West Nile heads west

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).

Double dose of bioterrorism news

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.

Meanwhile…
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.

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.