Groundbreaking Indian Ocean Science Mission Reaches an End

The British-led Nekton scientific mission on Thursday completed a seven-week expedition in the Indian Ocean aimed at documenting changes beneath the waves that could affect billions of people in the surrounding region over the coming decades.

Little is known about the watery world below depths of 30 meters (yards), the limit to which a normal scuba diver can go. Operating down to 450 meters with manned submersibles and underwater drones off the island nation of the Seychelles, the scientists were the first to explore areas of great diversity where sunlight weakens and the deep ocean begins.

The oceans’ role in regulating climate and the threats they face from global warming are underestimated by many. Scientific missions are crucial in taking stock of underwater ecosystems’ health.

Principal scientist Lucy Woodall called the mission “massively successful,” saying that members believe they have found evidence near several coral islands of a so-called rariphotic zone, or “twilight zone,” located between 130 and 300 meters deep.

“The rariphotic zone has been shown in a number of papers in the Atlantic and Caribbean but has never previously been shown in the Indian Ocean,” Woodall said, adding that months of analysis will be needed to confirm the discovery.

In this twilight zone that sunlight barely reaches, photosynthesis is no longer possible and species that cannot move toward the ocean’s surface rely on particles falling from above for sustenance.

Woodall also said she was excited to see “vibrant” communities of fish during the mission.

“We’re seeing schools of small fish – that middle of the food chain – but we’re also seeing a large number of big predators – the sharks and all the other fish predators as well that are there. So this shows that protection works,” she said.

With the expedition over, the long work of analysis begins. Researchers conducted over 300 deployments, collected around 1,300 samples and 20 terabytes of data and surveyed about 30 square kilometers (11.5 sq. miles) of seabed using high-resolution multi-beam sonar equipment.

Woodall estimated her team will need up to 18 months of lab work to process and make sense of the data gathered during the expedition.

The data will be used to help the Seychelles expand its policy of protecting almost a third of its national waters by 2020. The initiative is important for the country’s “blue economy,” an attempt to balance development needs with those of the environment.

On Sunday, President Danny Faure visited the Nekton team and delivered a striking speech broadcast live from deep below the ocean’s surface, making a global plea for stronger protection of the “beating blue heart of our planet.”

For Nekton mission director Oliver Steeds, Faure’s visit was a win for the ocean.

“I hope our ability to broadcast live from the ocean has helped put the oceans back on the map in the boardrooms, the corridors of power and in the classrooms,” Steeds said. “That’s where the decisions need to be made to fundamentally secure our future and the improved management and conservation of our ocean.”

He said mission members hope that nations across the Indian Ocean will have the political will to improve the management and conservation of their waters.

“It’s been an extraordinary aquatic adventure,” Steeds said. “We’re delighted that so many people around the world have been following our progress but it only really matters if the Seychelles can continue to take a lead on the world stage as a beacon of hope for ocean conservation.”

This is the first of a half-dozen regions the mission plans to explore before the end of 2022, when scientists will present their research at a summit on the state of the Indian Ocean.


Yale Study Revives Cellular Activity in Pig Brains Hours After Death

Yale University scientists have succeeded in restoring basic cellular activity in pigs’ brains hours after their deaths in a finding that may one day lead to advances in treating human stroke and brain injuries, researchers reported Wednesday.

The scientists emphasized that their work did not even come close to reawakening consciousness in the disembodied pig brains. In fact the experiment was specifically designed to avoid such an outcome, however improbable.

Still, the study raises a host of bioethical issues, including questions about the very definition of brain death and potential consequences for protocols related to organ donation.

Effort to enhance brain study

The research grew out of efforts to enhance the study of brain development, disorders and evolution. The main practical application is the prospect of allowing scientists to analyze whole brain specimens of large mammals in three dimensions, rather than through studies confined to small tissue samples, Yale said.

The study, backed by the National Institutes of Health, offers no immediate clinical breakthrough for humans, according to the authors.

What is brain death?

Results of the experiment, to be published Thursday in the journal Nature, run contrary to long-accepted principles of brain death, which hold that vital cellular activity ceases irreversibly seconds or minutes after oxygen and blood flow are cut off.

The limited rejuvenation of circulatory function and cellular metabolism in pig brains, which were harvested from animals slaughtered at a meat-packing plant, was achieved four hours after death by infusing the brains with a special chemical solution designed to preserve the tissue.

“The intact brain of a large mammal retains a previously underappreciated capacity for restoration of circulation and certain molecular and cellular activities multiple hours after circulatory arrest,” lead researcher Nenad Sestan said in a Yale press release issued ahead of the study.

