US Group: Eradication of Painful Guinea Worm Disease in Sight

A U.S.-based center says in a new report the eradication of the painful Guinea worm disease could be in sight.

The Carter Center, leader of the campaign to eliminate the disease, says there were only 30 identified cases of Guinea worm disease in isolated areas last year in Chad and Ethiopia – 15 in each country.

All the cases in Ethiopia occurred in migrant workers in the Oromia region who drank unfiltered water from a contaminated pond on an industrial farm.

Mali has not reported any cases of the disease in 25 months, while South Sudan, has not reported any cases in 13 months.  The Carter Center labels those achievements by the two African countries as “major accomplishments.”

There is no known vaccine or medicine to control Guinea worm disease.  It is eradicated by educating people on how to filter and drink clean water.

People with Guinea worm disease have no symptoms for about one year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says.  Then, a meter-long worm begins to emerge painfully and slowly from a blister that can form anywhere on the body. In 80 to 90 percent of the cases, the blister forms on lower body parts.

“It was more painful than giving birth,” a South Sudan woman told the Associated Press last year.  “Childbirth ends, but this pain persists.”

If the worm breaks during removal, it can cause intense inflammation as the remaining part of the worm degrades in the body.

The worm removal and recovery can disable people, sometimes permanently.

The Carter Center, founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, reports that in 1986 Guinea worm disease affected an estimated 3.5 million people in 21 countries in Africa and Asia.  The incidence of the disease has now been reduced by more than 99.999 percent “thanks to the work of strong partnerships, including the countries themselves,” the center said.


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Bad US Flu Season Gets Worse

The flu season in the U.S. is getting worse.

Health officials last week said flu was blanketing the country, but they thought there was a good chance the season was peaking. But the newest numbers out Friday show it grew even more intense.

“This is a season that has a lot more steam than we thought,” said Dr. Dan Jernigan of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One measure of the season is how many doctor or hospital visits are because of a high fever, cough and other flu symptoms. Thirty-two states reported high patient traffic last week, up from 26 the previous week. Overall, it was the busiest week for flu symptoms in nine years.

Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t have widespread illnesses.

This year’s flu season got off to an early start, and it’s been driven by a nasty type of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths than other common flu bugs. In New York, state officials say a drastic rise in flu cases hospitalized more than 1,600 this past week.

The flu became intense last month in the U.S. The last two weekly report show flu widespread over the entire continental United States, which is unusual.

Usually, flu seasons start to wane after so much activity, but “it’s difficult to predict,” Jernigan said.

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness, spread by a virus. It can cause a miserable but relatively mild illness in many people but a more severe illness in others. Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk from flu and its complications. In a bad season, there are as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu. In the U.S., annual flu shots are recommended for everyone age 6 months or older.

In Oklahoma and Texas, some school districts canceled classes this week because so many students and teachers were sick with the flu and other illnesses. In Mississippi, flu outbreaks have hit more than 100 nursing homes and other long-term care places, resulting in some restricting visitors.


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Christa McAuliffe’s Lost Lessons Finally Taught in Space

Christa McAuliffe’s lost lessons are finally getting taught in space.

Thirty-two years after the Challenger disaster, a pair of teachers-turned-astronauts will pay tribute to McAuliffe by carrying out her science classes on the International Space Station.

As NASA’s first designated teacher in space, McAuliffe was going to experiment with fluids and demonstrate Newton’s laws of motion for schoolchildren. She never made it to orbit: She and six crewmates were killed during liftoff of space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986.

Astronauts Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold will perform some of McAuliffe’s lessons over the next several months. Acaba planned to share the news during a TV linkup Friday with students at her alma mater, Framingham State University near Boston.

Four lessons — on effervescence or bubbles, chromatography, liquids and Newton’s laws — will be filmed by Acaba and Arnold, then posted online by the Challenger Center, a not-for-profit organization supporting science, technology, engineering and math education.

The center’s president, Lance Bush, said he’s thrilled “to bring Christa’s lessons to life.”

“We are honored to have the opportunity to complete Christa’s lessons and share them with students and teachers around the world,” Bush said in a statement.

