Science & Health

India-Made Cough Syrups May Be Tied to 66 Deaths in Gambia, WHO Says 

The deaths of dozens of children in Gambia from kidney injuries may be linked to contaminated cough and cold syrups made by an Indian drug manufacturer, the World Health Organization said Wednesday. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that the U.N. agency was investigating along with Indian regulators and the drugmaker, New Delhi-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals.  

Maiden declined to comment on the alert, while calls and Reuters messages to the Drugs Controller General of India went unanswered. India’s health ministry also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

The WHO issued a medical product alert asking regulators to remove Maiden Pharmaceuticals goods from the market. The products may have been distributed elsewhere through informal markets but had so far only been identified in Gambia, the WHO said in its alert.  

The alert covers four products: Promethazine Oral Solution, Kofexmalin Baby Cough Syrup, Makoff Baby Cough Syrup and Magrip N Cold Syrup.  

Lab analysis confirmed unacceptable amounts of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol, which can be toxic when consumed, the WHO said. Gambia’s government said last month that it had also been investigating the deaths, as a spike in cases of acute kidney injury among children younger than 5 was detected in late July.  

Several children in Gambia began falling ill with kidney problems three to five days after taking a locally sold paracetamol syrup. By August, 28 had died, but health authorities said the toll would likely rise. Now 66 are dead, WHO said  Wednesday. 

The deaths have shaken the tiny West African nation, which is also dealing with multiple health emergencies, including measles and malaria. 

Maiden Pharmaceuticals manufactures medicines at its facilities in India, which it then sells domestically as well as exporting them to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to its website. 

Science & Health

Russian Launches to Space From US, 1st Time in 20 Years

For the first time in 20 years, a Russian cosmonaut rocketed from the U.S. on Wednesday, launching to the International Space Station alongside NASA and Japanese astronauts despite tensions over the war in Ukraine. 

Their SpaceX flight was delayed by Hurricane Ian, which ripped across the state last week. 

“I hope with this launch we will brighten up the skies over Florida a little bit for everyone,” said the Japan Space Agency’s Koichi Wakata, who is making his fifth spaceflight. 

Joining him on a five-month mission are three new to space: Marine Col. Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman to orbit Earth; Navy Capt. Josh Cassada; and Russia’s lone female cosmonaut, Anna Kikina. 

“Awesome!” said Mann as they reached orbit. “That was a smooth ride uphill. You’ve got three rookies who are pretty happy to be floating in space right now.” 

They’re due to arrive at the space station Thursday, 29 hours after a noon departure from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and won’t be back on Earth until March. They’re replacing a U.S.-Italian crew that arrived in April. 

Kikina is the Russian Space Agency’s exchange for NASA’s Frank Rubio, who launched to the space station two weeks ago from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. He flew up with two cosmonauts. 

The space agencies agreed over the summer to swap seats on their flights in order to ensure a continuous U.S. and Russian presence aboard the 260-mile-high (420-kilometer-high) outpost. The barter was authorized even as global hostilities mounted over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The next crew exchange is in the spring. 

Shortly before liftoff, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said that the key reason for the seat exchange is safety — in case an emergency forces one capsule’s crew home, there would still be an American and Russian on board. 

In the meantime, Russia remains committed to the space station through at least 2024, Russia space official Sergei Krikalev assured reporters this week. Russia wants to build its own station in orbit later this decade, “but we know that it’s not going to happen very quick and so probably we will keep flying” with NASA until then, he said. 

Beginning with Krikalev in 1994, NASA started flying cosmonauts on its space shuttles, first to Russia’s Mir space station and then to the fledgling space station. The 2003 Columbia reentry disaster put an end to it. But U.S. astronauts continued to hitch rides on Russian rockets for tens of millions of dollars per seat. 

Kakina is only the fifth Russian woman to rocket off the planet. She said she was surprised to be selected for the seat swap after encountering “many tests and obstacles” during her decade of training. “But I did it. I’m lucky maybe. I’m strong,” she said. 

Mann is a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, and taking up her mother’s dream catcher, a small traditional webbed hoop believed to offer protection. Retired NASA astronaut John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation became the first Native American in space in 2002. 

“I am very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann said before the flight, adding that everyone on her crew has a unique background. “It’s important to celebrate our diversity and also realize how important it is when we collaborate and unite, the incredible accomplishments that we can have.” 

