Category: General Interest

Japan Tries to Curb COVID with Public Shaming

A train station in Japan. Photo by Zhipeng Ya on Unsplash

The Japanese government, struggling to control its latest and largest COVID outbreak while maintaining the Olympic bubble, is turning to a new tactic — public shaming.

On Monday, Japan’s health ministry released the names of three people who broke COVID rules after returning from overseas. An official statement said that the three people, two returning from South Korea and one from Hawaii, had clearly acted to avoid contact with the authorities.

All three had negative virus tests on arrival at the airport but thereafter neglected to report their health condition and did not respond to location-monitoring apps or video calls from the health authorities.

In May, the Japanese government had said that about 100 people a day were flouting the border control rules, and warned that it would disclose the names of violators soon.

Japanese authorities are struggling to adapt their COVID response as caseloads surge to their highest levels of the pandemic and vaccinations continue to lag behind other wealthy nations. Public fatigue seems to be setting in from the on-and-off emergency measures the government has imposed in various cities.

And in the face of rising cases, the Japanese government failed to speed up its vaccination campaign. It has maintained that hosting the Olympics inside a tightly controlled bubble, with spectators and athletes isolated from the public, did risk exacerbating the outbreak.

While comparatively few infections have occurred inside the Games, totalling about 300 so far, some Japanese people say that seeing the Olympics held in Tokyo has encouraged them to relax against the virus. The first cases were reported on July 17, with two members of the South Africa soccer team testing positive despite having tested negative on their departure.

Yet the outbreak has continued to worsen. On Tuesday, officials said they had recorded more than 8300 daily cases across Japan, slightly down from the weekend’s record high of more than 10 000. A total of 3709 cases were reported in Tokyo, also slightly lower than previous days.

On Monday the government said that it would hospitalise only those with severe cases of COVID, to avoid increasing the strain on hospitals, suggesting that they are already starting to struggle with the influx of cases.

Source: New York Times

The Phenomenon of Radon Gas ‘Health Spas’

Photo by Vladyslav Cherkasenko on Unsplash

While radon is commonly known as a radioactive gas that sometimes builds up in basements, people in pain travel to Montana in the US to be surrounded by it. The visitors view the radon exposure as low-dose radiation therapy for a long list of health issues.

But the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, among others, list the gas as the second-leading cause of lung cancer. Though radiation is used to kill cancer cells, in the US, using low doses for other ailments is disputed – one such debated use is treating respiratory conditions. Clinical trials are testing whether low doses of radiation can help treat COVID patients.

But radon gas is not the same as the targeted radiation in radiotherapy. It can be inhaled, making it particularly dangerous. Sitting in a radon-filled room and radiotherapy are as different as “chalk and cheese,” said Brian Marples, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester.

“In clinical therapy, we know exactly what the dose is, we know exactly where it’s going,” he said.

Prof Marples said much of the argument for radon’s therapeutic use stems from historical reports, unlike evidence-based research on clinical radiation. However, there is debate as to what level of radon gas exposure is harmful. Another concern is that the radon treatment in the mines is largely unregulated, and bodies like the EPA don’t have the power to mandate limits on radon. 

Nonetheless, each year travelers head to western Montana, where four inactive mines with high levels of radon are within 18 kilometres of one another. Radon gas forms from the radioactive decay of naturally occurring uranium in the bedrock and has a short half-life.  In the Merry Widow Health Mine, visitors can bathe in radon-contaminated water or simply sit and work on a puzzle.

For owner Chang Kim, 69, his business helps treat chronic medical conditions such as arthritis or diabetes. Adherents claim radon in low doses creates stress on the body, triggering the immune system to readapt and reduce inflammation.

“The people coming to the mines, they’re not stupid,” Mr Kim said. “People’s lives are made better by them.”

He learned about the mines 14 years ago when his wife, Veronica Kim had developed a connective tissue disease which crumpled her hands and feet. Traditional medicine wasn’t working for her. After takim=ng two sessions a year in the mines ever since, Veronica smiles when she shows her hands.

“They’re not deformed anymore,” she said, adding she’s been able to reduce her use of meloxicam for pain and swelling.