NASA’s associate administrator for education, Mike Kincaid, said the lessons are “an incredible way to honor and remember” McAuliffe as well as the entire Challenger crew.

Four of the six lessons that McAuliffe planned to videotape during her space flight will be done. A few will be altered to take advantage of what’s available aboard the space station.

The lessons should be available online beginning this spring.

Acaba returns to Earth at the end of February. Arnold flies up in March. NASA is billing their back-to-back missions as “A Year of Education on Station.”

The two were teaching middle school math and science on opposite sides of the world — Acaba in Florida and Arnold in Romania — when NASA picked them as educator-astronauts in 2004. The idea to complete McAuliffe’s lesson plans came about last year.

“As former teachers, Ricky and Joe wanted to honor Christa McAuliffe,” said Challenger Center spokeswoman Lisa Vernal.

McAuliffe was teaching history, law and economics at Concord High School in New Hampshire when she was selected as the primary candidate for NASA’s teacher-in-space project in 1985.

Her backup, Barbara Morgan, is on the Challenger Center’s board of directors. Morgan was NASA’s first educator-astronaut, flying on shuttle Endeavour in 2007 and helping to build the space station.


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Anti-smoking Plan May Kill Cigarettes — and Save Big Tobacco

Imagine if cigarettes were no longer addictive and smoking itself became almost obsolete; only a tiny segment of Americans still lit up. That’s the goal of an unprecedented anti-smoking plan being carefully fashioned by U.S. health officials.

But the proposal from the Food and Drug Administration could have another unexpected effect: opening the door for companies to sell a new generation of alternative tobacco products, allowing the industry to survive — even thrive — for generations to come.

The plan puts the FDA at the center of a long-standing debate over so-called “reduced-risk” products, such as e-cigarettes, and whether they should have a role in anti-smoking efforts, which have long focused exclusively on getting smokers to quit.

“This is the single most controversial — and frankly, divisive — issue I’ve seen in my 40 years studying tobacco control policy,” said Kenneth Warner, professor emeritus at University of Michigan’s school of public health.

The FDA plan is two-fold: drastically cut nicotine levels in cigarettes so that they are essentially non-addictive. For those who can’t or won’t quit, allow lower-risk products that deliver nicotine without the deadly effects of traditional cigarettes.

This month the government effort is poised to take off. The FDA is expected to soon begin what will likely be a years-long process to control nicotine in cigarettes. And next week, the agency will hold a public meeting on a closely watched cigarette alternative from Philip Morris International, which, if granted FDA clearance, could launch as early as February.

The product, called iQOS, is a pen-like device that heats Marlboro-branded tobacco but stops short of burning it, an approach that Philip Morris says reduces exposure to tar and other toxic byproducts of burning cigarettes. This is different from e-cigarettes, which don’t use tobacco at all but instead vaporize liquid usually containing nicotine.

For anti-smoking activists, these new products may mean surrendering hopes of a knockout blow to the industry. They say there is no safe tobacco product and the focus should be on getting people to quit. But others are more open to the idea of alternatives to get people away from cigarettes, the deadliest form of tobacco.

Tobacco companies have made claims about “safer” cigarettes since the 1950s, all later proven false. In some cases the introduction of these products, such as filtered and “low tar” cigarettes, propped up cigarette sales and kept millions of Americans smoking. Although the adult smoking rate has fallen to an all-time low of 15 percent, smoking remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and illness, responsible for about one in five U.S. deaths.

Anti-smoking groups also point to Big Tobacco’s history of manipulating public opinion and government efforts against smoking: In 2006, a federal judge ruled that Big Tobacco had lied and deceived the American public about the effects of smoking for more than 50 years. The industry defeated a 2010 proposal by the FDA to add graphic warning labels to cigarette packs. And FDA scrutiny of menthol-flavored cigarettes — used disproportionately by young people and minorities — has been bogged down since 2011, due to legal challenges.

“We’re not talking about an industry that is legitimately interested in saving lives here,” said Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.

But some industry observers say this time will be different.

“The environment has changed, the technology has changed, the companies have changed — that is the reality,” said Scott Ballin, a health policy consultant who previously worked for the American Heart Association.

