from the height of symi, monitoring emerging diseases
Notice that any theorem-proving process that works forward — that is, that finds only true theorems — can be described as an information-accumulating rather than a solution-searching process.

Models of Discovery
Herbert SIMON


Other years

Significant emergence of diseases in 2004-2005

Obsolete links are updated when possible, or, unfortunately, removed

  • 28 august 2005. Hantavirus (Bunyaviridae family, puumala type) infections in France, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg in 2005 are more common than usual (more than 500 cases in all, ten times more than in 2004). This may be connected to an increase of the population of bank voles. Their population size is known to vary according to the availability of food, and hantavirus is carried by these animals. These viruses cause hemorrhagic fevers with renal syndrome. The types present in Europe are usually less dangerous than those in Asia or in the Americas.
  • 26 august 2005. For some time, backyard poultry has been dying off in Bulgaria. The cause of the disease is not flu but Newcastle disease, an endemic disease caused by another virus (a paramyxovirus) which has most probably been transmitted by wild pigeons. It is likely that, because of the bird's flu scare, this type of fairly frequent event will be the cause of overreactions by the public. In Vietnam, bird flu has killed three civet-cats at a national park, marking the first time the virus has been reported in the species. The disease has already infected and killed predators in the past. Eaten as delicacies in South-East Asia, civet-cats are infamous as they were supposed for some time to have been the vectors of the SARS virus. The true problem about avian flu is not that a vaccine will be difficult to invent (we know already that this will be possible), but simply a question of infrastructures: we do not have enough factories to make the vaccine into the required number of doses. We could already witness the situation last winter, when it was necessary to remove from the market a defective batch of the vaccine: it was not possible de vaccinate all the persons in need. We can therefore expect that, if the disease appears within three years, a situation of crisis where we will have to chose between the victims of the "ordinary" flu (mostly aging people) and the general population, to decide which vaccine should be prepared in the factories we possess. Sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) is gaining ground in the region of Isangi, located in the Tshopo district, Congo-Kinshasa. This letal disease, which stays invisible for a long time in the patients, can be cured but the treatment has often very dangerous side effects.
  • 23 august 2005. Animal infectious diseases play a major role in the (re)emerging diseases that affect humans. Unfortunately, many animals are subject to endemic diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease (there is an ongoing outbreak in Mongolia), or, in birds Newcastle disease (active in UK at the present time). Avian flu is developing both in Mongolia and extending westwards in Russia, menacing Europe, where a cacophony of reactions can be heard (the poultry industry represents a considerable amount of agro-food industry resources). Interestingly one appears suddenly to understand the role of migratry birds, as well as the well known origin of the virus. For those interested to follow our vision of the present episode, see what we wrote about Milvus migrans (curiously, scavengers are rarely considered as sentries, while they live from the flesh of dead animals), and subsequently on cranes, of the spread of the virus in Japan, and on the usual development of the disease in China, where pigs play the role of intermediate hosts.
  • 17 august 2005. The outbreak of the deadly Streptococcus suis infection in the Sichuan province in China has triggered systematic reporting of related infections in China, ending up with reports from many cities. Hong Kong found today its ninth infection in a few weeks.
  • 16 august 2005. The H5N1 flu virus is expanding westwards in Russia (it also reached Kazakhstan and Mongolia in the past weeks). The virus, probably carried there by migrating birds, was discovered mid-July in Novosibirsk and has spread through Tyumen, Omsk, Kurgan, Altai and now Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains, which is approximately 1,000 km west of Novosibirsk.
  • 9 august 2005. A rare strain of cholera has infected more than 2000 people in Uganda in the past weeks. More than 50 died of the disease. In Guinea Bissau the toll is even heavier: 84 deaths and more than 5000 cases. Another media-driven controversy agitates scientists interested in China as the outbreak of Streptococcus suis continues to kill people and pigs in the Sichuan province. The bird's flu epidemic is not yet contained in Siberia.
  • 4 august 2005. For some time the way the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) entered cells was somewhat controversial. Two different cell receptors had been proposed to be the entry port, based on cell cultures. A new study using mice knock-out mutants, by a collaboration between scientists in Beijing, Austria, USA and Canada, proves unambiguously that the receptor is angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Because this enzyme acts in a very important hormone regulatory cascade (the renin-angiotensin cascade) this explains why the symptoms of the disease are often dramatic and letal. The media-driven controversy about bird's flu between the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong and the private university of Shantou in the Guangdong province is still active (see July, 8th), while in Siberia flocks of contaminated fowls are slaughtered.
  • 1 august 2005. Poliomyelitis is far from eradicated. While it remains endemic in Madagascar, it surfaced again in Angola, with two cases of paralysy. The last outbreak was back in 2001.
  • 31 july 2005. A 20-year-old poultry farm workman showing bird flu symptoms has been hospitalized in Kazakhstan's Pavlodar region, where 600 domestic geese died between July 20 and July 30 as a result of an outbreak of the disease in the area. The patient, from the village of Golubovka, was later diagnosed with double pneumonia.
  • 30 july 2005. Health authorities in Siberia challenge their initial identification of the virus responsible for bird flu there, stating that it most probably is H5N1. As the oubreak has most probably been transmitted by migrating birds, this raises concern about its propagation in Northern countries, then back to new Southern countries when the summer will end.
  • 26 july 2005. The bird flu outbreak in Siberia is fortunately caused by a H5N2 virus, not the H5N1 dangerous type. Pigs have been found to be H5N1 positive in Indonesia, which proceeded to slaughter infected animals. The Indonesian government has officially appointed Persahabatan Hospital in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, and Sulianti Saroso Hospital in Sunter, North Jakarta, as referral hospitals in response to the recent deaths of three Tangerang residents from bird flu. The mysterious death of 300 egrets in a forest park in Guangzhou (Canton) triggers fear in the population of a new bird flu outbreak in the region. The rumor spreads that people have eaten some of the birds or sold them on the markets.
  • 25 july 2005. A mysterious epidemic is affecting the Sichuan province in China. Some 80 persons appear to have been affected and 20 died of the disease. No person-to-person contagion was monitored but the outbreak seems to be on the rise. Media in Hong Kong and Taiwan hint at a contamination by a Streptococcus associated to pigs.
  • 21 july 2005. For the first time, Russia reports H5 bird flu on its territory (Anatidae, in Central Siberia). This could correspond to the Qinghai episode in China. Dengue fever is spreading in Singapore.
  • 16 july 2005. In a first for Mainland China, scientists from Beijing unravel the details of the recent outbreak of flu affecting Anatidae (the family of birds comprising ducks, geese and the like) in the Qinghai region, a controversial matter (see other details on the july 8th entry): "Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus infection in migratory birds" by Jinhua Liu,1* Haixia Xiao,2,6* Fumin Lei,3* Qingyu Zhu,4 Kun Qin,1 Xiaowei Zhang,5 Xinglin Zhang,1 Deming Zhao,1 Guihua Wang,2,6 Youjun Feng,2,6 Juncai Ma,2 Wenjun Liu,2 Jian Wang,5 George F. Gao2 1College of Veterinary Medicine, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100094. 2Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100080. 3Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100080. 4Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Beijing 100071. 5Beijing Genomics Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 101300. 6Graduate School, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing. This works shows that the virus isolated from a peregrine falcon in Hong Kong carried markers of virulence similar to those of the geese found at the Qinghaihu Lake. The Indonesian health ministry says bird flu is suspected in the recent deaths of a man and his two daughters near Jakarta.
