Bill Gates kicks off search for toilet of the future

Microsoft co-founder turned global philanthropist Bill Gates on Tuesday launched a search for a new toilet better suited to developing countries.

The charitable foundation founded by Gates and his wife kicked off a “Reinvent the Toilet Fair” in Seattle and awarded prizes for promising innovations.

“Toilets are extremely important for public health and, when you think of it, even human dignity,” Gates said in a statement at thegatesnotes.com.

“The flush toilets we use in the wealthy world are irrelevant, impractical and impossible for 40 percent of the global population, because they often don’t have access to water, and sewers, electricity, and sewage treatment systems.”

The Toilet Fair was described as a swirl of about 200 inventors, designers, investors, partners and others passionate about creating safe, effective, and inexpensive waste management systems.

Universities from Britain, Canada, and the United States were awarded prizes in a competition launched a year ago challenging inventors to come up with a better toilet.

First place went to the California Institute of Technology for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen gas and electricity.

Loughborough University came in second for a toilet that transforms waste into biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water.

Third place went to the University of Toronto for a toilet that sanitizes human waste and recovers minerals and water.

“Four in 10 people worldwide don’t have a safe way to poop,” the Gates Foundation said in a message beneath a Reinvent the Toilet video at its gatesfoundation.org website.

Approximately 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe sanitation systems for handling the basic and vital need to dispose of bodily waste, according to Gates.

“Beyond a question of human dignity, this lack of access also endangers people’s lives, creates an economic and a health burden for poor communities, and hurts the environment,” Gates said.

Food or water tainted with fecal matter causes intestinal diseases that kill 1.5 million children annually — a figure higher than deaths from AIDS and malaria combined, according to Gates.

“Inventing new toilets is one of the most important things we can do to reduce child deaths and disease and improve people’s lives,” Gates said.

“It is also something that can help wealthier countries conserve fresh water for other important purposes besides flushing.”

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EU also studying plain-packaging law for tobacco

The European Commission said on Thursday it too could shortly make legislative proposals that would force manufacturers to distribute tobacco products across Europe in plain packaging.

After a ground-breaking Australian court ruling requiring cigarettes and other tobacco products to be sold in un-branded uniform packaging with graphic health warnings from December 1, a spokesman for the EU executive said “the Commission is following this development in Australia closely.”

“We are working on a proposal to revise the (EU) tobacco products directive” later in the year, Antony Gravili told a regular news briefing, underlining that “many things are being discussed including the possibility of plain packaging.”

He added, referring to graphic health warnings currently required on the reverse of branded packets in Europe: “One of the things we’re looking at is for example making the image on the package larger.”

Australia said Thursday it has no plans to ban smoking after the High Court of Australia ruling in response to a manufacturers’ challenge.

However, the World Health Organization, which blames smoking for six million deaths per year, expressed its hope that the decision taken in Australia would trigger a global “domino effect.”

States including Canada and New Zealand are already looking at similar measures.

The autonomous government in Scotland, after Ireland one of the first to ban smoking in public places in Europe, was already due to outlaw all tobacco product display at point-of-sale in October last year.

Edinburgh is hoping to be able to announce a new date soon, having been forced to delay its plans amid legal challenges from big manufacturers.

Australia is still facing action at the World Trade Organization over the plan from Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, as well as an investment treaty lawsuit filed by Philip Morris Asia in Hong Kong.

Legal experts warned that the Hong Kong case was “particularly concerning” because Australia’s bilateral investment treaty with the Chinese territory did not have special clauses for public health measures as seen in WTO agreements.

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Locked-in syndrome sufferer loses right-to-die case

A locked-in syndrome sufferer has lost a legal bid for the right to end his life of “pure torture” after High Court judges unanimously agreed that it would be wrong to depart from a precedent that equates voluntary euthanasia with murder.

Tony Nicklinson, 58, was left paralysed by a catastrophic stroke while on a business trip to Athens in 2005. He wept as the court ruling was announced on Thursday, saying he was “devastated” by the decision.

A second victim of the syndrome, referred to as “Martin”, who cannot be identified, also lost his challenge to the ban on assisted dying.

Three judges sitting in London described their cases as “deeply moving and tragic”, and their predicament as “terrible”.

However the judges unanimously agreed that it would be wrong for the court to depart from the long-established legal position that “voluntary euthanasia is murder, however understandable the motives may be”.

They ruled that the current law did not breach human rights and it was for Parliament, not the courts, to decide whether it should be changed.

