Monday, October 30, 2006

Africa’s World of Forced Labor, in a 6-Year-Old’s Eyes

This article highlights the miserable life of child slaves in Western Africa. My experiences in Africa seem to confirm much of what this article states regarding the lack of respect for individual life, the differing attitudes toward children between here and much of the third world, the terrible choices people make in the face of overwhelming poverty...

Mark Kwadwo is 6 years old. About 30 pounds, dressed in a pair of blue and red underpants and a Little Mermaid T-shirt, he looks more like an oversized toddler than a boat hand. He is too little to understand why he has wound up in this fishing village, a two-day trek from his home.

But the three older boys who work with him know why. Like Mark, they are indentured servants, leased by their parents to Mr. Takyi for as little as $20 a year.

Until their servitude ends in three or four years, they are as trapped as the fish in their nets, forced to work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in a trade that even adult fishermen here call punishing and, at times, dangerous.

Mr. Takyi’s boys — conscripts in a miniature labor camp, deprived of schooling, basic necessities and freedom — are part of a vast traffic in children that supports West and Central African fisheries, quarries, cocoa and rice plantations and street markets. The girls are domestic servants, bread bakers, prostitutes. The boys are field workers, cart pushers, scavengers in abandoned gem and gold mines.

The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates that 1.2 million are sold into servitude every year in an illicit trade that generates as much as $10 billion annually.

John R. Miller, the director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the term trafficking failed to convey the brutality of what was occurring.

“A child does not consent,” he said. “The loss of choice, the deception, the use of frauds, the keeping of someone at work with little or no pay, the threats if they leave — it is slavery.”

Some West African families see it more as a survival strategy. In a region where nearly two-thirds of the population lives on less than $1 a day, the compensation for the temporary loss of a child keeps the rest of the family from going hungry. Some parents argue that their children are better off learning a trade than starving at home.


To reduce child trafficking significantly, said Marilyn Amponsah Annan, who is in charge of children’s issues for the Ghanaian government, adults must be convinced that children have the right to be educated, to be protected, and to be spared adult burdens — in short, the right to a childhood.

“You see so many children with so many fishermen,” she said. “Those little hands, those little bodies. It is always very sad, because this is the world of adults.

“It was hunger, to get a little money; the whole today, I have not eaten,” said Efua Mansah, whose 7-year-old son, Kwabena, boarded a small blue bus with Mr. Takyi four years ago for the 250-mile trip to Kete Krachi.

She has seen him only twice since then. In all that time, Mr. Takyi has paid her $66, she said, a third of which she spent on buses and ferries to pick up the money.


Mr. Takyi, who sleeps and works in the same gray T-shirt, is disarmingly frank about his household. He can afford to feed the children only twice a day, he said, and cannot clothe them adequately. He himself has been paddling the lake since age 8.

“I can understand how the children feel,” he said. “Because I didn’t go to school, this is work I must do. I also find it difficult.”

Yet he does not hesitate to break a branch from the nearest tree to wake the boys for the midnight shift.

“Almost all the boys are very troublesome,” he complained. “I want them to be humble children, but they don’t obey my orders.”

Running away is a common fantasy among the boys. Kofi Nyankom, who came from Mark’s hometown three years ago, at age 9, was one of the few to actually try it.

Last December, he ran to town half-naked, his back a mass of bruises. He said Mr. Takyi had tied up him and whipped him.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Garden of Earthly Delight

With Her Malawi Adoption, Did Madonna Save a Life or Buy a Baby?

Viewpoint: The problem is that David was no orphan, and moral instinct tells us that a father's love should count for something

Madonna is so easy to revile that you start to wish she'd make it a little harder. She knows symbolism like a Renaissance painter, and so you wonder whether all her world really is a stage, whether she knew that the whole world would watch her dance in the dusty Malawian village in her crisp white linens with the cosmically cute baby boy strapped to her back; that the press would be there waiting, scribbling, flashing when Baby David arrived with a bodyguard and nanny to join Madonna in her $15 million London home. Did she hope that by courting controversy, the stories that followed would get around to mentioning that Baby David's his life expectancy was in the process of doubling from 40 in Malawi to 78 in Britain? Or that she has donated $3 million to help 900,000 Malawian orphans with food, school, shelter?