Radon users point to European countries such as Germany, where the controversial radon therapy can still be prescribed for various conditions.

In the US, the EPA maintains that no level of radon exposure is risk-free, noting it is responsible for about 21 000 lung cancer deaths every year. The agency recommends that homes with radon levels of 150 Becquerels (radioactive decays per second) per cubic metre or more should have a radon-reduction system. The EPA derived this value from lower values being subject to false negatives, and it being an achievable level with radon-reduction systems. By contrast, the owners of Montana’s oldest radon therapy mine, Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine, said their mine has an average of about 64 000.

The federal guidelines are “a bunch of baloney” according to Monique Mandali, who lives in Helena, about 40 minutes from the mines, and tries to fit in three sessions at Free Enterprise a year – 25 hours of exposure spread out over 10 days for arthritis in her back.

“People say, ‘Well, you know, but you could get lung cancer.’ And I respond, ‘I’m 74. Who cares at this point?'” she said. “I’d rather take my chances with radon in terms of living with arthritis than with other Western medication.”

Antone Brooks, formerly a scientist at the US Department of Energy and who studied low-dose radiation, is one of those who believes the low dose threshold is excessive.

“If you want to go into a radon mine twice a year, I’d say, OK, that’s not too much,” he said. “If you want to live down there, I’d say that’s too much.”

In the early 1900s, before antibiotics were popularised, small doses of radiation were used to treat pneumonia with reports it relieved respiratory symptoms. Since then, fear has largely kept the therapeutic potential of low-dose radiation untapped, said Dr Mohammad Khan, an associate professor with the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. But amid the pandemic, health care providers struggling to find treatments as hospital patients lie dying have been giving clinical radiation another look.

Patients who received low doses of radiation to their lungs were weaned off of oxygen and were discharged from hospital sooner than those without the treatment. Dr Khan said more research is necessary, but it could eventually expand clinical radiation’s role for other illnesses.

“Some people think all radiation is the same thing, that all radiation is like the Hiroshima, Nagasaki bombs, but that’s clearly not the case,” Dr Khan explained. “If you put radiation in the hands of the experts and the right people – we use it wisely, we use it carefully – that balances risk and benefits.”

Source: News-Medical.Net

Boy Walks With Help of A Robotic Exoskeleton his Father Designed

Photo by Rachel Kuo on Unsplash

Though it’s not quite as fantastic as Iron Man’s super-powered exoskeleton, a robotic exoskeleton designed by his father’s company helps 16 year old Oscar Constanza to walk. Oscar has a genetic neurological condition that means his nerves do not send enough signals to his legs.

Fastened to his shoulders, chest, waist, knees and feet, the exoskeleton enables Oscar to walk across the room and turn around. The exoskeleton is a voice-operated robot, responding to the user’s verbal commands, rather than other designs which respond to user movements or nerve signals.

“Before, I needed someone to help me walk … this makes me feel independent,” said Oscar.

His father Jean-Louis Constanza is one of the co-founders of the company that makes the exoskeleton, which is called Atalante.

“One day Oscar said to me: ‘dad, you’re a robotic engineer, why don’t you make a robot that would allow us to walk?’” his father recounted
“Ten years from now, there will be no, or far fewer, wheelchairs,” he said.

Exoskeletons are being produced around the world, with a wide variety of applications including, the military, industrial work and in healthcare to help nurses move and position patients. During the COVID pandemic, they have even been evaluated for use in the physically taxing task of prone positioning of COVID patients in ICU wards. Some, like Wandercraft’s model, are designed to help people with mobility problems to walk.

Since most are still quite heavy, manufacturers are competing to make them as light and usable as possible.

Wandercraft’s Atalante exoskeleton, which is an outer frame that supports but also simulates the movement of the wearer’s body, has been sold to dozens of hospitals in France, Luxembourg and the United States, with a unit price of about $176 000, said Constanza. The Atalante exoskeleton is currently aimed at use in physical rehabilitation in stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

At the moment, it cannot be bought by private individuals for everyday use – but the Wandercraft engineers are working on this as the design would need to be much lighter.

