August 13th, 2010
By: Frank Jordans
The World Health Organization says the swine flu pandemic is over.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan says the world is now moving into the “post-pandemic” phase.
She told reporters on Tuesday that the pandemic has “largely run its course.”
Last week WHO said at least 18,449 people had died worldwide since the outbreak began in April 2009.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE.
earlier story is below.
The World Health Organization said it will likely decide Tuesday whether to declare the swine flu pandemic over, months after many national authorities started canceling vaccine orders and shutting down hotlines as the disease ebbed from the headlines.
The decision would be announced in the afternoon by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan after consulting with the global body’s emergency committee of top flu experts, said spokesman Gregory Hartl.
Chan can either decide to keep WHO’s pandemic alert at its current phase 6 level — the highest — or shift to the “post-peak” or “post-pandemic” stages. The latter two would effectively acknowledge that the pandemic is on hold or over.
The number of deaths from swine flu has fallen dramatically in recent months.
Last week, WHO said at least 18,449 people had died worldwide since the outbreak began in April 2009, though it noted that the true figure is likely to be higher. Still, lab-confirmed deaths globally increased by only about 300 in the past two months.
“We haven’t any pandemic anymore,” said Jean-Louis Zuercher, a spokesman for Switzerland’s Office of Public Health.
The Alpine nation gave local authorities permission in May to destroy expired swine flu vaccines after finding its stocks were full of unused supplies. A total of 20 people died from swine flu in Switzerland — out of almost 5,000 across Europe. That figure is far lower than the number of people who would normally die from seasonal flu every year, a fact that has been partly attributed to higher vaccination rates and some level of immunity among older people.
Prof. Angus Nicoll, flu program coordinator at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said a decision to declare the pandemic over would be consistent with the Stockholm-based body’s recent findings.
While flu activity in the northern hemisphere is seasonally low, monitoring in southern hemisphere countries shows that few people are falling seriously ill from swine flu, said Nicoll.
Local spikes in flu deaths, such as seen recently in India, are likely due to better surveillance, he said.
Nevertheless, health officials around the world should prepare for a new type of seasonal flu to appear in the near future that will combine elements of the pandemic A(H1N1) strain, and older A(H3N2) strain and several lesser strains, said Nicoll.
“It looks sort of middle of the road at the moment,” he said.
Nicoll noted that high-risk groups such as pregnant women should continue to get vaccinated because swine flu has been shown to pose a particular risk to them.
Health authorities in Britain shut down their pandemic flu hotline in February and canceled vaccine orders by a third back in April as it became clear the pandemic strain would be less dangerous than feared. Worst-case scenarios had predicted up to 65,000 deaths in Britain. In the end there were 457 confirmed deaths from swine flu.
In Germany, authorities are meeting later this week to discuss who is going to pick up the bill for the 34 million doses of vaccines that were ordered and mostly not used.
January 22, 2010
The Wall Street Journal
By Terence Roth and Laurence Norman
European governments on Friday gave a mixed reaction to American President Barack Obama’s initiative to restrict the activities of big U.S. banks, calling for an international agreement before they will commit to the same course.
Mr. Obama on Thursday outlined a plan to prevent commercial banks and institutions that own banks from operating and investing in hedge funds and private-equity firms, while capping trading activity done for in-house accounts.
The move appears to be setting a barrier between commercial and investment banking, similar to the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that separated investment and commercial banking. That separation was repealed in 1999.
In Europe, major banks have traditionally adhered to the one-stop-banking, or “universal bank,” concept of bundling traditional commercial banking with investment banking and other financial services under one roof.
Changing this, European governments believe, makes an internationally binding agreement the only alternative to prevent competing banking policies between banking centers. London, for example, would be at a competitive disadvantage to Frankfurt or Zurich if the U.K. government followed the U.S. lead but the German and Swiss authorities didn’t.
In the U.K., whose finance-heavy economy was one of the biggest casualties of the credit crunch, the Labour government has backed off from any separation of risk in large banks or caps on size.
Paul Myners, the U.K. Treasury’s financial services minister, said Friday that the U.K. government won’t be following the U.S. plan to reform banking.
“We’re not going to separate investment banks from universal banks, retail banks,” he said in an interview on BBC. The current government’s approach is to require much more capital to be required by the riskier parts of the bank and to put a firewall in place that ensures that those parts of the bank can never put at risk the whole bank or the system, he said.
But George Osborne, finance spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, welcomed the Obama plan. But he told the BBC that the U.K. should consider similar rules only if there is an international agreement. “It needs to be done here in Britain as part of an international agreement,” Mr. Osborne said. “We are committed to getting international agreement on this.”
That puts bank reform at center stage in the U.K. election campaign, with the Labour government seen as hard-pressed to reject populist issues such as bank reform.