  • 14 july 2005. More than ten new cases of patients infected by bird flu are hospitalized in Hanoi. One died of the disease.
  • 11 july 2005. Bird flu is affecting agains Japan fowls, with a first outbreak in the Philippines, while Thailand's poultry is infected again... China develops a new "anti-fusion" drug to prevent entry of the HIV in human cells. Cholera is spreading at the border between Mali and Senegal.
  • 8 july 2005. An interesting controversy has begun between Guan Yi, at the Universities of Hong Kong and Shantou (the latter being supported by the famous tycoon LI Kashing) and authorities in Mainland China, led by Jia Youling, director general of the Veterinary Bureau of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. According to Guan, the authorities try to prevent him to have direct access to the samples of avian flu when outbreaks occur, while, according to Jia, the conclusions drawn by Guan are in error and indicate a lack of understanding of bird's migrations...
  • 6 july 2005. A new liver cell line discovered by Takaji Wakita at the Department of Microbiology, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Neuroscience has been improved to allow robust cultivation of the hepatitis C virus in cell culture. This is a considerable improvement which will allow to better analyse the letal hepatitis C and possibly lead to efficient treatment or vaccine.
  • 3 july 2005. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) met for the first time to discuss research on "dual use" biotechnology derived weapons, with Craig Venter discussing the potential use of "synthetic" bacteria.
  • 26 june 2005. Chicken are infected in Japan by the H5N2 influenza virus. This family of viruses, less dangerous than the H5N1 strains have repeatedly infected birds last year (in august in South Africa, and earlier in the USA and in Taiwan. As usual, reaction to diseases follows epidemics, rather than precede and prevent them: SARS is the pretext for development of a variety of vaccines, using the rather trivial "spike" protein of the virus as the target. Tobacco transgenic plants are now producing an efficient SARS oral vaccine candidate using this antigen.
  • 22 june 2005. The cholera is back in Touba, Senegal, where it may have infected as many as 250 people. As in many other places where cholera is endemic, authorities tend to hide the fact under the general term of "diarrhoeal disease". Flu is infecting chickens again in Vietnam. In China authorities deny having instructed farmers to use amantadine in fowl breeding. The situation is complicated as rules about drug trading are not clearly enforced in many places while many companies are selling drugs that should be under restricted access all over the country (the situation is often the same in Europe with drugs used in veterinary medicine). As early as 1996, the first patient infected with a vancomycin resistant straing of staphylococci was already identified in a hospital in Beijing for that very same reason.
  • 19 june 2005. The rumor is spreading that Chinese authorities have recommended the use of amantadine, a drug potentially useful against bird's flu as a prophylactic measure against the disease in poultry farms all over the country. This is likely to trigger a controversy, as in the case of large scale vaccination of animals, as this might drive selection of new virus variants, and they will in this case be resistant to amantadine. The present circulating virus genotype Z appears to be resistant to amantadine. One may wonder whether this policy might have already selected those variants. Obtained after random screening of many thousands of compounds by pharmaceutical companies, two compounds, amantadine and rimantidine, target the M2 ion channel on the virus. They are however very difficult to use with dangerous side effects. This means that large-scale use of the molecule would probably have been impossible. However this practice, if confirmed, shows that concerted action world-wide is absolutely needed to prevent dangerous practice to jeopardize our attemps to prevent or control the likely pandemic. More human cases are identified in Vietnam, while it seems possible that one person in Indonesia had been infected earlier this year by the virus, without much adverse effects. The outcome of the SARS meeting in Hangzhou produced a remarkable result: cinanserin, a drug in therapeutic usage against schizophrenia since the 1970s, was identified as a cure for the SARS epidemic and is the only ready-to-use medicine among the total 15 possible anti-SARS remedies studied by the participants in the meeting. Two viruses related to SARS-CoV were also identified.
  • 15 june 2005. Six new avian flu human cases in Vietnam...
  • 14 june 2005. Anthrax is endemic in many countries in the world as the spores of its agent Bacillus anthracis are extremely resistant and can remain dormant in the soil for decades. Cattle or sheep herds are often infected, and humans get contaminated when manipulating the slaughtered animals or their skin, used as leather. Two outbreaks are active at the moment, one in Zimbabwe (where a large outbreak occurred in 1978-1980) in Gutu district in Masvingo with five cases reported, and one in India in the state of Tamil Nadu (two cases). The second annual meeting of the Sino-European Project on SARS Diagnostics and Antivirals (SEPSDA) is opening in Hangzhou (China).
  • 9 june 2005. A new avian flu outbreak affecting geese is developing in the Northwest province of Xinjiang. The authorities have ordered the culling of 13,000 birds in farms located near the region of the outbreak. Three persons have contracted the disease in Vietnam during the past three weeks (from poultry). On the front of the other recorded epidemics (not including the most prevalent diseases, aids, malaria, cholera and diarrhoeal diseases, dengue fever etc), Marburg fever is probably under control in Angola, where some 423 people have probably been infected so far, 357 fatal), no new cases of Ebola fever were recorded in Congo, 52 persons have been hit by legionellosis in Norway (where the cause has been identified). The same disease outbreak near Lyon in France is no over, but the cause has not been clearly established. A vaccine against Marburg or Ebola fever would be easy to obtain, as trials on monkeys have been successful, but these diseases being only contagious by direct contact their spread should be easy to contain, at least in conditions where basic hygiene is culturally well understood and accepted. A remarkable study, where the gene of the protein which can become a dangerous prion is manipulated to control synthesis of a truncated protein, yielding a prion without anchor in the cell membranes, shows in mice that this creates deposits which look very much like the Alzheimer plaques. This suggest some kind of link — this could be convergence — between these two brain degenerative diseases. And this makes the more important to study the spread of prions and related spongiform encephalopathies, which, although sporadic, seem on the rise in some places.
  • 5 june 2005. Back in february this year an annoucement was made that a new, extremely dangerous HIV strain emerged in a patient in New York City. Fortunately this seems to have been an overreaction of scientists and authorities eager to enhance their reputation. We should not, however, lower our guard against the disease, as Japan is witnessing now an increase in new cases at a rate similar to that found in the developing world.