It was in the lab run by Sestan, a Yale professor of neuroscience, comparative medicine, genetics and psychiatry, that researchers developed the so-called BrainEx system used to pump artificial nutrients into the pig brains’ vascular network.

‘Not a living brain’

Scientists stressed, however, that the treated brains still lacked any detectable signs of organized electrical activity associated with perception, awareness or consciousness.

“Clinically defined, this is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain,” wrote study co-author Zvonimir Vrselja, associate researcher in neuroscience.

The BrainEx preservative included substances to block nerve signals. Researchers also were ready to halt any electrical activity that might have emerged through anesthetics and temperature reduction, according to Yale.

No therapeutic benefit yet

While the study offers no immediate therapeutic benefits for humans, it creates a new research platform that may ultimately help doctors find ways to revive brain function in stroke patients or to test new treatments for restoring brain cells damaged by injury, the authors said.

In the meantime, the research could spark new quandaries surrounding the determination of death itself, widely defined by one measure as the irreversible loss of all brain function. The blurring of that line has implications in turn for deciding when doctors are ethically bound to go from preserving a patient’s life to preserving their organs.

“For most of human history, death was very simple,” Christof Koch, president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, said in a Nature article accompanying publication of the Yale study.


Germany Struggles in Push to Address Sexual Violence

A German-led bid to step up efforts to combat sexual violence in conflicts has run into resistance at the U.N. Security Council, diplomats said Wednesday, just days before Nobel laureate Nadia Murad is to appear before the U.N. body to issue a call for justice.

Germany is pushing for the adoption of a draft resolution next Tuesday during a council debate that will feature Nobel Peace Prize winners Denis Mukwege and Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist.

Murad, who was held by the Islamic State fighters for months after they overran her home town in northern Iraq in 2014, is expected to call on the council to take action against perpetrators of sexual violence.

The German-drafted resolution would establish a working group of the Security Council that would develop measures to address sexual violence and strengthen prevention, according to the draft text seen by AFP.

It would encourage commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions set up by the United Nations to address rape and other sexual crimes in their investigations of human rights violations in war zones.

The measure would also urge U.N. sanctions committees to apply targeted sanctions against rapists and other perpetrators of sexual violence.

U.N. diplomats said negotiations on the text were complicated, with Russia, China and the United States raising objections.

Russia has questioned the need for the working group while the United States has taken aim at references to the International Criminal Court, which it does not support, and those that deal with reproductive health for rape survivors, according to diplomats.

“There are several outstanding issues with the United States, Russia and China,” said a diplomat.

Some council members argued that the working group could undermine the U.N. envoy for sexual violence, Pramila Patten, who has been tasked by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with stepping up action to prevent the use of rape as a weapon of war.

France, which backs the German draft, had proposed that there be an alert mechanism set up for cases of mass rape during conflicts. 


Astronaut to Eclipse Record for Longest US Spaceflight by a Woman

A female astronaut is due to set a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday, the same astronaut who was to have been in the first all-female spacewalk scrapped over lack of a right-sized spacesuit.

Astronaut Christina Koch, who completed the space walk with a man instead of a female colleague last month, will remain in orbit on board the International Space Station until February, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said.

Part of NASA’s study of the effects of long spaceflights on the human body, Koch will spend 328 days in space.

The 40-year-old astronaut has been in orbit since last month.

“One month down. Ten to go,” Koch wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Privileged to contribute my best every single day of it.”

In late March, NASA canceled what would have been the first all-female spacewalk with Koch and astronaut Anne McClain due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size for McClain.

The walk was would have occurred during the final week of Women’s History Month.

On board the orbiting space station, astronauts work on a range of experiments in biology, biotechnology, health, earth, space and other sciences.

The typical stay for astronauts is six months, NASA said.

“NASA is looking to build on what we have learned with additional astronauts in space for more than 250 days,” Jennifer Fogarty, a chief scientist for NASA’s Human Research Program, said in a statement.

Record holders

Astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, staying in orbit 288 days in 2016 and 2017, NASA said.

“It’s my honor to follow in Peggy’s footsteps,” Koch said in a video from the International Space Station, orbiting over 200 miles (322 km) above Earth.

Of the more than 500 people who have traveled to space, fewer than 11 percent have been women.

But Koch graduated from NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts that was 50 percent women.

The overall NASA record of 340 days, set in 2016, is held by astronaut Scott Kelly in an experiment to compare his physical and mental health to his identical twin Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth.


Human Tissue Used to Print 3-D Heart

Scientists in Israel have revealed what they say is the world’s first 3D-printed heart, using human tissue. It’s hoped the small heart will pave the way for transplants without donors, when every hospital might have access to 3D organ printers. Faith Lapidus reports.


