Archive for August, 2014

Connect Me

Melbourne was recently named the most liveable city in the world, based on health care, education, stability, culture, environment and infrastructure (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-19/melbourne-worlds-most-liveable-city-for-the-fourth-year-running/5681014). Infrastructure? Obviously one of the things they did not look at was Melbourne’s connectivity to the internet.

My son is currently travelling through South and Central America. Before he left I asked him to send us a text or email every week or so, just to let us know he is alive. He has, in fact, been communicating via Facebook almost every single day because he has free wifi almost everywhere he goes including such technological hotspots like Manaus, Cuzco, Bogota and Quito. He even sent me a message from a bus in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. I could not believe it. The bus had internet?!

Meanwhile, I live on the outskirts of Melbourne, barely ten kilometres from the nearest town, and it is almost impossible for me to get connected. None of our major providers can reach me which, based on the government’s promise that no child shall live without internet, means that I could qualify for a subsidised satellite. Unfortunately I did finally find someone who could provide me with internet because I live on a hill and have line of sight with their transmitting tower. This required an outrageously expensive installation followed by outrageously expensive internet, providing remarkably few gigabytes that is usually too slow to watch the ice hockey and drops out with annoying regularity. Our neighbour, who lives down in the valley, did qualify for the subsidised satellite. The only thing that makes me feel better is that their internet is no better than ours.

In case you are interested, and before the internet drops out again, below is a list of the world’s top ten liveable cities. If you have any interest in technology, avoid all the Australian ones. I have always liked Canada: good skiing, ice hockey, Tim Hortons and a functioning affordable internet.

Dr. F. Bunny

Most liveable cities:

  1. Melbourne, Australia
  2. Vienna, Austria
  3. Vancouver, Canada
  4. Toronto, Canada
  5. Adelaide, Australia
  6. Calgary, Canada
  7. Sydney, Australia
  8. Helsinki, Finland
  9. Perth, Australia
  10. Auckland, New Zealand

As an aside, it has taken me over an hour to get enough functional internet just publish this post.

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Here Puss, Puss, Puss II

I read a recent blog post highlighting the feral cat problem in Hawaii (http://rumpydog.com/2014/08/14/so-hawaii-wants-to-kill-cats/). The post mentioned a paper published in Conservation Biology which indicated that Hawaiian residents preferred euthanasia over trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs when it came to feral cat management (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12201/abstract;jsessionid=FB4AAB1970A118DB0073E69D40924627.f01t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false). This study was criticised as being flawed and its findings erroneous by Vox Felina, a group that supports TNR (http://www.voxfelina.com/2014/08/a-response-to-lohr-and-lepczyk/).

Whether or not the Conservation Biology study is flawed is irrelevant. What the residents of Hawaii prefer in this regard is also irrelevant. The fact remains, feral cats should not be present on Hawaii. They were introduced in the 1800s and have caused untold destruction to the native bird life since then. These species, like the birds of New Zealand, evolved without the presence of predators and are ill equipped to deal with them. Neutered cats kill just as many birds as cats that have not been neutered.

The debate over TNR and euthanasia only occurs because we have an emotional attachment to cats that has evolved over many hundreds of years. No one appears to be advocating TNR programs for the possums of New Zealand, the rabbits of Australia or the brown tree snakes running rampant on Guam. Why the inconsistency? All four groups of animals are feral and cause untold damage to their new environments, environments which will only recover properly if these animals are completely removed. The only way the New Zealanders were able to successfully reintroduce any of their endangered birds to their offshore islands was to remove every last cat.

As well as the predation issue cats also carry toxoplasmosis. This disease is caused by a small parasite that needs cats to complete its life cycle. It causes no disease in cats but has killed alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), nene (Hawaiian goose; Branta sandvicensis), red-footed boobies (Sula sula) and even the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi). Toxoplasmosis is also a zoonosis, posing health risks for pregnant women and immunocompromised people (http://www.usgs.gov/ecosystems/pierc/files/factsheets/cats.pdf).