As for the war in Ukraine, Mann said all four have put politics and personal beliefs aside, “and it’s really cool how the common mission of the space station just instantly unites us.” 

Added Cassada: “We have an opportunity to be an example for society on how to work together and live together and explore together.” 

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has now launched eight crews since 2020: six for NASA and two private groups. Boeing, NASA’s other contracted taxi service, plans to make its first astronaut flight early next yea r, after delays to fix software and other issues that cropped up on test flights. 


Science & Health

No Longer Out of Sight, Effort Gets Under Way to Combat Treatable Blindness

Africa and Latin America have the highest rates in the world of treatable sight problems, but a Spanish NGO is finding innovative ways to reverse this situation.  

Conditions like glaucoma or cataracts, which are easily treated in developed countries, often go unattended in many poorer countries that are struggling with more serious medical challenges like HIV or malaria. 

The London-based International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, IAPB, reports 161 million people suffer from uncorrected eye problems and of these, 100 million have operable cataracts. Another 510 million are short-sighted. 

By far the largest proportion of people with sight problems — around 90% — live in the world’s poorest regions, the agency said. About 55% are women. 

The Foundation Ojos del Mundo, Spanish for Eyes of the World, has been working for more than 20 years to help people whose sight problems could be easily corrected. 

With three projects in Africa and one in Latin America, the foundation aims to offer aid and train local doctors to do the work. 

It is a daunting task. 

In Western sub-Saharan Africa, 18.8% of the population suffer from vision loss, but this rises to 21.8% in southern sub-Saharan Africa, according to IAPB figures. These figures are exceeded only in South Asia, where the sight loss stands at 22.2%.  

This compares with 4.8% in Western Europe and 3.6% in North America.  

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the figure for Latin America is between 12.3% and 13.4%, according to IAPB. 

Ojos del Mundo, a Barcelona-based NGO, treats avoidable eye conditions like cataracts or glaucoma and lazy eyes through direct intervention or by training local people to do the work. 

The foundation has projects treating Saharawis who have fled the Western Sahara and are living in refugee camps in Algeria as well as in centers in Mali, Bolivia and Mozambique. 

Since it began in 2001, Ojos del Mundo has restored the sight of more than 37,000 people and trained 13,000 local specialists. 

Nuria Roman, head of strategic collaborations for Ojos del Mundo, said preventable blindness caused poverty in many countries because people who were unable to see were unable to work. 

“In many cases, these are conditions like cataracts or reading problems which can be reversed easily by access to simple operations or even glasses,” she told VOA. 

“In the countries in which we work, like Mali which is very poor and has problems with AIDS and malaria, sight problems are not regarded as serious enough to warrant help from the state. We train doctors to become ophthalmologists and then a smaller number will become retina specialists.” 

Celebrity help 

In order to raise awareness of their work, the NGO has enlisted the help of Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who has donated a photograph of his eye as part of a new fundraising campaign called 

The image will be sold as a unique, digital non-fungible token (NFT) and a photographic print authenticated by the actor as part of the irises of the world campaign. The auction started on September 29 and ends on October 6. 

Bardem, who won an Oscar in 2008 for best supporting actor in “No Country for Old Men,” told VOA he backed the campaign because he wanted to help people who lacked access to basic eye health care. 

“I think Ojos del Mundo does extraordinary work. In a matter of hours, people who had been blind for years recover their sight. People who, unfortunately, do not have access to standard medical care for geographical, economic and social reasons, are able to see again,” he said in written answers to questions from VOA. 

“Being able to help perform, help a miracle like this, was the main reason I wanted to support them,” he said. 

Bardem added that eyes were vital for him as an actor. 

“A vast array of emotions come through our sight and are also transmitted through our eyes. At the end of the day, every sense counts on the creation of any fantasy, and the eyes play a very important role,” he said. 

In Bolivia, Ojos del Mundo worked in the El Alto community and the rural areas of La Paz, located in the high Andes at an altitude of 4,000 meters. About 70% of the population there has been classified as poor or extremely poor. 

Filling gaps 

Before the NGO arrived in 2003, there was no ophthalmic care system, which meant those who did not have the resources to travel to the capital often became blind or suffered with sight problems which could be treated easily.  

The NGO trained ophthalmologists and worked with Bolivian health services so they could treat local people.  