  • 4 june 2005. Background flu is a disease of Anatidae (ducks, geese and the like); the reason why it used to spread to humans is a route centred on the standard living custom of Chinese farmers who keep together ducks and pigs for their living (the character for "family" is a pig under a roof). It goes from ducks, to pigs, to humans. Usually the disease is fairly innocuous to ducks. From time to time the virus spreads to other birds, with more severe symptoms (as it is less adapted there). This is the case of the recent H5N1 chicken flu, which probably started from a complex reassortment from several bird strains in 1997. New viruses always tend to explore new hosts. Either they are killed rapidly by the various levels of the immune system - and nothing is visible - or they cause havoc, often being extremely dangerous. In such cases, because they are less adapted, they do not propagate easily in the community of the new hosts. This appears to be the situation of the present avian flu outbreak. The danger will come (this seems to become the situation in Vietnam) when virus mutants will begin to adapt to their new human hosts. While they will be less (but still) letal, they will begin to propagate from humans to humans. This is the situation monitored by all health authorities in the world. A consequence of these observations is that the viruses which might become the most dangerous are either those which will take a route from Anatidae to a mammal and then to humans, or viruses infecting another type of birds and attenuated directly in humans (this seems to be the route followed at the moment by the virus). It is important to be aware that the virus which will create the epidemic will be present in the environment well before the epidemic starts. It is therefore of the utmost importance to monitor the molecular changes (analyse the virus genome) in a systematic way. The two foci which are of most concern are therefore South-East Asia (where attenuated forms already appear to exist), and Indonesia (where it appears that pigs have already been infected, most of them, fortunately, with not much symptoms). The situation in China is intermediate, and under investigation. The most recent outbreak, affecting geese, and being in the remote province of Qinghai, is possibly less dangerous. However it is likely that the virus comes from migrating birds which might have been infected in South-East Asia. Also, in contrast to what is often perceived in the West, the Central Chinese government does not have the considerable power usually thought it has. Information, often, does not go from the place where events happen to the authorities, and lack of information is often the nightmare of health authorities. Furthermore local potentates decide what is important and what is not as a function of their (supposed) interest, not of the superior interest of the country. Finally, rumors spread extremely fast, in particular with the use of mobile phones (less so, fortunately, in the remote parts of China). This situation is most dangerous as China may become the first victim of the disease (although South-East Asia seems perhaps more likely). The most important way to control the epidemic would be to restrict population movements (regions placed under quarantine). Rumors and panick are unfortunately most likely to make people flee from affected regions (as witnessed with the Marburg disease in Angola for example) creating new foci. The consequence is that, rather than pointing fingers at the deficiencies of the Chinese authorities, we should, by all means, try to help them. In this respect it is interesting to compare the way SARS was controlled in the world: China was not the worse, by far. Also, there have been three laboratory accidents with that virus: in Singapore first, then in Taiwan, and finally in Beijing. One should also stress the recent distribution of the dangerous H2N2 virus which circulated at the beginning of the 1957 epidemic, was sent by accident to hundreds of laboratories in the USA and 17 countries, demonstrating that we are certainly not without deficiencies. We should only follow positive and constructive voices, and organise for what appears to be more or less inevitable. A strike resulting in the arrest of the activity of a cleaning water station near Goma in Congo, led the population to drink water from the neighboring contaminated lake, causing a serious outbreak of cholera.
  • 1 june 2005. An Italian team of scientists recently reported that resveratrol, a polyphenol present in grapes inhibits in vitro, and apparently in vivo in mice, the replication of viruses, in particular the influenza virus. This looks like good news but needs substantial confirmation. This molecule apparently modifies the redox state of the cell. Another study at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, with a core molecule of the widely used curcuma spice (curcumin) also targets the redox state, with interesting results against cancer. All this points to a particularly important role of the sulfur atom metabolism. While the outbreak of Legionnaire's disease is under control near Lyon in France, an outbreak has been identified in Norway in the two cities Sarpsborg and Fredrikstad. It is being monitored.
  • 31 may 2005. A tenth patient died of Ebola fever in Congo (Brazzaville) showing that the disease is still rampant. The WHO has declared Indonesia as still endemic for bird flu: 16.2 million birds died last year of the virus, while the toll seems to be much lower this year (300,000 in the first quarter). The virus was also found in some pig farms a few weeks ago: the authorities have asked to relocate all pig farms away from poultry farms. Marburg fever still slowly progresses in Angola.
  • 29 may 2005. The fact that the Chinese authorities took some time to declare the presence of active foci of foot-and-mouth disease on their territory triggers questions about the extent of bird's flu. Some activists take this as a pretext to assume that there has been human cases. There is no hint however that this is the case. In fact, at the present time, it appears that the form affecting poultry is more prone to infect humans directly than the form infecting Anatidae. Vietnam accepts to discontinue its controversial program of H5N1 flu vaccine that the WHO feared might accelerate the evolution of the virus towards a more contagious form. A group of scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposes a new printing technique to create large number of identical DNA chips. In this new printing method, called Supramolecular Nano-Stamping (SuNS), single strands of DNA self-assemble upon a surface to duplicate a nano-scale pattern made of their complementary DNA strands. The duplicates are identical to the master. This method, if successful, will lower considerably the cost of DNA chips and trigger wide use for diagnostic purposes.
  • 28 may 2005. Several cases of unidentified infectious diseases have been diagnosed in Northern Vietnam. They are neither flu, nor dengue, nor usual encephalitis. Epidemiological analysis suggests that they may be caused by vectors. Several foci of likely H5N1 bird's flu have been killing Anatidae (birds of the family of ducks and geese) in the remote Qinghai province. As far as we know no human cases have been identified. It will be important to monitor the persons who have been in contact with the birds. Molecular epidemiological studies are planned. They should help to know whether the virus comes from South East Asia, while birds were migrating, and to monitor the types of mutations involved. Highly letal strains of the virus might be less dangerous than milder forms, as they die with the animals they infect. The major concern of the WHO at the moment is precisely that the viral form in South East Asia is becoming somewhat attenuated (and therefore can spread more easily). Several foci of foot an mouth disease have been discovered in Mainland China, creating havoc on the meat market.
  • 22 may 2005. Beginning early may hundreds of migratory birds have died in the western China Qinghai province. It has now been established that these deaths are due to a variant flu H5N1 virus. We noted several years ago that migratory birds should be used as sentries to monitor the spread of bird flu. This is therefore a matter of concern. Thailand has already witnessed more than 8000 cases of dengue fever since the beginning of the year, and has begun a new monitoring system.
  • 16 may 2005. The legionellosis outbreak north of Lyon is similar to that which affected the region of Lens november 30, 2003 to february 17, 2004. The present number of cases (34) matches that reached then after one month, at the peak of the epidemic. While Marburg fever recedes in Angola, a suspected oubreak of Ebola fever seems to affect the Democratic Republic of Congo (nine deaths). This may simply be a rumor triggered by the latter epidemic which is not yet over (292 deaths among 336 known cases).
  • 13 may 2005. The Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture published that pigs have been infected by the brid flu virus in the country. As the most common route from birds to humans is through pigs, this information is a matter of concern. France may be witnessing a new outbreak of legionellosis as 20 cases have been found North of the city of Lyon.
  • 12 may 2005. A news article published in the latest issue of Nature raises concern about lack of cooperation  between scientists involved in bird flu research. Fortunately, authorities in countries affected by the bird flu outbreak have resumed sharing viral specimens with World Health Organization scientists after an eight-month lack of cooperation, public health experts said yesterday.
  • 11 may 2005. Cholera, which remained endemic in the islands of São Tomé for some time has now reached epidemic proportion (130 cases) in these small islands of West Africa. Dengue fever is gaining momentum in the Philippines, while the Institut Pasteur de Ho Chi Minh City reports 6,290 cases since the beginning of the year. A meningitis outbreak in the capital of India (214 cases and 16 deaths) seems to be slowly spreading to adjacent states.
  • 8 may 2005. The rumor is spreading in the Guangdong province that thousands of children are suffering flu-like symptoms at the end of the "long week" of vacation in China. Because of the flu alert in South East Asia, people react strongly and spread rumors through SMSs.
