Friday, 31 January 2014

All you need to know about Norovirus

by Brian Palmer, from

Passengers on Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas came home two days early this week after more than 600 people fell ill with suspected norovirus, also known as Norwalk disease. Norovirus loves a good cruise ship, with its tight quarters full of people from all over the world. There have been nearly 200 confirmed norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships in the past 20 years, plus many other suspected maritime norovirus outbreaks that couldn’t be definitively linked to the virus. But it isn’t an exclusively sea-going pathogen. It accounts for more foodborne illness in the United States than E. coli and salmonella combined. It lives on doorknobs, handrails, and even soft surfaces like couches and carpets. Norovirus is all around you. And it is sickening more people than ever. It is a wondrous pathogen that should fascinate, disgust, and frighten you in equal measure.
Most viruses are encased by a lipid envelope, which has a couple of vulnerabilities. First, it dries out when exposed to the elements, which is one of the reasons HIV, for example, dies almost immediately outside of a host. In addition, alcohol-based sanitizers easily penetrate a lipid envelope and destroy the virus. Norovirus has a protein shell with no such weaknesses. It can live in the open for weeks and possibly months, and it is resistant to hand sanitizer and soap, unless you scrub the heck out of it. When a cruise ship suffers an outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that virtually every inch of the vessel and everything on it be drenched in a 5-percent bleach solution. Since schools, concert halls, movie theaters, and private homes rarely undergo such a thorough scrub-down, it’s disturbing to imagine how often we encounter norovirus. (If you decide to bleach your house after your child falls ill, it’s better to go with a 10-percent solution, since bleach degrades rather quickly in a bucket.)

The situation is all the more worrying when you consider norovirus’ second neat trick—it takes an incredibly small number of viral particles to make you sick. Most pathogens, such as influenza, need to invade you with an army of thousands to cause symptoms. That’s one of the reasons we’re generally healthy in a world teeming with viruses. Mathematical modeling suggests that as few as 10 norovirus particles can make an adult sick. The average norovirus virion is around 35 nanometers across—one-third the size of most viruses—so the volume of an infectious dose is uniquely small. It can easily find its way into your mouth through your hands or a whiff of infected air.
You can contract norovirus in the most subtle and disgusting ways imaginable. In 1999, after one gentleman vomited in a concert hall and nearby bathroom in Wales, more than 300 people inhaled enough airborne norovirus to become ill. Many of the victims were school children who came on a field trip the following day. In another case, several members of a college football team from North Carolina came down with norovirus and managed to infect members of the opposing team from Florida through contact with their uniforms, which were contaminated with particles of feces and vomit.
Norovirus is also eerily persistent. People with colds, for example, are typically not contagious beyond a week after symptoms commence. By contrast, laboratory experiments on human volunteers suggest that people infected with norovirus continue to shed virions for up to three weeks, long after the vomiting and diarrhea have passed.
Why would researchers use human volunteers to study such a horrible bug? Researchers have thus far been unable to culture norovirus in a dish. Last year, microbiologist Christiane Wobus and her colleagues at the University of Michigan were able to grow norovirus in immunocompromised mice, and some progress has been made infecting pigs whose guts had been rid of other microbes, but those are baby steps toward understanding the virus. Until we can grow this stuff in a laboratory, there’s little hope of developing a vaccine or an effective treatment. (Wobus calls in vitro culturing “the holy grail” of norovirus research.) Most of what we currently know comes from deliberately infecting volunteers who submit themselves to three days of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea for the good of science and around a thousand bucks.
Incidence of norovirus has increased in the past couple of decades, and researchers have proposed an intriguing explanation: It may be learning to infect more people.
Your blood type—A, B, AB, or O—is defined by certain sugars on your blood cells. Similarly, people differ in the types of sugars on the cells that line the intestine. Certain strains of norovirus bind specifically to certain sugars—but the strains that have been traveling the world recently bind to a wider range of sugars. That seems to mean the strains can sicken a wider range of victims.

