Science & Health

Superbug Fungus Cases Rose Dramatically During Pandemic

U.S. cases of a dangerous fungus tripled over just three years, and more than half of the country’s 50 states have now reported it, according to a new study. 

The COVID-19 pandemic likely drove part of the increase, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in the paper published Monday by Annals of Internal Medicine. Hospital workers were strained by coronavirus patients and that likely shifted their focus away from disinfecting some other kinds of germs, they said. 

The fungus, Candida auris, is a form of yeast that is usually not harmful to healthy people but can be a deadly risk to fragile hospital and nursing home patients. It spreads easily and can infect wounds, ears and the bloodstream. Some strains are so-called superbugs that are resistant to all three classes of antibiotic drugs used to treat fungal infections. 

It was first identified in Japan in 2009 and has been seen in more and more countries. The first U.S. case occurred in 2013, but it was not reported until 2016. That year, U.S. health officials reported 53 cases. 

The new study found cases have continued to shoot up, rising to 476 in 2019, to 756 in 2020, and then to 1,471 in 2021. Doctors have also detected the fungus on the skin of thousands of other patients, making them a transmission risk to others. 

Many of the first U.S. cases were infections that had been imported from abroad, but now most infections are spread within the U.S., the authors noted. 

Science & Health

Biden Signs Bill on COVID Origins Declassification

President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill Monday that directs the federal government to declassify as much intelligence as possible about the origins of COVID-19 more than three years after the start of the pandemic.

The legislation, which passed both the House and Senate without dissent, directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify intelligence related to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. It cites “potential links” between the research that was done there and the outbreak of COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic March 11, 2020. The law allows for redactions to protect sensitive sources and methods.

U.S. intelligence agencies are divided over whether a lab leak or a spillover from animals is the likely source of the deadly virus.

Experts say the true origin of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 1.1 million in the U.S. and millions more around the globe, may not be known for many years — if ever.

Biden, in a statement, said he was pleased to sign the legislation.

“My Administration will continue to review all classified information relating to COVID-19’s origins, including potential links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” he said. “In implementing this legislation, my Administration will declassify and share as much of that information as possible, consistent with my constitutional authority to protect against the disclosure of information that would harm national security.”

Science & Health

Astronomers Sound Alarm About Satellites’ Light Pollution

Astronomers on Monday warned that the light pollution created by the soaring number of satellites orbiting Earth poses an “unprecedented global threat to nature.”

The number of satellites in low Earth orbit has more than doubled since 2019, when U.S. company SpaceX launched the first “mega-constellation,” which comprise thousands of satellites.

An armada of new internet constellations are planned to launch soon, adding thousands more satellites to the already congested area fewer than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) above Earth.

Each new satellite increases the risk that it will smash into another object orbiting Earth, creating yet more debris.

This can create a chain reaction in which cascading collisions create ever smaller fragments of debris, further adding to the cloud of “space junk” reflecting light back to Earth.

In a series of papers published in the journal Nature Astronomy, astronomers warned that this increasing light pollution threatens the future of their profession.

In one paper, researchers said that for the first time they had measured how much a brighter night sky would financially and scientifically affect the work of a major observatory.

Modeling suggested that for the Vera Rubin Observatory, a giant telescope currently under construction in Chile, the darkest part of the night sky will become 7.5 percent brighter over the next decade.

That would reduce the number of stars the observatory is able to see by around 7.5 percent, study co-author John Barentine told AFP.

That would add nearly a year to the observatory’s survey, costing around $21.8 million, said Barentine of Dark Sky Consulting, a firm based in the U.S. state of Arizona.

He added that there is another cost of a brighter sky that’s impossible to calculate: the celestial events that humanity will never get to observe.

And the increase in light pollution could be even worse than thought.

Another Nature study used extensive modeling to suggest that current measurements of light pollution are significantly underestimating the phenomenon.

A call to ‘stop this attack’ of light

The brightening of the night sky will not just affect professional astronomers and major observatories, the researchers warned.

Aparna Venkatesan, an astronomer at the University of San Francisco, said it also threatened “our ancient relationship with the night sky.”