Behind America's Different Perceptions of God

Chck out the graphic in the article: "How we view God"

An extensive survey divided religion into four ways of seeing God, which they say is a better indicator of political and moral attitudes than denomination

Iraq and Your Wallet

For every additional second we stay in Iraq, we taxpayers will end up paying an additional $6,300.

So aside from the rising body counts and all the other good reasons to adopt a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, here’s another: We are spending vast sums there that would be better spent rescuing the American health care system, developing alternative forms of energy and making a serious effort to reduce global poverty.

But now several careful studies have attempted to tote up various costs, and they suggest that the tab will be more than $1 trillion — perhaps more than $2 trillion. The higher sum would amount to $6,600 per American man, woman and child.

“The total costs of the war, including the budgetary, social and macroeconomic costs, are likely to exceed $2 trillion,” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia


Just to put that $2 trillion in perspective, it is four times the additional cost needed to provide health insurance for all uninsured Americans for the next decade.


The administration didn’t raise taxes to pay for the war, so we’re financing it by borrowing from China and other countries. Those borrowing costs are estimated to range from $264 billion to $308 billion in interest.

The bottom line is that not only have we squandered 2,800 American lives and considerable American prestige in Iraq, but we’re also paying $18,000 per household to do so.

We still face the choice of whether to remain in Iraq indefinitely or to impose a timetable and withdraw U.S. troops. These studies suggest that every additional year we keep our troops in Iraq will add $200 billion to our tax bills.

My vote would be to spend a chunk of that sum instead fighting malaria, AIDS and maternal mortality, bolstering American schools, and assuring health care for all Americans. We’re spending $380,000 for every extra minute we stay in Iraq, and we can find better ways to spend that money.

(subscription required)

War in Sudan? Not Where the Oil Wealth Flows

War in Sudan? Not Where the Oil Wealth Flows

Despite the image of Sudan as a land of cracked earth and starving people, the economy is booming, with little help from the West. Oil has turned it into one of the fastest growing economies in Africa — if not the world — emboldening the nation’s already belligerent government and giving it the wherewithal to resist Western demands to end the conflict in Darfur.

American sanctions have kept many companies from Europe and the United States out of Sudan, but firms from China, Malaysia, India, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are racing in. Direct foreign investment has shot up to $2.3 billion this year, from $128 million in 2000, all while the American government has tried to tighten the screws.

But the country’s G.D.P. grew 8 percent in 2005, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is predicted to increase by 12 percent this year. Cotton and other agricultural products have traditionally been the engines of the economy here, but the new growth comes largely because Sudan has substantially increased its crude oil production to 512,000 barrels a day — a drop compared with Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s, but enough to bring billions of dollars to a country that until recently was one of the poorest on earth.

The traditional meal of ful, a bean stew eaten for breakfast and lunch, is giving way to kebabs, yogurt, hamburgers and hot dogs.

“We even have Pringles,” said Mohammed Abdelwahab Salih, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who recently started a business in Khartoum designing Web sites.

Mr. Salih remembers the days, not so long ago, when he used to have to wait in line for hours for a single loaf of bread.

“And it wasn’t even good bread,” he said. “When we got home, we had to pick out the flies.”


“The Americans are not a threat, but if the international community lines up against us, ahh, that is a different issue,” said Osama Daoud Abdellatif, chairman of the DAL Group, a conglomerate that owns the Coke factory, the Ozone Café and a number of other businesses. “Everything has been going so well, but Darfur could spoil the party.”

Worrisome New Link: AIDS Drugs and Leprosy

With affordable AIDS drugs arriving in many poor countries, experts say a startling and worrisome side effect has emerged: in some patients, the treatment uncovers a hidden leprosy infection.

And in the third world, where 300,000 new cases of leprosy were discovered last year and where 38 million are infected with the AIDS virus, the problem will inevitably get worse, experts say.

“This is just the peak of the iceberg,” said Dr. William Levis, who treats leprosy patients at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. “It’s early in the game. Most physicians don’t even think about leprosy, so there’s probably much more around than we know.”

