Archive for the ‘International travel’ Category

Dangerous research on influenza H5N1, the "bird flu"

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

This "chicken" is safe to handle

I just looked at the World Health Organization's (WHO) most recent statistics on human cases of avian influenza H5N1, the dreaded bird flu. These cover the period from 2003 through March 10, 2012 and report 596 total cases and 350 deaths. The counties with the great numbers of cases are Indonesia, Egypt and Vietnam and I didn't see any reports of bird flu infections in the Western Hemisphere...yet.

That's a relatively tiny number of cases, but an incredibly high percentage of deaths, nearly 60% of those infected. But influenza epidemics and pandemics have been a common occurrence in the last century. So what's the difference between our seasonal flu, the pandemics and this new flu?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of WHO has published the first three chapters (of nine) of an online primer on avian influenza. It seemed a good place for me to start.

The first issue is how easily a new flu virus passes from animals  to humans (the usual hosts are birds, typically ducks and, secondarily, chickens, especially if flocks are raised in proximity to each other and the ducks are "free range") and then from one person to another. The second is how deadly the particular influenza virus is.

Up until now those infected with the relatively new H5N1 subtype, sometimes called H5N1 HPAI, have had direct or at least indirect contact with infected birds. The HPAI is the acronym for "Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza," but in this case highly pathogenic, which translates into very likely to cause disease, mostly refers to birds. Unlike seasonal flu, there's been (thus far) absolutely no documented human-to-human spread of the virus.

The 1918 Spanish flu infected 1/3 of everyone alive and killed at least 20 million. My math says that's roughly 4%, but 3% is the usual quoted figure. Seasonal flu kills less than 0.1% of those infected. So this flu, if it does reach a human, is terrible.

These experiment may prove deadly

Recently there has been an enormous flap about the work done in two laboratories. I had heard about the issue, but hadn't read the details until my monthly copy of On Wisconsin arrived and I realized one of the labs was in Madison. CNN has an online review of the problem. The researchers wondered why this deadly flu variety hasn't spread from person to person, so they created a mutated form that could be easily transmitted from one mammal to another using ferrets as their test animal.

Then the excrement collided with the rotating blades. Detailed papers were about to be published in prominent, widely read journals, Nature and Science. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity temporarily stopped the process, saying the papers should be published without methods or details to stop terrorists from making their own highly lethal and easily spread virus strains.

Think about it; if this virus subtype gets released it could potentially infect a third or perhaps all of all of us now alive and kill 60% of those whom it strikes. We have a world population of roughly 7 billion now, so that's somewhere between 1.4 and 4.2 billion deaths.

Yet many in the scientist community seems to think all the details of the research should be given to those responsible groups that need help with H5N1 HPAI.

I'm worried.

Kudzu: the semi-good, the bad and the stinky

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

kudzu growing over abandoned vehicles in Tennessee

I'm way afield on this post, but I just couldn't resist. I was reading The Wall Street Journal one recent morning and ran across an article with the intriguing title, "Bug Battle: An Invasive Plant Now Faces Its Own Attacker." The plant of course was kudzu. I thought it was widespread...somewhere in the South, and accidentally introduced, forty years or so ago,  into the United States. I decided due diligence was needed here as in my other background research and looked for both the "bug" and the history of kudzu itself. I was hooked on the story within an hour.

It turns out that the introduction of kudzu into North America was more complex and multi-layered than I had ever suspected. The first mention of it in the United States dates back 135 years to the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Then, as one small part of a multi-national effort to celebrate the birth of our country, kudzu was shown as an ornamental vine at the Japanese Pavilion. In 1902 a botanist named David Fairchild, who had seen it used as pasturage in Japan, planted seedlings around his Washington, DC home. In the 1920s owners of a Florida nursery promoted its usage for forage and sold plants through mail-order.

Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s: the Civilian Conservation Corps gave jobs to hundreds of men planting kudzu for erosion control. In the 1940s Channing Cope, the farm editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and one of the South's best-known and most influential radio broadcasters, started Kudzu Clubs to honor the so-called "miracle vine (July 4, 1949 edition of Time Magazine).

Kudzu spread, growing as much as a foot per day in the Southeast during Summer and sixty feet a year overall. In 1953, the US Department of Agriculture banned kudzu as a cultivated crop, but by then its aggressive growth had started taking over many thousands of acres. One prominent US Forest Service researcher tried various herbicides as control methods: over an 18-year period  he didn't find a single agent that effectively controlled the vine; one actually promoted its growth.

A variety of uses for kudzu have been promoted by ingenious American scientists and merchants: an Agronomist at Tuskegee University found that angora goats could control the noxious plant on otherwise unusable land while simultaneously producing wool and milk. Others sell baskets made from kudzu, turn its blossoms into jelly and produce hay high in nutritive value. Potential drugs developed from kudzu are in the research pipeline, but not yet ready for human use in this country (though utilized for hundreds of years elsewhere).

But it now occupies over eight million acres of the Southeast and its native antagonist, a relative to stink bugs, wasn't found in the United States until 2009.

The Kudzu bug

Now it's here, first discovered on the exterior of homes in northeast Georgia, but spreading rapidly to sixty Georgia counties, parts of the Carolinas and Tennesee. Megacopta cribaria, kudzu bugs, are small (4-6 mm long), olive-green and when crushed or disturbed, produce a "mildy offensive" odor. They also munch kudzu effectively with estimates of up to a third of the current infestation being eaten over the next decade. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, they like soybeans as well; perhaps the next step is to import the wasp that eats their eggs in Japan.

But then what...

Great tongue-in-cheek article on growing kudzu: 32nd Annual Blythewood Kudzu Festival Kudzu Growing Tips

Eating our way across Portugal

Thursday, October 6th, 2011



We started just west of Lisbon



We're on a three and a half week trip, almost all in Portugal. I wasn't planning to add any posts, but brought my iPad2 and realized I could find Wi-Fi connections in many places. So now we're on a two-day farm stay in the Duoro Valley, heart of the Port wine grape industry and we're eating well, perhaps too well.

I'm not normally a chocolate eater but the Mousse de Chocolata" here has been wonderful. I realized today that I've eaten more desserts and more bread (freshly made) than usual, but my slacks still fit and I' using the same belt notch.

So what's keeping me from gaining a significant amount of weight?

To begin with we're often eating one main meal, one smaller one and a fruit or yogurt snack. Breakfasts here have freshly squeezed orange juice, rolls that don't need butter and some cheese. Our lunches have often been eaten in transit and, more often than not, have been light.

Then too we're walking 45 minutes to two hours a day, often up and down hills.

Today for lunch we returned to the same wonderful gourmet restaurant we'd been to last night. As in the previous meal portions were smaller than we get at home. We ate slowly savoring each bite and drank a third of a glass of a late harvest wine the chef had sent us. My wife had a fruit and vegetable salad, while I ate a fish fillet. We really dawdled for an hour and forty minutes, talking, putting our forks down between smaller-than-usual bites and talking...a lot.

I realized we'd spent two and a half hours over dinner the previous evening. This was a European way of dining I noticed as I looked around. Nobody was in a hurry and, tellingly, nobody seemed significantly overweight.

So I've learned a lesson or two on this trip and, in doing so, have enjoyed my food more.