UN: Smartphones, Digital Technology Can Improve Health Care

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued its first guidelines on digital health intervention.

The U.N. agency said governments can improve the health of their citizens by using digital technology to make health systems more efficient and responsive to their patients.

The United Nations said 51 percent of the world’s population has access to broadband internet service.

Chief WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan said increased availability and use of digital technology offers new opportunities to improve people’s health.

She told VOA the technology enables people, even in the remotest settings, to leapfrog into the development of a more effective, inclusive health system. With the use of mobile phones, computers and laptops, she said it is possible to bypass the intervening stages many countries have had to go through.

“So, a health worker in Congo can directly start using a mobile phone if the government is able to provide one to the health worker and get away from filling 30 paper registers, which occupy about one-third of front-line health workers time,” she added.

New recommendations

The new guidelines include 10 recommendations on how governments can use digital technology for maximum impact on their health systems.

A WHO scientist specializing in digital innovations and research, Garrett Mehl, said the recommendations deal with issues such as birth notification.

“Knowing that a baby has been born is critical to knowing how to provide vaccinations; knowing that the mother needs different post-natal care visits,” he said. “But without knowing that there was a birth that has happened, it is difficult to trigger those events in the health system.”

The guidelines also address privacy concerns.They have recommendations for ensuring that sensitive data, such as issues of sexual and reproductive health, are protected and not put at risk.


Human Tissue Used to Create 3D Printed Heart

Scientists in Israel have revealed what they say is the world’s first 3D-printed heart using human tissue. It’s hoped the small heart will pave the way for transplants without donors, when every hospital might have access to 3D organ printers. Faith Lapidus reports.


Hospital: Cholera Cases Rise in Kenya’s Capital

The Kenyan capital has experienced a jump in cholera cases, one of the city’s top hospitals said on Tuesday, adding that eight of its own staff had been infected with the disease.

Cholera, which is spread by ingesting fecal matter, causes acute watery diarrhea and can kill within hours if not treated.

“There is an upsurge of cholera cases in the county of Nairobi. We have had several cases admitted in our hospital.

Unfortunately we had eight staff affected,” The Nairobi Hospital, which is private, said in a statement.

There were 23 cases of cholera admitted at the hospital, said Mohamed Dagane, the executive in charge of health services in the Nairobi county government.

“There is no confirmed cholera fatality at the hospital,” he said in a statement, adding they were tracing all those who had come into contact with the patients to give them prevention treatment.

“We have sufficient stock of medicine and rehydration fluid to cater for any patient.”

The hospital, which has some of the most advanced facilities in the city, said it had put in “all precautionary measures.”

There was no immediate comment from health ministry and local government officials.

At least four people were killed and dozens more treated when another outbreak of the disease hit the city in 2017, causing authorities to shut down some restaurants.


Ebola Is Real, Congo President Tells Skeptical Population  

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi on Tuesday implored people in areas hit by the nation’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak to accept the disease is real and trust health workers.

Mistrust of first responders and widespread misinformation propagated by some community leaders has led many in affected areas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to refuse vaccinations. Instead, they turn to traditional healers, whose clinics have contributed to the hemorrhagic fever’s spread.

“It is not an imaginary disease,” Tshisekedi said after arriving in the city of Beni on his first tour of eastern Congo since being inaugurated in January.

“If we follow the instructions, in two or three months Ebola will be finished,” he optimistically told a crowd after having his temperature taken and washing his hands, as required of all incoming passengers to Beni airport.

Congo has suffered 10 outbreaks of Ebola, which causes severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding, since the virus was discovered there in 1976. The current one has seen 1,264 confirmed and probable cases and 814 deaths since it was declared last August.

It is surpassed only by the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa, in which more than 28,000 cases were reported and more than 11,000 people died.

Following a series of attacks on treatment centers by unidentified assailants in February and March, the current outbreak is now spreading at its fastest rate yet.

More than 100 cases were confirmed last week.

Tshisekedi, who won a disputed election last December to succeed Joseph Kabila, also called on Tuesday for the disarmament of dozens of militia that operate in the east and whose presence has complicated the Ebola response.

“The time of armed groups is over,” he said. “The new government is reaching out to these children of the country to surrender arms through disarmament programs.”


Measles Cases Have Grown Worldwide This Year

The number of measles cases in the United States has soared to more than 460, the highest number since 1991. More than half of the cases are in New York, where 21 people had to be hospitalized, five of them in intensive care. Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared measles a public health emergency, and has ordered mandatory vaccination in parts of the city. VOA Zlatica Hoke reports measles cases are up 300 percent worldwide this year, according to the World Health Organization.