Public health

  • Protecting crops from radiation-contaminated soil

    Almost four years after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, farmland remains contaminated with higher-than-natural levels of radiocesium in some regions of Japan, with cesium-134 and cesium-137 being the most troublesome because of the slow rate at which they decay. In a just-published study, scientists have identified a chemical compound that prevents plants from taking up cesium, thus protecting them — and us — from its harmful effects.

  • When parents hesitate about vaccines, what should health-care providers say?

    In recent years, the United States has witnessed multiple outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses, including pertussis (whooping cough) and measles. In the same time frame, vaccine refusal rates have gone up, and an increasing number of parents are requesting modified vaccine schedules that differ from the one recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Although research overwhelmingly supports the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and indicates that the risk of negative side effects from childhood vaccines is extremely small, many parents still have concerns about vaccine safety. More research is needed to determine which interventions and ways of communicating information about vaccination are most effective at reducing parents’ vaccine hesitancy and refusal. What is clear from existing research is that respectful, tailored communications and recommendations to immunize coming directly from the health-care provider are associated with increased vaccination uptake.

  • DHS termination of bio-detection contract questioned

    In February 2014, six months before Silicon Valley startup NVS delivered the first prototypes of its polymerase chain reaction (PCR) pathogen detector to DHS, the department sent NVS’s chief executive Hans Fuernkranz a notice terminating the project. According to a 26 November 2014 draft audit report by DHS’s inspector general’s office, the decision was improperly made by a single agency official without supporting evidence and “against S&T [DHS Science & Technology Directorate] subject matter expert advice.”The official who made the decision to cancel the project had expressed concerns about the cost associated with the NVS contract, and said the contract was terminated because existing technologies could better meet the agency’s needs for confronting bio-threats. The auditors say, however, that they “did not identify evidence to substantiate any of the concerns.”

  • 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.

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  • 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.

  • 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.

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  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Sierra Leone says millions in Ebola-related funds cannot be accounted for

    Sierra Leone’s national auditor has reported that roughly $5.7 million in internal emergency funds allocated to fight the Ebola epidemic had incomplete or no supporting documentation. Poor record keeping and potential misallocation of funds ultimately led to “a reduction in the quality of service delivery in the health sector,” according to the report, which was presented to Parliament last Friday. That amount represents more than a quarter of the $19 million the government spent on Ebola-related activities between May and October 2014.

  • Removing iron from contaminated water

    High concentrations of dissolved iron from abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania have been contaminating some of the Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers for many years, potentially affecting aquatic habitats and drinking water for millions of residents. To combat this problem, a team of Penn State researchers has proposed a method to eliminate much of the iron before it reaches the waterways.

  • The water industry needs to join the fight against superbugs

    The fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria — so-called “superbugs” — is a huge challenge, one that the World Health Organization has described as a grave global problem. The problem of antibiotic resistance is being exacerbated worldwide by the pollution of waste water with leftover drugs, providing breeding grounds for resistant bacteria and their genes. The problem can persist for years, constantly refreshed by new discharges of both drugs and of resistant bacteria themselves, shed by people and animals. It is time for the health and water industries to strike a bargain. Health professionals need to be aware of the need for pharmaceuticals to be managed as organic and persistent pollutants. Tackling hot spots in “source control” such as hospitals and clinics could make significant inroads on the amount of waste drugs entering treatment plants. The water industry should ensure that treatment plants are operating under optimal conditions and that the older ones are either replaced or upgraded.

  • Measles outbreak sparks bid to strengthen California vaccine law

    State lawmakers in California introduced legislation Wednesday that would require children to be fully vaccinated before going to school, a response to a measles outbreak that started in Southern California and has reached 107 cases in fourteen states. California is one of nineteen states that allow parents to enroll their children in school unvaccinated through a “personal belief exemption” to public health laws. The outbreak of measles that began in December in Anaheim’s Disneyland amusement park has spread more quickly in communities where many parents claim the exemption.

  • Levels of mercury in Hawaiian yellowfin tuna increasing

    Mercury is a toxic trace metal that can accumulate to high concentrations in fish, posing a health risk to people who eat large, predatory marine fish such as swordfish and tuna. In the open ocean, the principal source of mercury is atmospheric deposition from human activities, especially emissions from coal-fired power plants and artisanal gold mining. Mercury concentrations in Hawaiian yellowfin tuna are increasing at a rate of 3.8 percent or more per year, according to a new study, which suggests rising atmospheric levels of the toxic substance are to blame.