Source: New York Post

COVID Crowdfunding Entrenches Health Inequalities

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash
Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

A study set to be published in the August issue of Social Science & Medicine found that Americans created over 175 000 COVID-related crowdfunding (CCF) campaigns in the first half of 2020, with many receiving no funding at all and campaigns in the most privileged areas receiving the most funding.

During the first year of the COVID crisis, many Americans turned to charitable crowdfunding for help with medical bills, funeral expenses, lost wages, small business support, food assistance, and other needs. CCF increased exponentially after March 2020 on platforms such as GoFundMe. Europe saw CCF focusing largely on support for medical facilities and workers, while the majority of US CCF aimed to support individuals, raising money for food, rent, funerals, and other expenses. In India, which only spends 1.2% of its GDP on healthcare, huge numbers of people are turning to crowdfunding in an attempt to cover costs caused by patchy medical insurance which often does not cover COVID-related illness, nor the significant outpatient costs.

According to GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan, the platform saw “unprecedented use,” in the first few months of the COVID pandemic, and crowdfunding “activity has persisted at an alarming rate” since then. Unlike most disasters, which generally have an acute phase of destruction followed by a recovery phase, the economic and health impacts of the pandemic are long-lasting, a trend reflected in the prolonged growth of CCF campaigns. Between March and August of 2020, GoFundMe reported that more than 150 000 CCF campaigns had been started.

Drawing on a large dataset of geo-tagged CCF campaigns started on GoFundMe between January 1 and July 31, 2020, researchers found a number of surprising results in their analysis.
They found that the median campaign raised only $65 out of a $5000 goal, with a median of 2 donations. A striking 43.2% of CCFs received zero donations, with more than 90% not reaching their campaign goal. This is worse than reported in prior research; a 2017 study of medical campaigns found only 3.5% had no donations.
Medical fundraising made up 18.3% of all CCF campaigns, and those indicating severe medical needs, with terms like “ICU”, received an average of 96 donations, and an average donation size of $197, while campaigns mentioning “rent” or “eviction” received an average of 23 donations, with an average size of $84. Campaigns seeking money for businesses or PPE fell between these extremes.

The researchers also noted that CCF campaigns are created most often in the highest-income areas, not those hardest hit by COVID. Previous research on charitable crowdfunding has shown that it exacerbates social inequities by providing financial relief primarily to privileged recipients. Previous economic and ecological crises have also been used by powerful individuals and institutions to serve their own interests, deepening inequities and health disparities during recovery.

“We find a significant disconnect between COVID- related needs, and the ability to adequately and equitably address them with crowdfunding. CCF campaigns face heightened competition, and steep inequalities between winners and losers,” the authors wrote. “Campaign success increasingly accrues among those with more social and economic capital.”

Link to journal article

Journal information: Igra, M., Kenworthy, N., Luchsinger, C. and Jung, J., 2021. Crowdfunding as a response to COVID-19: Increasing inequities at a time of crisis. Social Science & Medicine, 282, p.114105.

First Olympic COVID Cases Among SA Soccer Team

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash
Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

Three members of the South African soccer team staying in the Olympic Village have tested positive for COVID just days before the Olympic opening ceremonies. They are also the first Olympic athletes who tested positive in the tightly-monitored athletes’ enclave along a Tokyo waterfront.

The South African team said in a July 17 statement that defender Thabiso Monyane, midfielder Kamohelo Mahlatsi, and Mario Masha, a video analyst on the coaching staff, had tested positive on the weekend. All South African players had tested negative when they departed for Tokyo on July 13. The entire South African football team is now under quarantine, raising doubts whether they’ll be cleared for their July 22 match against Japan.

Since the announcement, South African rugby Sevens coach Neil Powell as well as an unnamed member of the female US gymnastics team have also tested positive. Outside the athlete’s complex, positive results have been reported for South Korean IOC official Ryu Seung, an unnamed member of the Nigerian delegation, and an unnamed athlete.