“Space is our shared heritage and ancestor — connecting us through science, storytelling, art, origin stories and cultural traditions — and it is now at risk,” she said in a Nature comment piece.

A group of astronomers from Spain, Portugal and Italy called for scientists to “stop this attack” on the natural night.

“The loss of the natural aspect of a pristine night sky for all the world, even on the summit of K2 or on the shore of Lake Titicaca or on Easter Island is an unprecedented global threat to nature and cultural heritage,” the astronomers said in a Nature comment piece.

“If not stopped, this craziness will become worse and worse.”

The astronomers called for drastically limiting mega-constellations, adding that “we must not reject the possibility of banning them.”

They said that it was “naive to hope that the skyrocketing space economy will limit itself, if not forced to do so,” given the economic interests at stake.

Science & Health

MSF in Malawi Takes HPV Vaccine to Primary School Girls

French medical aid group Doctors Without Borders has launched the first Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination drive for schoolgirls in Malawi. They aim to reduce cervical cancer in Malawi, which has the world’s second-highest death rate from the disease. Lameck Masina reports from Machinga district, Malawi.    

Science & Health

Higher Cancer Rates Found in Military Pilots, Ground Crews, Pentagon Study Finds

A Pentagon study has found high rates of cancer among military pilots and for the first time has shown that ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch those aircraft are also getting sick. 

The data had long been sought by retired military aviators who have raised alarms for years about the number of air and ground crew members they knew who had cancer. They were told that earlier military studies had found they were not at greater risk than the general U.S. population. 

In its yearlong study of almost 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon found that air crew members had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer, while men had a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer and women a 16% higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, the air crews had a 24% higher rate of cancer of all types. 

The study showed ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer and a 9% higher rate of kidney or renal cancers, while women had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer. The overall rate for cancers of all types was 3% higher. 

There was some good news reported as well. Both ground and air crews had far lower rates of lung cancer, and air crews also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancers. 

The data compared the service members with the general U.S. population after adjusting for age, sex and race. 

The Pentagon said the new study was one of the largest and most comprehensive to date. An earlier study had looked at just Air Force pilots and had found some higher rates of cancer, while this one looked across all services and at both air and ground crews. Even with the wider approach, the Pentagon cautioned that the actual number of cancer cases was likely to be even higher because of gaps in the data, which it said it would work to remedy. 

The study “proves that it’s well past time for leaders and policy makers to move from skepticism to belief and active assistance,” said retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which had lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for help. Alcazar serves on the association’s medical issues committee. 

The study was required by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now, because higher rates were found, the Pentagon must conduct an even bigger review to try to understand why the crews are getting sick. 

Isolating potential causes is difficult, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study “does not imply that military service in air crew or ground crew occupations causes cancer, because there are multiple potential confounding factors that could not be controlled for in this analysis,” such as family histories, smoking or alcohol use. 

But aviation crews have long asked for the Pentagon to look closely at some of the environmental factors they are exposed to, such as jet fuels and solvents used to clean and maintain jet parts, sensors and their power sources in aircraft nose cones, and the massive radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on. 

When Navy Capt. Jim Seaman would come home from a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier, his gear would reek of jet fuel, his widow, Betty Seaman, said. The A-6 Intruder pilot died in 2018 at age 61 of lung cancer. Betty Seaman still has his gear stored and it still smells of fuel, “which I love,” she said. 

She and others wonder if there’s a link. She said crews would talk about how even the ship’s water systems would smell of fuel. 

She said she and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in data what they have suspected for years about the aviation cancers. But “it has the potential to do a lot of good as far as early communication, early detection,” she said. 

The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population, which the study suggested was because they were diagnosed earlier due to regular required medical checkups and were more likely to be in better health because of their military fitness requirements. 

The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to an undercount of cancer cases. 

The military heath system database used in the study did not have reliable cancer data until 1990, so it may not have included pilots who flew early-generation jets in the prior decades. 

The study also did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or state cancer registries, which means it did not capture cases from former crew members who got sick after leaving the military medical system. 

“It is important to note that study results may have differed had additional older former service members been included,” it said. 

To remedy that, the Pentagon is now going to pull data from those registries to add to the total count, the study said. 

