Daily Archives: February 18, 2012

Sydney experiences coldest summer on record


Shiver: Bondi Beach almost deserted as Sydney shivers through its coldest start to summer in 51 years. Picture: Adam Ward. Source: The Daily Telegraph

Daily Telegraph | Feb 15, 2012

by Neil Keene

LATEST weather observations prove what anyone who has been outside in the past two months already knows – this summer has been a washout.

Weather Channel meteorologist Tom Saunders said today that western Sydney had so far experienced its coldest summer on record, with average temperatures at Parramatta down three degrees on normal.

It’s a similar story in Blacktown, where the average temperature of 25C is the lowest since records began there in 1965.

“The city has averaged 24.6C, about one degree below average and depending on maximum temperatures over the next two weeks, these could potentially be the coldest summer days since 1953,” Mr Saunders said.

La Nina weather patterns over the Pacific have been blamed for the cool spell.

“Our country has soaked through two consecutive La Nina years and as a result has recorded its wettest 24 months on record,” Mr Saunders said.

“So far this summer, Sydney has received 303mm of rain – already above the long-term average of 298mm.”

The next two days are expected to be dry and bright, but showers and thunderstorms are predicted to return just in time for the weekend.

“The storms will be similar to last weekend with flash flooding, damaging winds and hail all possible once again,” Mr Saunders said.

Snow blocks in tens of thousands as cold death toll rises


A man walks between cars covered with snow in Podgorica. (AFP Photo/Savo Prelevic)

AFP | Feb 11, 2012

Snow drifts reaching up to rooftops kept tens of thousands of villagers prisoners in their own homes Saturday as the death toll from Europe’s big freeze rose past 550.

More heavy snow fell on the Balkans and in Italy, while the Danube river, already closed to shipping for hundreds of kilometres (miles) because of thick ice, froze over in Bulgaria for the first time in 27 years.

Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica was brought to a standstill by snow 50 centimetres (20 inches) deep, a 50-year record, closing the city’s airport and halting rail services to Serbia because of an avalanche.

Eight more people were reported to have died in Romania, taking the toll for the country to 65, three in Serbia, one in the Czech Republic and one in Austria.

Polish fire brigade spokesman Pawel Fratcak said Saturday that defective heating had triggered a spate of deadly blazes in houses and apartments, with eight people killed on Friday night and three the night before.

New Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu and his defence and interior ministers, who were sworn in only on Thursday, flew by helicopter to the eastern Buzau region, one of the worst hit, on Saturday.

He called on the authorities to work hard to beat the challenges facing them, as food threatened to run out in some villages in spite of air drops.

At Carligul Mic firemen and volunteers helped people dig tunnels and trenches in the snow reaching to the house roofs in some places.

“I’ve never seen as much snow in my whole life,” resident Aneta Dumitrache, 78, told an AFP photographer.

Authorities said an estimated 30,000 people were still cut off in Romania, and more than 110,000 in the Balkan countries, including 60,000 in Montenegro, nearly 10 percent of the population.

Belgrade has taken steps to limit electricity consumption in the face of threatened shortages, calling on companies to reduce their activities to a minimum.

With Wednesday and Thursday already public holidays for Serbia’s national day, the government has also declared Friday a non-working day to extend into next weekend.

In neighbouring Kosovo, an avalanche killed at least people in a southern mountain village and left nine others trapped in several houses under 10 metres of snow.

A helicopter from the NATO-led peacekeeping force was dispatched to help with the rescue effort but could not land due to thick fog.

Forecasters expect the cold snap, which started two weeks ago, to continue until mid-February.

In Italy Rome was again blanketed by snow for the second time in a week, but authorities seemed to have learned from their previous experience, when the capital was brought to a halt.

Public transport functioned almost normally, thanks to 700 snowploughs and gritters mobilised, but other parts of the country, especially the south where snow is extremely rare, were having difficulties.

In the Calabria region, Campana’s mayor Pasquale Manfredi, where many villages were cut off, likened the weather to “an earthquake without the shaking.”

Meteorologists in Belgium said the country had recorded its longest cold snap in 70 years, with temperatures in Brussels’ suburbs remaining below zero for 13 consecutive days.

