Confusion around Ebola vaccine hampering DRC outbreak response

GENEVA: Confusion around an unlicensed Ebola vaccine being used in the Democratic Republic of Congo is complicating efforts to rein in an outbreak of the deadly virus, Doctors Without Borders warned Thursday.

DRC health officials launched a small, targeted vaccination campaign this week to help rein in the latest Ebola outbreak in the country, which so far has claimed 27 lives.

The campaign, using an unlicenced vaccine, is beginning with first responders, and will soon move to anyone who has been in contact with suspected cases, and then on to the contacts of the contacts.

WHO said Wednesday that some 10,000 people should be vaccinated within the next month.

But Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, cautioned that, among many people on the ground, there was confusion and uncertainty about the vaccine and who could receive the jab.

“The messaging around the vaccine has not been well done,” Jean-Clement Cabrol, MSF’s emergency medical coordinator, told reporters in Geneva following his latest trip to the affected region.

He cautioned against the widespread description of the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine as “experimental”.

“I think that using words like ‘experimental vaccination’ does not simplify things,” he said.

The vaccine has been deemed highly effective and safe by WHO, but has not yet received a licence.

Cabrol also said that all of the talk about the vaccine had given the false impression on the ground that there would be a mass vaccination campaign, and may have led some to believe the vaccine could magically fix the problem.

“We are seeing people today who refuse to be hospitalised, even though they have tested positive, saying that they prefer to wait for the vaccine,” he said.

This is obviously not good when dealing with Ebola, a virus-caused haemorrhagic fever, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids and which is both highly infectious and extremely lethal.

According to WHO’s latest toll, 58 Ebola cases have so far been identified since early April.

The current outbreak, which was officially declared on May 8, began in rural northwestern DRC in a very remote area called Bikoro.

But it has since spread to Mbandaka, a city of around 1.2 million people, and there are fears it could spread further afield in DRC and to neighbouring countries.

‘Witchcraft’

“What is worrying is that almost every day we have new confirmed cases at a quite rapid pace,” Cabrol said.

He said DRC, WHO and others had responded quickly and robustly to the outbreak, but warned that efforts to inform the population in the affected areas of how best to protect themselves and others was still “insufficient”.

“A large portion of the population does not understand this illness (and) thinks it is witchcraft” or something similar, he said, adding that there had been threats against doctors and others coming in to care for the sick, and who were accused of bringing the virus with them.

Cabrol stressed that rVSV-ZEBOV was meant “only as an additional tool” in responding to the outbreak.

The main focus, he said, still needed to be on informing people how to protect themselves and others against Ebola, and on tracking and isolating Ebola cases, and finding all of their contacts and contacts of contacts.

For each confirmed case, 80 people should receive the vaccine, he said.

But there are large logistical challenges with delivering the vaccine, including the fact that it needs to be stored at -80°C, Cabrol said.

For now, only about 40 vaccinations per day are feasible, he said. — AFP

Nipah virus kills at least three in India, sparks panic in district

NEW DELHI: A virus mainly carried by fruit bats which has spread across Asian nations has killed at least three people in southern India and caused panic in one district, officials said Monday.

Eight other deaths in the state of Kerala are being investigated for possible links to the Nipah virus, which has a 70% mortality rate.

“The government received four samples, out of which three deaths were because of Nipah,” Kerala health secretary Rajeev Sadanandan told AFP. The victims died in Calicut district.

Sadanandan said the cause of other suspicious deaths could only be confirmed through tests.

“We have sent blood and body fluid samples of all suspected cases for confirmation. It will take 24-48 hours for the results to come.”

India’s health minister rushed medical experts to the state after a local politician reported that residents were panicking in Calicut district.

The team would “initiate required steps as warranted by the protocol for the disease”, J.P. Nadda said on Twitter.

In Kerala, neighbours told local media that family members who died had eaten fruit picked from a compound where they were building a home.

Nipah induces flu-like symptoms that often lead to encephalitis and coma. Fruit bats are considered the main carrier of the virus for which there is no vaccination, according to the World Health Organization.

Nipah was first identified in Malaysia in 1998. It spread to Singapore and more than 100 people were killed in both places. On that occasion, pigs were the virus hosts but they are believed to have caught it from bats.

