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Archive for Friday, January 16, 2004

Briefly

January 16, 2004

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Washington, D.C.

Bird flu outbreak in Asia worries health officials

Health officials worry that a strain of influenza that has killed several people in Hanoi, Vietnam, and millions of chickens in Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan could trigger a deadly worldwide epidemic.

So far, one essential factor seems to be missing, experts added gratefully: While the disease has jumped from birds to humans, it hasn't spread from person to person.

If that happens, U.S. and global infectious disease officials say, the new bird flu could trigger a pandemic: a global epidemic fatal to millions, such as those that struck in 1918, 1957 and 1968. In each of those years, a bird or pig flu virus jumped to humans and proved so different from human influenza that victims had no immunity to it.

Health officials have confirmed avian flu -- meaning flu from birds -- in the deaths of two Vietnamese children and an adult. The other 10 deaths and five living patients are yet to be confirmed as avian flu.

Geneva

Polio plan to immunize 250 million children

Health ministers from six countries where polio is still endemic announced plans Thursday at the World Health Organization to immunize 250 million children during 2004 and wipe out the final reservoirs of the disease.

International campaigns have brought polio -- which used to paralyze and cripple thousands of children every year -- to the verge of elimination. But the disease has persisted in a few countries, and has even returned to some areas in recent years.

Health ministers from the six nations signed a declaration committing themselves to the plan but added that they will need an extra $150 million in donations beyond the money already available under the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

In 1988 when countries first started work on eradicating polio, around 1,000 children were infected every day. Only 677 cases were reported worldwide in 2003.

The declaration was signed by Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt.

Washington, D.C.

Ebola virus may spread through infected meat

The Ebola virus has killed large numbers of chimpanzees, gorillas and antelope in west central Africa and researchers say sick animals harvested as meat may be the source of five recent human outbreaks of the deadly disease.

Dr. William B. Karesh of the Wildlife Conservation Society said a study of outbreaks of Ebola disease in west central Africa showed that the virus was introduced into the human population most often by hunters who handled meat from infected animals.

After studying outbreaks that occurred from October 2001 to May 2003, Karesh said he and his team concluded that human outbreaks almost always are preceded by Ebola-related deaths of many forest animals.

London

Researchers criticize global malaria programs

The World Health Organization and other aid agencies are undermining the battle against malaria by funding cheaper and less effective drugs, contributing to thousands of deaths of children in Africa, researchers asserted.

The scientists, writing in The Lancet medical journal, accused WHO and the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria of promoting programs that use the wrong drugs because they are a tenth the cost of better medicines.

Both agencies defended their positions, saying they cannot dictate countries' drug policies and that many are changing to the new drugs.

At least 1 million people, most of them children, die every year from malaria. One reason propelling the mosquito-borne epidemic is that the bug has become immune to the conventional drugs.

Washington, D.C.

Female science, math professors still few

Women are severely underrepresented on university faculties in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to a study released Thursday.

The trend holds true even in disciplines where female doctorate recipients outnumber males.

The findings are of particular concern because they come on the heels of President Bush's initiative to expand the nation's space program, the authors of the study said.

While women often represent the majority of undergraduates in science and math studies -- filling more than 70 percent of classroom seats in some fields -- this does not translate to equivalent representation in university faculties. Instead, men are more often given faculty positions and tenure, often filling 80 percent to 90 percent of such spots, the study found.

Washington, D.C.

Drug chains propose Medicare discount card

Drugstore chains that once sued to block a Medicare discount drug card for seniors said Thursday they would seek the Bush administration's endorsement for a discount card they want to offer in June.

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores will work with Express Scripts Inc., a large manager of prescription drug plans. The alliance is the first to announce it wants to offer a discount card with a government seal of approval, which will be available until the new Medicare prescription drug benefit begins in 2006.

The Medicare legislation that President Bush signed last month calls for a discount card as a bridge to the drug benefit. The White House has said that discounts would range as high as 25 percent, while critics have said the savings would be minimal.

Washington, D.C.

Study links leukemia, rare gene combination

Two children who developed leukemia after receiving gene therapy for an inherited disease may have been victims of a rare combination of genes that is unlikely to happen in gene therapy for other disorders, a study says.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., discovered that a gene in a virus used to treat the children, who had an inherited immune system disorder, can combine with another gene to cause leukemia in mice.

Dr. Utpal P. Dave, first author of a study appearing this week in the journal Science, said he and his team found that in mice a gene called Lmo2 can combine with another gene, called IL2RG, to cause leukemia.

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