Experts say the problem arises when the AIDS drugs cause the immune system to recover. It then generates new white blood cells that carry the bacteria from old, silent leprosy infections to the skin of the face, hands and feet.

That is a new twist on a medical paradox that has confounded tropical-disease specialists for 20 years....

Monday, October 23, 2006

A new use for google earth

Beginning Sunday evening, when you check out Google Earth's map of the United States, you'll see little stars bearing the likeness of the American flag dotting the landscape. Click on the one where you live, and a box will come up with the candidates running for House and Senate seats. The list goes beyond Ds and Rs to include the Green Party and even the Pirate Party candidate in Iowa.

The most practical feature is the link in each box to a Web site often used by reporters, the Center for Responsive Politics. Here, you can check out the political contributions each candidate has received and follow the money yourself.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Darfur on 60 minutes tonight

Anti-Genocide Activists,

Tonight, CBS� �60 Minutes� will air a report by journalist Scott Pelley about the continuing genocide in Darfur � along with the remarkable story of a boy�s schoolbooks found in the ashes of his burned home.

Pelley, denied a visa by Sudan, sneaks across the border from Chad in search of the boy, swept into the heart of the first genocide of the twenty-first century.

Watch a preview of the report.

The episode will air tonight at 7:00 PM Eastern/Pacific. For more information, check the CBS website.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?

Incredible...(but not surprising I guess)

FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

Barney and Baghdad

Friedman arguing that the Jihadists are trying to influence U.S. elections...

Total U.S. troop deaths in Iraq this month have reached at least 53, putting October on a path to be the third deadliest month of the entire war for the U.S. military. Iraqis are being killed at a rate of 100 per day now. The country has descended into such a Hobbesian state that even Saddam called on Iraqis from his prison cell to stop killing each other. He told insurgents, “Remember you are God’s soldiers and, therefore, you must show genuine forgiveness and put aside revenge over the spilled blood of your sons and brothers.” When Saddam is urging calm, you know things have hit a new low. (subscription required)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

African Stocks Outpace Emergent Peers

LONDON -- Emerging markets from Asia to Latin America got a rude awakening earlier this year when investors withdrew money on fears of a global economic slowdown.

Markets across Africa, though, are showing some of the best returns of the year
, outperforming the benchmark MSCI Emerging Market Index of global emerging-market stocks, amid their relative isolation from global capital flows and economic growth.


While the MSCI index fell 11% in May, however, two of Africa's most-promising sub-Saharan markets, Kenya and Nigeria -- which have both more than doubled in size in U.S. dollar terms during the past three years -- rose 6.5% and 5.6% respectively, according to Investec Asset Management.

Kenya's Nairobi Stock Exchange has seen its NSE 20 share index rise 20% in U.S. dollar terms from January through September while Nigeria's All Share Index is up 40%, according to Liquid Africa, a financial-services company based in South Africa that tracks 19 African stock exchanges on its Web site.

Indeed, the continent's so-called frontier markets, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Mauritius and Botswana, are up an average of 26% so far this year in dollar terms, according to Liquid Africa. By comparison, the MSCI Emerging Market Index, which includes just three African countries -- South Africa, Egypt and Morocco -- has risen 9.5% during the same period.

Most of the markets are tiny, often with stock-market capitalizations of less than $3 billion, and most stocks are illiquid. Although there are few restrictions to foreign investment, few mutual funds in the U.S. and Europe invest in them. Total market capitalization across the continent's major markets totaled $791.7 billion in August according to Liquid Africa -- around a fifth of the size of the London Stock Exchange. South Africa is by far the dominant market with $527 billion capitalization.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bangladesh banker wins Nobel Peace Prize

Can't argue with a 99% loan repayment rate! There are numerous websites now which allow individuals like you or I to provide micropayment loans to individuals all over the world. One such site is

OSLO, Norway - Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for their pioneering use of tiny, seemingly insignificant loans — microcredit — to lift millions out of poverty.

Through Yunus's efforts and those of the bank he founded, poor people around the world, especially women, have been able to buy cows, a few chickens or the cell phone they desperately needed to get ahead.

The 65-year-old economist said he would use part of his share of the $1.4 million award money to create a company to make low-cost, high-nutrition food for the poor. The rest would go toward setting up an eye hospital for the poor in Bangladesh, he said.