In a statement issued by his lawyer, Nicklinson said: “I am devastated by the court’s decision.”

He continued: “I thought that if the court saw me as I am, utterly miserable with my life, powerless to do anything about it because of my disability then the judges would accept my reasoning that I do not want to carry on and should be able to have a dignified death.

“I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery.”

The patient known as “Martin” also released a statement through his lawyer, saying he felt “even more angry and frustrated” following the judgment.

“My life following my stroke is undignified, distressing and intolerable,” he said.

“I wish to be able to exercise the freedom which everyone else would have – to decide how to end this constant tortuous situation.”

Nicklinson’s wife Jane, standing by her tearful husband at their home in Melksham, Wiltshire, described the decision as “one-sided”. “You can see from Tony’s reaction he’s absolutely heartbroken,” she said.

She said they would now appeal the decision and hoped they would be able to organise a hearing before the end of the year.

Asked what would happen if the appeal fails, she said: “Tony either has to carry on like this until he dies from natural causes or by starving himself.”

Both Nicklinson and Martin are victims of locked-in syndrome. They suffer from catastrophic physical disabilities, but their mental processes are unimpaired and they are fully conscious of their predicament.

Barring unforeseen medical advances, neither man’s condition is capable of physical improvement.

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Research on mice boosts hopes for ‘male Pill’

Groundbreaking work with lab mice has boosted hopes for a male contraceptive pill, researchers in the United States reported on Thursday.

A compound initially sketched as a candidate for blocking cancer has been found to stop sperm generation in mice, they said.

Once the drug was halted, the rodents recovered fertility and were able to sire perfectly healthy offspring.

“If you stop the drug, there’s complete reversibility,” said Martin Matzuk, director of the Center for Drug Discovery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

The drug is known by its lab name JQ1, after a chemist, Jun Qi, who devised it, initially with the idea of disrupting a cancer-causing gene called BRD4.

But it has also been found to inhibit proteins called bromodomains, one of which, BRDT, plays a key role in generating sperm in the testes.

By latching onto BRDT, JQ1 reduces dramatically both the number and quality of sperm, effectively leaving the mice infertile.

One of the attractions of JQ1 is that it is a small molecule, meaning that it can sneak through the physical barrier between blood vessels and specialised sperm-making cells in the testes. Large molecules cannot do this, a problem that has thwarted work in the past.

Male contraception is limited to the condom or vasectomy, so an easy-to-use reversible option is badly needed.

JQ1 is unlikely to be the desired outcome by itself “because it also binds other members of the bromodomain family,” explained Matzuk.

“However, the data is proof of principle that BRDT is an excellent target for male contraception and provides us with useful information for future drug development.”

The study appears in the US journal Cell.

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Two gene clues for resistance to malaria

Scientists in Germany and Africa on Wednesday said they had found two variants of genes that help to explain why some lucky individuals do not develop severe malaria.

The two variants were netted in a comparison of 1,325 people in the West African state of Ghana who had fallen ill with severe falciparum malaria and of 828 counterparts who were otherwise healthy.

One variant is found in a gene called ATP2B4, they reported in the journal Nature. The gene’s function is to help the passage of calcium through the membrane of red blood cells, which are targeted for infection by the malaria parasite.

The other variant is located near a gene called MARVELD3, controlling a protein on the lining of blood vessels. The gene could play a part in reducing damage that occurs when colonised blood cells stick to tiny blood vessels, according to the research.

The results of the study, led by Christian Timmann of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, were compared with a similar survey among children in Gambia.

A fast-growing tool in basic research, genomic comparison entails sifting through the human genetic code and looking for tiny changes that signify why some people are likelier to fall sick from disease and others less so or maybe not at all.

The goals are to provide diagnostic tools, helping to identify people who are at greater risk, and develop new drugs inspired by the pathways which confer immunity.

Previous work has found that people with the blood group O have a protection against falciparum malaria, the severest form of the disease.

People with sickle-cell disorder, in which blood cells with an abnormal sickle shape can trigger anaemia, have also been found to be resistant to malaria.

In 2010, malaria infected about 216 million people and claimed an estimated 655,000 lives, particularly in Africa and among small children, according to the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO). Other experts say the toll is at least double that estimate.

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West Nile virus kills 17 in Texas, sickens hundreds

The US state of Texas is battling an outbreak of the West Nile virus, with 17 deaths being blamed on the mosquito-borne disease, authorities said Wednesday.