Despite the country’s best efforts to contain the virus, COVID remains a big concern in Tokyo at the world’s largest sporting event, expected to draw about 11 000 athletes from 200 nations. The Tokyo Olympic Committee has introduced measures such as banning spectators at games, daily COVID screening for athletes, and limiting stays at the Olympic Village to seven days.

With Japan still under a state of emergency and the COVID delta variant spreading rapidly, many continue to appeal to the International Olympic Committee to cancel the games. But some experts said that at this point a cancellation would cost Japan $16.4 billion. It would also run the risk of being sued by the IOC for breach of contract.

Addressing the outbreaks in an effort to rally local support for the events, IOC president Thomas Bach said, “We are well aware of the skepticism a number of people have here in Japan,” he said. “My appeal to the Japanese people is to welcome the athletes for their competitions.”

Source: Quartz

Young Boy’s Triumph Over Rare Heart Condition

Photo by Danijel Durkovic on Unsplash
Photo by Danijel Durkovic on Unsplash

Hannah Lewis was expecting to learn the sex of her first child at 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Anxious about becoming a mother at just 19, Lewis was thrilled when she learned she was having a boy.

However, with a worried look on her face, her doctor told her that the baby’s organs looked healthy – except for his heart.

The baby was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS, a rare condition where the heart’s left side is underdeveloped, doubling the workload for the right side. Days later, doctors at a children’s hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, confirmed the diagnosis.

But Lewis said her faith gave her the strength to believe she was meant to raise this child as a single mother, as well as her own experiences being raised by a single mother herself.

The rest of the pregnancy was filled with checkups and tests but remained uneventful. Then, at 37 weeks, doctors realised he was developing foetal hydrops, a life-threatening condition in which an abnormal amount of fluid accumulates in the tissue around the lungs, heart or abdomen, or under the skin.

Even in shock from induced labour followed by a caesarean, she remembers hearing her son’s first cries:

“They let me see him for just a second,” she said. “I loved him at first sight obviously, but I was super scared because they took him directly to the heart cath lab and for like 12 hours, we didn’t know what was going on. I was very sick so they wouldn’t let me go see him.”

She named him Bennett after learning the moniker means “God’s gift of hope” or “little blessed one”.

“It was so fitting for what he was about to face,” Lewis said.

HLHS is usually treated with either three different surgeries at certain stages of development or a heart transplant.

Because of the complications introduced by foetal hydrops, Bennett Sayles was 6 days old when he underwent his first open-heart surgery. Although the procedure went well, Bennett remained in critical condition on a ventilator. Then, when he was 2 months old, he had a stroke.

After three open-heart surgeries, 9 month old Bennett had stabilised enough to go home. But shortly before he was discharged, he went into cardiac arrest, and was without a heartbeat for six minutes.

“Then, out of nowhere, his heartbeat came back and it was strong,” Lewis said.

Two weeks later, days before his first Christmas, Bennett went home for the first time. After he turned 2, Bennett underwent the second HLHS surgery, which didn’t work and days later, he needed a fifth open-heart surgery.

Some weeks later he went home, but in hours, Bennett was back in the emergency room with staph infection in his chest. However, Bennett made it home again in time for Christmas. And ever since that series of setbacks, things have improved for him.

“His mental capacity is anywhere from 3 to 5 years old, but he’s got this amazing personality,” Lewis said. “He’s just got such a caring heart. When he’s in the room, he really does light it up and he changes the way you see things. I’m inspired every day because of how amazing he is and he doesn’t let anything hold him back or stop him.”

Two years ago, Bennett’s doctors determined that he would never be a candidate for the other surgeries needed to treat HLHS. He could, however, become eligible for a heart transplant.

“It’s debatable whether he’ll get there, but having known Bennett for the last nine years is not surprising at all that he has progressed to this point,” said Dr. Gerald Johnson, the boy’s paediatric cardiologist. “One of the beauties of working with kids is that they fight and they work to get better, and they work through things in ways that we as adults don’t necessarily do. Bennett’s been a particular fighter on that score and his mother is very proactive and in tune with his needs.”

Raising Bennett has taught Lewis and her family to focus on the present. “We don’t know what’s in store for Bennett,” Lewis said. “He could live his whole life like this or we can have him just a few more years. We love every minute we get to have with him.”

