Friday, February 17, 2012

Deadly Alcohol Needs Global Regulation, Health Expert Says

When considering the world's worst killers, alcohol likely doesn't come to mind. Yet alcohol kills more than 2.5 million people annually, more than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.

For middle-income people, who constitute half the world's population, alcohol is the top health risk factor, greater than obesity, inactivity and even tobacco.

The World Health Organization has meticulously documented the extent of alcohol abuse in recent years and has published solid recommendations on how to reduce alcohol-related deaths, but this doesn't go far enough, according to Devi Sridhar, a health-policy expert at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

In a commentary appearing today (Feb. 15) in the journal Nature, Sridhar argues that the WHO should regulate alcohol at the global level, enforcing such regulations as a minimum drinking age, zero-tolerance drunken driving, and bans on unlimited drink specials. Abiding by the regulations would be mandatory for the WHO's 194 member states.

Far from prohibition, the WHO regulations would force nations to strengthen weak drinking laws and better enforce laws already in place, Sridhar says.

Approaching a bottle a day

Alcohol consumption is measured in terms of pure ethyl alcohol to compensate for the varying strengths of beer, wine and spirits. A liter bottle of wine with 10 percent alcohol, for example, would be only 0.1 liter of pure alcohol. According to the WHO, Americans each drink 9.4 liters of ethyl alcohol per year on average. That's equivalent to 94 bottles of the aforementioned wine. [See list of top 20 booze-consuming countries]

As high as that might sound, Americans don't even crack the top 50 on the world charts. Europe, in particular Eastern Europe, dominates the drinking scene. Moldova has the top drinkers, downing 18.4 liters of alcohol per capita yearly. That's equivalent to 184 1-liter bottles of wine, or nearly four bottles a week per person. The legal drinking age in Moldova is 16, and there are few restrictions on when or where alcohol can be sold.

The price of such alcohol abuse is early death. One in five men in the Russian Federation and neighboring European countries dies as a result of alcohol, according to WHO data. Alcohol abuse is associated with cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis of the liver, various cancers, violence and vehicle accidents. Alcoholic adults have difficulty working and supporting their families, too.

Sobering recommendations

Sridhar argues that the WHO is unique among health organizations in that it can create legally binding conventions. The WHO has done this only twice in its 64-year history: the International Health Regulations, which require countries to report certain disease outbreaks and public-health events; and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which commits governments to making legislative moves to reduce the demand for, and the supply of, tobacco.

No other entity can attack the global problem of alcohol abuse, she said. When it comes to alcohol, though, the WHO has settled on merely recommendations, such as those outlined in the 2010 WHO Global Strategy to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol.

"Countries are aware of the problem, but several haven't made a real commitment to implementing the recommendations," Sridhar told LiveScience. "The problem is not with ministries of health but with ministries of finance, trade, etc. who prioritize other interests first."

In her Nature commentary, Sridhar said that the existing WHO recommendations could serve as the framework for a new international convention on alcohol regulation. Yet even the United States would struggle to meet several of the 10 recommended target areas, which include advertising restrictions, price hikes and tougher laws against drunken driving.

"Ministries of health would have a stronger domestic negotiating position in prioritizing alcohol regulation above economic concerns," with the WHO muscle behind them, she wrote.

Alas, football ads might never be the same.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Sridhar's affiliation, which should be the University of Oxford, not the University of Cambridge as had been stated.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Japan's Fukushima reactor may be reheating: operator

Temperature readings at one of the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors have risen above Japan's stringent new safety standard but there was no immediate danger, its operator said Sunday.

Tokyo Electric Power said one of three thermometers on the number-two reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant indicated gradual heating this month and reached 82 degrees Celsius (179.6 degrees Fahrenheit) Sunday.

The temperature was above the 80-degree safety standard newly employed by Japan's nuclear safety authority, prompting the utility to publicise the reading and notify public agencies.

