‘Godfather of Coral’ on New Mission to Help Save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The so-called ‘godfather of coral’ is part of a new research mission to unlock some of the secrets of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  Dr. Charlie Veron is part of a scientific team searching for the “super corals” that managed to survive consecutive years of bleaching on the world’s largest reef system.


Charlie Veron is one of the world’s leading experts on coral reefs.  Born in Sydney, he is known as the ‘godfather of coral’ because he has discovered so many different species.  He is part of the Great Barrier Reef Legacy mission, which is taking eight teams of scientists on a voyage to map and test the health of remote parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  

They are searching for so-called ‘super corals’ that managed to survive the past two years of devastating coral bleaching events.

Veron says the reef is in sharp decline.

“It is gut-wrenching and I have lived with this now for close on 20 years,” he said. “The predictions that scientists made well over a decade ago have all turned out to be spot on.  Well, this is a very important trip because we are actually seeing for ourselves what corals are vulnerable to mass bleaching and what corals are surviving mass bleaching.  So, once we know that we will be able to make smart decisions about coral, so the trip is really quite pivotal.”

In April, researchers discovered that for the first time mass bleaching had affected the Great Barrier Reef in consecutive years, damaging two-thirds of the World Heritage-listed area.  

When it bleaches, the coral is not dead, but it begins to starve and can eventually die.  The reefs, though, are resilient, but what concerns scientists is that more frequent bleaching, which is caused by rising water temperatures, makes it harder for the coral to recover. Bleaching occurs when corals under stress drive out the algae that give them color.  

Scientists believe that the main threat to the reef that stretches 2,300 kilometers down the Queensland coast in northern Australia is climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is about the size of Italy or Japan and is so big it can be seen from outer space.  It is home to more than 3,000 types of mollusks and 30 species of whales and dolphins.




Scanner Allows Early Diagnosis of Diabetic Ulcers

A 2014 study by the World Health Organization concluded that there are 400 million people around the world living with diabetes. One of the many complications of diabetes is the prevalence of foot ulcers, which if untreated can lead to amputations, and in many cases death. But a simple scanner being developed in Britain can give some important warning for doctors who want to prevent the ulcers from happening. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


20 Years of Changing Seasons on Earth, Packed Into 2½ Minutes

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons in a striking new global map of the home planet.

The data visualization, released this week, shows Earth’s fluctuations as seen from space.

The polar ice caps and snow cover are shown ebbing and flowing with the seasons. The varying ocean shades of blue, green, red and purple depict the abundance — or lack — of undersea life.

“It’s like watching the Earth breathe. It’s really remarkable,” said NASA oceanographer Jeremy Werdell, who took part in the project.

Two decades — from September 1997 to this past September — are crunched into 2½ minutes of viewing.

Werdell finds the imagery mesmerizing. “It’s like all of my senses are being transported into space, and then you can compress time and rewind it, and just continually watch this kind of visualization,” he said Friday.

Werdell said the visualization shows spring coming earlier and autumn lasting longer in the Northern Hemisphere. Also noticeable to him is the receding of the Arctic ice caps over time — and, though less obvious, the Antarctic, too.

On the sea side, Werdell was struck by “this hugely productive bloom of biology” that exploded in the Pacific along the equator from 1997 to 1998 — when a water-warming El Nino merged into cooling La Nina. This algae bloom is evident by a line of bright green.

In considerably smaller Lake Erie, more and more contaminating algae blooms are apparent — appearing red and yellow.

All this data can provide resources for policymakers as well as commercial fishermen and many others, according to Werdell.

Programmer Alex Kekesi of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland said it took three months to complete the visualization, using satellite imagery.

Just like our Earth, the visualization will continually change, officials said, as computer systems improve, new remote-sensing satellites are launched and more observations are made.


Red Cross: 1 Million Yemenis at Risk of Cholera Outbreak

One million people across three Yemeni cities are at risk of a renewed cholera outbreak and other water-borne diseases following the closing of airports and sea ports by a Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Shiite rebels, an international aid group said on Friday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that the cities of Hodeida, Saada and Taiz were not able to provide clean water in recent days due to a lack of fuel.

