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SMC Heads-Up to 8 September: Bird flu revival, new SMC hire

Issue 148 September 2 - 8

UN warning as Bird flu takes flight again


United Nations health officials this week suggested the H5N1 bird flu virus was again on the rise and urged heightened monitoring to prevent a widespread resurgence of the deadly disease.

Bird flu caused a global health scare in 2003, when it crossed over from birds to infect humans, ultimatley resulting in 565 infections and 331 deaths - mainly in China.

While the disease never completely disappeared, by 2008 most countries were clear of the virus and human infections had tailed off. However, scientists said 800 infections had been reported in the last flu season, with cases of bird flu detected in the Middle East and Eastern Europe as well as in Asian countries.

It is thought that migrating wild birds are spreading the virus further afield and a new mutant strain of the virus that is resistant to vaccines has been detected in China and Vietnam
While the geographical distance of New Zealand and Australia to bird flu hotspots makes it unlikely that wild birds could transport the virus here, there is lingering concern in most countries over H5N1because its mortality rate among infected humans is around 60 per cent.

Stopping the spread

The Australian Science Media Centre asked scientists what methods could be employed to try and prevent the spread of bird flu.

"For a highly pathogenic strain which becomes transmissible between humans the UWA modelling suggests that a strict regime of social distancing measures (home quarantine coupled with sustained school closure) together with the rapid and comprehensive use of antiviral drugs would be the most effective and cost-effective strategy to adopt," said Professor George Milne is from the University of Western Australia, who has modelled the spread of disease.

"One high-tech solution that is being pursued in research laboratories is to engineer a spectrum of resistance/interference genes into domestic poultry," Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Doherty, of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, told the AusSMC.

"If that works, it could provide a solution though it would, of course, require that those in the affected regions overcome any qualms they might have concerning the consumption of GM chickens".

The comments of the scientists are available in full here.

The UN has a Q&A on avian flu here.


Veteran science journo joins the SMC
Journalists covering science-related stories now have an extra resource to draw on with former NZPA reporter Kent Atkinson joining the team at the Science Media Centre.

Atkinson ranks among the country's most experienced reporters having spent 27 years at the New Zealand Press Association which shut its doors this week after 132 years of operation.

His place on the cutting edge of breaking news saw Atkinson dealing with the science-related angles on everything from the "Corngate" controversy to the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

His science stories in particular have won him the respect of readers and the scientific community alike and were widely syndicated in New Zealand's newspapers.

Atkinson will play a leading role at the SMC generating expert round-ups on breaking science stories, putting together online briefings for journalists and assisting the media when science is in the headlines.

A way to deal with basic factual errors?
This week's Media7 show looked at the case of Wellingtonian Don McDonald, who pointed out a factual error in a TVNZ science story but was slapped with a $50 fine by the Broadcasting Standards Authority for a "vexatious" complaint.

Broadcasting Standards Authority chief executive Dominic Sheehan defended the BSA's treatment of McDonald but agreed with Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin that the complaints system wasn't well set up to handle cases of pure factual inaccuracy given the cost of processing complaints.

Griffin suggested a corrections and clarifications section be added to the websites of the major broadcasters and that readers be invited to submit fact checking queries that would be processed and a correction issued if necessary - published on the site with the video modified and tagged to reflected the change.

We are interested in what you as journalists and science communicators think. Is this a more efficient way to improve the facutal accuracy of stories that deal with science and statistics? Would the broadcasterssupport it? We'd like your feedback. Any ideas or suggestions to smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz

On the science radar

Robot small talk, coral sunscreen pills, transparent solutions, the skinny gene and dying - the 'green way'.

The Science Media Centre is on facebook

The Science Media Centre has a facebook page, allowing you keep up with the latest science news and views.

Simply click the facebook button to visit the SMC page and 'like' us to receive regular daily updates from the SMC in your news feed.

Quoted: The Press

"The public starts to get a perception that the scientists are sneaking around doing top-secret research and not being truthful and the only ones they should be trusting is the nut-jobs who provide some sort of 'certainty'

"...It only takes two seconds for someone to put an idea out there but months to years to subject this idea to the scientific method...but by the time the scientific knowledge is available often no-one cares anymore.''

Dr Mark Quigley, Senior Lecturer,
Geological Sciences, University of Canterbury,

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

The smoking gun for "Bleeding Calf" syndrome: New research has shown a possible reason for the link between a diarrhea vaccine for cows and a mysterious disease affecting their calves. The PregSure BVD vaccine, has been associated with the deaths of calves born to treated cows and was withdrawn from the New Zealand market amidst controversy last week. German scientists now show evidence that the deaths are linked to antibodies produced by the mother in response to vaccine.
Veterinary Research

Spectacle-free 3D: A technique for viewing images in three dimensions (3D) without the need for specialised glasses is has been developed using polymer micro-prisms. When placed on a screen the prisms guide light in a way that gives a perception of depth by presenting offset images to the left and right eye. The prisms also work in flexible displays, and could be an inexpensive alternative to other autostereosopic 3D display technologies
Nature Communications

Black death missing - presumed extinct: The so-called "Black Death," a plague that ravaged Europe between the years of 1347 and 1351, was likely caused by a now-extinct version of the Yersinia pestis bacterium, a study finds. Scientists made this determination after analyzing the DNA of human skeletal remains from the plague era, excavated in England. The genetic sequence differs from the sequences of other known versions of Y. pestis, suggesting that the pathogen responsible for the Black Death is likely extinct.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Wooly Rhino could handle the cold: Scientists have uncovered a new species of wooly rhino from Tibet, which shows clear adaptations to a cold, snowy climate. By analysing the fossil's age and its physical features, the researchers conclude that this rhino, Coelodonta thibetana, was a relatively primitive ancestor in the wooly rhino family tree, compared to its counterparts in the Pleistocene. This finding suggests that the rhinos first adapted to the cold Tibetan Plateau well before climate change occurred in other areas.
Science

Old eyes sleep less: A natural, age related, yellowing of the eye lens that absorbs blue light has been linked to sleep disorders in a group of test volunteers. Researchers found that the lower the blue light transmission into the retina, the greater the risk of sleep disturbances. While it might seem like an odd link, there is a reason. Blue light influences the normal sleep cycle by helping initiate the release of melatonin in the brain. Melatonin is a hormone that helps signal to the body when it is time to be sleepy or alert.
Sleep

Policy updates

Some of the highlights of this week's policy news:

Energy strategised - The New Zealand Energy Strategy and the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy have been released, detailing the government's plans for renewable and non-renewable energy sources in the future.

Environmental reporting: have your say - The Ministry for the environment has released a discussion docment on environmental reporting in New Zealand and is receiving submissions until the 18th of October.

Transport overview released - Transport Minister Steven Joyce has released Connecting New Zealand, a summary of the government's previous and intended policy direction for transport over the next decade.

Upcoming sci-tech events

• "Blame the ref!"-a Psychological Primer on Rugby - Associate Professor Marc Wilson, 7 September, Wellington
• Global change biology in the Antarctic - Lecture by Dr Steven Chown - 7 September, Wellington.
• National Suicide Prevention Information Conference - 8 September, Auckland.

ENDS

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