Unfortunately as long as there are feral cats running around the Hawaiian Islands, its bird species will be at risk of extinction. No TNR programs will remedy that. The only remedy is to remove the cats from the environment. Anything else is nonsensical.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Ebola

The Ebola virus was “discovered” in 1976 causing trouble for people living near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since then it has popped up several times in the DRC, Sudan and Uganda. The current outbreak is the first to involve Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The virus itself is a filovirus, a group of long filamentous RNA viruses that are surrounded by a lipid envelope. It causes a severe disease in people characterised by vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, headache and bleeding. Symptoms usually appear eight to 10 days after infection but this can range from two to 21 days. Mortality rates can be as high as 90%. Unlike influenza, people tend not to be infectious until they are symptomatic.

The virus is spread via direct contact with blood and body fluids, although there was a publication indicating airborne spread between pigs and monkeys (Weingartl et al 2012). Although not in direct contact the two groups of animals were caged only eight inches apart. According to a second report it appears that the Ebola virus causes a different disease in pigs compared with primates (http://www.vox.com/2014/8/10/5980553/ebola-outbreak-virus-aerosol-airborne-pigs-monkeys/in/5712456). The virus hits the lungs of pigs, whereas the liver is the main target organ in primates. Therefore, while pigs can cough and sneeze out viral particles, primates tend to shed large numbers of virus in the blood and faeces, making airborne transmission unlikely. This is borne out by the current situation. If the Ebola virus was as contagious as the influenza virus we would all be drowning in our own blood by now. Instead the outbreak has remained relatively localised.

The main reservoir of Ebola virus is unknown although, as with most emerging diseases nowadays, bats have been fingered as the main culprit. Ebola has been found in gorillas, chimpanzees and duikers but, as they also develop clinical disease and die, they are unlikely to be a reservoir. However, as they are part of the bush meat cycle they represent a great way for the virus to spread to people.

The virus itself is not particularly hardy. It can survive for several days at room temperature but is destroyed by boiling for five minutes, and common disinfectants such as bleach, phenolics, glutaraldehyde, formaldehyde and 3% acetic acid (vinegar is 4-8% acetic acid). Alcohol hand wipes and washing with soap and water are also effective at killing the virus.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no treatment. ZMapp, a drug made of monoclonal antibodies, has been used experimentally but, oddly, there appears to be some debate over the ethics of using this unlicensed drug on people. I know that if I was infected with Ebola and someone waved a drug at me that might or might not work, I would certainly risk it.

The biggest problem in controlling the current epidemic is a lack of infrastructure and knowledge. I can imagine that it is not easy to convince people with very little or no education that a thing that is far too small to see is killing off your family, friends and community. And no, it is not us, the aid workers, who are bringing it in. And yes, you really should stop eating bush meat, even though it is a centuries old tradition. And no, if someone dies don’t wash the body by hand. And yes, we really need you tell us if you, or someone you know, is feeling sick so we can stop them spreading the virus to other people. Please don’t hide them at home. With early medical care they do stand a chance of recovery. Previous Ebola outbreaks had mortality rates of 90%. This one is running at 60%. So it is possible to survive an Ebola infection.

As an interesting aside to the Ebola issue, in 1989 shipments of monkeys were imported into a holding facility in Reston in the US from the Philippines. Those monkeys died with symptoms similar to those caused by an Ebola virus infection. It turned out they were full of a related filovirus subsequently named Reston virus. Interestingly, 14% of the people who had contact with the monkeys had filovirus antibodies, indicating they had also been exposed to the virus. It was just lucky that this, closely related virus, does not appear to cause disease in people. It is amazing that such a small change in viral structure can turn a harmless virus into a lethal one.

Dr. F. Bunny

Reference

Weingartl H.M., C. Embury-Hyatt, C. Nfon, A. Leung, G. Smith, and G. Kobinger. 2012. Transmission of Ebola virus from pigs to non-human primates. Scientific Reports 2, 811; DOI:10.1038/srep00811.

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The U.S. Bans GMOs, Bee-Killing Pesticides in All Wildlife Refuges

From http://news.yahoo.com/u-bans-gmos-bee-killing-pesticides-wildlife-refuges-193150944.html.