  • 7 may 2005. The Scientist summarizes the lessons from SARS, and shows how world-wide collaboration was efficient in the rapid control of the epidemic. As emphasized in the article, one of the lessons is that the reservoir of the virus remains unknown. Canada has sent a third team of scientists to Angola to help contain the Marburg fever outbreak and is readying a fourth team to go later in the month if needed. New cases continue to be reported, indicating that the message about the way the disease is spread is not understood by some of the population. Vietnam will test a locally made bird flu vaccine on humans and poultry this summer after successful tests on mice and monkeys.
  • 3 may 2005. The vaccine for H3N2 next year flu is being prepared, but the mind of health authorities everywhere have on their mind the H5N1 epidemic in SouthEast Asia. The circulating viruses are today different from that which caused the 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong. A synthetic vaccine against the hemagglutinin antigen (the "H" in the H5N1 shorthand) is being prepared, while the virus is slowly evolving to a less letal but more contagious form (mortality decreased from 75% to 20%) that now affects all age groups. Vietnam is planning to have a mass vaccination of its poultry, but this may accelerate the mutation of the virus, and drive it to a form that may start interhuman contamination. The death toll of Marburg fever in Angola reached 280 persons. It seems still difficult to prevent people to touch infected persons, while this is the only route of contamination. Cholera is still endemic in many places, it just killed 117 persons in Senegal (but seems on the decline) and probably more than 100 persons in Nigeria. In Bangladesh the authorities usually refuse to name the disease that causes letal diarrhoeas, but it is likely to be, as usual, cholera.
  • 29 april 2005. While SARS memory fades, scientists at the Department of Biochemistry of the University of Hong Kong have identified a class of chemicals (in collaboration with German colleagues) which may be useful against viruses, SARS-CoV included. These adamantane-derived "bananins" are potent inhibitors of the helicase activities and replication of SARS Coronavirus. More than 250 persons died from Marburg fever in Angola, but the disease seems under control.
  • 19 april 2005. The death toll from the Marburg fever epidemic in Angola - the world's worst to date - stood yesterday at 235 of a total of 257 identified cases, mostly young children. At least five hundred persons might still be carrying the virus, as the common practice for most Angolan families, is to prepare the body, and kiss and embrace the deceased. Unfortunately filoviruses rapidly cover the skin of patients, and touching infected people is a major route for contagion.
  • 15 april 2005. The chemistry of nucleic acids is undergoing an exceptional revolution, at least as important as the revolution that happened when the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) was invented. The nucleotides, the building blocks that make nucleic acids, are fairly unstable, and they are costly to synthesize. Ribose in particular is a quite reactive sugar (present in RNA, it is likely to have predated the more stable deoxyribose). A few years ago scientists have therefore invented new types of nucleic acids, that were easier to make and less prone to decay. Eschenmoser and his colleagues first replaced the correct sugars by other, while showing that the new molecules (TNA, for tetrose nucleic acids) retained their properties to pair in an antiparallel way as in the double helix, as well as pair with DNA or RNA. This was followed by simpler peptide nucleic acids (PNA) where a peptide replace the sugar phosphate backbone. Now Meggers and his colleagues have created glycol nucleic acids (GNA) that are extraordinarily simple, and still retain all the properties of nucleic acids in duplex formation  and hybridization with authentic nucleic acids. The new "glycol nucleotides" are extremely simple and economical and it seems likely that one will have soon automatic and cheep processes to make all kinds of GNA, including some where the nature of the bases will be changed. One could expect creation of evolution in the test tube with these new molecules. Meggers suggests that these nucleotides might have predated the ones we find now. This is unlikely, in fact, and his construction is typical of man-made inventions, rather than the tinkering behaviour of life, which does not follow an intelligent design, making use of the very fact that it cannot make things too perfect.
  • 14 april 2005. More than 6 000 persons have been infected by the cholera vibrios in Senegal, despite intense effort by the government to contain the epidemic. Concern rises that the outbreak might extend in the region of Diourbel on the occasion of the Gamou (or Maouloud, religious ceremonies for the anniversary of the death of the Prophet) on april 21 in several religious places. In Uganda cholera is spreading in the Gulu district. Marburg fever has now killed 215 in Angola.
  • 13 april 2005. Adding to the concern raised by a possible pandemic caused by the H5N1 bird flu virus, the World Health Organisation reports that samples of the flu H2N2 virus that caused the flu pandemic in 1957-1958 were inadvertently sent to 3,747 laboratories in 18 countries, 61 of those outside the United States and Canada (14 in Canada). The death toll due to Marburg fever in Angola reached 210.
  • 12 april 2005. Marburg haemorrhagic fever, caused by a filovirus of the same family as the Ebola virus, has killed more than 200 persons, mostly children under 5, in Angola. The reservoir of the virus is still unknown, but scientists think this might be a small animal, perhaps a rodent. Curiously, perhaps as in the case of the SARS outbreak in 2003, the hospital ward where victims are treated seems to be the major source of contagion. The Government of Angola is planning to close it to curb the spread of the disease.
  • 9 april 2005. The situation has become dangerous in Angola after a team of the WHO has been attacked by people fearing that its personnel was spreading the deadly Marburg fever. 183 persons have died of the disease and it is difficult to know the present situation as the WHO personnel who attempted to trace the contacts of patients to prevent contagion cannot work under correct conditions.
  • 8 april 2005. The World Health Organisation has advised the neighbouring countries around Angola to go on a Marburg fever alert after confirmation the deadly Ebola-like virus has now claimed 173 lives. Cockroaches are not only a plague because they transmit diseases by their ubiquitous presence in dirty places, but they are also the source of dangerous allergies. Entomologists have recently succeeded in identifying the chemical structure of the strong attractant (pheromone) of Blattella germanica, one of the commonest cockroach species. The sex pheromone–producing gland in adult females was identified in 1993, but thermal instability of the pheromone made characterization difficult. The new identification will enable the design of chemical traps that should be most useful in controlling the populations of these bugs.
  • 6 april 2005. Despite an impressive response to control the Marburg fever outbreak in Angola the number of casualties reached 155 (out of 175 identified cases). Cholera appears to surface in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
  • 5 april 2005. The bird flu outbreak that is invading North Korea seems to be of the H7, not H1 type. This would be a first for Asia. While that type is usually less dangerous than the H1 type, the fact that flu virus can reassort increases the danger of creating new mutations. Furthermore, if this identification is confirmed, the route for the spread of the virus, especially in such a closed country, becomes an important enigma. After aving infected 163 persons and killed 150, Marburg fever seems to be contained in Angola.
  • 3 april 2005. Dogs may carry the dangerous Ebola virus without showing signs of the disease. This recent observation may help to find the elusive reservoir of the virus, which spreads through direct contact with dead animals (often primates) or infected humans. This is also important at the time of an epidemic of the Marburg hemorrhagic fever that continues to spread in Angola (up to 150 persons have be killed by the virus since last fall). Cholera continues to spread in Senegal from the holy city of Touba where pilgrims from the Mouride brotherhood come to celebrate the departure into exile of their founder Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba in 1895.
