GOP, Dems Unite Behind Senate Bill Fighting Addictive Drugs

Republicans and Democrats joined forces to speed legislation combating the misuse of opioids and other addictive drugs toward Senate passage Monday, a rare campaign-season show of unity against a growing and deadly health care crisis. 

The measure takes wide aim at the problem, including increasing scrutiny of arriving international mail that may include illegal drugs and making it easier for the National Institutes of Health to approve research on finding nonaddictive painkillers and for pharmaceutical companies to conduct that research. The Food and Drug Administration would be allowed to require drug makers to package smaller quantities of drugs like opioids and there would be new federal grants for treatment centers, training emergency workers and research on prevention methods.

Lawmakers’ focus on combating opioids comes amid alarming increases in drug overdose deaths, with the government estimating more than 72,000 of them last year. That figure has grown annually and is double the 36,000 who died in 2008.

Besides the sheer numbers, Congress has been drawn to the problem because of its broad impact on Republican, Democratic and swing states alike.

California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania each had more than 4,000 people die from drug overdoses in 2016, while seven other states each lost more than 2,000 people from drugs, according to the most recent figures available. The states with the highest death rates per resident include West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire, along with the District of Columbia.

West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin and Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson, both Democrats, are among those facing competitive re-election races in November’s midterm elections. Republicans are trying to deflect a Democratic effort to capture Senate control. 

Money for much of the federal spending the legislation envisions would have to be provided in separate spending bills.

The House approved its own drug misuse legislation this summer. Congressional leaders hope the two chambers will produce compromise legislation and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature by year’s end.


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SpaceX’s First Private Passenger is Japanese Fashion Magnate Maezawa

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space transportation company, on Monday named its first private passenger as Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa, the founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo.

A former drummer in a punk band, billionaire Maezawa will take a trip around the moon planned for 2023 aboard its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, taking the race to commercialize space travel to new heights.

The first person to travel to the moon since the United States’ Apollo missions ended in 1972, Maezawa’s identity was revealed at an event on Monday evening at the company’s headquarters and rocket factory in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne.

Maezawa, who is most famous outside Japan for his record-breaking $110 million purchase of an untitled 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, said he would invite six to eight artists to join him on the lunar orbit mission.

The billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla, Musk revealed more details of the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, the super heavy-lift launch vehicle that he promises will shuttle passengers to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars. The BFR could be conducting its first orbital flights in about two to three years, he said.

Musk had previously said he wanted the rocket to be ready for an unpiloted trip to Mars in 2022, with a crewed flight in 2024, though his ambitious production targets have been known to slip.

“Its not 100 percent certain we can bring this to flight,” Musk said of the lunar mission.

The amount Maezawa is paying for the trip was not disclosed, however, Musk said the businessman outlaid a significant deposit and will have a material impact on the cost of developing the BFR.

The 42-year-old Maezawa is one of Japan’s most colorful executives and is a regular fixture in the country’s gossipy weeklies with his collection of foreign and Japanese art, fast cars and celebrity girlfriend.

Maezawa made his fortune by founding the wildly popular shopping site Zozotown. His company Zozo, officially called Start Today Co Ltd, also offers a made-to-measure service using a polka dot bodysuit, the Zozosuit.

With SpaceX, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic battling it out to launch private-sector spacecraft, Maezawa will join a growing list of celebrities and the ultra-rich who have secured seats on flights offered on the under-development vessels.

Those who have signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic sub-orbital missions include actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000.

Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July.

SpaceX has already upended the space industry with its relatively low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets. The company has completed more than 50 successful Falcon launches and snagged billions of dollars’ worth of contracts, including deals with NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

SpaceX in February transfixed a global audience with the successful test launch of its Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world.


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Survey: 2 Million US Teens Vaping Marijuana

A school-based survey shows nearly 1 in 11 U.S. students have used marijuana in electronic cigarettes, heightening health concerns about the new popularity of vaping among teens.

E-cigarettes typically contain nicotine, but many of the battery-powered devices can vaporize other substances, including marijuana. Results published Monday mean 2.1 million middle and high school students have used them to get high.

Vaping is generally considered less dangerous than smoking, because burning tobacco or marijuana generates chemicals that are harmful to lungs. But there is little research on e-cigarettes’ long-term effects, including whether they help smokers quit. 