On the French Mediterranean island of Corsica snow was up to one metre thick in the higher villages and all flights were cancelled from Bastia airport.

Many people are determined to enjoy the icy conditions to their utmost, however.

Thousands have taken to frozen lakes and rivers, including the Aussenalster lake at Hamburg in northern Germany, iced over for the first time in 15 years, which is mounting a huge festival expected to attract one million people over the weekend.

In Poland ice yachting or ice-surfing, on a surfboard equipped with skates, are the rage, while in the Czech Republic tourists have flocked to the village of Kvilda, reckoned to be one of the coldest in the country, for the experience of camping out in temperatures of up to minus 39 Celsius (minus 38 Fahrenheit).

As some Swiss regions recorded temperatures of minus 23 Celsius (minus 10 Fahrenheit), the tourism board said the ice cover on Fribourg’s Black Lake was thick enough to plan for aircrafts to land on it in the coming days.

Deadly bird flu experiments to remain secret

Deadly bird flu studies to stay secret for now: WHO

Reuters | Feb 17, 2012

By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – Two studies showing how scientists mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic will be published only after experts fully assess the risks, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

Speaking after a high-level meeting of flu experts and U.S. security officials in Geneva, a WHO official said an deal had been reached in principle to keep details of the controversial work secret until deeper risk analyses could be carried out.

“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed,” said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment.

The WHO called the meeting to break a deadlock between scientists who have studied the mutations needed to make H5N1 bird flu transmit between mammals, and the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which wanted the work censored before it was published in scientific journals.

Biosecurity experts fear mutated forms of the virus that research teams in The Netherlands and the United States independently created could escape or fall into the wrong hands and be used to spark a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu that killed up to 40 million people.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said that because of these fears, “there must be a much fuller discussion of risk and benefits of research in this area and risks of virus itself.”

But a scientist close to the NSABB who spoke to Reuters immediately after the decision said the board was deeply “frustrated” by the situation.

The only NSABB member attending the meeting was infectious disease expert Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University and he “got the hell beat out of him,” the source said.

“It was a closed meeting dominated by flu people who have a vested interest in continuing this kind of work,” he added.

The WHO said experts at the meeting included lead researchers of the two studies, scientific journals interested in publishing the research, funders of the research, countries who provided the viruses, bioethicists and directors from several WHO-linked laboratories specializing in influenza.

HIGH FATALITY RATE

The H5N1 virus, first detected in Hong Kong in 1997, is entrenched among poultry in many countries, mainly in Asia, but so far remains in a form that is hard for humans to catch.

It is known to have infected nearly 600 people worldwide since 2003, killing half of them, a far higher death rate than the H1N1 swine flu which caused a flu pandemic in 2009/2010.

Last year, two teams of scientists – one led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center and another led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin – said they had found that just a handful of mutations would allow H5N1 to spread like ordinary flu between mammals, and remain as deadly as it is now.

This type of research is seen as vital for scientists working to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and anti-viral drugs that could be deployed in the event of an H5N1 pandemic.

In December, the NSABB asked two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists.

They said a potentially deadlier form of bird flu poses one of the gravest known threats to the human population and justified the unprecedented call to censor the research.

The WHO voiced concerns, and flu researchers from around the world declared a 60-day moratorium on January 20 on “any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses” that produce easily contagious forms.

Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, said it is now likely the paper submitted to Science and to the journal Nature will be published in full.

Alberts said it is still not clear how the scientists in Geneva plan to handle biosafety issues mentioned by the group, and it is still not clear when the papers will be published, but it will likely not be years.

“I hope this does not cause the world governments and WHO to stop working on this problem,” Alberts said of any potential fallout from the decision at a news briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver.

When asked how the journal is safeguarding copies of the as-yet-unpublished paper, he said it is in a locked electronic file and is password protected. And the magazine has asked reviewers of the paper to destroy their review copies.

Fouchier, who took part in the two-day meeting at the WHO which ended on Friday, said the consensus of experts and officials there was “that in the interest of public health, the full paper should be published” at some future date.

“This was based on the high public health impact of this work and the need to share the details of the studies with a very big community in the interest of science, surveillance and public health on the whole,” he told reporters.

