Public health

  • Tracking, mapping epidemics in order to limit their spread

    Researchers are using the new Biosurveillance Gateway Web site to map epidemics in order better to understand and prevent deadly diseases. The Web site relies on lab databases and tools from around the world, so that registered health officials and researchers can track outbreaks better to predict how a pathogen might spread in the United States and elsewhere. Though still in its beta state, the Web site provides spread information and mapping on a variety of diseases, including ones that only infect animals or plants. Theoretical computational software is integrated into the maps to help predict what a future epidemic might do, and the histories of recorded outbreaks across the globe are presented for comparison.

  • Asian herb holds promise as treatment for Ebola virus disease

    New research that focuses on the mechanism by which Ebola virus infects a cell and the discovery of a promising drug therapy candidate. A small molecule called Tetrandrine derived from an Asian herb has shown to be a potent small molecule inhibiting infection of human white blood cells in vitro or petri dish experiments and prevented Ebola virus disease in mice.

  • U.K. military last fall evaluated possible Ebola use by terrorists

    In October 2014, during the peak of the Ebola epidemic which terrorized citizens in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, security and terrorism analysts considered the probability of the Islamic State (ISIS) or other terror groups weaponizing Ebola and unleashing the virus in New York, Paris, London, or another major city. Many bioweapon researchers played down Martinez’s claim, saying terrorists looking to use Ebola as a weapon would encounter problems. Still, last fall, a U.K. military research unit was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organizations could use Ebola to attack Western targets.

  • Antibiotics spawn new communities of harmful bacteria

    Most people have taken an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection. Now researchers reveal that the way we often think about antibiotics — as straightforward killing machines – needs to be revised. The research not only adds a new dimension to how we treat infections, but also might change our understanding of why bacteria produce antibiotics in the first place.

  • Ocean acidification threatens U.S. coastal communities

    Coastal communities in fifteen states that depend on the $1 billion shelled mollusk industry (primarily oysters and clams) are at long-term economic risk from the increasing threat of ocean acidification, a new report concludes. The Pacific Northwest has been the most frequently cited region with vulnerable shellfish populations, the authors say, but the report notes that newly identified areas of risk from acidification range from Maine to the Chesapeake Bay, to the bayous of Louisiana.

  • Climate change may dramatically reduce wheat production: Study

    A recent study involving Kansas State University researchers finds that in the coming decades at least one-quarter of the world’s wheat traded will be lost to extreme weather from climate change if no adaptive measures are taken. Based on the 2012-13 wheat harvest of 701 million tons worldwide, the resulting temperature increase would result in 42 million tons less produced wheat per degree of temperature increase. To put this in perspective, the amount is equal to a quarter of the global wheat trade, which reached 147 million tons in 2013.

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  • DNA synthesis creates risk of resurrecting deadly viruses

    Scientists are warning that decades of public research on the sequencing of virus DNA are now posing unforeseen threats, as synthesis technologies advance to the point where individuals without expert knowledge may be able to reconstruct long dormant viruses using readily available maps. Diseases which have been extinct for many years may be resurrected by bioterrorists using mail-order DNA kits, with openly published sequence data as their guide. Among these, smallpox eradicated since 1980, could be reintroduced by using the 1994 gene mapping which was prepared in order better to understand why the disease was so deadly.

  • Obama proposes a single federal agency to monitor, enforce food safety standards

    Some eighty-seven million Americans are sickened each year by food contamination, 371,000 are hospitalized with food-related illness, and 5,700 die from food-related disease. The GAO says that the country’s food safety system is “high-risk” because of “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.” At least fifteen different government agencies have some role in approving the foods Americans eat. The White House proposes having a single agency — the Food Safety Administration, housed within HHS — “provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards.”

  • European grain yield stagnation partially caused by climate change

    The European Union led the world in wheat production and exports in 2014-15. Yet Europe is also the region where productivity has slowed the most. Yields of major crops have not increased as much as would be expected over the past twenty years, based on past productivity increases and innovations in agriculture. Finding the causes of that stagnation is key to understanding the trajectory of the global food supply. Stanford University’s researchers say climate trends account for 10 percent of that stagnation.

