Pandora Report 3.15.15

For those of us at Mason, Spring Break is nearing its end. For the rest of us, however, it’s business as usual. This week we’ve got stories about engineering nuclear worries in South Africa, the eradication of guinea worm, the lasting health impacts of Ebola, and other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week, enjoy the longer daylight hours, and we’ll see you back here next weekend!

U.S. Unease about Nuclear-Weapons Fuel Takes Aim at a South African Vault

Located in a former silver vault at a nuclear research center near Pretoria, South Africa, is enough nuclear weapons explosive to fuel half a dozen bombs. Roughly 485 pounds of highly enriched uranium exist as remnants of the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials worry that not only does this stockpile give South Africa the theoretical ability to regain its status as a nuclear-weapons state, but the stockpile’s vulnerability makes it a target for terrorist thieves. This isn’t a far-fetched concept, because in November 2007 two teams of raiders breached the fences at the nuclear center, entered the site, and broke into the central alarm station. Obama has urged President Jacob Zuma to transform the nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel—with U.S. assistance—to no avail.

The Washington Post—“‘The bottom line is that South Africa has a crime problem,” [arms control expert Jon] Wolfsthal said. “They have a facility that is holding onto material that they don’t need and a political chip on their shoulder about giving up that material. That has rightly concerned the United States, which is trying to get rid of any cache of HEU [highly enriched uranium] that is still out there.’”

Tug of War: On the Verge of the Greatest Public Health Triumph of the 21st Century

As people work around the world to eradicate Polio, another public health enemy is about to be eliminated first—guinea worm. This parasite, found in rivers and streams, enters the body in larval form through contaminated drinking water. The larvae mature inside the body and move towards the skin’s surface in the form of a burning blister. When the infected human puts water on the blister, the worm bursts out into water, continuing the source infection cycle. However, the number of cases of guinea worm is way down—from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to 126 cases in 2014—thanks to a simple nylon filter attached to a drinking straw. The weave on the nylon is tight enough to filter out the larvae from drinking water.

Slate—“Vanquishing guinea worm would be arguably the first great public health triumph of the 21st century. It would also give new life to the human disease eradication movement, which suffered through 35 mostly frustrating years following the conquest of smallpox in 1980. The victory would prove to governments and private foundations that we can still accomplish eradication.”

Ebola Could Cause Thousands More Deaths—By Ushering in Measles

As Liberia removed their Ebola crematorium—with the declaration that the outbreak is contained—new cases of the disease are still popping up in Sierra Leone and Guinea and have resulted in nearly a dozen American volunteers returning to U.S. facilities for treatment.  And this week, in Science, researchers from NIH and four universities have warned that Ebola’s interruption in other health services—like immunization campaigns—could result in epidemics of preventable diseases with larger fatality numbers than Ebola. Specifically, they warn that up to 100,000 cases of measles could result in 16,000 additional deaths.

Wired—“Measles is already present in West Africa, so the team is not arguing that Ebola will revive an eradicated disease — although, poignantly, hard work in the three countries had recently forced measles incidence way down. “Between 1994 and 2003, the countries reported — and this is just how many they reported, not necessarily how many occurred — about 100,000 cases of measles,” Lessler said. “Whereas in the last decade, they’ve only reported 7,000. So they’ve done an excellent job of controlling the virus compared to the previous (decade).’”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: FEMA

The Pandora Report 12.27.13

Highlights include H1N1 in Texas, 59 people with TB, a H7N9 fatality, H5N2 in ostriches, and vaccines coming to a mountain train near you. Happy Friday, and as our last Pandora Report from 2013, Happy New Year!

H1N1 Causes Early Spikes in Flu Cases
The flu season is in full swing, a couple weeks earlier than expected, with five deaths in Texas already. Luckily, the vaccine for this year’s flu contains the H1N1 strain currently predominant. Everyone please get vaccinated!