In its current form, people can contract H5N1 only through close contact with ducks, chickens or other birds that carry it, and not from infected individuals.

But H5N1 can acquire mutations that allow it to live in the upper respiratory tract rather than the lower, and the Dutch and U.S. researchers found a way to make it travel via airborne droplets between infected ferrets. Flu viruses are thought to behave similarly in the animals and in people.

Asked about the potential bioterrorism risks of his and the U.S. team’s work, Fouchier said “it was the view of the entire group” at the meeting that the risks that this particular virus or flu viruses in general could be used as bioterrorism agents “would be very, very slim”.

“The risks are not nil, but they are very, very small.”

Washington Masonic Memorial: Party like it’s 1799 in George Washington’s Alexandria


An impressive bronze statue of George Washington greets visitors to the Masonic Memorial. Photo by Paul Jean

fairfaxtimes.com | Feb. 17, 2012

By Elaine JeanSpecial to the Times

Alexandria’s cobblestone streets were once George Washington’s stomping ground. Visit Old Town this month, walk in Washington’s footsteps and learn more about the life of our first president when he went off the plantation.

First get to know George Washington from a different perspective by touring the memorial built in his honor by a grateful brotherhood of Freemasons. This is a rare opportunity to look inside an organization that’s traditionally cloaked in secrecy, and to understand the reverence it holds for Brother Washington.

Whether you believe the Freemasons are a benign organization akin to the Kiwanis or an ancient order hell-bent on world domination, you will enjoy a rare peek behind the scenes at the George Washington Masonic Memorial (101 Callahan Drive).

Inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt, the memorial honors Washington as a guiding light for his country and fraternal organization. Architecture combines Greek and Roman styles in a structure made of, not surprisingly, stone. Exhibits introduce Washington as a Freemason and Charter Master of Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge No. 22.

Visitors enter on the main level and are welcome to wander there and on the lower level. Five dollars gains access to the tower and observatory, with a tour lead by a Freemason who will answer questions — at least most of them — and bring you to the museum and several other rooms sponsored by Masonic chapters.

The ride up in the lush, wood-paneled elevator is quick and cozy, and every trip seems to include at least one visitor who knows his Dan Brown inside-out.

The museum on the fourth floor enlightens visitors about the many hats that Washington wore: soldier, farmer, president and Freemason. Artifacts include his field trunk from the Revolutionary War, tools from the cornerstone ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building, a few strands of his hair and a transcript of his will as it appeared in the local newspaper.

Next you’ll visit rooms that feel more like chambers, the first of which is sponsored by the Royal Arch Chapter. Borrowing heavily from Egyptian and Hebrew cultures, décor of biblical inspiration enhances the walls and a beautiful simulation of the Ark of the Covenant takes center stage. Think Indiana Jones.

Knights Templar Room dedicated in 1957 by Richard Nixon

The Knights Templar Room is Medieval French Gothic and was dedicated in 1957 by then Vice President Richard Nixon. It features four enormous stained glass windows — the most significant of which depicts the three degrees of Freemasonry — as well as two suits of armor and the sword of a Crusader.

Tucked away on the ninth floor is a reconstruction of the interior of the temple of King Solomon — including throne, large copper bowl, oil lamp holders and a tree of life — sponsored by the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, a chapter best known for its fundraising efforts in the fight against Muscular Dystrophy.

An observation deck circles the top of the tower and boasts a 360-degree view — 400 feet above sea level. The Capitol Building, Washington Monument, National Harbor and other points of interest are easily spotted, and Alexandria is laid out below like a model railroad village.

Back on the main level a colossal bronze statue of Washington in full Masonic regalia — all 17 feet and seven tons of him — graces the entry hall, and murals on each side depict important events in his life as a Mason.

Parking for the George Washington Masonic Memorial is free in the lot on Callahan Drive. The memorial is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

George Washington’s Alexandria

After you’ve met George Washington the Freemason, consider getting to know the father of our country as a man about town. The past is woven with the present here, making for one stylishly entertaining history lesson.

Drive down King Street to the Ramsay House Visitors Center (221 King St.) for maps, brochures and a certificate for free on-street parking, as well as a free restaurant book containing special discounts. Buy Alexandria’s Key to the City containing coupons for admission to most of the following attractions — for just $12.