“Close to one million people are now deprived of clean water and sanitation in crowded urban environments in a country slowly emerging from the worst cholera outbreak in modern times,” said Alexander Faite, head of the Red Cross delegation in the war-ravaged nation.

The Red Cross said other major urban cities, including the capital Sanaa, will find themselves in the same situation in less than two weeks unless imports of essential goods resume immediately.

The U.S.-backed coalition imposed a land, sea and air blockade on November 6th after a missile attack by rebels targeted the Saudi capital Riyadh. Saudi Arabia said Monday the coalition would lift the blockade after widespread international criticism.

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote to Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador saying the Gulf kingdom’s failure to reopen key Yemen airports and sea ports is reversing humanitarian efforts to tackle the crisis in the impoverished country.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres welcomed the reopening of the port in the city of Aden, however he said this “will not meet the needs of 28 million Yemenis.”

Suspected airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition killed at least 21 people on Friday in the country’s west and northwest, said Yemeni security officials and witnesses.

One airstrike hit a bus in el-Zaher district in the western province of Hodeida, killing six civilians, they said. At least 15 people were killed in another airstrike on a market in Yemen’s northwestern Hajja province, controlled by the Shiite rebels, the officials and witnesses added.

The officials and witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters or for fear of reprisals.

There was no immediate comment from the coalition.

Over the past two years, more than 10,000 people have been killed and 3 million displaced in the coalition’s air campaign. With the country in a stalemate war, cholera began to rear its ugly head in October 2016, but the epidemic escalated rapidly in April. The fighting has damaged infrastructure and caused shortages of medicine and pushed the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.



Birds Connect People with Nature

Millions of Americans feed wild birds in their backyards, from cardinals and English sparrows to blue jays and doves. Making seeds available attracts more birds and gives bird watchers a chance to enjoy seeing and maybe counting them. But it also helps birds, whether they are native or just passing through, survive amid the growing urban sprawl. Faiza Elmasry has the story, Faith Lapidus narrates.


$1 Million Price Tag in Spotlight as Gene Therapy Becomes Reality

Battle lines are being drawn as the first gene therapy for an inherited condition nears the U.S. market, offering hope for people with a rare form of blindness and creating a cost dilemma for health care providers.

Spark Therapeutics, whose Luxturna treatment has been recommended for U.S. approval, told investors last week there was a case for valuing it at more than $1 million per patient, although it has yet to set an actual price.

However, the U.S. Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) said this week “at a placeholder price of $1,000,000, the high cost makes this unlikely to be a cost-effective intervention at commonly used cost-effectiveness thresholds.”

The ICER analysis did concede Luxturna was likely to be more cost-effective for younger patients.

The expected U.S. approval of Luxturna by Jan. 12 is seen as kick-starting the sector, following disappointing sales of the first two gene therapies in Europe.

More treatments based on fixing faulty genes using viruses to carry DNA into cells are coming from companies like Bluebird Bio, BioMarin and Sangamo.

Spark’s Chief Financial Officer Stephen Webster said Thursday that gene therapy was upending conventional thinking by offering a one-time cure, rather than years of repeat prescriptions, but health systems were struggling to keep pace.

“Gene therapy creates an unusual conundrum because we are fitting a round peg in a square hole … it’s tough,” he told a Jefferies health care conference in London.

Spark would like to say “if it works, pay us, and if it stops working, stop paying us,” Webster told the meeting.

But for Luxturna, which cost some $400 million to develop, such an offer was impractical, given the mechanics of the U.S. system and a reluctance by big health plans to move away from upfront payments for rare disease drugs.

Longer-term, pay-for-performance models could be adopted for hemophilia, where the benefits of one-time treatment can be weighed against the huge cost of regular infusions of blood-clotting factors, Webster said.

A one-off treatment would slash the need for such expensive care. But there are also indirect costs and quality of life benefits — especially in a condition like blindness — that manufacturers argue should be recognized.