Source: American Heart Association

Kids Cunningly Spoof COVID Tests to Skip School

Photo by Greenvalley Pictures on Unsplash

School children in the UK have found an ingenious way to get out of school — by deliberately compromising COVID tests using soft drinks or fruit juice to produce false positives.

Children returned to in-person learning in March in the UK, with regular COVID testing to monitor for infection and infected students being sent home. 

However, after three months of regular testing, a school in Merseyside had reports of students who had found that either drinking fruit-flavored juice or misusing them as an analyte had the potential to provide a false-positive result.  

The trick involves “spoofing” a lateral flow device (LFD) which is designed to detect COVID antibodies.

LFDs come in the form of cartridges containing a nitrocellulose membrane strip and absorbent paper with dried test reagents affixed, which include antibodies labelled with gold particles for visibility. When these reagents are mixed with the analyte from a test sample, they migrate through the nitrocellulose strip and over the test (T) line where the SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibody is located.

A key part of the trick is not mixing the sample fluid with the buffer, BBC’s Mark Lorch found.

The liquid buffer solution maintains an ideal pH for the antibodies, and is key to the correct function of the test. The critical role of the buffer is highlighted by if cola is mixed with the buffer, then the LFDs behave correctly, returning a negative result for COVID.

Without the buffer, the antibodies in the test are fully exposed to the acidic pH of the beverages. And this has a dramatic effect on their structure and function. Proteins such as antibodies fold up into very specific structures, and even a small change to the chains can dramatically impact a protein’s function. Changing the pH could cause the antibodies used in the test to no longer function correctly and incorrectly binding. By diluting the drink

In a study made available on the medRxiv preprint server, researchers tested the ability of various types of soft drinks to produce false positive results. They found that the presence of sugar and acidity was necessary to produce the false positives. The researchers also recommended 

Source: BBC News

Month-long COVID Coma Left Ambulance Worker ‘Scarred’

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A UK ambulance worker who contracted COVID and was in an induced coma for over a month says his family is psychologically scarred by what happened.

Paul Clements, 59, had major organ failure as well as several infections, leaving him in intensive care at Bristol Royal Infirmary. Doctors told him he was lucky to survive the 33-day induced coma. Speaking to the BBC, Mr Clements said that the time passed “in the blink of an eye”.

“The last thing I remember is being handed a cup of tea by my daughter,” said Mr Clements. He was agitated, complaining that the tea tasted awful, prompting concern from his family.

“I put it down, and then I blinked. I then found myself lying on a bed looking at a nurse,” he recalled. “I told her that I’d put my tea down somewhere.”

He said the nurse laughed in response, and then explained to him that he “had been unconscious for 33 days.”

On 19 March 2020, Mr Celements began to have COVID symptoms. Five days later, he was rushed into hospital.

“They tried three times to wake me up. The doctors told me I had pneumonia, a chest infection, an abdominal infection, kidney failure and liver failure – all wrapped up in COVID.” Up to a third of hospitalised COVID patients in the UK’s first wave had ‘do not resuscitate’ orders, recorded on or just before their admission.

He says that “Trying to get my head around that was almost impossible. Even now they have no idea why I survived.”

At the time, his family weren’t allowed to visit the Bristol Royal Infirmary where he was due to COVID restrictions.

“It was hell, absolute hell,” said Paul’s wife, Kerri. “Every time the phone rings you’re on edge thinking this is a call we don’t want. Listening out for his breathing every night, if he coughs I’m on edge, if he says he doesn’t feel well we’re back on edge.”

Mr Clements spent a total of three months in hospital before being leaving the ward to applause by the staff.

He returned to his work as an emergency care assistant six months later, with South Western Ambulance Service where has been for the past 38 years. He acknowledges the close call he had. “Unfortunately in my job I’ve put people in body bags and taken them to the mortuary,” he said.

“I spent some time in hospital trying to get my head around it and realised that could’ve been me, and the reality of it is so scary.”

