Two weeks ago, an accident in the Red Sea sliced through three fiber-optic telecommunications cables that carried phone calls and connected Internet users in Africa and the Middle East. Then, on Saturday, a ship dropped its anchor at an inopportune spot off the Kenyan city of Mombasa, severing another cable. With those four cables out of commission, a single cable is left to shuttle information into and out of East Africa, slowing down connection speeds by 20% in six countries in the regions for weeks until the other cables are fixed.
It seems, in the increasingly interconnected and wireless world, like a clumsy system at best to rely on cables crisscrossing the ocean floor—particularly when two relatively small maritime mishaps are enough to throw that system out of whack. But as Clay Dillow explains over at Popular Science, these undersea links are actually an impressively efficient, powerful, and—yes—stable way to connect the globe:
Nodding syndrome, a disease that has sickened more than a thousand children in northern Uganda since the summer, is named for its most distinctive symptom: involuntary, at times violent bobbing of the head, like someone repeatedly nodding yes or snapping out of a doze. Outbreaks of nodding syndrome cropped up in South Sudan this summer, in the same region of Uganda two years ago, in southern Sudan—not yet an independent nation—in 2001, and periodically in remote mountain villages in Tanzania. Nearly half a century has passed since the first reported case, but epidemiologists still have only a rudimentary understanding of this mysterious disease. They’ve found few hints as to what might cause it, and no effective treatments.
Remnants of a Cryptocarya woodii leaf, which researchers
say was part of the oldest bedding ever found
In a South African cave, researchers have uncovered traces of the oldest known human bedding, 77,000-year-old mats made of grasses, leaves, and other plant material. While it’s not especially surprising that early humans would have found a way to improve the cold, generally unpleasant experience of sleeping on a cave floor, archaeologists know little about our ancestors’ sleeping habits and habitats.
New satellite images have revealed more than a hundred ancient fortified settlements still standing in the Sahara. The settlements, located in what today is southern Libya, were built by the Garamantes, a people who ruled much of the area for nearly a thousand years until their empire fragmented around 700 AD. Information about the Garamantes is relatively scarce: Other than the accounts of classical historians (who aren’t known for careful accuracy) and excavations of the Garamantian capital city in the 1960s, archaeologists haven’t had a lot to go on. During the decades-long reign of Muammar Gadhafi, antiquities and archaeology weren’t exactly a national priority; the fortresses were largely ignored. As David Mattingly, the British archaeologist who led the project, said to OurAmazingPlanet of the discoveries: “It is like someone coming to England and suddenly discovering all the medieval castles.”
Blood smear of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite
Preliminary results from the largest ever field trial of a malaria vaccine show the vaccine cut infant’s risk of getting the disease by half. In development for more than 25 years by GlaxoSmithKline and others, the vaccine cut the risk of catching severe malaria by 47 percent amongst infants ages 5 months to 17 months in the year after receiving it. 6,000 kids enrolled in the study, whose early results were published yesterday in the The New England Journal of Medicine and announced at a Seattle conference organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of the study and other efforts to combat malaria. The vaccine represents the first against a parasite-borne infection and has been notoriously difficult to develop since the protozoan that causes the illness (mainly Plasmodium falciparum) changes shape as it moves from the blood to the liver and back again.
While 47 percent isn’t very effective—most vaccines aren’t approved until they reach 90 percent or better—even this level of protection could save millions of lives, Glaxo’s chief executive Andrew Witty tells the New York Times. Malaria kills an estimated 780,000 per year, despite being preventable and treatable, mostly claiming the lives of African children.
[Via The Guardian]
Image: CDC / Wikimedia
For African women looking to avoid pregnancy, hormone shots seem like a good choice. They don’t require your partner to take responsibility for birth control, and they can be given once and then forgotten about for months. But that could be shaken by a study of nearly 4,000 women in seven African countries that found that hormone shots double a woman’s risk of contracting HIV, as well as doubling the risk of her passing it on to a partner. And it doesn’t appear to be because of decreased use of condoms in couples where the woman is on the shot: the researchers, who published their work in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, accounted for that, and found that the effects were still there.
Why this happens isn’t clear, but it’s possible that the hormones in the shot may alter the environment of the female reproductive tract to make it a more livable place for HIV. The team found that those on the shot have higher concentrations of the virus in their genital fluid than those not on birth control, though blood levels remain the same, suggesting that there’s something to the idea that the vaginal environment is altered. More work probing this finding will be required, perhaps including a randomized controlled study, which this was not. But going forward, the researchers say, doctors providing birth control shots in clinics in Africa, where the prevalence of HIV is a public health crisis, should emphasize that condoms should be still be used in order to avoid spreading or contracting the virus.
[via the NYTimes]
Image courtesy of a.drian / flickr
What’s the News: A daily dose of anti-HIV drugs can significantly reduce the likelihood that straight men and women will contract HIV from an infected partner, according to two new clinical studies. These studies add strong evidence to earlier findings that taking HIV drugs can prevent healthy people from contracting the disease, and are the first to show that the drugs reliably lower transmission risk in heterosexuals.
What’s the News: We’ve all probably heard the myth, made popular by Disney’s Dumbo, that elephants are afraid of mice. While that idea may not be exactly true (video), elephants do make sure to avoid another tiny critter: bees. Knowing this, zoologists from the University of Oxford loaded fences in Kenya with beehives, in hopes of deterring roaming African elephants from eating or trampling farmers’ crops. Now, two years later, the researchers are reporting in the African Journal of Ecology that the novel barriers are working wondrously and could be a viable option for protecting African croplands.
What’s the News: The world’s population is projected to reach 7 billion this October and continue climbing, reaching 10.1 billion by the end of the 21st century, says an official United Nations report (PDF) released earlier this week. This is a significant departure from earlier projections that said the population would peak at just over 9 billion, then level off and even slightly decline.