“Gordon Brown has repeatedly opposed the specific action which President Obama has today announced,” Mr. Osborne said in an earlier statement. “He now looks very isolated as a defender of the old model of finance that he presided over for years and that went so catastrophically wrong.” The Conservatives are favored to win the election, which is due to take place by June.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde also welcomed the U.S. plan, calling it a good step forward. “I’m delighted today to see that the U.S. president is following suit and considering that regulation … is decisive in framing and limiting excesses in the banking sector,” Ms. Lagarde said during an interview on Europe 1 radio.
In Berlin, the government said the Obama initiative should be assessed within international forums. “The U.S. president’s new proposals are helpful suggestions for further discussions on an international level. As known, the [German] government strives toward internationally coordinated solutions as far as the addressed problems of ‘too big to fail’ are concerned.”
The U.S. initiative is a rejection of the European “universal bank” model, traditionally championed by Germany. The Obama administration’s plan to limit the absolute size of banks also contrasts sharply with the slowness of German regulators, in particular, to come to grips with the issue of banks that are “too big to fail.”
Germany’s largest private-sector banks have become even larger as a result of the crisis, with Deutsche Bank AG intervening to acquire Sal. Oppenheim, Germany’s largest independent private bank, and Commerzbank AG absorbing troubled Dresdner Bank with the help of substantial bailout funds from the government.
Axel Weber, head of the German central bank as well as a member of the council of the European Central Bank, has been a staunch defender of Germany’s universal banks.
Mr. Weber last year observed that the wave of mergers sponsored by U.S. authorities in the wake of the Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapse had amounted to a de facto rapprochement of the U.S. and German models of banking, and cited it as evidence of the advantages of the German system.
January 22, 2010
By Tim Pearce
A study by British researchers found that people with high levels of the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their blood have higher rates of thyroid diseases — conditions which affect the body’s metabolism.
PFOA is a common chemical, used in industrial and consumer products including non-stick cooking pans, stain-proof carpet coatings and waterproofing for fabrics.
The study, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, did not establish whether PFOA was causing higher levels of thyroid disease.
The researchers said the link might be complex and indirect, and added that their work highlighted a need for further studies of the human health effects of low-level exposures to chemicals like PFOA.
“We need to know what they (these chemicals) are doing,” said Tamara Galloway, a professor of ecotoxicology at Exeter University, who led the research.
Previous studies of people living near sites where PFOA is manufactured have not found an association between exposure to these chemicals and thyroid function, and some other scientists advised caution about drawing conclusions from the study.
“Studies like this cannot tell us that the two things are definitely linked,” said Ashley Grossman, professor of neuroendocrinology at Queen Mary, University of London.
“We also don’t know whether this chemical is directly affecting the thyroid. Thyroid disease is often caused by the body’s own immune system attacking the thyroid gland so perhaps this chemical is having some effect on the immune system, rather than directly on the thyroid.”
The thyroid, located in the neck, is a kind of master gland, secreting hormones affecting metabolism. People with low thyroid function may lose hair, gain weight and feel sluggish, while those with overactive thyroids may lose weight and feel their hearts race. Both conditions can be treated.
The British researchers looked at 3966 American adults aged 20 and above whose blood serum was sampled between 1999 and 2006 for PFOA. They found that those with the highest PFOA concentrations (above 5.7 nanograms per milliliter) were more than twice as likely to report current thyroid disease than individuals with the lowest levels (below 4.0ng/ml).
Thyroid diseases are much more common in women than men, but in terms of the link between PFOA and thyroid disease, the researchers found no difference between the sexes.
Galloway and colleagues stressed the need for more work but said their study suggested it is “plausible that the compounds could disrupt binding of thyroid hormones in the blood or alter their metabolism in the liver.”
“This new evidence does not rule out the possibility that having thyroid disease changes the way the body handles PFOA,” they added, and its presence “might also prove to be simply a marker for some other factor associated with thyroid disease.”
January 22, 2010
By David Gutierrez
Prisoners in British prisons get better nutrition than patients in the country’s hospitals, according to a study conducted by researchers from Bournemouth University.
“It’s incredible that so many hospitals are failing to serve healthy meals,” said Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb. “If prisons can serve good food, then so can hospitals.”
The study found that the primary problem in hospitals is that no one pays attention to make sure that patients eat the food prepared for them — as many sick and elderly people either have suppressed appetites or have physical problems that interfere with their eating. Yet no one is designated in most hospitals to assist patients who have trouble eating. A total of 11 million meals are thrown out uneaten every year, the report found.
Food is often prepared hot and then left sitting out until an orderly gets around to taking it to patients, at which point it is often cold and unappetizing. Food may be placed out of some patients’ reach, and other patients miss meals because they have tests or other procedures during a facility’s only designated meal times.