KUT – “‘[H1N1] is actually in the vaccines this year. So we’re finding that people who have been vaccinated, even if they come down with the illness, have a less severe course of it,’ Hydari said. He added that vaccine shortages that complicated flu season in the past is not an issue this year. Hydari also said that flu vaccines take about two weeks to take affect, and because the flu season typically peaks in January it’s not too late to get a shot this year.”

Dozens Test Positive For Tuberculosis After Exposure at Hospital Neonatal Unit
Fifty-nine people have tested positive for TB following exposure at a hospital in Nevada. A mother and her newborn twins are thought to have brought the bacteria to the hospital over the summer. All three died in the hospital, and were not discovered to have TB until after an autopsy was performed on the mother. Following hospital staff falling ill, and 977 people potentially exposed and subsequently tested, just two had active infections – the 59  mentioned above are latent cases. TB is still very real, and very scary – as this case illustrates, as few as three people can potentially infect dozens.

ABC – “‘Unfortunately, this situation is a hospital epidemiologist’s worst nightmare as neonates are highly susceptible to contracting TB and their infections can progress quite rapidly,’ he said. A mother and her newborn twins died of tuberculosis at Summerlin Hospital over the summer, prompting an investigation by the Southern Nevada Health District. Hospital staff didn’t realize the infected woman had tuberculosis until after she and one of the twins died and they performed an autopsy, according to KTNV, ABC’s Las Vegas affiliate. The other twin was in the NICU being treated without being under quarantine. The second twin also tested positive for tuberculosis and died in August, health department spokeswoman Stephanie Bethel told ABCNews.com.”

 Hong Kong confirms first death from H7N9 bird flu
An eighty-year old male has died from H7N9 in Hong Kong. Still, no confirmed, sustained person-to-person transmission yet.

Reuters – “The man, the second person in Hong Kong to be diagnosed with the virus strain, lived in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen and had eaten poultry there, media reported. The H7N9 strain was first reported in humans in February in mainland China, and has infected at least 139 people in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, killing more than 40. Experts say there is no evidence of any easy or sustained human-to-human transmission of H7N9, and so far all people who came into contact with the man had tested negative for the strain, authorities said.”

Low Pathogenic Bird Flu in Western Cape Ostriches
Small outbreaks of H5N2 have been reported in South African ostriches. The low pathogenic influenza strain has been reported in seven farms and roughly 2,000 birds. Authorities remain uncertain as to the source of the outbreaks.

Poultry Site – “The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) received follow-up report no. 4 on 23 December. The report states that the affected population comprises commercial ostriches. A total of 10,171 birds were involved, out of which 2,230 tested positive for the virus. None died or been destroyed. According to the OIE’s Animal Health Information Department, H5 and H7 avian influenza in its low pathogenic form in poultry is a notifiable disease as per Chapter 10.4. on avian influenza of the Terrestrial Animal Health Code (2013).”

Keeping Vaccines Fresh
Apparently silicon packets can keep more than your new shoes fresh – scientists at the University of Portland have managed to preserve virus pathogenicity over time by coating the little zombies in a layer of silica. Some viruses subsequently cleansed of the silica coating retained infectivity. While this apparently means viruses may actually be able to survive inside volcanoes (we definitely feel there’s a movie in this somewhere), it also is good news for developing vaccines for use in places lacking widespread refrigeration.

New York Times – “Most vaccines are made of weakened virus or viral bits, and many need refrigeration. Keeping them cold is a major challenge when it comes to protecting children living in villages without electricity.’It’s hard to put a fridge on the back of a donkey,’ said Kenneth M. Stedman, a biologist at Portland State and the lead author of the study. By recreating the chemical-laden hot-spring environment, Dr. Stedman’s team coated four types of virus with silica, stored them, then washed off the silica and tried to infect cells. One heavily studied virus, phage T4, which infects the cells of E. coli bacteria, retained 90 percent of its infectivity for almost a month. The virus used in smallpox vaccines also did well, but it is naturally able to be stored dry.”

(Image: Afrikanischer/Strauss/Wikicommons)