The second phase of the study will try to isolate causes. The 2021 bill requires the Defense Department not only to identify “the carcinogenic toxicants or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also determine the type of aircraft and locations where diagnosed crews served. 

After her husband got sick, Betty Seaman asked him if he would have chosen differently, knowing his service might be linked to his cancer. 

“I flat-out asked Jim. And he, without hesitation, said, ‘I would have still done it.'” 

Science & Health

Lacking Health Workers, Germany Taps Robots for Elder Care

The white-colored humanoid “Garmi” does not look much different from a typical robot — it stands on a platform with wheels and is equipped with a black screen on which two blue circles acting as eyes are attached.

But retired German doctor Guenter Steinebach, 78, said: “For me, this robot is a dream.”

Not only is Garmi able to perform diagnostics on patients, it can also provide care and treatment for them. Or at least, that is the plan.

Garmi is a product of a new sector called geriatronics, a discipline that taps advanced technologies like robotics, IT and 3D technology for geriatrics, gerontology and nursing.

About a dozen scientists built Garmi with the help of medical practitioners like Steinebach at the Munich Institute of Robotics and Machine Intelligence.

Part of the Technical University of Munich, the institute based its unit specializing in geriatronics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a ski resort that is home to one of the highest proportion of elderly people in Germany.

Europe’s most populous country is itself one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.

With the number of people needing care growing quickly and an estimated 670,000 carer posts to go unfilled in Germany by 2050, the researchers are racing to conceive robots that can take over some of the tasks carried out today by nurses, carers and doctors.

“We have ATMs where we can get cash today. We can imagine that one day, based on the same model, people can come to get their medical examination in a kind of technology hub,” said Abdeldjallil Naceri, 43, the lead scientist of the lab.

Doctors could then evaluate the results of the robot’s diagnostics from a distance, something that could be particularly valuable for people living in remote communities.

Alternatively the machine could offer a more personalized service at home or in a care home — by serving meals, opening a bottle of water, calling for help in case of a fall or organizing a video call with family and friends.

‘We must get there’

In the Garmisch laboratory, Steinebach sat down at a table equipped with three screens and a joystick as he got ready to test the robot’s progress.

At the other end of the room, a researcher designated as a test model took his spot in front of Garmi, which poses a stethoscope on his chest — an action directed by Steinebach from afar via the joystick.

Medical data immediately appear on the doctor’s screen.

“Imagine if I had had that in my old practice,” Steinebach said, while moving the joystick.

Besides the retired doctor, other medical practitioners also visit the lab regularly to offer their ideas and feedback on the robot.

“It’s like a three-year-old child. We have to teach it everything,” Naceri said.

It’s anyone’s guess when Garmi might be ready on a commercial scale.

But Naceri is convinced that “we must get there, the statistics are clear that it is urgent.”

“From 2030, we must be able to integrate this kind of technology in our society.”

Question of trust

And if it is indeed deployed one day, residents of the Sankt Vinzenz retirement home in Garmisch, a partner of the project, will likely see Garmi whizzing down the corridors.

Just thinking about it made Mrs Rohrer, a 74-year-old resident at the home, smile.

“There are things that a robot can do, for example, serve a drink or bring meals,” she said as Eva Pioskowik, the director of the home, did her nails.

Pioskowik, who battles with staffing shortages on a daily basis, said she did not expect the robot to take the place of health workers.

“But it could allow our staff to spend a bit more time with the residents,” she said.

For Naceri’s team, one of the major challenges is not technological, medical or financial.

Rather, it remains to be seen if most patients will accept the robot.

“They need to trust the robot,” he said. “They need to be able to use it like we use a smartphone today.”

Science & Health

UN Commission Calls for Closing Gender Digital Divide

The U.N.’s premiere global body fighting for gender equality on Saturday called for wide-ranging efforts to close the gap between men and women in today’s technology-driven world and urged zero tolerance for gender-based violence and harassment online.

In a document approved by consensus after all-night negotiations at the end of a two-week meeting, the Commission on the Status of Women expressed grave concern at the interrelation between offline and online violence, harassment and discrimination against women and girls — and it condemned the increase in these acts.