How freaked out should you be? Moderately. Norovirus can kill, but usually indirectly; most deaths are among children or the elderly who become dehydrated, particularly in the developing world. The average adult will experience three days of miserable gastrointestinal distress. If it happens to you, avoid concert halls, football games, and any other social interaction, bleach everything you touch—and drink constantly.
Humans aren’t the only hosts for norovirus. When filter-feeding shellfish ingest norovirus particles, the virus can bind to sugars in their systems and accumulate without making them sick. A recent study found norovirus contamination in 9 percent of oysters on the French market. In some cases, epidemiologists have traced human norovirus outbreaks to specific storms, as heavy rainfall caused sewage overflow and contamination of the oysters’ water supply.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Syrias Heritage in Ruins

By The Guardian
The war in Syria has claimed more than 130,000 lives and, as these images reveal, it is also laying waste to its historic buildings and Unesco-listed sites
Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque, Aleppo – pictured in 2012, before fighting destroyed it in 2013. Photograph: Alamy
They were sleepy tree-lined boulevards where people lived and worked, time-worn markets where they came to trade and exquisitely detailed mosques where, throughout the ages, they prayed.
All now stand in ruins, ravaged by a war that is not only killing generations of Syrians but also eradicating all around them, including sites that have stood since the dawn of civilisation. Across Syria, where a seemingly unstoppable war is about to enter a third year, a heritage built over 5,000 years or more is being steadily buried under rubble.
The Old Souk in AleppoThe Old Souk, Aleppo. Above in 2007 and below in 2013. Photographs: Corbis, Stanley Greene/Noor/Eyevine
The destruction of towns and villages is regularly revealed by raw, and often revolting, videos uploaded to the web, which many people stopped watching long ago. Only seldomly do the shaky images reveal the damage being done beyond the battle – to ancient churches, stone Crusader fortresses and ruins that have stood firm during several millennia of insurrection and purge but are being withered away by this unforgiving war.
Syria's war has claimed more than 130,000 lives. At least two million of its citizens have fled into neighbouring states and more than two million others have been displaced within its borders. Industry and economy has long ground to a halt. Hope too has been on a relentless slide. Syria has six Unesco sites, representing at least 2,000 years of history. All have been damaged.
Al-Kindi hospital in Aleppoal-Kindi hospital, Aleppo. Above in 2012 and below in 2013. Photographs: Getty
These before and after pictures show the old world order of Syria reflected for decades in history books; where people bought wares in marketplaces or mingled in mosque courtyards. They also reveal the shocking scale of devastation in all corners of the country and the damage done to Syria's soul and identity.
In Aleppo, one of the oldest covered marketplaces in the world is now in ruins; its maze of stone streets has been one of the most intense battlefields in the country for the past 18 months, bombed from above by air force jets and chipped away at ground level by close quarter battles that show no sentiment towards heritage. Those who dare raise their heads above the ruins, towards the ancient citadel that stands at the centre of the city, can also see damage to several of its walls.
A street in Homs, Syria in 2011 and 2014A street in Homs, in 2011 (above) and 2014 (below)
Several hundred miles south, just west of Syria's third city, Homs, one of the most important medieval castles in the world, Krak des Chevaliers, has taken an even heavier toll. Directly struck by shells fired from jets and artillery, the hilltop fortress now stands in partial ruin.
Homs itself has fared even worse. A residential street, where cars not long ago parked under gum trees, has been destroyed. Life has ceased to function all around this part of the city, as it has in much of the heartland of the country. In one shot, a destroyed tank stands in the centre of a street. The old minaret next to it has also been blown up. This photograph is thought to have been taken in the countryside near Hama, to the north of Homs. But it could just as easily encapsulate the damage done in parts of the capital, Damascus, or in towns and villages from Idlib in the north to Deraa in the south, where the first stirrings of insurrection in March 2011 sparked the war.
Omari Mosque in DeraaOmari mosque in Deraa. Above in 2011 and below in 2013. Photographs: Reuters
In May 2012, Emma Cunliffe, a Durham University PhD student, and member of the Global Heritage Network, prepared a report on the damage done to Syria's heritage sites, detailing the tapestry of civilisations that helped build contemporary Syria.
"Numerous bronze-age civilisations left their successive marks, including the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Hittites," she said. "They, in turn, were replaced by the Greeks, the Sasanians, the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs, many of whom chose Syrian cities as their capitals. The European Crusaders came and left some of the most impressive castles known and the Ottoman Empire also made its mark. All these cultures co-existed and conflicted, forming something new and special and found nowhere else in the world."
Souk Bab Antakya in AleppoSouq Bab Antakya, Aleppo. Above in 2009 and below after an attack in 2012. Photographs: Alamy, Reuters
Speaking this week, she said the threat to Syria's heritage was now greater than ever. "Archaeological sites in Syria are often on the front lines of conflict and are experiencing heavy damage. Economic hardship and decreased security mean even sites away from the fighting are looted. This is denying not only Syrians but the world a rich heritage which can provide a source of income and inspiration in the future."
With little or no access to the country, satellite imagery is being used to track the destruction. The Global Heritage Fund's director of Global Projects, Dan Thompson said: "All of the country's world heritage sites have sustained damage, including the Unesco site cities, and a great many of the other monuments in the country have been damaged, destroyed or have been subject to severe looting.
Umayyad Mosque in AleppoUmayyad mosque, Aleppo, pictured in 2012 (above) and 2013 (below). Photographs: Alamy, Corbis
"Shelling, shooting, heavy machinery installed in sites, and major looting are the leading causes of damage and destruction to the sites, although I would not discount that vandalism is also playing a part. As far as we know, no concrete action is being taken to combat the damage in the present moment."