  • U.S. farming sector increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks

    America’s farms and agricultural giants are not exempt from cyberattacks, according to officials who spoke at Thursday’s farm-outlook forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The farming sector is increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks as farmers and agribusinesses rely more on data, with satellite-guided tractors and algorithm-driven planting services expanding across the U.S. Farm Belt. For industrial farmers, data breaches and manipulation are especially worrisome, considering that many rely on new farm-management services that collect information on soil content and past crop yields to generate planting recommendations.

  • Throwing science at anti-vaxxers just makes them more hardline

    Since the uptick in outbreaks of measles in the United States, those arguing for the right not to vaccinate their children have come under increasing scrutiny. What drives anti-vaxxers is similar to what drives other groups – climate skeptics, for example – which also hold beliefs at odds with conventional scientific thought: It is a process psychologists have called “biased assimilation” — we all regard new information in the light of what we already believe. Research shows that throwing scientific facts at anti-vaxxers is not likely to change minds because the level of knowledge and expertise of the people providing the facts — government, scientists, or journalists, say — was a poor predictor of how much they were trusted on the issue. Instead, what was critical was how much these experts were perceived to have the public’s interests at heart. Researchers who conducted surveys on the issue of pollution, for example, found that groups of people — such as friends and family — who were perceived to want to act in line with the survey respondents’ best interests were highly trusted, even if their expertise on the issue was judged as poor. Rather than lacking scientific facts, anti-vaxxers lack a trust in the establishments which produce and disseminate science.

  • Listeria pathogen is prevalent, persistent in retail delis: Study

    Research shows that standard cleaning procedures in retail delis may not eradicate Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which can cause a potentially fatal disease in people with vulnerable immune systems. A study found that 6.8 percent of samples taken in fifteen delis before daily operation had begun tested positive for L. monocytogenes. In a second sampling phase, 9.5 percent of samples taken in thirty delis during operation over six months tested positive for the bacteria. In twelve delis, the same subtypes of the bacteria cropped up in several of the monthly samplings, which could mean that L. monocytogenes can persist in growth niches over time.

  • What historic megadroughts in the western U.S. tell us about our climate future

    In an important paper published in Science Advances last week, scientists found that future droughts driven by human-induced global warming could surpass even the driest periods in North America over the past 1,000 years. The scientists combined knowledge of past droughts and future projections in order to compare the projected twenty-first-century states of aridity in the western United States to the megadrought periods over the last millennium. They stitched 1,000 years of paleoclimatic estimates of soil moisture variability derived from tree rings, together with an ensemble of state-of-the-art climate model simulations for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When they compared the future projections of drought to the past they found that they were more severe and persistent than at any time during the last thousand years, even if they considered only the driest megadrought periods. The findings are sobering, but they are consistent with past experience, the researchers write: “When it comes to drought in the American West, particularly in the Southwest and Central Plains, expect more, worse, and longer events.”

  • Sandia Labs anthrax detector wins national technology transfer award

    Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria, is found in soils worldwide and can cause serious, often fatal, illness in humans and animals. It can survive in harsh conditions for decades. Humans can be exposed through skin contact, inhalation of spores or eating contaminated meat. Currently, samples for testing must be propagated in a laboratory that uses specialized tools requiring a consistent power supply, something often unavailable in the developing world. Sandia National Laboratories won the Federal Laboratory Consortium’s (FLC) 2015 Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer for a credit-card-size device that can detect bacteria that cause anthrax.

  • New antibiotic offers promise against antibiotic-resistant infections

    Estimates of deaths from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the United States range upwards of 19,000 annually. Around 1960, when Staphylococcus aureus developed resistance to first-generation penicillin, methicillin and other second-generation beta-lactam antibiotics were adopted to fight the illness. The modern variants of the bacterium have developed resistance to the four drugs now used to treat it. A team of researchers at the university of Notre Dame has discovered a promising new antibiotic, a vital weapon against disease as pathogens evolve to develop resistance to long-used drugs.