The food company, to be known as Social Business Enterprise, will sell food for a nominal price, he said.

"Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty," the Nobel Committee said in its citation. "Microcredit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights."

Grameen Bank was the first lender to hand out microcredit, giving very small loans to poor Bangladeshis who did not qualify for loans from conventional banks. No collateral is needed and repayment is based on an honor system.

Anyone can qualify for a loan — the average is about $200 — but recipients are put in groups of five and once two members of the group have borrowed money, the other three must wait for the funds to be repaid before they get a loan.

Grameen, which means rural in the Bengali language, says the method encourages social responsibility. The results are hard to argue with — the bank says it has a 99 percent repayment rate.

Since Yunus gave out his first loans in 1974, microcredit schemes have spread throughout the developing world and are now considered a key approach to alleviating poverty and spurring development.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Genentech's Profit Climbs 58% Amid Pressure to Pare Drug Prices

The South San Francisco, Calif., biotechnology company yesterday reported net income for the period of $568 million, or 53 cents a share, compared with $359 million, or 33 cents a share, in the year-ago quarter. Revenue rose 36% to $2.38 billion, compared with $1.75 billion.

Genentech faces challenges on several fronts. Its mainstay colon-cancer drug, Avastin, has demonstrated effectiveness against several forms of cancer, and may be approved for use in lung-cancer patients as early as today. Yet growth in Avastin sales could begin to slow, in part, because cancer specialists

already use the drug against a number of different tumors, limiting its upside.

Sales of several Genentech drugs, including Avastin, fell slightly short of analyst estimates in the third quarter. The major exception was Lucentis, Genentech's new drug for age-related macular degeneration, which posted sales of $153 million, well above expectations of roughly $30 million.

Genentech also may face resistance to the price of its drugs. Using Avastin to treat lung cancer requires twice the dose needed in colon cancer, meaning the drug could cost patients or their insurers close to $100,000 a year.

Two weeks ago, Genentech competitor Amgen Inc. announced plans to cap out-of-pocket costs for a cancer drug to 5% of patients' income. Mr. Clark said Genentech was looking into the possibility of expanding a program that assists patients with the cost of drug co-payments, but said the company had no formal announcement yet.

In Brazil, Field Trials To Treat World's Poor

More good work from the Gates Foundation...

The global health community has known for a long time about the wide-ranging complications that hookworm causes, but pharmaceutical companies have had little incentive to develop a vaccine: Most of those infected are too poor ever to pay for medicine, so recovering expensive development costs would be a long shot.
But now the medical ghetto of neglected diseases -- the field concerned with ailments affecting the 2.7 billion people who live on less than $2 a day -- is undergoing a transformation, thanks to an influx of cash from wealthy philanthropists and an emerging development model that promotes public-private partnerships.

The effects of the funding are hard to miss: Since 1975, only 13 drugs targeting neglected diseases have been launched, according to a study published this year by the London School of Economics and Political Science. But at the end of 2004 alone, 63 projects to develop such drugs were underway, according to the study, and standard attrition rates indicate that eight or nine of those would reach the market.

Although sub-Saharan Africa is generally hit hardest by neglected diseases, Brazil has emerged as an important testing ground for the approach. In addition to the hookworm trial, tests across the country are targeting diseases such as leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis.

FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills

Article references my good friend Bassem, whom I got to know well when he was stationed as the legal attache in Saudi Arabia--one of the most upstanding individuals I have ever met...
Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United States, only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, according to new FBI statistics.

Some of the new information about language abilities at the FBI has emerged in connection with a lawsuit by one of the FBI's highest-ranking Arabic speakers, Special Agent Bassem Youssef, who sued the Justice Department and the bureau alleging retaliation after he complained that he was cut out of terrorism cases after the Sept. 11 attacks. Youssef, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Egypt, is one of only six FBI agents who scored a 4 for "advanced professional proficiency" in Arabic on standardized speaking tests administered by the Interagency Language Roundtable for federal agencies. Youssef's attorney, Stephen M. Kohn, said the statistics indicate that most FBI agents have no way to gauge the accuracy of translated materials and must rely on linguists or other third parties for their information. "How do you fight a war with that kind of disadvantage?" Kohn asked.