Under a 2009 law, the FDA gained authority to regulate certain parts of the tobacco industry, including nicotine in cigarettes, though it cannot remove the ingredient completely. The same law allows the agency to scientifically review and permit sales of new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Little has happened so far. Last year, the agency said it would delay the deadline for manufacturers to submit their vapor-emitting products for review until 2022.

The FDA says it wants to continue to help people quit by supporting a variety of approaches, including new quit-smoking aids and opening opportunities for a variety of companies, including drugmakers, to help attack the problem. As part of this, the FDA sees an important role for alternative products — but in a world where cigarettes contain such a small amount of nicotine that they become unappealing even to lifelong smokers.

“We still have to provide an opportunity for adults who want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine,” but without the hazards of burning tobacco, said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. He estimates the FDA plan could eventually prevent 8 million smoking-related deaths.

​’Smoke-free future’

Philip Morris International and its U.S. partner Altria will try to navigate the first steps of the new regulatory path next week.

At a two-day meeting before the FDA, company scientists will try and convince government experts that iQOS is less-harmful than cigarettes. If successful, iQOS could be advertised by Altria to U.S. consumers as a “reduced-risk” tobacco product, the first ever sanctioned by the FDA.

Because iQOS works with real tobacco, the company believes it will be more effective than e-cigarettes in getting smokers to switch.

Philip Morris already sells the product in about 30 countries, including Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom.

iQOS is part of an elaborate corporate makeover for Philip Morris, which last year rebranded its website with the slogan: “Designing a smoke-free future.” The cigarette giant says it has invested over $3 billion in iQOS and eventually plans to stop selling cigarettes worldwide — though it resists setting a deadline.

Philip Morris executives say they are offering millions of smokers a better, less-harmful product.

Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids still sees danger. He says FDA must strictly limit marketing of products like iQOS to adult smokers who are unable or unwilling to quit. Otherwise they may be used in combination with cigarettes or even picked up by nonsmokers or young people who might see the new devices as harmless enough to try.

“As a growing percentage of the world makes the decision that smoking is too dangerous and too risky, iQOS provides an alternative to quitting that keeps them in the market,” Myers says.

It’s unclear whether existing alternatives to cigarettes help smokers quit, a claim often made by e-cigarette supporters. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests about 60 percent of adult e-cigarette users also smoke regular cigarettes.

The case for lower nicotine

Experts who study nicotine addiction say the FDA plan is grounded in the latest science.

Several recent studies have shown that when smokers switch to very low-nicotine cigarettes they smoke less and are more likely to try quitting. But they also seek nicotine from other sources, underscoring the need for alternatives. Without new options, smokers would likely seek regular-strength cigarettes on the black market.

Crucial to the FDA proposal is a simple fact: Nicotine is highly addictive, but not deadly. It’s the burning tobacco and other substances inhaled through smoking that cause cancer, heart disease and bronchitis.

“It’s hard to imagine that using nicotine and tobacco in a way that isn’t burned, in a non-combustible form, isn’t going to be much safer,” said Eric Donny, an addiction researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

A study of 800 smokers by Donny and other researchers showed that when nicotine was limited to less than 1 milligram per gram of tobacco, users smoked fewer cigarettes. The study, funded by the FDA, was pivotal to showing that smokers won’t compensate by smoking more if nicotine intake is reduced enough. That was the case with “light” and “low-tar” cigarettes introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, when some smokers actually began smoking more cigarettes per day.

Still, many in the anti-smoking community say larger, longer studies are needed to predict how low-nicotine cigarettes would work in the real world.

Legal risks

Key to the FDA plan is the assumption that the two actions will happen at the same time: as regulators cut nicotine in conventional cigarettes, manufacturers will provide alternative products.

But that presumes that tobacco companies will willingly part with their flagship product, which remains enormously profitable.

Kenneth Warner, the public policy professor, said he would be “astonished” if industry cooperates on reducing nicotine levels.

“I don’t think they will. I think they will bring out all of their political guns against it and I’m quite certain they will sue to prevent it,” he said.

In that scenario, the FDA plan to make cigarettes less addictive could be stalled in court for years while companies begin launching FDA-sanctioned alternative products. Tobacco critics say that scenario would be the most profitable for industry.