The U.S. government is creating a safe place for bees in national wildlife refuges by phasing out the use of genetically modified crops and an agricultural pesticide implicated in the mass die-off of pollinators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System manages 150 million acres across the country. By January 2016, the agency will ban the use of neonicotinoids, widely used nerve poisons that a growing number of scientific studies have shown are harmful to bees, birds, mammals, and fish. Neonicotinoids, also called neonics, can be sprayed on crops, but most often the seeds are coated with the pesticide so that the poison spreads throughout every part of the plant as it grows, including the pollen and nectar that pollinators such as bees and butterflies eat.

“We have determined that prophylactic use, such as a seed treatment, of the neonicotinoid pesticides that can distribute systemically in a plant and can affect a broad spectrum of non-target species is not consistent with Service policy,” James Kurth, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, wrote in a July 17 memo.

The move follows a regional wildlife chief’s decision on July 9 to ban neonics in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands by 2016.

The nationwide ban, however, goes further, as it also prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds to grow crops to feed wildlife.

A FWS spokesperson declined to comment on why the agency was banning genetically modified organisms in wildlife refuges.

But in his memo, Kurth cited existing agency policy. “We do not use genetically modified organisms in refuge management unless we determine their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s),” he wrote. “We have demonstrated our ability to successfully accomplish refuge purposes over the past two years without using genetically modified crops, therefore it is no longer [necessary] to say their use is essential to meet wildlife management objectives.”

GMOs have not been linked directly to the bee die-off. But the dominance of GMO crops has led to the widespread use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids and industrial farming practices that biologists believe are harming other pollinators, such as the monarch butterfly.

Neonicotinoids account for 40 percent of the global pesticide market and are used to treat most corn and soybean crops in the U.S.

“We are gratified that the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally concluded that industrial agriculture, with G.E. crops and powerful pesticides, is both bad for wildlife and inappropriate on refuge lands,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement.

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Boxing Day

I have been learning Krav Maga, a system of self-defence developed by the Israel Defence Force, for over a year. Krav Maga is very practical, designed to finish a fight as soon as possible using whatever is necessary to protect yourself from harm. Part of the system involves mastering a series of punches and kicks, which we then try out on each other while wearing boxing gloves and shin pads in an activity euphemistically termed sparring.

Each round lasts for two minutes and involves protecting yourself from your opponent’s blows while at the same time trying to land some of your own. It is free flowing, mentally demanding and thoroughly exhausting. For me, it has also been quite a novel experience. I do not consider myself particularly aggressive and have not been in any kind of fight since I was in school, so I was considerably surprised at the emotions these sparring bouts stirred within me.

The people I sparred with were not my enemies. Some of them I knew reasonably well, having trained with them for some months and have, under normal circumstances, no desire to do them harm. However, in this sparring environment it is almost like someone has flipped a switch in my brain releasing something ancient and primal.

Nothing teaches you to duck or protect your face more than someone hitting it. As well as pain this also releases an intense burst of adrenaline along with an enhanced need to hit back. The whole thing quickly escalates in both speed and intensity and it becomes a real force of will to keep it somewhat contained. As we are not wearing helmets we are instructed to hit with only half our maximum power. This still ends up with combatants battered and bruised and, in one case, in definite need of a sit down.

It is an odd mix of fear of being hit, anger at being hit and aggression to hit back. Oddly, at the end of the round, I feel eager to head back into the fray, mentally armed with a new series of tactics designed to lay my opponents low. I find these alien feelings to be quite disturbing (and exhilarating) especially because, as soon as the class is over, everyone rapidly returns to normal. It is a bit like a real life Fight Club.

I now have a new appreciation for how a crowd of normal, rational people can metamorphose into a frenzied mob capable of untold destruction. It is not too dissimilar to a dog or cat fight where normally placid Fido or Puss will rapidly whirl around to sink his teeth into your hand, should you try and drag him away from his adversary. He too has flipped the switch and become lost in the heat of battle.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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