In Mozambique, when Ojos del Mundo started work in 2002, there were only six ophthalmologists for 20 million people, far below the level recommended by the World Health Organization. The NGO started training schemes for local doctors to treat people for eye problems. 

The foundation has worked to address the widespread lack of information about eye diseases among children and adults. 

Ojos del Mundo did not want to speculate on how much Bardem’s NFT would raise at auction, but the highest bid so far was $12,910. 

The reserve price of $8,930 would pay for 1,300 eye tests, while $29,777 would fund four years of training for an ophthalmologist. A bid of $49,621 would pay for 715 cataract operations. 

Roman thanked Bardem for offering an image of his eye to raise awareness of Ojos del Mundo’s work in the world. 

She said the foundation wanted to attract attention to their campaign by inviting a series of well-known celebrities to donate images of their own eyes. Without revealing the identity, she said later this year a “worldwide star” will follow Bardem’s example. 

Bardem and his wife, fellow Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, have supported a series of charitable causes, donating money to rebuild homes after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and raising funds for the Open Arms project which rescues people crossing the Mediterranean. 


Science & Health

Three Share Nobel Prize in Chemistry 

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for “the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.”

The prize and its $900,000 award went equally to Carolyn Bertozzi and Barry Sharpless of the United States and Morten Meldal of Denmark.

For Sharpless, it is his second Nobel Prize in chemistry after being awarded the honor in 2001.

The academy said Meldal and Sharpless each independently presented a chemical reaction that is now used widely to develop pharmaceuticals and materials, and for mapping DNA.

Bertozzi developed the field further with reactions that function inside living things, the academy said, with applications that include exploring cells and tracking biological processes.

The Nobel Prize for medicine and for physics were awarded earlier this week, with the literature prize and the Nobel Peace Prize due to be announced Thursday and Friday.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

Science & Health

Plastic-Gobbling Enzymes in Worm Spit May Help Ease Pollution

Enzymes found in the saliva of wax worms can degrade one of the most common forms of plastic waste, according to research published Tuesday that could open up new ways of dealing with plastic pollution.

Humans produce some 400 million metric tons of plastic waste each year despite international drives to reduce single-use plastics and to increase recycling.

Around a third is polyethylene, a tough plastic thanks to its structure, which traditionally requires heating or radiation before it starts to break down.

There have been several studies showing that microorganisms can release enzymes that start the degradation process on polyethylene, but the process has until now taken months each time.

But the enzymes contained in the saliva of the wax worm moth (Galleria mellonella) can act in only a few hours, Tuesday’s research showed.

Researcher Federica Bertocchini, an avid beekeeper, said she originally stumbled on the idea that this small caterpillar had unusual powers when storing honeycombs a few years ago.

“At the end of the season, usually beekeepers put some empty beehives in a storage room, to put them back in the field in the spring,” she told AFP.

“One year I did that, and I found my stored honeycombs plagued with wax worms. In fact, that is their habitat.”

Bertocchini cleaned the honeycombs and put the worms in a plastic bag.

When she returned a short time later, she found the bag “riddled with holes.”

“That raised the question: Is it the result of munching, or is there a chemical modification? We checked that, doing proper lab experiments, and we found that the polyethylene had been oxidized,” she said.

In her latest research, Bertocchini, from Madrid’s Margarita Salas Centre for Biological Studies (CIB) and her colleagues analyzed proteins in the wax worm saliva and identified two enzymes that could break polyethylene down into small polymers in only a few hours at room temperature.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications they explained how they used another worm’s saliva as a control experiment, which produced no degradation compared with the wax worm.

Bertocchini said her team is still trying to figure out precisely how the worms degraded the plastic.

While the study authors stressed that much more research was needed before Tuesday’s findings could be implemented at any meaningful scale, there were a number of possible applications.

“We can imagine a scenario where these enzymes are used in an aqueous solution, and liters of this solution is poured over piles of collected plastic in a waste management facility,” Bertocchini said.

“We can also imagine small amounts that can reach more remote locations, like villages or small islands, where waste facilities are not available.”

She said that further down the line the solution could be used in individual houses, where each family could degrade their own plastic waste.

Science & Health

Bird Flu Hits Colony of Endangered Penguins in South Africa

South African conservationists are on high alert after an outbreak of bird flu killed close to 30 penguins at one of the country’s most stable colonies and a popular tourist attraction.