But it remains below the 100 degree level that the government says is needed to maintain the safe state of "cold shutdown".

The utility said it will check the accuracy of the thermometer in question, as two others on the same reactor have been measuring its temperature at around 35 degrees.

Gas samples from the reactor did not indicate any new critical reaction, and other monitors and data do not suggest heating and increased steam, TEPCO said.

"We believe the state of cold shutdown is being maintained," TEPCO spokesman Junichi Matsumoto told a press conference.

"Rather than the actual temperature rising, we believe there is high possibility that the thermometer concerned is experiencing display error," he said.

As a precaution, TEPCO has increased the volume of water and boric acid solution being poured on the reactor to cool it down.

The Fukushima power plant became the site of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl after it lost its cooling systems in the March earthquake and tsunami and went through meltdown and explosions.

Severe radiation contamination has rendered surrounding communities uninhabitable and triggered food and water scares in Japan.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Obama's Birth-Control Rule Will Help Prevent Accidental Pregnancies

Russian-invested tour operator Lanta Viet has resumed its operations in the Mui Ne resort area on February 2 after its sudden close following the bankruptcy of its parent firm Lanta Tour Voyage the previous week.

Nguyen Van Khoa, chairman of the Binh Thuan Tourism Association, said Lanta Viet director Konstantin Prikhodko opened the office in the late afternoon.

“Dozens of resort owners immediately came to the office to request him to sign debt notes for hosting the company’s Russian tourists over the past several days,” he said.

At a meeting with Vietnamese tourism authorities and the People's Committee of Binh Thuan Province on February 1, Prikhodko said he and his employees left the office in fear that some frustrated people could surround the place as happened at Lanta’s office in Thailand.

However, the resort owners said they had taken good care of the Russian tourists to maintain their reputation despite being aware of Lanta Tour Voyage’s bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, tourism authorities said they had instructed the resorts to continue taking good care of the tourists as a move to promote Mui Ne tourism.

Dozens of Russian tourists stranded in Mui Ne have left Vietnam over the past days and all of those sent to Vietnam through Lanta Viet are expected to leave by February 8.

Prikhodko committed to pay the resorts but did not offer a payment time.

Russian tourists stranded in Vietnam as tour operator goes bust

Lanta Tour Voyage, one of Russia’s largest tour operators, declared bankruptcy January 27 and shut down after being unable to provide funding for contracted services, leaving thousands of Russian tourists stranded abroad including 309 in In the United States, nearly 50 percent of pregnancies are unintended. A new health care rule — which stirred controversy due to its implications for church-affiliated organizations' coverage of contraception — has the potential to significantly reduce accidental pregnancies by increasing access to birth control, according to public health experts.

And the accommodation made by President Barack Obama on Friday (Feb. 10) — making insurers rather than the church-affiliated organizations responsible for contraceptive benefits — won't change this, they say.

"It will have a huge effect," said Diana Greene Foster of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. "It is not the entire solution, but it is such an obvious first step."

The cost

Reducing unintended pregnancies is a well-established public health goal. They are associated with a variety of health issues for both mother and child from maternal depression to birth defects. There are also economic consequences, particularly for teen mothers who are less likely to graduate from high school, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

By fully covering the spectrum of contraceptives and eliminating copayments, the rule would give women the option of picking the method of birth control best suited for them, regardless of cost, according to Adam Sonfield, a senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute.

The most effective forms of contraception are long-acting, like intrauterine devices and implants that are put under the skin. Both can last for years, eliminating the possibility that a woman will miss a dose or use the inconsistently, according to Sonfield.

"They are extremely effective in the long run, but in the short run, they often have high upfront costs," Sonfield said. "Rates of unintended pregnancies are many times higher among poor women, [so] this has the potential to really help with that."