Nightstar Therapeutics CEO David Fellows, whose company is also developing gene therapies for eye disorders, said calculating gene therapy’s true value was not easy.

“Trying to capture all this into some sort of price algorithm is very challenging. But we are trying to quantify the emotional impact, the care-giver impact, the effect on careers and so on,” he told the conference.


HRW Report: Rohingya Women Gang Raped by Myanmar Soldiers

Burmese soldiers have gang raped Rohingya women in continued violence against the Muslim minority in the Rakhine state, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Human Rights Watch cited firsthand interviews with 52 Rohingya women and girls who fled to Bangladesh and reported being raped by security forces in Myanmar.

“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burmese military’s barbaric acts of violence have left countless women and girls brutally harmed and traumatized.”

All but one of the interviewees was gang raped, HRW said.

Hundreds of cases

HRW also spoke with multiple humanitarian organizations in Bangladesh who have reported “hundreds” of rape cases. Numbers of rape victims are likely much higher, as social stigma keeps many women silent.

“I have had to deal with disgust, others looking away from me,” Isharahat Islam, who was raped by soldiers in her village Hathi Para in October 2016, told HRW.

The numbers also cannot account for those who were killed after they were raped.

Fifteen-year-old Hala Sadak from a village in the Maungdaw Township told HRW that soldiers had dragged her from her home, stripped her naked, and pushed her against a tree where she estimates as many as 10 men raped her from behind.

“They left me where I was … when my brother and sister came to get me, I was lying there on the ground, they thought I was dead,” she said.

Emotional, physical injuries

In addition to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, women reported untreated injuries including vaginal tears, bleeding, and infections, the report said.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have left Myanmar’s Rakhine State since Aug. 25, after insurgents attacked security forces and prompted a brutal military crackdown that has been described as ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar’s government has repeatedly rejected claims that atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, are occurring in northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the violence that the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

Denials from Myanmar

In September, the Rakhine state border security minister denied reports of rape by security forces in the state, according to HRW.

“Where is the proof? Look at those women who are making these claims — would anyone want to rape them?” he was quoted as saying in Thursday’s report.

Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya and denies them citizenship, referring to them as “Bengali” to imply origins in Bangladesh.

Though Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for sidestepping allegations of abuses, many Western governments have been reluctant to ostracize her during a fragile transition to democracy.


Could Giant Rats Help Fight Tuberculosis in Major Cities?

Giant rats are probably not the first thing that come to mind to tackle tuberculosis but scientists hope their sniffing skills will speed up efforts to detect the deadly disease in major cities across the world.

Tuberculosis, which is curable and preventable, is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), killing 1.7 million people in 2016 and infecting 10.4 million others.

African Giant Pouched Rats, trained by Belgian charity APOPO, are known for sniffing out landmines in countries from Angola to Cambodia and for detecting TB cases in East Africa.

Over the next few years, APOPO plans to fight tuberculosis at the source by launching TB-detection rat facilities in major cities of 30 high-risk countries including Vietnam, India and Nigeria.

“One of the best ways to fight TB at source is in major cities that draw a lot of people from the rural areas,” James Pursey, APOPO spokesman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It is a vicious circle. You can be reinfected. To fight TB, you have to hit it hard,” he said by phone from Zimbabwe.

Many people get infected in big, densely populated cities and spread the disease to rural areas, according to Pursey.

The rats learn to recognize the presence of TB in samples of mucus that is coughed up from the patient’s lower airways.

In Tanzania, people in communities where TB is most common, including in prisons, often fail to show up for screening because of a lack of money or awareness, placing a huge burden on health authorities, health experts said.

“TB is a disease of poverty,” said Pursey. “If nothing changes it can only get worse.”

The APOPO has seen the TB detection rate increase by 40 percent in clinics it has worked with in Tanzania and Mozambique, according to Pursey, who said that using rats to screen did not negate the need for proper diagnostic testing.

While a technician may take four days to detect a case of TB, a trained rat can screen 100 samples in 20 minutes, and a rat screening costs as little as 20 US cents, APOPO said.