Throughout the state, 381 people have been sickened since the start of the year, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Texas is on track to have the most cases of West Nile illness since the disease first emerged in the state in 2002,” it said in a statement.

The county incorporating Dallas, the ninth-largest city in the United States, has been the hardest hit, prompting the mayor to declare a local state of disaster.

“The City of Dallas is experiencing a widespread outbreak of mosquito-borne West Nile virus and has caused and appears likely to continue to cause widespread and severe illness and loss of life,” Mayor Michael Rawlings said in the proclamation of emergency that takes effect Wednesday.

The virus has claimed ten lives in the county so far, local health authorities said. State officials put the toll at nine.

First discovered in Uganda in 1937, the virus is carried by birds and spread to humans by mosquitoes.

Severe symptoms can include high fever, vision loss and paralysis, while milder manifestations of the virus can range from headaches to skin rashes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Tuesday 693 cases — both confirmed and probable — of the virus have been reported country-wide so far this year, including 26 deaths. Texas tops the list of both cases and fatalities.

In 2011, Texas saw a total of 27 cases and two deaths, the CDC said. Country-wide, 712 confirmed and probable cases and 43 fatalities were reported over that 12-month period.

Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, told AFP that the outbreak could be linked to a mild winter and rainy spring in the state.

But “it’s really not clear at this point,” she said.

In an effort to stem the number of new infections, Texas authorities have urged residents to use insect repellent before heading outdoors, remain inside at dusk and at dawn, dress in protective clothing and drain standing water that could become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Last month, officials in New York City said the West Nile virus had been detected on Staten Island, one of the city’s five boroughs.

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Addiction to heroin can be blocked: research

Addiction to morphine and heroin can be blocked, according to research released on Wednesday which could prove a major breakthrough in treating addicts and in pain relief treatments.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia worked with colleagues at the University of Colorado in the United States to pinpoint a key mechanism in the body’s immune system that amplifies addiction to opioid drugs.

“Our studies have shown conclusively that we can block addiction via the immune system of the brain, without targeting the brain’s wiring,” said Mark Hutchinson from Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences.

“Both the central nervous system and the immune system play important roles in creating addiction, but our studies have shown we only need to block the immune response in the brain to prevent cravings for opioid drugs.”

The results, to be published Thursday in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveal that laboratory studies showed that the drug known as plus-naloxone, which is not yet in clinical use, will selectively block the immune-addiction response.

The researchers said that opioid drugs such as morphine and heroin bind to immune receptors in the brain known as TLR4 which then act as amplifiers for addiction, ramping up the “reward” effect of drugs of abuse to a high degree.

The new drug automatically shuts this effect down, Hutchinson said.

“It really reduces the reward level down to the equivalent of food, sex, and hugs,” he told AFP.

Professor Linda Watkins, from the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, said the work fundamentally changed understanding about opioids, reward and addiction.

“We’ve suspected for some years that TLR4 may be the key to blocking opioid addiction, but now we have the proof,” she said in a statement.

The researchers believe the discovery could prove useful if plus-naloxone could become a co-formulated drug with morphine, to allow patients who need pain relief to take the drug without fear of addiction.

But it could have a second application.

“It can be used by itself potentially in addicted people to help their addiction,” Hutchinson said.

The research team says clinical trials could be underway within 18 months.

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Tobacco firms lose key Australia plain packet case

Global tobacco firms lost a “watershed” court challenge to Australia‘s plain packaging laws for cigarettes on Wednesday in a closely-watched case health advocates said will have a worldwide impact.

The High Court of Australia ruled the measures, forcing cigarettes and tobacco products to be sold in drab, uniform packaging with graphic health warnings from December 1 this year, did not breach the country’s constitution.

Four companies led by British American Tobacco (BAT) had challenged the law, claiming it infringed their intellectual property rights by banning brands and trademarks from packets, and was unconstitutional.

But the court dismissed the move by BAT, Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris, rejecting their argument that the law represented “an acquisition of (their) property otherwise than on just terms”.

“At least a majority of the court is of the opinion that the Act is not contrary to (Australia‘s constitution),” the court said in a brief notice of judgment.

The court’s full reasons will be delivered at a later date, and the tobacco firms were ordered to pay the government’s legal costs.

They cannot appeal further in the Australian legal system.

Canberra estimates there are 15,000 deaths nationally each year from tobacco-related illnesses and that smoking costs more than Aus$ 30 billion (US$ 31.4 billion) a year in healthcare and lost productivity.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the court win was “a victory for all those families who have lost someone to a tobacco related illness”.