In India, the disease was first reported in 2001 and again six years later, with the two outbreaks claiming 50 lives.

Both times the disease was reported in areas of the eastern state of West Bengal bordering Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has borne the brunt of the disease, with more than 100 people dying of Nipah since the first outbreak was reported there in 2001.

In Bangladesh in 2004, humans became infected with Nipah as a result of consuming date palm sap that had been contaminated by infected fruit bats. — AFP

US approves new drug for prevention of migraines

WASHINGTON: Migraine sufferers on Thursday got some relief from US regulators who approved the first of a new class of drugs for migraine prevention.

The United States Food and Drug Administration said it endorsed Aimovig for prevention of migraine in adults, through monthly self-injections.

Aimovig is the first in a new class of drugs that work by blocking the activity of calcitonin gene-related peptide, a molecule involved in migraine attacks, the FDA said in a statement.

“Aimovig provides patients with a novel option for reducing the number of days with migraine,” said Eric Bastings, a deputy director in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

“We need new treatments for this painful and often debilitating condition.”

Migraine is three times more common in women than in men and affects more than 10 percent of people worldwide.

The FDA issued its approval to California-based Amgen Inc, which has been collaborating with Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis to develop and commercialize treatments for migraine and Alzheimer’s.

Aimovig is expected to be available to patients within one week and is listed at a price of $6,900 annually, Amgen said in a statement. — AFP

Exercise does not delay decline in people with dementia: Study

WHILE physical exercise may stave off dementia, it does not delay mental decline in people after they’ve been diagnosed, a study in nearly 500 people with the condition reported Thursday.

While a fitness regime improved physical fitness in people with mild to moderate dementia, it “does not slow cognitive impairment”, researchers reported in The BMJ medical journal.

It is generally accepted that exercise can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

But whether or not it can slow symptoms after the onset of mental decline, has been the subject of much debate.

For the latest study, researchers took 494 people in England who had been diagnosed with dementia and assigned 329 of them to an exercise programme.

They took part in 60-90-minute group sessions in a gym twice a week for four months, and home exercises for an additional hour per week.

The average age of the group was 77.

Participants were assessed at six and 12 months after starting the programme.

The researchers noted that cognition had declined in both the exercise and non-exercise groups.

In the exercise group, the decline was steeper, “however, the average difference was small and clinical relevance was uncertain”, said a press statement.

Commenting on the study, Brendon Stubbs of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, said its findings were “enormously important” for the care of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Whilst previous smaller studies have suggested that exercise can prevent or improve cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease, this robust and very large study provides the most definitive answer we have on the role of exercise in mild-moderate Alzheimer’s disease,” he said via the Science Media Centre.

“The search for effective lifestyle interventions that can delay cognitive decline in dementia must continue.”

A separate study, published in the journal Jama Psychiatry, among English people aged 65 and older, said people with fewer financial resources appeared to be at higher risk of dementia.

According to the UN’s World Health Organisation, about 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease – the most common form with about two-thirds of cases.

There are about 10 million new dementia cases each year. — AFP

Nurses seek remedy to ‘Zuckerberg’ hospital name

SAN FRANCISCO: A handful of nurses sick of the scandal over Facebook user privacy want a new prescription for a hospital named after the social network’s co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Centre said it added his name as a way of saying thanks after the Facebook chief executive and his doctor wife, Priscilla Chan, made a US$75 million, (RM297 million) donation three years ago.

Hospital officials credited the couple’s philanthropy with helping to make it possible to open a state-of-the-art acute care and trauma facility.

This past weekend, however, a “very small group” of people demonstrated to call for the Zuckerberg name to be removed because of privacy scandals at Facebook, a hospital spokesman told AFP.

A photo published at tech news website Business Insider showed protesters using what appeared to be blue masking tape to cover the name “Zuckerberg” on a sign outside the hospital.

Facebook has been scalded by revelations that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, may have hijacked up to 87 million Facebook users’ data.

US media quoted protesters as reasoning that the Zuckerberg name could make patients question how well the hospital will protect their privacy.

Facebook’s main campus is in Silicon Valley, not far from San Francisco.

Naming buildings after major donors is common practice in the United States.