The rule originates with the health care overhaul, which Obama signed into law in 2010, and it packages contraception along with other preventive care. It exempts churches and houses of worship from offering insurance that covers contraception. Earlier this year, Obama rejected an exemption to this coverage for organizations with religious affiliations, such as, a Catholic hospital or school. This sparked accusations that the rule violated religious liberty by forcing institutions to buy something they opposed. (The Catholic Church considers deliberate contraception a sin.) [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

The math

Nowadays, most American families want two children. This means the average women will spend five years pregnant, recovering from pregnancy or trying to become pregnant and three decades trying to avoid becoming pregnant, according to the Guttmacher Institute. (This assumes she is sexually active throughout.)

"People are going to have sex," said Carol Hogue, a professor of epidemiology and the Terry Professor of Maternal and Child Health at Emory University. "When contraception is easily available, free or inexpensive, and it is widely known how to get it and how to use it, abortion rates plummet, because the only way couples control their fertility effective without abortions is through contraception."

A program in California demonstrates the potential benefit of increasing access to contraception, according to Foster, who is a demographer in UCSF's department of obstetrics, gynecology & reproductive services. In 2007, contraceptives offered by the state's Family PACT program averted an estimated 286,700 unintended pregnancies which would have included 122,000 abortions, according to data she provided.

In addition to reducing abortions and teen pregnancies, and providing other health services like screenings for cancer and sexual-transmitted diseases, the state's program has proven quite cost effective, according to Philip Darney, director of the Bixby Center at UCSF.

According to the Bixby Center's cost benefit analysis of the program for 2007, each averted pregnancy saved the public sector about $14,111 in costs for both the woman and the child, from conception to age 5.

Why it happens

According to the Guttmacher Institute, just over half (52 percent) of unintended pregnancies result from couples not using contraception, while 43 percent result form incorrect or inconsistent use, and the remaining 5 percent result from failure of the method.

The National Survey on Family Growth offers a different take. Between 2006 and 2008, women who had experienced unintended pregnancies said they had not used birth control for the following reasons: (The 842 women who responded could select more than one reason.)

14 percent did not expect to have sex
44 percent did not think they could get pregnant
16 percent were worried about the side-effects of birth control
17 percent had a male partner who objected
23 percent didn't mind if they became pregnant

As the sizable percentage of women who say they "didn't mind" the prospect of getting pregnant demonstrates, there's nuance hiding within the term "unintended pregnancy."

Researchers typically divide them into two catagories: mistimed pregnancies, typically meaning they happen too soon, before a woman is ready, and unwanted, meaning the woman has no desire to have a child.

"The definitions seems simple and straightforward, but in reality, they are complex," said Roger Rochat, a professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. For instance, a teenager may say she never wants to become pregnant, but over time, she may change her mind, he said.

Russia's state development bank VTB on February 1 said it will lend Lanta Tour Voyage US$7 million at an interest rate of 12 percent, according to the Russian daily newspaper Vedomosti.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Putin gets 'prehistoric' water from Antarctic lake

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was given a water sample Friday taken from a pristine lake hidden under Antarctic ice for over a million years, after Russian scientists drilled down to its surface.

The Russian strongman, who enjoys venturing into the wilderness and has accompanied an expedition to track polar bears in the Arctic, was the first recipient of a symbolic water sample.

"The head of the natural resources ministry has given Vladimir Putin the first sample of prehistoric water the Russian polar expedition extracted from the subglacial lake in Antarctica," the Russian government said.

"The age of the water could be over 1 million years," it said.

Natural Resources and Ecology Minister Yury Trutnev handed Putin a small glass container containing a yellowish liquid with the inscription "Lake Vostok, aged more than 1 million years," the state RIA Novosti news agency reported.

With characteristic dry humour, Putin asked Trutnev whether he had tried drinking the water.

"No," Trutnev answered.

"That would have been curious. Dinosaurs drank it and Trutnev," Putin said in comments released by the government.

A Russian expedition on Sunday sunk a borehole down to the surface of the pristine subglacial fresh water lake, hidden under almost 4 kilometres (2.3 miles) of ice and raised a column of water for scientists to study.