Across Europe, Worries on Islam Spread to Center - New York Times

This article echoes conversations with numerous individuals last week while in England. The question of reconciliation of Islam and Western values, cultures etc... seems to be on many European's minds at the moment...

Europe appears to be crossing an invisible line regarding its Muslim minorities: more people in the political mainstream are arguing that Islam cannot be reconciled with European values.

Thanks to guest blogger.

Despite guest blogger's busy schedule in medical school, he was able to get up several insightful posts which were much appreciated....If anyone else would like to be a guest blogger or better yet, a coblogger, please let me know!

Why Are They Poor?

A five-part series examines some of the factors impeding development in Africa,

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Generating Power from Kites

Researchers in Italy have high hopes for a new wind-power generator that resembles a backyard drying rack on steroids. Despite its appearance, the Kite Wind Generator, or KiteGen for short, could produce as much energy as a nuclear power plant.

Jailed for 34 days, Tribune reporter writes: What I saw in Darfur (by Paul Salopek)

A compelling account of a reporter jailed in Darfur...

One cloudless Sunday morning in early August, while traveling on a desert road in the remote Darfur region of western Sudan, a teenager sporting dreadlocks and an AK-47 rifle stopped my vehicle. My translator, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, stepped out and offered the youth a cigarette--standard etiquette in African war zones. But Moussa immediately returned to the car, frowning.

In this incidental way, I learned that we had just lost our freedom.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Conflict Diamonds

Having just returned from Sierra Leone several days ago, diamonds have been on my mind. As oil in Nigeria seems to encourage corruption, diamonds seem to have done the same in Sierra Leone...Here are some current links

ANTWERP, Belgium, Oct 9 (Reuters Life!) - The biggest diamond to be found in 13 years, the "Lesotho Promise," was sold on Monday at auction for more than $12 million and is expected to fetch in excess of $20 million once it is cut up. ADVERTISEMENT The 603-carat (120 gram) diamond, named after the tiny African mountain kingdom where it was found, went under the hammer at the Antwerp Diamond Center and was sold to the South African Diamond Corporation, owner of luxury jewellers Graff.
(I wonder how much money the woman who found the diamond will receive...)

The RUF began its jewelry heist in 1991, using the support of neighboring Liberia to capture Sierra Leone's vast wealth of diamond mines. Since then, the rebels have carried out one of the most brutal military campaigns in recent history, to enrich themselves as well as the genteel captains of the diamond industry living far removed from the killing fields.

The RUF's signature tactic was amputation of civilians: Over the course of the decade-long war, the rebels have mutilated some 20,000 people, hacking off their arms, legs, lips, and ears with machetes and axes. This campaign was the RUF's grotesquely ironic response to Sierra Leone President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's 1996 plea for citizens to “join hands for peace.” Another 50,000 to 75,000 have been killed. The RUF's goal was to terrorize the population and enjoy uncontested dominion over the diamond fields...

Beginning as early as 1998, the same year Al Qaeda operatives reportedly blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Sudan, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network began buying diamonds from the RUF of Sierra Leone, according to FBI sources quoted in the Washington Post.

The paper also reported that two of the Al Qaeda men implicated in those attacks—Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed—were in Sierra Leone in 2001, overseeing RUF diamond production.

As recently as mid-2001, a mere three months before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Al Qaeda had laundered millions of dollars by buying untraceable diamonds from the rebels. In the wake of Sept. 11, the United States and its allies in the “war on terrorism” froze more than $100 million worth of Al Qaeda assets worldwide. But the terrorists likely have an ace in the hole in the form of diamonds from Sierra Leone, wealth that can be easily and quickly sold and is virtually untraceable....

SURAT: This Christmas, Blood Diamond may take the sheen off Surat’s glittering Rs 45,000-crore gems and jewellery industry. Traders in the city, where 9 of the world’s 11 rough diamonds are cut or polished, fear their business may bleed after the release of Warner Bros’ forthcoming flick Blood Diamond, a film based on a story about the business of 'conflict diamonds' and how its perpetrators used the profits to fund terrorist cells to establish brutal dictatorships in poor African nations.