“It’s like Coke, you can have regular Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, we’ll sell you any Coke you like,” said Robin Koval, president of the Truth Initiative, which runs educational anti-tobacco campaigns.

But the FDA’s Gottlieb says the two parts of the plan must go together. “I’m not going to advance this in a piecemeal fashion,” he said.

When pressed about whether the industry will sue FDA over mandatory nicotine reductions, tobacco executives for Altria and other companies instead emphasized the long, complicated nature of the regulatory process.

“I’m not going to speculate about what may happen at the end of a multiyear process,” said Jose Murillo, an Altria vice president. “It will be science and evidence-based and we will be engaged at every step of the way.”


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Debate Over Abortion, as 45th Pro-Life Rally Takes Place in Washington

The 45th annual March for Life rally takes place Friday in Washington. President Trump says he will speak at the anti-abortion event from the White House. The rally also coincides with the 45th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, a Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. Pro-choice supporters favor the law, while anti-abortionists want the decision reversed. VOA’s Deborah Block looks at the debate over the issue.


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In Early Attempts, Cancer-detecting Blood Test Shows Promise

Scientists are reporting progress on a blood test to detect many types of cancer at an early stage, including some of the most deadly ones that lack screening tools now.

Many groups are working on liquid biopsy tests, which look for DNA and other things that tumors shed into blood, to try to find cancer before it spreads, when chances of cure are best.

In a study Thursday in the journal Science, Johns Hopkins University scientists looked to see how well their experimental test detected cancer in people already known to have the disease. The blood tests found about 70 percent of eight common types of cancer in the 1,005 patients. The rates varied depending on the type, lower for breast tumors but high for ovarian, liver and pancreatic ones.

In many cases, the test narrowed the possible origin of the cancer to one or two places, such as colon or lung, important for limiting how much follow-up testing a patient might need. It gave only seven false alarms when tried on 812 others without cancer.

Not ready for use yet

The test is nowhere near ready for use yet; it needs to be validated in a larger study underway in a general population, rather than cancer patients, to see if it truly works and helps save lives, the best measure of a screening test’s value.

“We’re very, very excited and see this as a first step,” said Nickolas Papadopoulos, one of the Hopkins study leaders. “But we don’t want people calling up” and asking for the test now, because it’s not available, he said.

Some independent experts saw great promise.

“It’s such a good first set of results” that it gives hope this approach will pan out, said Dr. Peter Bach, a health policy expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who consults for a gene testing company. “Anything close to 50 percent or 40 percent detection is pretty exciting stuff,” and this one did better than that, he said.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, was encouraged that the test did well on cancers that lack screening tests now. If a blood test could find 98 percent of ovarian cancers at an early stage, as these early results suggest, “that would be a significant advance,” he said.

But he cautioned: “We have a long way to go to demonstrate its effectiveness as a screening test.”

Testing the test

The test detects mutations in 16 genes tied to cancer and measures eight proteins that often are elevated when cancer is present.

It covers breast, colon and lung and five kinds that don’t have screening tests for people at average risk: ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic and esophageal. Prostate cancer is not included. A blood test is widely used, the PSA test, but its value for screening is controversial. 

Researchers tried the new test on people whose cancers were still confined to where it started or had spread a little but not widely throughout the body. It detected 33 percent of breast cancers, about 60 percent of colon or lung cancers and nearly all of the ovarian and liver ones. It did better when tumors were larger or had spread. It did less well at the very earliest stage.


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Britain Appoints Minister of Loneliness

Britain has appointed a minister of loneliness to combat social isolation experienced by one in 10 Britons. 

Sports Minister Tracey Crouch will add the job to her existing portfolio to advance the work of slain lawmaker Jo Cox, who set up the Commission on Loneliness in 2016.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

The British Red Cross says more than 9 million Britons describe themselves as being always or often lonely, out of a population of 65.6 million.

Most people over age 75 in Britain live alone, and about 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, government data show.

“We know that there is a real impact of social isolation and loneliness on people, on their physical and mental well-being but also on other aspects in society, and we want to tackle this challenge,” Crouch told the BBC. 


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