“This is a watershed moment for tobacco control around the world,” she said in a statement. “Australia’s actions are being closely watched by governments around the world. Other countries might now consider their next steps.

“Today should be a clarion call to every country grappling with the costs and harm of tobacco and hopefully encourage them to take the next tobacco control steps appropriate for them,” she added.

Other countries mulling similar moves include Britain, Canada and New Zealand, while Roxon said China, South Africa and the European Union were also watching developments closely.

She said the message to the rest of the world was that “big tobacco can be taken on and beaten”.

BAT said it would respect the “bad law”, but warned it would cause black-market cigarette sales to skyrocket as the packaging would be easy to fake and so “only benefit organised crime groups”.

Philip Morris noted that a number of other legal challenges had been launched, including a case in Hong Kong alleging the law breached Australia’s bilateral investment treaty with Hong Kong.

“The legality of plain packaging, including whether Australia will have to pay substantial compensation to Philip Morris Asia, remains at issue and will be considered in other ongoing legal challenges,” said Philip Morris spokesman Chris Argent.

Australia is also facing formal complaints at the World Trade Organization over the plan from countries including Honduras, Ukraine and the Dominican Republic.

Philip Morris said Wednesday’s decision would have “no legal bearing on these international cases or on other jurisdictions”.

“We believe that Philip Morris Asia’s investment treaty case and the WTO challenges are strong,” Argent said.

“As such, there is still a long way to go before all the legal questions about plain packaging are fully explored and answered.”

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Tourists in Nepal warned over cholera outbreak

Nepal on Monday urged foreign travellers to take precautions against cholera after 13 people died in an outbreak in the remote west of the country.

Visitors were urged by GD Thakur, director of the Himalayan nation’s epidemiology and disease control department, to drink boiled or mineral water and “pay attention to their personal care and hygiene”.

“There have been 13 deaths in two months in Doti district in western Nepal but now the situation is under control,” Thakur said.

“For the last 15 years there have always been a few cases of cholera in Nepal in the rainy season. Since mid-April we have detected 15 cholera cases in Kathmandu but there have been no deaths.”

Nepal is nearing the height of its monsoon season, when diarrhoea-related illnesses normally spike because of contaminated water sources.

Cholera is caused by bacteria in water or food, which has usually been contaminated with the faeces of an infected person.

If untreated it can kill within a day through dehydration, with the old and the young the most vulnerable.

Healthcare facilities in most of Nepal’s western districts, including Doti, are primitive, with farm workers often living in dirty, cramped conditions without electricity or access to clean drinking water.

“Foreign visitors who plan to come to Nepal should not worry because the situation is completely under control. We request them to pay attention to their personal care and hygiene,” Thakur said.

“We encourage them to drink either boiled water or mineral water and not to eat leftover food. The department is very vigilant and there is nothing to worry about.”

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Study finds Americans fatter in the South

Fried chicken, fried okra and other fried cliches of US southern cuisine may be making their mark: a new study Tuesday shows that rates of obesity are highest in the US south.

Just about one of every three adults in Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia and Alabama is considered obese, based on a calculation of their weight and height, according to the analysis by non-profits Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, using government figures.

In all, 12 states were found to have adult obesity rates in excess of 30 percent, all in the southern and the midwestern regions of the county.

The leanest states tended to be in the northeast and the southwest — with outdoorsy mountain-state Colorado coming lowest on the obesity ranking.

But even in the thinner states, at least one of every five adults was found to be obese.

“Obesity has contributed to a stunning rise in chronic disease rates and health care costs,” said TFAH director Jeffrey Levi in a statement, adding that “it is one of the biggest health crises the country has ever faced.”

He said there is growing evidence that “making healthier choices easier for Americans” can help people lose weight, eat better and become more active, but he said the US needs to invest more in health-positive initiatives “in order to bend the obesity curve.”

Some health experts, however, criticize efforts that equate improving health with lowering weight. They say it is possible to be extremely fit and also “overweight” by societal norms.

Critics also note that the body-mass index, used to measure obesity across the population, does not take into consideration important factors like muscle mass, which can mean some very fit people — including some Olympic athletes — register as “obese.”

The analysis was based on a telephone survey by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, where respondents were asked, among other questions, their height and weight. For the first time this year, people with only cell phones were included in the survey.

Those with a body-mass index greater than 30 were ranked as obese. A normal BMI is typically considered 18.5 to 24.9.

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