Breaking the Cycle

A comprehensive article on current attempts at malaria vaccine development with depictions of the sad state of health systems and infrastructure in Eastern Africa...

The U.S. Army and its partners have been trying to develop a malaria vaccine for decades. But given a disease that has thwarted man for centuries and gets scant attention from the West, is this a battle they can win?

Strife lets river blindness regain ground in Africa

YAOUNDE, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Seven years after the World Health Organisation heralded the virtual elimination of river blindness from West Africa, the debilitating disease is regaining ground in several countries due to civil conflict.

"The disease is re-invading some regions where it was thought to have been eradicated," Marcelline Ntep, head of Cameroon's river blindness programme, told Reuters.

She said many of those countries "have been plunged into prolonged civil strife and armed conflicts, thereby interrupting the distribution process and preventing the drug from reaching affected persons in some remote areas."

She cited Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Sudan and the Great Lakes region as areas where the disease had returned.
The World Health Organisation estimates some 17.7 million people are affected by river blindness, about 90 percent of them in Africa.

In 1974, the international community began the fight against the disease in 11 countries in West Africa, its original home....

Mean Vegetables

Good news. Spinach is safe to eat again, according to the Food and Drug Administration. So dig in if you dare. But beware of carrot juice. Last week, just two days before spinach got the clear, a brand of carrot juice from California was linked to botulism from a bacterium in soil that increases when juice isn’t properly refrigerated.

Maybe you should have some chocolate and red wine instead. Studies in recent years show that they’re linked with phenols that will lower your cholesterol levels.

No need to worry about their extra calories, either. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last spring suggests that overweight people live longer.

And now that a couple stiff drinks a day are deemed good for men’s hearts and Viagra is under study for the same thing, a longer life may be more appealing.

This is becoming the decade when bad is the new good and vice versa.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Genentech - Lucentis: NIH to fund study vs Avastin

Genentech - Lucentis: NIH to fund study vs Avastin

The "blind greed" saga continues.
The US National Institutes of Health said Thursday that it will fund a study to compare two drugs by Genentech used to treat the leading cause of blindness in the elderly.

One of the drugs, Lucentis, was approved by the FDA this year to treat the disorder, called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. The other drug, Avastin, which is much cheaper, has been approved to treat colorectal cancer, although it has been widely used off-label to treat the eye condition, according to the NIH's National Eye Institute.

Both drugs are derived from the same mouse antibody.


Genentech are charging around 100 times the price of Avastin for Lucentis!

Insider's view: Way to go NIH!
Drugs firm blocks cheap blindness cure
Genentech continues to try and block use of avastin in the U.K.
Unless Avastin is approved in the UK by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) it will not be universally available within the NHS. But because Genentech declines to apply for a licence for this use of Avastin, Nice cannot consider it. In spite of the growing drugs bill of the NHS, it will appraise, and probably approve, Lucentis next year.

Although Nice's role is to look at cost-effectiveness, it says it cannot appraise a drug and pass it for use in the NHS unless the drug is referred to it by the Department of Health. The department says its hands are tied.

"The drug company hasn't applied for it to be licensed for this use. It wouldn't be referred to Nice until they have made the first move," said a Department of Health spokeswoman. "They need to step up and get a licence. If they are not getting it licensed, why aren't they?"

Saturday, October 07, 2006

And his last name is...

Guest blogger, back again. This time I'm going to relay a story told to us in class yesterday. As usual, I'll start out with some background info on a relevant disease.

Loeys-Dietz Syndrome is a recently characterized disease (Nature Genetics 37, 275 - 281, 2005) whose patients were previously considered to have Marfan Syndrome. Loeys-Dietz patients present with, among many other findings, bifid uvula, hypertelorism (widely separated eyes), and a tortuous aorta upon imaging. These patients have a propensity for arterial aneurysm generally; they almost invariably experience aortic root aneurysm, although the timescale is variable (from weeks to decades into life).