Putin, who is planning to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March elections, called for the scientists behind the discovery to be decorated.

"This is a major event. We need to think how to honour these people," he said.

The water given to Putin probably did not come from the main body of the lake, but was frozen lake ice raised from the borehole just before it reached the lake's surface, an expert behind the project told RIA Novosti.

"This water was apparently received when they lifted the ice core from the last section of the borehole. And that really is water from Lake Vostok," said Valery Martyshchenko of the hydrometeorology and environmental monitoring agency.

The costly project is a rare triumph for national science and has excited scientists around the world with its potential for discoveries of new forms of life and revelations about millions of years of the Earth's history.

Scientists puzzled by region outside solar system

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A glimpse beyond our solar system reveals the neighborhood just outside the sun's influence is different and stranger than expected, scientists reported Tuesday.

One oddity is the amount of oxygen. There are more oxygen atoms floating freely in the solar system than in the immediate interstellar space, or the vast region between stars.

Scientists were unsure why, but they said it's possible some of the life-supporting element could be hidden in dust or ice.

"We discovered this big puzzle — that the matter just outside of our solar system doesn't look like the material inside," said David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The discovery came from NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft, which launched in 2008 to study the chaotic boundary where the solar wind from the sun clashes with cold gases from interstellar space.

Circling 200,000 miles above Earth, the Ibex spacecraft spots particles streaming into the solar system. A protective bubble surrounding around the sun and planets prevents dangerous cosmic radiation from seeping through, but neutral particles can pass freely, allowing Ibex to map their distribution.

The presence of less oxygen outside the solar system should not have any bearing on the search for Earth-like planets, scientists involved in the exoplanet hunt said.

There's plenty of oxygen in all the stars in the galaxy and in the material out of which stars and planets form, Geoff Marcy of University of California, Berkeley said in an email.

While Ibex probes the edge of the solar system from Earth orbit, NASA's long-running, nuclear-powered twin Voyager spacecraft are at the fringes. Launched in 1977, the spacecraft have been exploring the solar system boundary since 2004.

Scientists have said it'll be months or years before Voyager 1 exits the solar system and becomes the first manmade probe to cross into interstellar space.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

NASA says Russian space woes no worry

WASHINGTON (AP) — NASA says it still has confidence in the quality of Russia's manned rockets, despite an embarrassing series of glitches and failures in the Russian space program.

A leak developed recently during a test of the next Soyuz capsule scheduled to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, so Russian space officials have decided not to use it. That delays upcoming launches.

NASA relies solely on Russia to take crews to the space station.

NASA space station manager Michael Suffredini said he still considers the Soyuz rocket the world's most reliable space system.

"I have confidence in the focus and abilities of the managers who build the systems and fly those systems," Suffredini said Thursday during a NASA teleconference.

The Soyuz leak means that the six crew members at the space station will now spend a few extra weeks in space. American Dan Burbank, who is the station commander, and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin will stay in orbit until the end of April. American Don Petit, Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers and Russian Oleg Konenko, will stay in space through the end of June for about 193 days in space, pushing close to the limit of 200 days that NASA likes.

The latest problem comes after a series of failures in unmanned Russian rockets that raised questions about quality control in the nation that launched the first satellite and human into space. Last month, a spacecraft that was supposed to go to a Mars moon crashed back to Earth after a launch failure. And in the past six months, a Russian communications satellite and a cargo ship to the space station have crashed.

"They've had a pretty challenging year that's true," Suffredini said. But he said that doesn't really have anything to do with the workhorse manned Soyuz capsule.

A private U.S. rocket — the Dragon built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies — probably won't launch until early April on a first-ever commercial resupply of the space station, Suffredini said. It had been set for a launch this month, but was already delayed.

SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham said the company "will not launch before late March." A date should be set in about two weeks.