Cork Airport crash - AAIU report

reported by RTÉ

An investigation into a plane crash in Cork in which six people died has found that Spain's aviation regulator contributed to the crash through inadequate oversight of the Spanish company which operated the fatal flight.
The final report, published today, of the investigation into Ireland's worst aviation crash in almost 50 years also found deficiencies on the part of the operating company, Flightline.
The Manx2 flight from Belfast to Cork crashed in dense fog at Cork Airport in February, 2011.

The flight's captain, co-pilot and four passengers died; six other passengers survived.
A preliminary report and two interim statements from the Department of Transport's Air Accident Investigation Unit told how bad decisions by the crew led directly to the crash.
Today's report states the crew did not give adequate consideration to the weather conditions in Cork; breached minimum weather standards during each of three attempts to land the plane; and the captain performed a manoeuvre reversing engine thrust which is prohibited in flight.
The report found that both the captain and the co-pilot had insufficient rest prior to commencing duty on the day of the accident, and were likely to have been suffering from tiredness and fatigue at the time of the accident.
The captain of the flight, 31-year old Jordi Sola Lopez from Barcelona, had only been promoted four days prior to the crash.
His co-pilot, Andrew Cantle from Sunderland in England, only joined the airline three weeks before the crash.
The report finds their pairing together on the flight was "inappropriate".
Today's final report also examines the complex relationship between the Spanish company which owned the Metroliner plane, Air Lada, the operator, Flightline, and the ticket seller,
It describes as inadequate Flightline's supervision of the service as well as the oversight of Flightline by Spanish aviation regulator AESA. It says both of these were a contributory cause of the crash.

The report says the flight captain was inadequately trained in the command role, and was ill-prepared for the situation he found himself in on the day of the accident.
The co-pilot's training was not completed; some of Fleetline's operational responsibilities were being inappropriately exercised by Air Lada and
In relation to AESA, the report says there was no oversight of Flightline's service in Ireland and that AESA said it was "unaware" that Flightline was operating in Ireland, in spite of having regulatory responsibility for the company.
The report recommends that AESA reviews its policy regarding oversight of the carriers for which it has regulatory responsibility, particularly those conducting "remote" operations in other countries.
The report addresses four of its 11 safety regulations to the European Commission directorate responsible for commercial air transport. It is believed to be the first time an air accident investigating team has done this.
The report was sent to the six survivors and to the families of those who died over a week ago.
Its findings will be closely examined, not least by the legal teams pursuing law suits on their behalf.
Solicitor calls for action
Meanwhile, the solicitor representing the majority of the survivors and two of those who died in the crash has said it is critical that the findings are followed up and delivered on.
James Healy-Pratt, partner with aviation law specialists, Stewarts Law, told RTÉ’s News At One that these recommendations are a critical part of the report.
He said the families have praised the AAIU for their comprehensive report and that its findings reveal a low-safety, low-cost airline operation.
Mr Healy Pratt said it shows there were systemic failures from a regulation perspective but also from a flight operations perspective.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Astro-Tourism Potenital in Kerry

Skelligs and Orion from Valentia, Co. Kerry.