The Carlyle House Historic Park (121 N. Fairfax St.) is the next stop. As a prosperous and influential founder of this city, John Carlyle hosted his good friends, George and Martha Washington, on numerous occasions in his elegant home. It has been restored to show how Carlyle lived and entertained, giving us a slice of aristocratic life.

Standing in the middle of rooms — and not behind a Plexiglas barrier — helps visitors feel especially connected to the past. Don’t expect to see any ghosts, though. A dead cat has been entombed behind one of the walls to ward off paranormal activity.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop (105-107 S. Fairfax St.) is now a museum, but from 1792 to 1933 it was a family-owned pharmacy that cured whatever ailed local residents. Prominent customers included Nelly Custis, Robert E. Lee and Martha Washington, whose request for castor oil is proudly displayed in one of the exhibits.

Visible among the rows of medicines and elixirs are opium and cannabis, as well as lavender for depression and powdered pumpkin seeds for tapeworm. Bottles of dragon’s blood and snake root might make you think you’ve wandered into Diagon Alley, but these are the names of products in the company’s line of paints and varnishes.

This apothecary shop was one of the oldest continuously functioning pharmacies in the country when it closed in the 1930s. The building was sold with all of the items intact, so it’s a fascinating time capsule, whether you’re into pharmaceutical history or not.

Gadsby’s Tavern (138 N. Royal St.) consists of two buildings — a tavern and an inn — and George Washington really did sleep here. Visitors can tour the historic rooms and dine in the fine restaurant, which serves his favorite meal — glazed breast of duck with scalloped potatoes — and other Colonial favorites.

This was the center of social, political and business life in 18th-century Alexandria. It also was George Washington’s favorite dine-in and take-out joint, so much so that he didn’t include a kitchen in the design of his Alexandria townhome.

In 1798 and 1799 George and Martha celebrated his birthday at Gadsby’s Tavern, and the Birthnight Ball is still held every year in his honor. Alexandria loves to commemorate its most famous resident, hosting a Washington’s Birthday Parade that follows a mile-long route and is the largest in the country.

Hundreds of Tibetans forced into re-education camps in China


Pro-Tibetan protesters shout slogans during a demonstration February 14, 2012 in Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, DC. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

China Detained Tibetans, Large Numbers Forced Into Re-Education Classes, Group Says

Tibetans were being held in makeshift detention centers in Lhasa and other areas, including some set up at an army base training center .

huffingtonpost.com | Feb 17, 2012

by ALEXA OLESEN

BEIJING — China has detained and forced into re-education classes hundreds of Tibetans who went to India to receive religious instruction from the Dalai Lama, a U.S.-based human rights group said.

It is the first time since the late 1970s that Chinese authorities have detained large numbers of ordinary Tibetans and placed them into re-education classes, Human Rights Watch said in an online statement. Tibetan monks and nuns are routinely made to attend patriotic education classes.

The statement posted Thursday said the exact number of those detained was unclear, but that it was believed to be several hundred.

It said the detainees had recently returned from Bihar, India, where they had attended lectures with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans’ exiled spiritual leader who fled the Himalayan region in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule and is reviled by Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a regular press briefing Friday that China was stepping up security measures in Tibet to prevent separatist violence or incitement in the run-up to the anniversary of the March 14, 2008, riots in the regional capital, Lhasa, that left 22 people dead.

Liu was asked by a reporter to comment on the Human Rights Watch report but didn’t directly respond to the allegations and made no mention of mass detentions.

“Separatist organizations based overseas have made March of every year an important period for advocating violence and inciting separatism,” Liu said. “During this period, stepped up security in Tibetan areas will help crack down on separatist and sabotage activities and maintain social stability.”

Lhasa police and government officials said Friday that they were unaware of the alleged detentions.

Human Rights Watch said the Tibetans were being held in makeshift detention centers in Lhasa and other areas, including some set up at an army base, an army training center and a shelter for vagrants, as well as in hotels.

China accuses the Dalai Lama of a campaign to split Tibet from the rest of China. The Dalai Lama says he is seeking only increased autonomy for Tibet.