  • 29 march 2005. Bird flu has now spread to North Korea, where it killed a large number of chicken. News from that country are scarce however, and it is difficult to know whether there are human cases. Still another family has been infected in Vietnam, but there is no clear evidence of interhuman contagion. Marburg hemorrhagic fever has killed 126 persons in Angola, including an Italian doctor. It now appears that the epidemic, endemic in green monkeys, lingered in the country since october.
  • 23 march 2005. With the dry season getting hot and dusty, the annual outbreak of meningitis is developing in Sahelian West Africa. Many cases have appeared in the region of Bouna (North East of Ivory Coast) a region controlled by the rebels, and not easily accessible for vaccination or treatment.
  • 22 march 2005. Prof. Chen Zhu, already vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been elected as a member of the CPPCC. As at the onset of the SARS episode, wild rumors are spreading about a large outbreak of avian flu in the Chau Hoa commune in central Quang Binh province, 400 kilometers south of Hanoi, where it is said that some 200 people are affected. While this is probably very exaggerated, the situation needs to be monitored seriously.
  • 13 march 2005. In line with our expectations, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong received on the afternoon of march 12 a decree of the State Affairs Council approving the resignation of Tung Chee Hwa as the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR. The interim Chief Exectutive, Donald Tsang, immediately took the helm of the Hong Kong SAR. Tung Chee Hwa, as expected, was nominated as a member of the CPPCC with the title of vice-president.
  • 12 march 2005. HIV in its various forms uses to enter human cells (primarily, macrophages) through a receptor, CCR5. Cells that carry the CCR5-delta32 deletion (i.e. that have an altered receptor) are fairly impermeable to the virus. The average frequency of this modified gene is particularly high in European populations (10%, and 15% in Scandinavia). Scientists from the United Kingdom propose that this results from the selection pressure exerted on European populations in the past, where many diseases spread as plagues, and killed a large proportion of inhabitants of the continent. This may explain the relatively less contagious nature of HIV in Europe. This hypothesis is likely to trigger an interesting controversy.
  • 11 march 2005. AIDS patient see more and more often their disease escape treatment by antivirals (at least 5% of them according to the most recent figures in UK. The same situation is already a matter of concern in Africa (at least 5% of the AIDS patients in Kenya), and it will shortly become extremely serious, if the traffic of fake drugs, already very active, amplifies. In the case of bird flu it seems that the parents of patients could be infected without showing any apparent symptom. This unexpected observation is ambiguous: if the people that are seropositive for the virus have been infected by their kins, this would be the mark of an interhuman contamination; in contrast, the fact that persons could be infected without serious consequences indicates that the disease could be less dangerous than what has been feared until now (however, this could correspond only to a part of the population, older people in particular).
  • 6 march 2005. Initial reports about an outbreak of pulmonary plague in a mine of the Democratic Republic of Congo suggested that there might have been some 400 cases. Fortunately, a retrospective study indicates that the outbreak was limited to 57 suspect cases, including 16 deaths. However the mine is likely to remain a serious source of contagion while work there resumes.Type four dengue fever has caused outbreaks recently in Indonesia. This is of major concern in the Northern region of Australia where last year dengue fever outbreak was of type two. Dengue fever, upon first infection is rarely fatal, but anyone who acquires two different types of dengue fever is at risk of developing dengue haemorrhagic fever, which can be fatal in a significant number of patients.
  • 3 march 2005. While concern about the H5N1 bird flu likely pandemic is still on everybody's mind (with at least two more human cases in Vietnam, and the death of more than 12,000 chicken in West Java), China's 11th five-year plan is discussed in Beijing between March 2 and March 12 at the National Committee of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and National People's Congress meetings. Many important decision will be reached, including considerable changes in the direction of several ministries and other structures such as the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative region (including changes at the head of the government of the SAR). The present Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR will most probably be elected to be one of the 25 vice-chairmen of the CPPCC. The outbreak of pneumonic plague in a mining district of the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to be smaller and more geographically limited than was originally feared.
  • 27 february 2005. After a period of relative calm on the front of avian flu, and the end of the international bird flu conference in Ho Chi Minh City on Friday, a local newspaper reports that 36-year-old man and probably his younger sister has been infected with bird flu in northern Vietnam, while an older man apparently died of the disease. Infection apparently appeared after the man drank chicken blood, a common practice in the region.
  • 26 february 2005. At the 12th Annual Retrovirus Conference, which ended in Boston yesterday, investigators reported discovery of two new human retroviruses (named HTLV3 and HTLV4, for human T-lymphotropic virus) in rural Cameroon among people who hunt monkeys and other primates. The new viruses have not yet been linked to any disease, but they are being monitored out of concern that they or similar retroviruses might trigger another epidemic. In this context it is particularly worrying that experiments in xenotransplantation (i.e. transplantation into humans of animal organs) is not banned, but receive much public interest. It is most important to recognize that danger comes from what is next to us, rather than far to us (briefly, what is from animal origin is more dangerous than from plant origin).
  • 25 february 2005. The Li Ka Shing Foundation of Hong Kong announced to donate 3 million Euro to support the fight against bird flu. The donation will associate the Institute Pasteur in Paris, the Joint Influenza Research Center of Shantou University Medical College and the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong.
  • 24 february 2005. An outbreak of pneumonic plague has hit the mining area of Zobia, in the region of Bas-Uele in Oriental Province, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Forty three people died and 13 survived. A team from the WHO and from the Institut Pasteur de Madagascar is investigating.
  • 22 february 2005. As reported at Promed, there is much controversy about the recent multiresistant HIV AIDS case uncovered in New York City. The matter is being discussed in Boston where almost 4,000 investigators meet in a conference on AIDS. For the first time it has been possible to replicate the HCV hepatitis virus in laboratory conditions after making an astute DNA copy of the RNA virus genome. When transformed into liver cells this artificial genome generated infectious viral particles. This will permit in-depth studies of this still very dangerous, but elusive virus, that causes liver cirrhosis at a very high rate.
  • 18 february 2005. Cholera, which is endemic and under-reported in all regions with bad control of the quality of water and hygiene has killed at least 15 persons in the district of Anambra in Nigeria. On the front of avian flu, evidence is accumulating that the virus can sometimes change its tropism from the respiratory tract to the brain, causing encephalitis. After having tested it on mice and monkeys, Vietnam authorities plan to use the vaccine used against the disease in fowl in a trial on humans.
  • 12 february 2005. A new, highly pathogenic strain of the HIV virus has been discovered in a patient in New York city. This strain causes rapid establishment of AIDS symptoms and is resistant to all publicly available antivirals. Depending on the contact promiscuity of the patient it will either die off (the most probable) or begin to spread.
  • 8 february 2005. The spread of dengue fever is triggering red alert in Indonesia. Serious outbreaks are affecting Malaysia and Singapore, where the number of cases rises sharply as compared to the situation last year.Bird flu is now present in Cambodia. A thorough study of last year's SARS outbreak allows investigators to better understand the virus evolution, and suggests that there exists a reservoir different from civet cat (probably an animal eaten up by this predator).
  • 1 february 2005. Dengue fever reappears in force in South East Asia, but it is too early to know whether the impact will be as bad as in 2003. 4 cases have been diagnosed in Saudi Arabia. In Netherlands an alert on tuberculosis led to screen one fourth of the population of the small town of Zeist (60 000 inhabitants).