RECOGNITION OF STUNNING night skies visible in Kerry could allow the region to become an area of ‘astro-tourism’, according to a local astronomy group.
The region will soon receive recognition from the International Dark-Sky Association, which aims to highlight the negative effect of light pollution and also designate areas where it is absent, which means more stars than normal are visible in the night sky.
An area of the county will now be designated a reserve.
The project has the support of Failte Ireland, as well as Kerry County Council who are planning to replace existing street lights with ones that will not only cut down on costs, but will also result in less light pollution.
Julie Ormonde of Kerry Dark Sky and South Kerry Astronomy Group says this is an opportunity being handed to the region on a ‘golden platter’.
“It now gives Kerry the opportunity to become Ireland’s first region of astro-tourism”, she told
Tourists are now looking for more than just scenery, they want something more. Not only is this recognition good for Kerry, it is good for Ireland as a whole.
She also hopes that the Republic of Ireland’s first planetarium will be built in the region, something which many countries can have multiples of, but has “slipped under the radar” here.
A number of smaller observatories could also be located in the region, allowing hands-on experience with telescopes.
Ormonde first saw Kerry’s potential to be designated a reserve when she moved to the county from Dublin over two decades ago.
“I was taken aback when I first saw the quality of the night sky here,” she said.
A map of the reserve. (Image Credit: Kerry Dark Sky)
Ormode says that local support for the project has been strong, but needs to be sustained for the full benefits to be felt.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Tourism factors were not considered in grid route selection say Fáilte Ireland


FÁILTE IRELAND TOLD the planners of Eirgrid’s Grid Link project that tourism factors have not been considered enough in the planned construction of new electricity pylons.

The tourism body made a submission as part of Grid Link’s consultation process and said that “Ireland’s landscape has been a cornerstone on international tourism marketing” and needs to be protected.

“It is our view that tourism factors, and the weightings associated with those factors, have been insufficiently developed in the analysis and consequently we are of the view that the potential impacts of this development on tourism have not been rigorously addressed,” wrote Fáilte Ireland’s Paddy Mathews.

The agency’s view comes from an assessment of the project they commissioned that was carried out by planners Brady Shipman Martin. The report said that the Grid Link project did not list landscape aspects among their highest rated criteria in their planning.

The commissioned report said that tourism factors are considered in the Grid Link proposals but were not used to decide on the grid route. “They (tourism factors) do not appear to be appropriately integrated into the analysis guiding the corridor selection process”.

Fáilte Ireland included commissioned as part of their submission to Eirgrid.

Grid Link Action Group

The information comes a day after campaigners against the Grid Link project have also called for the resignation of the Eirgrid Project Manager, John Lowry following what they say is his insistence that underground cabling is not feasible for the project.

Interim Chairman for the Grid Link Action Group, Kieran Connors has claimed that Lowry has “misled the public, and possibly the Government” on the possibility of underground cabling.

“If he is not aware that there is an underground solution, then he should not hold the position he does. He is either incompetent or deadset on misleading both the government and the general public.”, says Kieran.

“The fact of the matter is that the Irish Government’s own International Expert Commission report published in 2012 has stated that undergrounding is feasible in the Irish network”, he adds.

Eirgrid say, however, that Lowry’s views on an underground line are in fact in line with the Government’s Independent Expert Commission.

They say that using the AC technology, which is  the type of electricity used on the grid, is not possible to go underground over the distances covered in the project. This they say is in line with the commission findings.

Eirgrid say that, using different DC technology, an underground line is feasible but that the limitations of this technology do not make it feasible for the Grid Link project.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Erasmus Diary Entry 5

Two weeks have now passed since I have finished the Erasmus programme. I have had time to reflect on what has undoubtedly been the most rewarding experience of my life so far. It is not just what you learn in the classroom, there is so much more to studying abroad. You do not just learn about a new culture and country, you become a part of it. You get a handle on the language and the customs (siestas in particular for me).

You learn a lot about yourself when you move abroad, and Erasmus is no different in that respect. Yes it is only short-term, but for those few months away you are tossed into a completely new environment where you must, essentially, start from scratch in terms of friendships, routine and simple things like shopping and cooking.
Cynics would say that its not nearly long enough away to actually "learn" anything about a new culture or yourself, but it is not something you can fully understand until you do it.

The friends you make, both locals and other Erasmus and Munde students , in whichever country you would go for Erasmus, are likely to be much different from friends you have made at home (no better or worse mind you) you create these relationships quicker than you would normally and get to know these people very well in a short period of time, probably because of the short period of time that is available to spend with them.

It was tough for me to say goodbye to such good friends, but that is the nature of the programme, it is temporary but never quite leaves you. If ever any of my readers have a chance to take part in a study abroad programme, I would encourage you to do it, it is an amazing, rewarding experience and you will not regret it.