The rise in teenagers using e-cigarettes has alarmed health officials who worry kids will get addicted to nicotine, a stimulant, and be more likely to try cigarettes. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration gave the five largest e-cigarette makers 60 days to produce plans to stop underage use of their products.

Nearly 9 percent of students surveyed in 2016 said they used an e-cigarette device with marijuana, according to Monday’s report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. That included one-third of those who ever used e-cigarettes.

The number is worrying “because cannabis use among youth can adversely affect learning and memory and may impair later academic achievement and education,” said lead researcher Katrina Trivers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students who said they lived with a tobacco user were more likely than others to report vaping marijuana.

It’s unclear whether marijuana vaping is increasing among teens or holding steady. The devices have grown into a multi-billion industry, but they are relatively new.

In states where marijuana is legal, shoppers can buy cartridges of liquid containing THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets people high, that work with a number of devices. Juul, by far the most popular e-cigarette device, does not offer marijuana pods, but users can re-fill cartridges with cannabis oil. 

It was the first time a question about marijuana vaping was asked on this particular survey, which uses a nationally representative sample of students in public and private schools. More than 20,000 students took the survey in 2016.

A different survey from the University of Michigan in December found similar results when it asked for the first time about marijuana vaping. In that study, 8 percent of 10th graders said they vaped marijuana in the past year.

“The health risks of vaping reside not only in the vaping devices, but in the social environment that comes with it,” said University of Michigan researcher Richard Miech. Kids who vape are more likely to become known as drug users and make friends with drug users, he said, adding that “hanging out with drug users is a substantial risk factor for future drug use.”


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Zimbabwe Disperses Vendors in Effort to Fight Cholera Outbreak

Zimbabwe police Sunday clashed with vendors who were resisting being removed from streets as part of the country’s efforts to fight the cholera outbreak, which has claimed more than two dozen lives in the past two weeks.

Vendors were alerting each other of armed riot police and municipality officials coming to confiscate their wares Sunday in Harare. As soon as police officials left, the vendors would resume their business.

One of them is 34-year-old Maria Mange, a mother who three children who says unless she gets employed, she will remain selling vegetables and fruits in Harare’s CBD.

“I am refusing to leave the streets on the basis that we cause the spread of cholera,” she said. “Our wares are cleaned or boiled before being consumed. It is dirty water which causes cholera, their failure to collect refuse, plus flowing sewage in the streets and blocked sewer pipes. Why concentrate on vendors and not criminals?”

Another vendor is Ronald Takura who says he has to find a way to make a livliehood.

“No, vendors are not causing the cholera. You are disturbing [our] search for money in our country,” he said. “I do not have a job and I do not have work to do. So do not send us out. I do not understand what is happening in this city. E.D. Mnangagwa, we supported, we do not see what he is doing for us.”

He adds in Shona language, Zimbabweans voted for President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the July 30th elections, but he is not supporting the vendors.

But Zimbabwe’s minister of health, Obediah Moyo, says there is no going back.

“The issue of food vending is another issue, we all agreed that has to stop, especially in the area of epicenter [of the epidemic], that the police are helping us to stop the vending of food,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak has since spread to several parts of the country from its epicenter in Harare’s densely populated suburbs.

International organizations such as UNICEF, WHO, and MSF have since moved in with assistance. But critics say the long-term solution is improving water supply, sanitation and regular waste collection by Zimbabwean authorities.

A cholera outbreak is the second since a 2008-09 epidemic claimed almost 5,000 lives.


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Picking up Litter in Boat Made From Plastic Litter

A boat made from recycled plastic, now sailing on London’s river Thames, is a creative way to make an environmental problem part of the solution. Faiza Elmasry tells more about the significance of the Pet Project and its mission. VOA’s Faith Lapidus narrates.]]


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Australia’s Queensland Tackles Climate-Driven Disease, Deaths

The Queensland state government in Australia is to fund a new program to help combat killer heatwaves and outbreaks of disease caused by climate change. Authorities are even discussing imposing tobacco-style taxes against carbon polluters. The initiative comes as the United Nation chief warned that if the world does not take serious action by 2020, it risks the fallout from “runaway climate change.”

The plan to tackle climate-related disease and deaths from heatwaves is part of the Queensland government’s efforts to cut the state’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

The strategy urges bureaucrats and executives to consider health impacts when assessing mining and energy projects.  It also encourages the government not to subsidize “activities harmful to health and climate stability”.