  • 29 january 2005. A 13-year-old girl became the latest victim to die from avian flu in Ho Chi Minh City, bringing the human toll to 11 in the last month. This case is particularly worrying as it may represent the second recent interhuman transmission case. Cholera is spreading in western Kenya where major Busia markets were yesterday closed to stem a cholera outbreak which has claimed 10 lives.
  • 21 january 2005. Cases of contamination by HIV through blood transfusion are reappearing in Taiwan. Vietnam announces its seventh bird flu death in three weeks, while the disease reappears in poultry in Thailand.
  • 19 january 2005. Kawasaki disease, the most common cause of acquired heart disease in children in developed countries, may be caused by a coronavirus (the family of viruses that caused SARS). Another patient died in Vietnam from bird flu, while a new human case (a 45-years old man) is detected.
  • 18 january 2005. A 17-year-old boy suspected of having bird flu has died in Vietnam bringing the death toll to 36. A small team from ICDDR,B leaves Dhaka today to join colleagues from Nagasaki University Institute of Tropical Medicine to assist with post-tsunami health needs assessment in Sri Lanka. As reported by The Scientist, for the first time in humans, investigators have discovered a large chromosomal rearrangement in chromosome 17q21.31 that bears the mark of natural selection, as reported on line in Nature Genetics. The rearrangement, a 900-kilobase inversion polymorphism, appears in two distinct lineages, H1 and H2, that have diverged for as long as 3 million years with no evidence of having recombined. The H2 lineage—which is rare in Africans, almost nonexistent in East Asians, but found in 20% of Europeans—appears to undergo positive selection in Iceland, with carrier females having 3.2% more children per generation and higher recombination rates. The consequences of this discoveries are considerable and already trigger an intense debate.
  • 15 january 2005. The European Union summarizes the recent progress of human influenza cases of bird flu. The situation expresses a sporadic nature, concentrated in South East Asia, but clearly on the increase. Bird flu has now reached Hanoi in Vietnam.map
  • 14 january 2005. The most serious health problem in Northern Sumatra was not expected: many cases of tetanos are showing up, usually too late to be treated, resulting already in more than 20 deaths.
  • 13 january 2005. A 35-year-old woman from Vietnam's southern Tra Vinh province died of bird flu, becoming the fifth fatality due to the disease in the country in the past two weeks.
  • 12 january 2005. Tuberculosis, hepatitis B, dysentery, gonorrhea and syphilis were the top five most common infectious diseases, during the last fall in China. In particular the incidence rate of tuberculosis remained the first infectious disease in terms of incidence. It seems worth noting that three of those top five diseases are sexually transmissible. Twenty seven infectious diseases have to be reported, and more than 3 million people were affected last year. Jonathan Stoye and his team of the Division of Virology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London report that in some monkeys a gene product can interfere with the replication of HIV. Most interestingly a single amino acid difference in the human counterpart accounts for the fact that the virus is able to replicate in human cells. A third case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), is identified in Canada. This case is important as the animal was born after a ban on food additives was implemented, suggesting that food additives cannot be the cause of the disease.
  • 11 january 2005. Fourteen new likely avian flu human cases (several said to have been fatal) are reported in Vietnam while the 18-year-old girl affected dies from the disease. This high level of human cases is not linked to person-to-person contamination yet, but this corresponds to a dangerous level of alert. A 30-kilometre-wide "immune protection zone" has been set up along the border between Vietnam and Yunnan Province in Southwest China, in an effort to stop the spread of the bird flu outbreak from Vietnam to China.
  • 10 january 2005. Vietnam reports one more human bird flu case in a 18-year-old girl. The concentration of new human cases there becomes a matter of concern. Promed summarizes data from GeoSentinel sites increasingly reporting a significant number of serious wound infections in those injured in the tsunami. As expected, Aeromonas hydrophila and Pseudomonas sp are found in many instances. Fortunately they are usually sensitive to standard antibiotics treatment (when available).
  • 9 january 2005. Showing a fast reaction response, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) sent to Thailand on december 30th a Victim Identification Program team to help identifying corpses from the victims of the tsunamis.
  • 8 january 2005. An outbreak of yellow fever is affecting the region of Faranah in Guinea. West Africa has reservoirs of the moquito-borne disease in rodents. Bird flu is spreading in Vietnam, with several human cases, and two deaths in the past few days. Far from being eradicated poliomyelitis is on the rise in Sudan since its reappearance last year. A small girl was showing symptoms while arriving in Saudi Arabia from Sudan with her family. The WHO reports endemic presence of the disease in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt. Since mid-2003, 13 countries have importated wild poliovirus of the same type as the virus circulating in northern Nigeria. In four of these countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire and the Sudan) wild poliovirus transmission has been re-established (i.e. continued circulation for more than 6 months).
  • 7 january 2005. Information about cholera outbreaks in the world is grossly underestimated because goverments must notify the World Health Organisation and fail to do so for they are afraid of consequences on trade and tourism. Bangladesh and India are particularly affected, and this is very important at a time when we need to consider the consequences of the december tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. It is possible, however, to read between the lines at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (popularly known as Cholera Hospital in Bangladesh), Bangladesh (ICDDR,B). For example a summary of Diarrhoea outbreaks in 2004 points indirectly to cholera as the major cause, with two outbreaks that usually occur during two times in a year- in the hot summer months of April-June, and post-monsoon months of September and October. The bibliography of the Centre is highly revealing in this respect: how could publications refer to cholera cases in a country where there had been no notification to the WHO? It is extremely important, at this point, that information is spread before a catastrophic situation builds up in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh in the next few weeks.
  • 6 january 2005. While we are witnessing how weak we can be when facing geophysical events, we keep on developing new techniques with an hybris that has no limit: xenotransplantation is being performed between pigs and baboons (heart transplantation) using genetically modified pigs (this week in Nature Medicine). When we know how HIV spread to humans from butchery, we should know that mammals are full of retroviruses that, once in a foreign host will eventually recombine with host counterparts and generate new forms, some of which will have a high probability of becoming new infectious agents. Yes, new emerging diseases will be our future, and, unfortunately, we will have caused them. A remarkable convergence of microbiology and neurobiology is reported in the last issue of Nature: beta-lactam antibiotics (the paradigm of which being penicillin) have a strong effect on the expression of the neuromediator glutamate transporter. These antibiotics apparently are effective in delaying the symptoms of diseases such as the fatal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Once again this emphasizes the importance of serendipity in research, and shows that very distant fields may have a considerable impact on each other.
  • 5 january 2005. A nine-year-old boy has died of bird flu in Vietnam (southern Mekong province). As yet, there are no epidemics in the hard hit regions by the recent tsunamis. The Swedish government has however collected 200,000 doses of drinkable cholera vaccine to send them to India and Sri Lanka, where there exists known foci of cholera.
  • 2 january 2005. The lack of coordination of aid in the regions of South East Asia dramatically affected by the tsunamis might result in the propagation of epidemics (cholera and shigellosis in particular). This is particularly true in the Northern region of Sumatra, where a separatist conflict has been lingering for years, since authorities might tend to use the events as a means to control the situation.