The disease, formally known as avian influenza, is untreatable and has already killed more than 20,000 Cape cormorant birds since last year.

Boulders Penguin Colony, about a 40-minute drive from Cape Town’s city center, is home to about 3,000 African penguins — a significant number given there are only about 14,000 breeding pairs left on the planet.

Bird flu was identified in the colony in August.

Dr. David Roberts is a clinical veterinarian who works for the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, an NGO which advises South African National Parks, the government entity that manages the colony. He said that, for now, tourists and beachgoers are still allowed.

“We don’t think there’s any extra threat caused by people visiting,” he said. “If there’s more of an outbreak, then other measures might be put in place.”

The disease is typically spread between birds by feces. Roberts said rangers are on the lookout for sick birds.

“Because this is an untreatable disease, we don’t take them in and give them medication, we’d rather euthanize them,” he said.

There are concerns that the bird flu could spread to ostriches and chickens, which would have dire economic implications.

As far as spreading to humans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s website said illness in humans from bird flu virus infections are rare and have ranged in severity from no symptoms or mild illness to severe disease that resulted in death.

Roberts said the H5N1 strain present in South Africa has a low probability of being transmitted to mammals.

“It is a threat that we know is real and we’re concerned about that possibility but it’s a very low probability at the moment,” he said. “But we still encourage people not to interact with sick animals, sick birds or to interact with dead birds either.”

Roberts said if people do find sick, injured or dead birds they should find somebody who is trained to respond appropriately.

Azwianewi Makhado, the seabird specialist scientist at the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment, said the department has a bird security policy for any staff handling penguins in the colonies.

“Clothes that you wear when you enter the colony should be taken off as soon as you come out and should not be worn again,” Makhado said.

Authorities said they will post regular updates about the outbreak.

Science & Health

Artificial Intelligence Is New Weapon Against Australian Wildlife Smugglers

Australian scientists are harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence in the fight against wildlife trafficking.  

The technique uses 3-Dimensional X-rays at airports and post offices to detect animals being smuggled in luggage or the mail, and algorithms then alert customs officers.  

This technology uses artificial intelligence to identify the shapes of animals being trafficked.

Australia has a rich diversity of flora and fauna, which has fueled an illegal trade in wildlife.

The number of live animals seized by the Australian Border Force has tripled since 2017, according to official data.   Australian reptiles and birds are highly prized overseas.  

Exotic species, including snakes and turtles, are also brought into the country potentially bringing pests and diseases that could threaten farming industries and fragile native ecosystems.

“We are teaching computers to look for trafficked wildlife in both mail and traveler luggage pathways, said Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. “The way in which we do that is we scan animals – dead animals in this case – and what we do is we scan that using 3D X-rays and then we produce a reference library.  So, lots of images with the animals presented in different ways so the computer can go, oh, okay, I have seen this animal before.  Oh, it looks slightly different, but I think that is a lizard.”

Australia is aiming to protect its biodiversity with a new plan announced Tuesday that aims to prevent future extinctions, updating an existing environmental policy. 

Among other things, the plan includes adding fifteen animals and plants to the endangered species list due in part to the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 and land clearing. The government intends to curb the impact of feral species, such as foxes and cats, that inflict untold damage on native wildlife, along with invasive weeds. The strategy also includes reserving almost a third of Australia for conservation to improve biodiversity. Dozens of countries, including France and Britain, have already set similar targets.

Australia is “the mammal-extinction capital of the world,” according to Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, who says previous strategies to protect biodiversity have failed.

Science & Health

 Three Scientists Win Physics Nobel for Quantum Information Research 

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Tuesday that three scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for “pioneering quantum information science.

The academy said Alain Aspect of France, John Clauser of the United States and Anton Zeilinger of Austria each carried out “groundbreaking experiments using entangled quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated.”

Their work made it possible for the development of new technology, the academy said.

“Quantum information science is a vibrant and rapidly developing field,” said Eva Olsson, a member of the Nobel committee. “It has broad and potential implications in areas such as secure information transfer, quantum computing and sensing technology.”

The three scientists will split the $900,000 cash prize.

The Nobel Prize for medicine was announced Monday. The chemistry prize follows Wednesday, with the literature prize on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.