A family was kind enough to come to talk about living with Loeys-Dietz (they have a child with the syndrome), and they described difficulties they had had with getting their care providers to understand the disease. Their child, for example, needed surgery. Their doctor, who was with us in the auditorium, had called the surgeon to tell him about the relevant details of Loeys-Dietz in order to maximize the surgery's chance of success. The surgeon blew up at him, screaming, "Who do you think you are that you can lecture me about Loeys-Dietz!?"

The doctor, whose name is Dietz, called this one of his 'greatest moments.' I wish I could have heard the rest of the conversation.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

HIV+ seeking HIV+

HIV is a diploid retrovirus. Therefore, superinfection of one cell by two strains of HIV can lead to novel recombinant forms of the virus.

Let's say that John has HIV with a genotype of AA. Let's say Jane has HIV with a 'genotype' of BB. Now, if the two exchange HIV via needle sharing or intercourse, some of their cells could become infected by two HIV strains at once. A novel combination of John's and Jane's HIV could result: AB.

This is one mechanism by which resistance to retroviral therapy arises. This pedantic introduction helps to frame the following, otherwise-joyful article in a slightly more sober epidemiological light:

From a HealthGAP posting:
Shunned Indian HIV victims seek infected spouses

Mon 2 Oct 2006 9:08:24 BST
By Rupam Jain Nair

SURAT, India, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Dozens of Indian men and women
infected with HIV/AIDS have agreed to marry each other after meeting
at a special matchmaking event, hoping to end the isolation the
deadly infection often brings.

Thirty infected men and women from across the country met at
the "HIV+ Find a Life Partner" session late on Sunday in the western
city of Surat, brought together by a local voluntary group working
with HIV/AIDS patients.

For over two hours, they shared their experiences, discussed their
families, medical histories and professions, with some even
introducing their prospective partners to accompanying relatives,
before agreeing marry.

"We hope to die on a positive note even though we are infected by
this virus," said Sanjay Joshi, a Surat engineer, who lost his wife
to AIDS four years ago.

Marriage would give him and his partner physical and emotional
support said the 32-year-old man who agreed to marry a HIV infected
woman from southern India and adopt her children.

"Only a HIV-positive person can understand and respect my status. We
are all living with uncertainty every minute. Let us try and enjoy
every bit of life with a companion," said Joshi who has been
ostracised by his parents and friends.

India has the world's highest HIV/AIDS caseload with 5.7 million
infected people. Although the country reported its first case in
1986 most victims face acute stigma due to a lack of awareness and
misconceptions about the disease.

Over the years, the country has reported many instances of families
disowning their loved ones because they are infected, children of
HIV/AIDS patients being thrown out of school, landlords refusing to
rent houses to victims and a infected woman having to abort her own
foetus as doctors shunned her.

HIV/AIDS victims and voluntary groups working with them have been
campaigning for a law to prevent discrimination of patients and
accuse the government of dragging its feet on the legislation.

Daksha Patel, a coordinator at the "Network of Surat People Living
with HIV+", the group which organised the matchmaking event, said
the aim was to bring together as many infected people as possible to
help them find partners.

"Let them find, choose and decide on a partner. It will add a new
spark to the lonely lives and give them a new zest to start all over
again," she said. Patel, who is infected by the virus herself, said
many infected women at Sunday's event were widows or divorcees who
were infected by their husbands and shunned by families.

One such widow, 28-year-old Rani Patel, said she was thrown out by
her in-laws after they found their son had died of AIDS and their
daughter-in-law was infected as well.

"I learnt I was HIV-positive after my husband died," Rani Patel said.

"By marrying again I can create awareness that HIV victims can live
and enjoy a normal life," she said as she attached her photograph to
an application form for a partner.

Sorry, I was too busy winning my Nobel Prize

That's right, the mysterious guest blogger is an American. That gives me a one in sixty-million chance of being one of the five Americans who have thus far been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006. The most recent award in Chemistry went to Roger Kornberg, himself the son of a Nobel Laureate. How did the selection committee do? According to Jeremy Berg, the author of one of the leading biochem textbooks (id est, the one that I use), Kornberg's prize was "fantastically well-deserved."

Kornberg solved the crystal structure of RNA polymerase II in the act of transcribing RNA from DNA. RNApol II primarily transcribes mRNA, the messenger RNA which is later translated by the ribosome into proteins.
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