Zuckerberg and Chan about two years ago pledged US$3 billion to help banish or manage all disease, pouring some of the Facebook founder’s fortune into innovative research. — AFP

Tick tock: Study links body clock to mood disorders

PARIS: Messing with the natural rhythm of one’s internal clock may boost the risk of developing mood problems ranging from garden-variety loneliness to severe depression and bipolar disorder, researchers said Wednesday.

The largest study of its kind, involving more than 91,000 people, also linked interference with the body’s “circadian rhythm” to a decline in cognitive functions such as memory and attention span.

The brain’s hard-wired circadian timekeeper governs day-night cycles, influencing sleep patterns, the release of hormones and even body temperature.

Earlier research had suggested that disrupting these rhythms can adversely affect mental health, but was inconclusive: most data was self-reported, participant groups were small, and potentially data-skewing factors were not ruled out.

For the new study, an international team led by University of Glasgow psychologist Laura Lyall analysed data — taken from the UK Biobank, one of the most complete long-term health surveys ever done — on 91,105 people aged 37 to 73.

The volunteers wore accelerometers that measured patterns of rest and activity and had this record compared to their mental history, also taken from the UK Biobank.

Individuals with a history of disrupting their body’s natural rhythm — working night shifts, for example, or suffering repeated jetlag — also tended to have a higher lifetime risk of mood disorders, feelings of unhappiness, and cognitive problems, the researchers found.

‘Owls’ and ‘Larks’

The results held true even when the potential impact of factors such as old age, unhealthy lifestyle, obesity, and childhood trauma were taken into account, they reported in The Lancet Psychiatry, a medical journal.

The study cannot say conclusively that body clock disturbances are what caused the mental risk, instead of the other way round.

But the findings “reinforce the idea that mood disorders are associated with disturbed circadian rhythms”, said Lyall.

Measurements of people’s rest-work cycles could be a useful tool for flagging and treating people at risk of major depression or bipolar disorders, the researchers concluded.

One limitation of the study was the average age of the trial participants — 62.

“Seventy-five percent of [mental] disorders start before the age of 24 years,” said University of Oxford researcher Aiden Doherty, commenting on the paper.

“The circadian system undergoes developmental changes during adolescence, which is also a common time for the onset of mood disorders,” he added.

Humans have been shown to be either “owls” or “larks”, corresponding to so-called genetic “chronotypes” that determine whether we function better at night or during the day.

Last year, the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to three US scientists who pioneered our understanding of how the circadian clock ticks. — AFP

New phase of globalisation could worsen CO2 pollution

PARIS: The shift of low-value, energy-hungry manufacturing from China and India to coal-powered economies with even lower wages could be bad news for the fight against climate change, researchers cautioned Monday.

As Asia’s giants move up the globalisation food chain, many of the industries that helped propel their phenomenal growth — textiles, apparel, basic electronics — are moving to Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations investing heavily in a coal-powered future.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, global warming has been caused mainly by burning oil, gas and especially carbon-rich coal.

“This trend may seriously undermine international efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dabo Guan, a professor of climate change economics at the University of East Anglia in Britain and co-author of a study in Nature Communications.

“The carbon intensity of the next phase of global economic development will determine whether ambitious climate targets such as stabilising at two degrees Celsius will be met,” he told AFP.

The 196-nation Paris climate treaty, which goes into effect in 2020, calls for capping global warming at “well under” 2°C, and 1.5°C if possible.

Global temperatures have already risen a full degree Celsius since the mid-19th century, enough to disrupt weather patterns and boost deadly storms, droughts and floods.

Scientists have roughly calculated the amount of fossil fuels humanity can burn without exceeding those limits. On current trends, this “carbon budget” will be used up in a matter of decades and Earth will likely hot up another two or three degrees by century’s end.

The study, led by Jing Meng at the University of Cambridge, details a “new phase of globalisation” in which trade between developing countries expanded three times faster from 2005 to 2015 than international trade as a whole, which grew by 50%.

Coal still booming

In 2014, this so-called “South-South” trade stood at US$9.3 trillion (RM36 trillion).

This rapid growth “reflects a fragmenting of global supply chains”, Guan said.

“The early-production stages of many industries have relocated from China and India to lower-wage economies, a trend that has accelerated since the global financial crisis of 2008.”

The ability to reign in global warming, he warned, may depend on curbing the growth in coal-based energy in countries poised to take off by filling this link in the supply chain.