“Ward staff also don’t actually know how much patients are eating because it is domestics who clear the trays away,” researcher Heather Hartwell said. “This is an example of fragmentation in hospitals that does not necessarily happen in prisons.”
The report found that 242 patients died from malnutrition in British hospitals in 2007, higher than any year since 1997. More than 8,000 other patients were discharged under-nourished.
Hospitals also spend significantly less on each meal than prisons do, the report found. The food at prisons tends to be of higher quality — high in carbohydrates and low in fat — and prisoners are more likely to eat communally, which has been shown to increase food intake.
“If you are in prison then the diet you get is extremely good in terms of nutritional content,” researcher John Edwards said. ‘The food that is provided is actually better than most civilians have.”
January 22, 2010
By E. Huff
GE Healthcare, a British subsidiary of multinational giant General Electric, is suing Henrik Thomsen, a senior radiologist and professor of radiology, for sounding the alarm about the dangers of the company’s medical imaging drug, Omniscan. After witnessing kidney patients who had received the drug develop potentially fatal conditions, Thomsen publicly exposed the drug’s dangers which caused a firestorm of controversy.
In an effort to muzzle Thomsen, GE Healthcare has already spent more than 380,000 British pounds, or about $610,000, in legal fees pursuing litigation against him. Utilizing loopholes in Britain’s libel laws, the company is alleging that Thomsen falsely accused GE of suppressing sensitive information about the drug’s risks at an Oxford scientific congress presentation in 2007.
Investigation into these claims has shown that Thomsen accurately described his clinical experience and that no such misrepresentation took place. When questioned about this fact, GE spokesmen had no response other than to suggest that Thomsen indirectly slandered the company through insinuation.
Many in the scientific community have expressed outrage over the blatant misuse of British libel laws to silence honest and open debate and dissemination of unbiased information about medical procedures and drugs. Scientists and clinicians who act on behalf of patient safety by highlighting the facts rather than corporate talking points should not be gagged by powerful corporations who leverage their influence and money to manipulate the legal system for their own gain, say those who support libel reform.
Hundreds of people in both the U.K. and the U.S. have died from the side effects of Omniscan and two other similar medical imaging drugs. Filled with toxic contrasting agents like gadolinium, a toxic heavy metal, Omniscan is implicated in causing nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, a skin condition that can cripple a person and possibly cause death.
Legal action is being taken against the companies that produce these drugs by patients in both the U.S. and the U.K. ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization in the U.S. whose purpose is to serve the public interest, has been closely watching the effects of medical imaging drugs, divulging the truth about the dangers they pose.
Nevertheless, GE Healthcare is holding its ground in the fight against Thomsen. As it stands, the company has achieved success in silencing Thomsen as he now refuses to discuss the risks associated with Omniscan in public forums. Until libel reform is enacted, officials believe that companies will continue to misuse the courts to silence the truth and achieve their own ends.
November 19, 2009
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, Nov 18 (Reuters) – More than half of Britons being offered vaccination against pandemic H1N1 flu are turning it down because they fear side-effects or think the virus is too mild to bother, a survey of doctors showed on Wednesday.
Many of the 107 family doctors polled by Britain’s Pulse magazine said there was widespread resistance from patients and on average only 46 percent of those offered the vaccination agree to have it.
Doctors reported particular difficulties in persuading pregnant women to be vaccinated against the virus, according to Pulse, a trade newspaper for doctors.
“In all the pregnant women we’ve offered it to, I think only about one in 20 has agreed,” Dr Chris Udenze, a family doctor based in Nottingham, central England, said in the survey.
Scepticism has been growing in Britain and other European countries about health authorities’ handling of the H1N1 pandemic because the number of people infected has been lower than originally feared.
Britain began a vaccination programme on Oct. 21 for high-risk hospital patients, front-line healthcare workers, children in seasonal flu risk groups, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.
British health authorities have twice revised down their worst-case scenarios for H1N1 flu, which was declared a pandemic in June and has killed more than 7,000 people worldwide, according to latest data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Original estimates that as many as 65,000 could die from H1N1 in Britain have now been cut to a prediction of around 1,000 deaths — way below the average annual toll of 4,000 to 8,000 deaths from seasonal winter flu.
Richard Hoey, Pulse’s editor, said his survey showed that many patients, and a substantial number of doctors were “unconvinced there is sufficient evidence that swine flu vaccination is safe and necessary”.
A spokesman for the government’s health department said it was “too early to speculate on uptake rates” for H1N1 vaccines but that doctors were working hard to reach as many patients as possible with their initial supplies.
“We recommend that people in the at risk groups accept the offer of vaccination,” he said. “People in the risk groups are more likely to be severely ill if they catch swine flu, and the vaccine provides the best protection against the disease.” (Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)