It identifies heat stress among children and the elderly as the main concern for the future. Heatwaves are Australia’s biggest natural hazard, killing more people than droughts, floods and bush fires put together.  

Other climate-driven health fears are “food and water insecurity, malnutrition, worsening [and] cardiovascular and respiratory” illnesses.

Fiona Armstrong, the head of the Climate and Health Alliance, which helped draw up the plan, said wild conditions can kill.

“You only need to look at the example of thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne a couple of years ago to see how these kinds of events, even though they might be predicted, can really take the sector and the community by surprise,” Armstrong said.

Thunderstorm asthma can be triggered when storms play havoc with pollen, causing potentially fatal respiratory problems.

The Queensland plan also identifies the increased risk of mental illness among those affected by a worsening drought that has gripped much of eastern Australia, including much of Queensland and the entire state of New South Wales.

Queensland farmer Sid Plant said federal authorities are not doing enough.

“Politicians do not seem to want to recognize that climate change is affecting Australia’s farmers. We are feeling the pain as early as anybody in the world.  We are not living in the same climate that we were 20 years ago or 50 years ago,” said Plant.

Forecasters say southeastern Australia can expect more unusually warm and dry conditions in the coming months.

Some Australians doubt man’s influence on the climate, insisting that a shifting climate is part of a natural cycle.  However, that remains a minority view.

 

 


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UN General Assembly Hosts High-Level Talks to Combat Tuberculosis

While flu outbreaks, Ebola and HIV typically generate the biggest headlines, scientists say tuberculosis remains the No. 1 infectious disease killer globally, affecting about one quarter of the world’s population. The U.N. General Assembly hopes to draw more attention to the problem by hosting its first-ever, high-level meeting on tuberculosis. The meeting will be at the end of September to bolster global efforts to end the disease and help those affected. VOA’s Jill Craig has more.


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Florence, Mangkhut and Climate Change: Yes, No and Maybe

The seas are angry this month.

While the remnants of Hurricane Florence soak the Carolinas and Typhoon Mangkhut pounds the Philippines, three more tropical cyclones are spinning in the Western Hemisphere, and one is petering out over Southeast Asia.

Experts say some of this extreme tropical weather is consistent with climate change. But some isn’t. And some is unclear.

It’s unusual to have so many storms happening at once. But not unheard of.

“While it is very busy, this has happened a number of times in the past,” said meteorologist Joel Cline at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mid-September is the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. If there are going to be storms in both hemispheres, Cline said, now is the most likely time.

Stronger storms, and a grain of salt

Scientists are not necessarily expecting more hurricanes with climate change, however.

“A lot of studies actually (show) fewer storms overall,” said NOAA climate scientist Tom Knutson.

“But one thing they also tend to simulate is slightly stronger storms” and a larger proportion of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes, Knutson said. Florence made landfall as a Category 1 storm but started the week as a Category 4.

Knutson and other experts caution that any conclusions linking climate and hurricanes need to be taken with a grain of salt.

“Our period of record is too short to be very confident in these sorts of things,” said University of Miami atmospheric scientist Brian McNoldy.

While reliable temperature records go back more than a century in much of the world, comprehensive data on hurricanes only starts with satellites in the 1980s.

​Extreme rainfall

Scientists are fairly sure that climate change is making extreme rainfall more common. Global warming has raised ocean temperatures, leading to more water evaporating into the atmosphere, and warmer air holds more water.

Florence is expected to dump up to 101 centimeters (40 inches) of rain in some spots, leading to what the National Weather Service calls life-threatening flooding.

One group of researchers has estimated that half of the rain falling in the hurricane’s wettest areas is because of human-caused climate change.

Knutson agrees in principle but can’t vouch for the magnitude.

“We do not yet claim that we have detected this increase in hurricane rainfall rate,” he said.

He points to earlier studies that blamed climate change for 15 to 20 percent of the devastating rainfall Hurricane Harvey poured on Texas last year.

However, these studies looked at all kinds of rainfall, not just hurricanes, Knutson notes.

“We think that hurricanes are probably behaving like the other types of processes, but we have the best data for extreme precipitation in general,” he explained.

The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has “medium confidence” in the link between climate change and rainfall extremes.