  • 30 december 2004. A 16-year-old girl from southern Vietnam has become infected with the bird flu strain that killed 32 people earlier this year and is in critical condition.
  • 29 december 2004. The root and rhizome (underground stem) of Curcuma longa are used in the make of of curries in India (curcumin). The are also used medicinally, and many studies over the years have suggested a strong anticancer, and gastric ulcer healing activities. Part of its action is due to its scavenging of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) created by the presence of the oxygen we live on (it is often forgotten that oxygen was the first pollutant on the Earth, and that it is a very toxic gas because of its high oxidizing potential). A second action seems to be in modulating the activity of enzymes that degrade proteins (proteases) outside the cells. Several studies have also involved curcumin in preventing Alzheimer's disease. We need however well designed clinical tests to investigate whether this is really significant, which would be a major breakthrough for aging populations. After the huge tsunamis that affected most of the Indian Ocean and caused probably 100,000 deaths, outbreaks of cholera and other gut diseases are expected. However, as yet, there is no sign of unusual outbreaks (cholera is endemic in the region, as repeatedly stressed in these updates). Avian flu does not recede (two new outbreaks in Vietnam). The SARS virus has, as all RNA viruses, a high mutation rate, making its genome highly variable. In HIV, for example, this high rate of mutation contributes to the rapid appearance of drug-resistant strains of the virus. In SARS and related viruses, however, one segment of the RNA genome (the so-called s2m RNA) remains virtually unchanged, suggesting that it is essential for the virus. This triggers research on the corresponding structure to see how drugs could interfere with that region, a typical "upstream" research bet to suggest new pathways to intrefere with viruses virulence and propagation.
  • 28 december 2004. The Desert Locust situation remains extremely serious in South Morocco, and to a lesser extent in West Africa. Swarms are keeping arriving in Morocco and Algeria from the Sahel. Intensive spread of insecticides is trying to contain further extension of the swarms. There is a risk of building up of swarms in Niger.
  • 17 december 2004. Although eating every day is more important than being healthy, we tend to forget epidemics that affect our agro-food supplies. Plants are often attacked by viruses, viroids, fungi and bacteria, and this sometimes creates havoc. For example the pear "passe-crassane" almost disappeared from our tables because it has been destroyed by Erwinia amylovora, the agent of fireblight disease. Today, plantations of citrus trees have to be completely wiped out in some regions of Australia to try and control an outbreak of citrus canker disease, caused by Xanthomonas citri, a particularly dangerous form of Xanthomonas campestris (which is both a dangerous plant pathogen, and the producer of a ubiquitous additive, xanthan gum).
  • 9 december 2004. A fever outbreak in Mombasa is investigated by health authorities as it could be a resurgence of the O'nyong nyong fever, caused by a rare virus, transmitted, as is malaria, by Anopheles mosquitoes. It gets its name from a phrase in northern Uganda meaning "very painful and weak". The first recorded epidemic occurred in 1959-1962 in Northern Uganda affecting an estimated two million people in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. After an apparent absence of 35 years it reappeared in 1996-1997, and, although not fatal it is a matter of concern as its spread and reservoir are not understood. In China, the HIV case report indicates that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is spreading into the general population. by the end of 2003, the number of HIV cases was estimated to reach 840,000. If the general trend is sustained, in six years, 10 million people in China will be HIV positive. The magazine Science, dated december 10th, will published remarkable results on a new treatment against tuberculosis, that interferes with the energy management of the bacteria that cause the disease.
  • 8 december 2004. investigators at the University of New South Wales in Australia have found that furanones isolated from the seaweed Delisea pulchra can prevent Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that cause cholera from switching on their disease-causing mechanisms. Bromylated-furanones have been known for some time to prevent bacteria from measuring their number (the so-called "quorum-sensing" process) interfering with the formation of biofilms. These compounds have triggered intensive research in the domain of antibacterial agents that would not kill bacteria, but interfere with their pathogenicity. Polymers have been synthesized, containing the furanones, where bacteria cannot colonize the surface.
  • 5 december 2004. The patient isolated in Nancy with respiratory disease is not infected by avian flu. In Hong Kong a new rapid test for diagnosing H5N1 flu will be announced this week.
  • 2 december 2004. A 69-year-old man has been hospitalised in Nancy (France) with suspected bird flu. The patient has recently returned from a trip to Vietnam.
  • 1 december 2004. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is an incurable, paralyzing neurodegenerative disorder that strikes 5 persons in every 100,000. Scientists from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology, under the direction of Peter Carmeliet (Catholic University of Leuven), have shown that administration of the vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) protein protects rats with a severe form of ALS, allowing them to live longer. While this is not a cure of the disease, this paves the way for a treatment of this infamous disease. This discovery is another indication that there is a link between the nervous system and the blood system.
  • 29 november 2004. The Journal of Virology reports that a candidate SARS vaccine by Canadian scientists (one attempt among many others) triggered severe liver inflammation when tested in ferrets. This vaccine was producing the "spike" protein of the virus, known to be the major target for preventing adsorption of the virus on its host target cells. However no adverse effect, until now, has been seen in patients tested in China with another type of vaccine.
  • 25 november 2004. The effect of global warming on disease spreading might already be there. Dengue fever is on the verge of becoming endemic in the south of Taiwan. Several hundred cases have been found there, locally doubling last year's number. If the virus rides out the winter the disease will become perennial.
  • 24 november 2004. Let us forget for a while the spread of bird flu (new outbreaks in Malaysia), to shift to a series of discoveries that may have enormous consequences on the future of cancer research. Japanese scientists working at the University of Tokyo have uncovered a protein coded by a genome region involved in Down's syndrome, that apparently interferes with the development of blood vessels (essential for tumor growth, but also for brain development). Another type of work, derived from the studies of Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Stanford University (Tessier-Lavigne is now at Genentech) showed that guidance of blood vessels through the tissues is mediated by the exact same system as the one mediating guidance of nerve cells axons by a "repulsive" mechanism.
  • 22 november 2004. As winter approaches in the Northern hemisphere pneumopathies reappear. In Hong Kong a sudden outbreak at a small hospital triggered fears that SARS would be there again: this was fortunately not the case, but simply a local outbreak of parainfluenza caused by a paramyxovirus. China began to produce in Henan province large quantities of a new gene-based reagent capable of quickly diagnosing SARS. A case of Japanese encephalitis (transmitted by mosquitoes of the Culex genus) in the town triggered a response of the local government, where the question was asked to see whether one had to vaccinate pigs, which can be intermediary hosts. Cholera is spreading at many places in sub-Saharian Africa.
  • 14 november 2004. Several cholera outbreaks are recurrent in Africa, from East to West. At least 50 persons died of the disease in Nigeria, where several hundreds are in a critical state. Several cases of dengue are confirmed in Macao. A State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases has been approved for establishment at Hong Kong University. Professor Kwok-yung Yuen and Dr Guan Yi, will take charge of the laboratory. The laboratory will be the only State Key Laboratory outside the Mainland, and the only one on Emerging Infectious Diseases. As key components of China's science and technology innovation structure, State Key Laboratories emphasize top level basic research, that will be followed by applications of basic research development, assembling and nurturing outstanding investigators, as well as scholarly exchanges for the country. The new laboratory will embody the newly completed P3 Laboratory and the Virus, Cell and Molecular Biology Laboratory.
