Bioterrorism threat ruins even group showers

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.

Hunting: No role in controlling fox population

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.

Bioterrorism: Inexpensive, and built to stay that way

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.

Meteor girl one in a billion

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.”

Sexy beast

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.

No ‘Fear Factor’ for Thai goverment

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.)

When to pull the cyber trigger

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.

Long-life contact lenses

A Texas scientist has discovered that a special metal coating could allow contact lens wearers to keep their lenses in for longer periods of time. Coating contacts with a one-molecule-thick layer of selenium, an antibacterial metal, keeps them bacteria-free for at least two months, says Ted Reid of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. Although selenium can be toxic to humans in large quantities, these lenses would apparently be safe, with less selenium than you’d find in an average lunch. Reid hopes the coating could be used on other internal devices, like heart valves and catheters, and even suggests selenium-coated molecules could be used to keep people exposed to HIV from becoming infected. In other eye news, new eye-tracking software developed by scientists at Cambridge University could help computer users with disabilities write more quickly, accurately, and comfortably than before.

NASA, Northwest team on mind-reading tech

This is something that’s been talked about for years, though before Sept. 11 it was always in the context of a bank or high-security government facility, not Northwest Airlines. The upshot of this Washington Times article is that NASA and Northwest are teaming to see if mind-reading technology is feasible, and if so, can it be used to mass-screen airline passengers. Opinion is mixed, and no one in this article addresses the pharmaceutical countermeasures that could potentially be employed to calm a guilt- or panic-ridden brain and heart. Still, plenty creepy.

Mice in the news

It has been a big week for the common lab mouse. Tests in mice showed that the deadly botulism toxin could be neutralized with an experimental drug. The drug, fashioned from two antibodies from mice and one from a human, could be mass-produced and thus could be used as a deterrent to the use of botulism toxin as a weapon. In other mouse news, scientists at the Universiy of Pennsylania have figured out that they can turn mice into goat and pig sperm “factories” by grafting testes onto their backs. The technique could be used in the future to make sperm for young cancer patients left infertile after treatment, to help human couples struggling with male fertility problems, and to preserve species close to extinction. The most amazing mouse news of the week? Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston created a transgenic mouse with Lance Armstrong-like capabilities, able to endure hard exercise for extended periods of time.

Czechs to get vaccinated after flooding

Following devastating floods that submerged central Prague in water and caused 200,000 Czechs to leave their homes, the Czech government said it will be vaccinating 65,000 children against hepatitis A — a liver disease that can spread when sewage systems are damaged and infected feces enters the drinking water. The Czech Republic’s health minister has also asked the government to provide 3.5 million euros for other public health measures. The flooding has killed more than 100 people across Europe and caused billions of euros’ worth of damage. It’s not just the people who are hurting — in the Czech Republic 100 animals died during the evacuation of Prague Zoo.

Avoid skeeter bites, says CDC

In response to outbreaks of West Nile virus throughout the eastern U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out that the best way to avoid infection is to avoid mosquito bites. West Nile virus is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, and in addition to humans can infect horses, many species of birds, and some other animals. Fortunately, most people who become infected with West Nile virus will have either no symptoms or mild ones. But on rare occasions, infection can result in West Nile encephalitis, a severe and sometimes fatal inflammation of the brain. (The risk of severe infection is higher for persons 50 years of age and older.) Officials in Washington D.C. have been getting the word out about protective measures people can take after West Nile virus infected a 55-year-old resident, who is now hospitalized with encephalitis. As of Thursday, state health departments around the U.S. have released information on 113 cases of human illness related to West Nile virus this year, including 5 deaths.