Human Rights Watch said around 700 ethnic Chinese also attended the Dalai Lama lectures, but that there were no reports of any of them being detained upon return to China.

Tibetan areas in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai have also been on tenterhooks for more than a year as more than a dozen monks, nuns and laypeople separately set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.

The violence has highlighted anew what Tibetan activists say is the government’s failure to win over Tibetans and other ethnic minorities through policies to boost economic growth and incomes while increasing police presence and controlling religious practices to deter displays of separatism.

Remote-controlled chip implant delivers bone drug


This undated handout photo provided by MicroCHIPS, Inc., Massachusetts, show the drug delivery device, right, next to an everyday computer memory stick. Medication via remote-control instead of a shot? Scientists implanted a microchip in seven women that did just that, oozing out the right dose of a bone-strengthening drug once a day without them even noticing. Implanted medicine is a hot field, aiming to help patients better stick to their meds and to deliver those drugs straight to the body part that needs them. (AP Photo/MicroCHIPS, Inc., Massachusetts)

Associated Press | Feb 16, 2012

By LAURAN NEERGAARD

WASHINGTON (AP) — Medication via remote-control instead of a shot? Scientists implanted microchips in seven women that did just that, oozing out the right dose of a bone-strengthening drug once a day without them even noticing.

Implanted medicine is a hot field, aiming to help patients better stick to their meds and to deliver those drugs straight to the body part that needs them.

But Thursday’s study is believed the first attempt at using a wirelessly controlled drug chip in people. If this early-stage testing eventually pans out, the idea is that doctors one day might program dose changes from afar with the push of a button, or time them for when the patient is sleeping to minimize side effects.

The implant initially is being studied to treat severe bone-thinning osteoporosis. But it could be filled with other types of medication, said co-inventor Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s like ‘Star Trek,'” said Langer, who co-authored the study appearing Thursday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. “Just send a signal over a special radio wave, and out comes the drug.”

Today’s medication implants continuously emit their drugs until they run dry. One example is a dime-sized wafer that oozes chemotherapy directly onto the site of a surgically removed brain tumor, targeting any remaining cancer cells. Another is a contraceptive rod that is implanted in the arm and releases hormones to prevent pregnancy.

A next step would be more sophisticated implants that release one dose at a time, programmable to skip or add a dose as needed, said biomedical engineer Ellis Meng of the University of Southern California. Meng wasn’t involved with the MIT study but also is developing this kind of technology, and called Thursday’s report “an important milestone.”

Women with severe osteoporosis sometimes are prescribed daily injections of the bone-building drug teriparatide, known by the brand Forteo. But many quit taking it because of the hassle of the shots.

In the study, the microchip held doses of that drug inside tiny wells that are sealed shut with a nano-thin layer of gold. Sending a wireless signal causes the gold on an individual well to dissolve, allowing that dose to diffuse into the bloodstream, Langer explained.

In a doctor’s-office procedure, the microchip was implanted just below the waistline into eight women with osteoporosis in Denmark. Testing found one microchip wasn’t responding to the signals. The other seven women had their implants programmed to automatically emit a once-a-day dose beginning eight weeks later.

The chips could have begun working right away, said Robert Farra, CEO of MicroCHIPS Inc., a Massachusetts company that has licensed the device and funded the study. But animal research showed a scar tissue-like membrane forms around the pacemaker-sized implant. So he waited until that blockage formed to signal the first of 20 once-a-day doses to begin, to see if the drug could get through.

Blood testing showed the implant delivered the drug as effectively as the women’s usual daily injections, and the device appeared to be safe, the researchers reported.

It will take large-scale studies to prove the implant works as well as the long-used shots, cautioned osteoporosis specialist Dr. Ethel Siris of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University.

“They’re a long way from proving that this mode of administration is going to work,” she said. But it’s an intriguing idea because “it’s daunting to have to take a daily shot.”

Farra said his company hopes to begin a larger-scale test, using a chip that can hold 365 doses, in 2014. While doses of this osteoporosis medicine typically aren’t adjusted, he said, the eventual goal is for patients to carry a cell phone-sized device that would provide wireless feedback to the doctor who programs their implants.