  • 10 november 2004. While nothing really new happened on the front of avian flu (some 150 tigers died or were culled because of the disease in Thailand), discussions at the WHO try to prepare the world for a pandemic associated to the H5N1 virus. Scientists from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Australia, tested the effects of protease inhibitors normally used against HIV on a drug-resistant line of Plasmodium falciparum, the agent of malaria. While some did not have an effect, several of the inhibitors blocked parasite growth in vitro at levels routinely achieved in human patients. It will be necessary to get in vivo results before drawing conclusions, but this might be good news for Africa where both AIDS and malaria are endemic at a very high level.
  • 2 november 2004. More that 400 persons have caught cholera in Senegal. A heron was found dead, probably infected by the H5N1 bird flu virus (not yet confirmed) at the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
  • 31 october 2004. The World Health Organisation stresses the role of domestic ducks in the propagation of the recent bird flu outbreaks. This fits with the observation we emphasized about the origin of flu as a duck disease.
  • 28 october 2004. Cholera is spreading in the camp of Pabbo in Uganda, while it is not contained in Dakar (Senegal).
  • 26 october 2004. Senegal suffers its first outbreak of cholera since eight years. This may be correlated to the endemic situation in the region (Guinea and Sierra Leone in particular).
  • 25 october 2004. The usual H3N2 flu is changing its type and will differ from that of last year (A/Fujian) starting from an outbreak in New Zeland (A/Wellington), but already spread through travel to Norway. This would make the present vaccine less efficient than expected. Over-reactions in the domain of epidemics are so widely spread that we need to pick out only some relevant information in the domain of the bird flu scare. At this point it is essential to remember that the red line will be trespassed when person-to-person contamination will have been witnessed. However it is perhaps significant to emphasize again two facts. Firstly, animal to human contamination of any disease should always be taken seriously, because of likely lack of immediate attenuation of the virulent form of the pathogenic agent when it crosses a species barrier. Unfortunately this aspect is not well understood generally. Second, it is important as we noticed repeatedly, in the case of avian flu, to monitor scavenging sentinels, such as raptors because they are the obvious end of the food chain eating sick or even dead birds.  In this context the fact that two eagles carried last week to Belgium by a Thai man had been proven avian flu-infected has triggered a strong reaction. Unfortunately this kind of smuggling is part of a huge traffic that would need to be considered seriously as belonging to the  general system of illegal activities, all ending up in the lack of control of funds transfer over the world, with all sorts of negative consequences, in particular in the domain of terrorism.
  • 21 october 2004. Since our last update the count of dengue fever cases in Vietnam has kept rising, reaching almost 60,000 persons this year (87 fatalities). A variety of means are used to try to contain mosquito spread (including using small crusatcea in water supply reservoirs) but this is only with mitigated success.
  • 20 october 2004. Seven more tigers died from the H5N1 virus at the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo, 50 miles east of Bangkok. The authorities decided to cull by potassium cyanide injection 40 tigers showing symptoms of the disease, among the 400 or so living in the zoo. While this confirms that the avian virus can infect mammals the distance between tigers and humans does not indicate that the virus is mutating towards a dangerous form for Man.
  • 19 october 2004. The CERN is fifty years old today. This institution that comprises some 6500 staff is at the origin of the Hypertext Markup Language that allowed construction of the Internet. This shows that repercussions of academic research have world wide implications, in a way that is utterly imprevisible. In the domain of health care, some odd ideas might eventually lead to important discoveries: ethologists thought to investigate how sick monkeys behave. They discovered that they tend to eat plants that they usually avoid. Apparently these plants may cure some diseases, including malaria. Animal self-medication may be an interesting trend to explore. The bird flu epidemic, that has killed 31 people in southeast Asia this year, has killed 23 tigers at a zoo in eastern Thailand. An elderly man passed away from cholera in the ninth case reported in Singapore in less than a week.
  • 18 october 2004. Thirty cases of dengue fever and 18 suspected cases have been found since September in East China's Fujian Province. In 1999, the fever spread in several cities of the province, and a few outside cases were found in 2000. This shows that the disease is probably there to stay, in particular if global warming tends to warm up China's provinces located north of tropical areas, where the disease is endemic. An attempt to create a birds flu vaccine in Australia has failed to protect fowls.
  • 16 october 2004. The Third Joint Meeting of Senior Health Officials of the Mainland, Hong Kong and Macao has reached consensus on the measures for preventing avian influenza and SARS (including quarantine), as colder season increases the risk of revival of these diseases. Thailand, and probably Vietnam, are still witnessing recurring episodes of bird flu. In northern Uganda cholera is re-emerging in the displaced persons' camp of Pabbo.
  • 15 october 2004. Results from the second phase of a trial, coordinated by Professor Pedro Alonso of the University of Barcelona and involving more than 2,000 children in Mozambique, showed that a candidate vaccine against malaria protected 30 per cent of them against the disease for at least six months. Despite this evident message of hope published in The Lancet, there is still a long way towards a vaccine, because parasites have evolved many ways to evade immune defenses of their host, so that one would need positive results staying on during a much longer period of time to be confident that we are on the right track.
  • 7 october 2004. A team of scientists from the USA and Japan report in today's issue of Nature that they succeeded in reconstructing letal components of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic in an attempt to understand the reason for the extraordinary virulence of the corresponding virus (HspNsp). While interesting and important these experiments raise some concern about the possible unethical use of the corresponding approach.
  • 6 october 2004. Scientists have imagination. One has, for some time, used giant rats (pouched rats, Cricetomys gambianus) to smell landmines. And because this approach appeared to be successful (these rats are easily tamed) the idea came that they might be used to smell... tuberculosis. This would allow doctors to identify foci of the disease and help control it more rapidly. The World Bank is financing the study in Tanzania.
  • 4 october 2004. Bird flu is re-emerging in Indonesia, while it makes its 11th victim in Thailand. A dog has also been infected there, further indicating that the virus is increasing its adaptability to mammal hosts. After having reached northern America in 1999, the West Nile virus is now present in Hawai. Nobody knows how it got there but it is most likely that this was through a contaminated mosquito that flied from the USA to Hawai across the Pacific. Almost 1,800 persons (46 deaths) have already been infected in the USA this year.
  • 28 september 2004. Thai health authorities are concerned by the death of a patient, a mother who died from bird flu after caring for her daughther, who died a short while ago from a disease that has not been identified accurately. The sister of that woman was also infected, but is fortunately recovering. If this were the case this would represent the first known case of human-to-human contamination of the deadly disease, indicating that we are on the verge of a dangerous epidemic. However the situation is very similar to that witnessed in Hong Kong in 1997, where limited human-to-human transmission occurred, with no further contamination.
  • WHO: Phases of pandemic response
    Phase 0   Interpandemic period
    Phase 0 Level 1 New influenza virus in human case
    Phase 0 Level 2 Human infection confirmed in two or more cases
    Phase 0 Level 3 Human-to-human transmission confirmed
    Phase 1   Confirmation of onset of pandemic
    Phase 2   Regional and multiregional epidemics
    Phase 3   End of first pandemic wave
    Phase 4   Second or later wave of pandemic
    Phase 5   End of pandemic

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