific study. Hunting advocates have long claimed that fox hunts keep the fox population from exploding, protecting livestock. But scientists from the University of Bristol said today that banning fox hunting would not cause an increase in the fox population. This announcement adds some concrete support to a debate that has been waging for years between hunting defenders and animal welfare campaigners. The scientists got the opportunity to test assumptions about the effects a ban would have because of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Britain in 2001 that led to a ten-month ban on fox hunting. The British government is currently in a six-month period of consultation in search of a compromise on fox hunting between the House of Commons, who earlier this year voted for a full ban, and the House of Lords, who voted for licensed hunting.
The threat of bioterrorism is growing as more countries try to develop biological weapons, a CIA analyst told members of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Council on Public Health Preparedness. “Biological warfare is an attractive option . . . because it’s relatively inexpensive to develop,” said Kimberly Stergulz, an analyst at the CIA’s Weapons, Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center. A result, she said, is that countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria, and a growing number of non-state groups, are pursuing the capability. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the CIA employee told the council that developing a biological weapons program could cost about $10 million, compared with $100 million to develop chemical weapon capability or $2 billion for nuclear capability. Stergulz presented the information at the first meeting of the council, a group of 21 health specialists and scientists who will advise the federal government on different aspects of potential public health emergencies.
The odds of getting hit by a meteorite are pretty slim. Say, one in several billion. But a Yorkshire girl looks to have been that lucky loner, and best of all, she wasn’t killed or maimed in the process. As reported by the BBC, 14-year-old Siobhan Cowton was getting into the family car outside her home last Thursday when a stone fell on her foot from the sky. The stone, which was “quite hot, ? looked very unusual, with a bubbled surface and tiny indentations like volcanic lava,” the teen said. She showed it to her dad, who was likewise taken by the heavenly descender. According to Dr. Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, the stone could have come from Mars. After some testing, the Cowtons plan to have the rock mounted in a glass case so Siobhan can keep it for the rest of her life. “After all,” says poppa, “it is not every day you get hit by a meteorite.”
Long, dark manes on male lions are more more attractive to females than shorter, lighter manes, researchers reported in today’s issue of the journal Science. Peyton West and Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota set up dummy lions with different mane types at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. While males were more inclined to approach dummies with lighter, shorter manes, females were drawn to the dummies with big, dark hair. There’s good reason for this: blood tests revealed that males with darker manes tend to have higher levels of testosterone. But the most-wanted males pay a price for their looks: the dark hairs make the lions hotter, literally, and this extra heat results in a good deal of abnormal sperm.
Government officials in Thailand have been whining about the new trend of adopting giant African roaches as pets. Because they make lousy pets? No. Because they’re supposedly filthy. The people of Bangkok — like children in classrooms and museums the world over — are quite taken with the large Madagascar hissing cockroach, and are snapping them up at the popular Chatuchak market. But the goverment is worried that escaped roaches could become a health risk and is asking vendors to stop selling them. The Madagascar hissing cockroach is a docile, slow-paced creature that can grow to 3 inches and live for more than 3 years; its name derives from the fact that it can force air through a pair of breathing pores in its abdomen to make a hissing noise. It has not been established that roaches actually do spread disease, though some people are allergic to the feces of certain species. The hissing roach lives outdoors in the jungles of Madagascar with the lemurs and chameleons, and like 99 percent of roach species is not a household pest. (And check out the roach cam.)
The Washington Post, which built its reputation covering the federal government, has in the last year or two carved out a respectable niche in the tech sector. The two come together in stories like this, in which reporters Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jonathan Krim delve into the debate underway in the Bush administration on the proper rules of engagement for cyberwarfare. Bush’s point man on the topic, Richard Clarke, says it’s still nation-states that pose the biggest threat in the cyber arena, not terrorist groups. The administration has traced break-ins back to foreign governments and even reckons a state may have been involved in developing last year’s damaging Code Red virus. The prospect of more attacks has led the government to explore how far it is willing to go to counter such incidents. The Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on civilians, and given the interconnectedness of computers around the world, any campaign against an enemy military network could seep into computers at large — and even back to the U.S. itself. It’s a fun, thought-provoking read. So go read it.