It called for a significant increase in investments by the public and private sector to bridge the gender digital divide. It also called for the removal of barriers to equal access to digital technology for all women and girls, and new policies and programs to achieve gender parity in emerging scientific and technological fields.

Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, an entity of the United Nations focusing on gender equality and the empowerment, called the document “game-changing” in promoting a blueprint for a more equal and connected world for women and girls. The challenge now, she said, is for governments, the private sector, civil society and young people to turn the blueprint “into reality for all women and girls.”

At the start of the commission’s two-week meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said its focus was very timely because women and girls are being left behind as technology races ahead.

“Three billion people are still unconnected to the internet, the majority of them women and girls in developing countries, [and] in least developed countries just 19% of women are online,” Guterres said. “Globally, girls and women make up just one-third of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics” and men outnumber women two to one in the tech industry.

Bahous told the opening meeting that “the digital divide has become the new face of gender inequality,” with 259 million more men than women online last year. She also cited a survey of female journalists from 125 countries that found three-quarters had experienced online harassment in the course of their work and a third had engaged in self-censorship in response.

The “agreed conclusions” document adopted Saturday by the 45-member commission calls for equal quality education for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, information and communications technology, and digital literacy so they can thrive in the rapidly changing world.

During lengthy negotiations on the document, which has 93 paragraphs, U.N. diplomats said language on women’s rights was challenged by Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Holy See and human rights language was also challenged by those countries as well as Cuba and China. There were also intense debates over language on gender-based violence facilitated by technology, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were closed.

The final document reaffirms the 1995 Beijing platform adopted by 189 countries which said for the first time in a U.N. document, that women’s human rights include the right to control and decide “on matters relating to their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of discrimination, coercion and violence.”

The final issue blocking consensus was Pakistan’s insistence on adding a reference to “foreign occupation” to the document, and Israel’s strong opposition, diplomats said. The reference was not included and before the document’s adoption Pakistan’s representative expressed regret that the needs and priorities of women belonging to developing countries and facing humanitarian crisis including foreign occupation were not included.

Science & Health

Biden’s Ambitious Cancer Goals a Matter of Life or Death for Louisianans 

Barbara Washington is a lifelong resident of Convent, Louisiana, a town of fewer than 500 residents along the Mississippi River that has been hit hard by cancer.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … about eight,” she told VOA, counting the number of people on her street who have died from cancer in recent years. “And my sister died from lung cancer at just 57 years old. She didn’t smoke. She just worked at one of the chemical plants at night.”

Convent is in the southeastern part of the state, part of a corridor surrounded by chemical plants.

U.S. first lady Jill Biden’s recent visit to the nearby city of New Orleans highlighted the region’s dubious distinction of having some of the highest cancer rates in the nation. It’s a scourge the Biden administration aims to combat with an ambitious effort to cut America’s cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years.

“It’s a problem in southeast Louisiana, but it’s really a statewide problem,” said Joe Ramos, director and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Cancer Research Center (LCRC). “Louisiana is consistently among the worst-hit by cancer in the nation. We’re always among the bottom five states as far as the number of people diagnosed with cancer, as well as, unfortunately, the number of people who die from it.”

Ramos said carcinogenic pollutants in the air are undoubtedly a part of the problem, but that behavioral factors such as smoking, drinking and obesity also contribute to the state’s above-average cancer rate.

“This is a complicated problem,” he told VOA. “But the president’s focus on the issue underscores how important that coming together to find a solution is for the people of this state and this country.”

Many causes

Convent is part of what is known as Cancer Alley, a 136-kilometer stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that contains more than 200 petrochemical plants and refineries.

The area is vital for America’s industrial needs, accounting for 25% of the country’s petrochemical production. But local residents can’t help but think about the human costs involved.

“This was such a beautiful place to grow up,” said Myrtle Felton, another Convent resident, recalling her childhood here in the 1960s. “It was so clean, and you could grow a garden and play outside for as long as your parents would let you.

“Nowadays, you wake up in the morning, and you find chemical residue from the surrounding factories covering your car and damaging it,” she said. “You find the side of your house is discolored yellow. Your roof, too. Pollution is billowing out from the factories, and it’s scary because you can’t help thinking that you’re breathing this stuff. It’s best not to go outside some days.”