Source: BBC News

Study Reveals Mediaeval Plague Victims Buried With Care and Attention

Photo by Peter Kvetny on Unsplash

Mediaeval plague victims in the UK were mostly buried with care and attention, according to a new study from Cambridge University. 

In the mid-14th century, Europe was devastated by the Black Death which killed between 40 and 60 per cent of the population. For centuries afterward, waves of plague would continue to strike the region.

Due to the rapid onset of death in the absence of antibiotic treatment (less than a week for bubonic plague and under 48h for pneumonic plague), the disease leaves no visible evidence on the skeleton, so until now archaeologists have been unable to identify individuals who died of plague unless they were buried in mass graves.

Although it has been long believed that most plague victims in fact received an individual burial, this has been impossible to confirm until now.

By studying DNA extracted from the teeth of individuals who died at this time, researchers from the Wellcome Trust-funded After the Plague project, based at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, have identified the presence of Yersinia Pestis, the bacterial pathogen that causes plague. The study is available to read online in the European Journal of Archaeology.

These include people who received normal individual burials at a parish cemetery and friary in Cambridge and in the nearby village of Clopton.

Lead author Craig Cessford of the University of Cambridge explained: “These individual burials show that even during plague outbreaks individual people were being buried with considerable care and attention. This is shown particularly at the friary where at least three such individuals were buried within the chapter house. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit conducted excavations on this site on behalf of the University in 2016-2017.”

The individual at the parish of All Saints by the Castle in Cambridge was also buried with care; this stand in contrast to the apocalyptic language used to describe the abandonment of this church in 1365 when it was reported that the church was partly in ruins and ‘the bones of dead bodies are exposed to beasts’.”

The study also shows that some plague victims in Cambridge did, as expected, receive mass burials.

Yersinia Pestis was also identified in several parishioners from St Bene’t’s, who were found buried together in a large trench in the churchyard excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on behalf of Corpus Christi College.

Soon afterwards, this part of the churchyard was transferred to Corpus Christi College, which was founded by the St Bene’t’s parish guild to commemorate the dead including the victims of the Black Death. For centuries, the members of the College would walk over the mass burial every day on the way to the parish church.

Cessford concluded, “Our work demonstrates that it is now possible to identify individuals who died from plague and received individual burials. This greatly improves our understanding of the plague and shows that even in incredibly traumatic times during past pandemics people tried very hard to bury the deceased with as much care as possible.”

Source: University of Cambridge

Journal information: “Beyond Plague Pits: Using Genetics to Identify Responses to Plague in Medieval Cambridgeshire” – Craig Cessford, Christiana L. Scheib, Meriam Guellil, Marcel Keller, Craig Alexander, Sarah A. Inskip and John E. Robb. European Journal of Archaeology,

CNN Anchor Christiane Amanpour Reveals Her Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis

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CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour told viewers on Monday that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

The 63 year-old international news veteran told viewers she had had “major successful surgery to remove it” and will now undergo several months of chemotherapy, adding that she was “very confident”.

Amanpour, who works in CNN’s London studio, said she feels “fortunate to have health insurance through work and incredible doctors who are treating me in a country underpinned by, of course, the brilliant NHS,” referencing the UK’s National Health Service.

After four weeks off, she said in Monday’s announcement, “I’m telling you this in the interest of transparency but in truth really mostly as a shoutout to early diagnosis.” Pointing out “millions of women around the world”, she added that she wanted to “urge women to educate themselves on this disease; to get all the regular screenings and scans that you can; to always listen to your bodies; and of course to ensure that your legitimate medical concerns are not dismissed or diminished.”

Amanpour has decades of experience reporting around the world, covering a wide range of conflicts and crises.

Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death in women diagnosed with gynaecological cancers. It is also the fifth most frequent cause of death in women, in general. The symptoms, such as bloated, swollen or painful stomach, are easily mistaken for less serious health problems, making diagnosis difficult. Most cases are only diagnosed at an advanced stage, leading to poor outcomes. Existing screening tests unfortunately have a low predictive value.

Standard care treatment includes surgery and platinum-based chemotherapy; however, anti-angiogenic bevacizumab and Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) inhibitors are gaining ground in the treatment of this disease.

Source: BBC News