“The future of climate change mitigation is, to an important degree, in the hands of South-South cooperation,” he said by phone.

The point is driven home by a second study showing that the planned expansion of coal-fired energy in Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and other 2nd-generation emerging economies could wipe out efforts in China and India to slow coal consumption.

Beijing and New Delhi have each cancelled more than 50% of planned coal-fired power plants, yet global coal investment continues to soar.

New coal-fired power in Turkey and Vietnam, for example, would see their CO2 emissions from coal increase four and ten fold, respectively, from 2012 to 2030, according to the study, published in Environmental Research Letters.

Money earmarked for coal development in Egypt has increased eightfold since 2016, while it has nearly doubled in Pakistan.

“Although the costs of renewables have recently fallen, they still can’t compete with cheap coal in many parts of the world,” said co-author Jan Steckel, a researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin.

The study also notes that China is increasingly investing in coal-fired power plants abroad. — AFP

Canada: Huge merger creates pot giant ahead of legalization

MONTREAL: With the legalization of recreational marijuana looming in Canada, therapeutic producer Aurora said Monday it was acquiring rival MedReleaf Corp. in a huge deal set to create a giant company.

Aurora said it would pay Can$3.2 billion (RM9 billion) as part of an all-stock deal that will leave Aurora shareholders with control of 61 percent of the resulting company.

The new company will have a production capacity of 570 tonnes of cannabis a year, with nine greenhouse operations in Canada and two in Denmark, Aurora and MedReleaf said in a joint statement.

The merger comes amid surging interest in the country’s nascent pot industry with legalization expected this summer.

Already in Jan, Aurora had spent more than Can$1 billion to purchase rival CanniMed.

The Canadian government originally scheduled legalization for July 1, coinciding with the Canada Day weekend, but complications with new distribution and monitoring systems forced delays.

But last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told AFP that legalization would come this summer.

While provincial governments work to set up distribution channels — and prepare to share resulting tax windfalls with the federal government — companies linked to the cannabis business have seen a speculative bubble develop.

The capitalization of the three biggest Canadian producers on the Toronto Stock Exchange has exploded in recent months.

Aurora shares have more than tripled in value in the past year, to more than Can$4.6 billion.

Whether or when that bubble might burst is unclear.

But it illustrates the growing interest in this soft drug, seen increasingly as a fiscal boon to governments in Canada, as it has been in US states like California that have legalized pot use.

In another deal, one of Aurora’s chief rivals, Canopy Growth, announced Monday its purchase of the 33%of the Tweed Joint Venture group that it did not already own for Can$374 million, and said it planned to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange. — AFP

Judge orders cancer warning for coffee sold in California

LOS ANGELES: A Los Angeles judge has held up a ruling ordering Starbucks and other roasters to carry a cancer warning label on coffee sold in California.

Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle on Monday finalized an earlier decision he had rendered in a case pitting a little-known nonprofit group against some 90 companies that make or sell coffee.

In his ruling, Berle said that the companies, including Starbucks Corp., Keurig Green Mountain Inc. and Peet’s Operating Co., failed to prove that the health benefits from drinking coffee outweighed the risk from a cancer-causing chemical produced during the roasting process.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics had filed suit against the companies in 2010 under a three-decade-old law that requires firms to put warning labels on products that can cause cancer.

The group argued that acrylamide, a flavourless chemical found in most types of coffee, is among hundreds of chemicals listed in California as potentially causing cancer or being harmful to health.

The defendants in the case did not dispute that acrylamide was found in coffee but argued the substance did not pose a health risk and was a natural byproduct of the roasting process.

They said the benefits of drinking coffee outweighed the risk.

The judge, however, found that “defendants did not offer substantial evidence to quantify any minimum amount of acrylamide in coffee that might be necessary” for sound considerations of public health.

Several defendants in the case, including 7-Eleven, had agreed to settle before the judge’s decision and to post cancer-warning signs for customers buying coffee.

But others, including Starbucks, decided to wait for the court ruling.

Attorney Raphael Metzger, who is representing the non-profit, said most of the parties have now agreed to take part in mediation to resolve the matter.

He said if a settlement is not reached, coffee makers face stiff civil penalties.

Apart from coffee, acrylamide is found in other foods cooked at high temperature, including potato chips, french fries and crackers. — AFP