Thursday, 29 January 2015

Ebola virus mutates



Scientists at the prestigious Institut Pasteur in Paris believe the ebola virus has mutated during the current outbreak. Now they are trying to find out whether that has made it more contagious.

So far more than 22,000 people have been infected in this epidemic and 8,795 have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, making it by far the deadliest in history. The previous worst death toll came in 1976, when 280 people died in Congo and Zaire.

But for the first time since June last year, there were fewer than 100 new cases last week, leading to hopes the epidemic may finally be on the wane.

At present, it seems the virus can be passed only in bodily fluids. The great fear is that it may develop a means of infection through the air, though there is no evidence to suggest this is likely at the moment, and no similar virus has moved to this route of transmission.


Meanwhile, researchers at the Institut Pasteur are developing two vaccines they hope will be in human trials by the end of the year. (See also my blogs of 4 April, 7 June, 8 August, 8, 23 and 30 October, 2014.)

Saturday, 24 January 2015

What happened to AirAsia flight QZ8501?



Salvage teams are starting to try to raise the fuselage of AirAsia flight QZ8501, which crashed into the Java Sea last month killing all 162 people on board. The Airbus A320 left Surabaya in Indonesia for Singapore at 0535 local time on December 28, and vanished nearly half-way into the two hour flight.

The salvage operation has been delayed by bad weather, and so far only 69 bodies have been recovered. Indonesian officials believe the aircraft may have climbed too fast to try to avoid a storm, then stalled.

Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said radar data showed the Airbus had climbed at a speed of 6,000ft a minute, a rate that could only be achieved by a fighter jet, and was at least three times what a commercial airliner would normally do.

Shortly before it disappeared, the pilot asked air traffic control for permission to climb from 32,000 to 38,000 feet to avoid some big storm clouds. Because of heavy traffic in the area, he was not immediately given permission, and when air traffic control tried to contact the crew again, there was no answer. The aircraft disappeared from radar screens soon afterwards, without sending a distress signal.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Disasters: a warning from a historian



Just started reading Barbara Tuchman's portrayal of the 'calamitous' 14th century, A Distant Mirror. The century began with unusually cold weather and devastating famines, the Hundred Years War between England and France kicked off, and then came possibly the worst disaster in history, the Black Death, which carried off perhaps one person in three.

But Tuchman warns us that one of the dangers of writing history is that the 'bad side - evil, misery, contention, harm' tends to get recorded more than the good: 'In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The normal does not make news.'

The author goes on: 'Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts.' Yes, lots of disasters happen, but most of us will be lucky enough never to experience one. So a sense of proportion is important.

Governments need to take note too. By trying to prevent anything bad happening (which cannot, anyway, be achieved), they often pursue policies that are in themselves damaging - something we often see in the field of 'security' - http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jan/19/gchq-intercepted-emails-journalists-ny-times-bbc-guardian-le-monde-reuters-nbc-washington-post

Incidentally, so far A Distant Mirror is a great read. 


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Terrorism: Remember Paris....but don't forget Nigeria



The murders by Muslim fanatics in France have attracted widespread condemnation, and an impressive demonstration of international solidarity. What a pity the same cannot be said of the massacres committed by the Islamic terrorists of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Amnesty International, after compiling eyewitness reports and studying satellite pictures, says last week’s attack on the villages of Baga and Doron Baga killed at least 150, including small children and a woman in labour.

The terrorists are said to have opened fire indiscriminately, and some say the death toll could be as high as 2,000. The villages were razed to the ground, with about 3,700 buildings, mainly people’s homes, destroyed.

In April 2013, the Baga area was raided by the Nigerian military in response to a Boko Haram attack that killed a soldier. Human Rights Watch say local people were killed, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed, though the Nigerian government denied the claims.


(See also my blogs of March 3 and June 23, and December 19, 2014.)

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Mass poisonings - Africa and India

Alcohol can kill, especially it it’s laced with crocodile bile, or other lethal additives. In Mozambique, 69 people, including apparently a toddler, have died after drinking home-made beer, ironically, at a funeral.

Health officials believe contamination with crocodile bile made the drink lethal. The woman who brewed it and a number of her relatives are dead, and another 39 people are being treated in hospital.

Meanwhile in India, at least 29 people have died in Uttar Pradesh after drinking toxic liquor at a cricket match, and 100 more are in hospital. Some have lost their sight. Doctors say the drink may have been adulterated with cheap, but dangerous, methyl alcohol. The owner of the shop that sold it has been arrested.


Poisonings of this kind are depressingly common in India. Nearly 170 people died in 2011 in West Bengal, 107 in Gujarat in 2009, and 30 in Uttar Pradesh in the same year.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Death of a palace - 317 years ago today



On this day………………317 years ago, London’s Palace of Whitehall burned down. Once the greatest palace in Europe, it met its end when a servant put some linen to dry by a fire, then left it.

Soon not only the linen but the whole room was alight, and by the time the alarm was raised, the flames had taken such a strong hold that the primitive fire-fighting apparatus of the time could make no impression on them.

The blaze raged for 16 hours, and destroyed the whole palace apart from the Holbein Gate and the Banqueting Hall (pictured), with its magnificent Rubens ceiling, where Charles I had been executed half a century before.


The fire also destroyed 150 nearby houses, mostly homes of the nobility. William III, who was king at the time, didn’t like the palace, believing it aggravated his asthma, and so it was never rebuilt. For more, see London’s Disasters.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Can animals predict disasters?



Five tiny songbirds fitted with tracking devices appear to have fled their nests in Tennessee just a day before tornadoes struck in April. The golden-winged warblers had arrived at their nesting site only a few days earlier after a 3,000 mile journey from Colombia.

Scientists believe they flew 400 miles south to escape the storms which killed 35 people, then returned after a few days. They think the warblers may have been alerted by a very deep rumble in the air, inaudible to the human ear.

In 2004, there were stories of animals escaping the Boxing Day tsunami. Witnesses spoke of flamingos deserting low-lying breeding areas, elephants screaming and running to higher ground, and dogs and zoo animals refusing to go outside their shelters.


While more than 200,000 people died, there were relatively few animal casualties. At Patanangala beach in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, home to a wide variety of animals, 60 people were washed away, but the only animals lost were two water buffaloes. There is speculation that perhaps animals are able to detect vibrations in the earth that pass us by.