As Florence trudges across the Carolinas, one recent study suggests that hurricanes are moving slower, giving them more time to do their damage.

But that may be natural variation more than climate change.

“I think we’re still early in the game on that one,” Knutson said.

​Rising sea levels

The area where scientists are most confident is sea level rise. Climate change is responsible for three-quarters of the increase in ocean levels, according to the IPCC report.

“Once you have human-caused sea level rise, then all other things being equal, whatever storms you have will create that much higher storm surge,” Knutson said.

That means more erosion and more damage farther on shore.

Whether this hurricane season as a whole will be one for the record books remains to be seen. While the seas are angry at the moment, that may soon change.

An El Niño warming pattern appears to be developing in the Pacific. That tends to squash hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

“It appears that perhaps next week will be much more quiet in both basins,” said NOAA’s Joel Cline. “So it does ebb and flow.”


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Health Care Workers Better Equipped to Fight Ebola Outbreaks   

Medical workers have lots of experience dealing with Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The current one in North Kivu province is the country’s 10th. Fortunately, they have new tools to fight the deadly virus. A new vaccine has shown it can protect people who’ve come into contact with Ebola victims, and more people have learned techniques to keep the virus from spreading. 

But, new problems emerge and old problems persist with every outbreak. Some people still refuse to believe Ebola exists and have hidden infected family members. Traditional burial practices put people at risk. And the location of the current outbreak is a conflict zone with about 100 active armed groups, creating security risks for health workers.

As of Sept. 12, 92 people have died from Ebola in the North Kivu outbreak, according to the World Health Organization.

Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director general in charge of emergencies, says North Kivu’s location poses a huge challenge. The province borders Uganda and Rwanda, and thousands of people cross the border for business or personal reasons each day. 

“We hear that some of the cross-border sites such as Kasindi see up to 10- to 20,000 people crossing in either direction every day,” he says. “So it’s an enormous, as you can imagine, exercise to screen that level of population movement across the border.”

“Fortunately, we’ve had no confirmed cases in surrounding countries,” he adds. He believes that is a sign that surveillance methods at the border, which include temperature checks, are working.

He also says the lessons from the 2014-15 West Africa Ebola outbreak, which killed 11,000 people, have been used to good effect during the three separate outbreaks in Congo this year. 

“What we’re seeing is certainly a paradigm shift in the way we are confronting Ebola outbreaks,” he said. “In the past, you know, we had very little to offer communities other than to isolate sick people and to give information to communities and to (recommend) hygiene and handwashing and of course to trace very carefully the contacts.”

“Now, we have a much more optimistic message that I think is giving people a lot of hope, which is to say that we can protect your family members, your caregivers, your health care workers, your neighbors with vaccines so they don’t have to become infected.”

“And if you are unfortunate enough to contract Ebola, you have the option of coming to an Ebola treatment unit and getting more than just rehydration and supportive treatment, but actually the kind of sophisticated medications that you would benefit from in a Western country.”


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Community Resistance to Ebola Growing in Congo

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says it is increasing Ebola prevention efforts in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The agency says community resistance to efforts to contain Ebola is growing and must be fought to stop the spread of the fatal disease.

Since the disease outbreak was declared on August 1 in Congo’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces, UNICEF has been working with communities to inform them about how the virus spreads and what measures to take to protect themselves from being infected.

The U.N. agency is working with community and religious leaders in the city of Beni, where health workers are facing hostility and resistance. UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said the spread of false rumors and fear about Ebola are endangering efforts to contain the virus.

“We are working with anthropologists, particularly in this Beni neighborhood, who ensure that the response is sensitive to cultural beliefs and practices, particularly around caring for sick and diseased individuals, and addressing population concerns about secure and dignified burials,” he said.

Boulierac said UNICEF is expanding its community outreach program to support thousands of people at risk in the city of Butembo. Two new Ebola cases recently were confirmed in this important commercial center with nearly one million inhabitants.

He said UNICEF is deploying a team of 11 specialists in community communication, education and psycho-social assistance. The agency also will provide water, sanitation and hygiene to help contain the disease and avoid further spread of the epidemic.

In its latest assessment, the World Health Organization counted 197 confirmed and probable cases, including 92 deaths.

The outbreak in the DRC is the 10th since Ebola was first identified in 1976.


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