Not everyone is convinced, however, that petrochemical plants are to blame for Louisiana’s high prevalence of cancer. Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor and a Republican from Louisiana, pushed back against this assertion.

“We have a higher incidence of cigarette smoking, of obesity, of certain viral infections and other things which increase the incidence of cancer in our state,” he told New Orleans’ Times-Picayune in 2021.

“So, whenever you speak of Cancer Alley … you have to do what is called a regression analysis to separate out those factors,” Cassidy added, “and several others that could be an alternative, and a more typical explanation for why some folks may have cancer. When you do that, the amount of cancer which is left unexplained is pretty marginal.”

Comprehensive solutions required

In a study published last year, Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic estimated that high levels of toxic air pollution were responsible for 85 cancer cases each year in Louisiana.

The study also found that neighborhoods with higher poverty levels were most susceptible to living with higher levels of toxic air pollution. Poorer neighborhoods with the most toxic air had an average annual cancer rate of 502 cases per 100,000 people, compared with the state average of 480.3 cases per 100,000 residents.

Those defending the right of the industrial plants to operate so close to residents say the correlation between the plants and cancer isn’t as conclusive as factors such as obesity and smoking.

Kim Terrell, lead author of the Tulane clinic’s study, however, insists focusing on one cause of cancer over another is counterproductive.

“To me, it’s like saying that drinking and driving kills more people than texting and driving,” she told VOA. “Who cares? Neither is a good idea, and both should be stopped. Similarly, there are a lot of different risk factors for cancer, and if we’re going to improve health outcomes in our state, we have to tackle all of those risk factors and not just focus on one at a time.”

Cancer Moonshot

That’s what the Biden administration aims to do through the Cancer Moonshot, an initiative Joe Biden first championed as vice president in 2016 to supercharge America’s fight against cancer.

Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, proposed $2.8 billion in new Cancer Moonshot funding in his 2024 federal budget submitted to Congress this month. Among the many projects the Moonshot would fund are efforts to better understand how environmental factors affect cancer risks, boost cancer screening, decrease preventable cancers, better support patients and caregivers, and augment cutting-edge cancer research.

While Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, declared Biden’s budget “dead on arrival,” federal efforts to combat deadly diseases from Alzheimer’s to cancer have long garnered bipartisan support.

“Everyone who wants to be a part of this fight has a place,” said LCRC director Ramos. “It’s going to take academia, the public sector, the private sector — all of us working together on a variety of solutions at once.”

Moving forward

Nearly 2 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in the United States this year, with more than 600,000 deaths. A disproportionate number of diagnoses and deaths will occur in Louisiana, where Jill Biden last week committed to “building a world where cancer is not a death sentence.”

“I think the first lady’s visit to Louisiana last week is an indication of the administration’s continued commitment to cancer research,” said Erik Flemington, a professor of cancer research at the Tulane University School of Medicine, a partner in LCRC, “and I think it shows their appreciation for the importance of reaching parts of the country that are more highly impacted by cancer.”

But Louisiana isn’t only highly impacted. It’s also a state that many believe is poised to make big advances in the fight against cancer.

“The Louisiana Cancer Research Center — and I like to call it Louisiana’s Cancer Research Center — is embedded in the community at so many different points,” Ramos told VOA. “We’re engaged in clinical trials in communities across the state because we want to understand exactly what our communities are going through and how best to help them survive and thrive.”

He added, “Our physical center is also in the heart of the biomedical center where our faculty can create startup companies and work with existing private companies to develop more effective diagnostics and therapeutics.”

Ramos believes the LCRC will have a big role in achieving Biden’s ambitious Moonshot goals.

That would be important news for Louisianans like Washington and Felton, who, through activist organizations such as Inclusive Louisiana seek to draw attention to the devastating impact of cancer on their communities.

“Our health is all we have,” Washington told VOA. “We need help lowering the risk of cancer in our communities. Finding a cure is important, yes, but so is putting a moratorium on any new chemical plant trying to come to our community, and having our government regulate any plant that’s already here. This is our life we’re talking about, and it matters.”