Health & Science
Ebola vaccine a stunning success
An experimental vaccine is being hailed as a potential game changer in the fight against Ebola. Known as rVSV-ZEBOV, the vaccine has been fast-tracked for regulatory approval after a major trial found it safely provides 100_percent protection against a common strain of the deadly virus, which broke out in December 2013 and spread across West Africa, claiming more than 11,000 lives. The vaccine was tested in Guinea and Sierra Leone, two countries that were heavily affected by the Ebola epidemic. Researchers based the trial on the same strategy that eradicated smallpox—an approach known as ring vaccination. They included anyone who’d had direct or indirect contact with someone diagnosed with the Ebola virus, identifying 117 such “rings,” each involving an average of 80 people at risk for the infection. No Ebola cases were reported among the 5,837 people who were immediately vaccinated, but 23_instances occurred among another group of 4,507 people who were not vaccinated or received a delayed vaccination, The Guardian (U.K.) reports. “While these compelling results come too late for those who lost their lives during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, they show that when the next Ebola outbreak hits, we will not be defenseless,” says lead author Marie-Paule Kieny of the World Health Organization. Merck, which manufactures the vaccine, is expected to seek Food and Drug Administration approval next year and is now amassing a 300,000-dose emergency stockpile.
Supervolcano scare in Italy
A slumbering supervolcano under the Italian city of Naples appears to be waking up—and nearing a critical pressure point that could spell catastrophe for a half-million people in the region. Known as Campi Flegrei, or “the burning fields,” the 8-mile-wide caldera formed 39,000 years ago during Europe’s largest volcanic eruption in 200,000 years, an event that likely triggered a “volcanic winter,” which some researchers believe led to the demise of the Neanderthals. The supervolcano (a volcano that can spew at least 240 cubic miles of lava and other ejecta in a single eruption and is vastly larger than typical volcanos) hasn’t blown since 1538, and that was a relatively small event. But now, researchers warn, the magma under Campi Flegrei is degassing, releasing fluids and gases at a rate that could destabilize the surrounding rocks, resulting in an eruption. “Hydrothermal rocks, if heated, can ultimately lose their mechanical resistance, causing an acceleration toward critical conditions,” volcanologist Giovanni Chiodini of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics in Rome tells Agence France-Presse. That doesn’t mean Neapolitans should panic and flee the city—it’s impossible to predict when, or even if, their supervolcano will erupt again.
A record-smashing wave
Fierce wind gusts powered a colossal 62-foot wave in the North Atlantic Ocean, more than 2 feet higher than the largest ever recorded, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirms. A research buoy registered the wave in 2013 during an intense cold front that sent 50-mile-perhour winds roaring across the seas between Iceland and the U.K.—an area known for “weather bombs,” extreme storms that stir up towering ocean swells. The winds triggered a set of 10 to 15 waves that averaged 62.3 feet in height, reports Smithsonian.com. Verifying those findings required painstaking analysis and cross-checking, researchers say, which accounts for the delay in releasing the buoy data. “It is a remarkable record,” says WMO Assistant Secretary-General Wenjian Zhang. “It highlights the importance of meteorological and ocean observations and forecasts to ensure the safety of the global maritime industry and to protect the lives of crew and passengers on busy shipping lanes.”
Do women make better doctors?
Female physicians earn less than their male colleagues—and clearly aren’t paid what they’re worth: A new study shows that patients treated by women had higher survival rates and were less likely to be rehospitalized. In fact, the researchers at Harvard School of Public Health estimate that if all doctors were female, 32,000 fewer Americans would die every year. The team analyzed records from more than 1.5 million hospital visits involving Medicare patients. People treated by a female had slight but statistically significant lower risk of dying in the following month and and of being admitted to the hospital again than those treated by male doctors. “If we had a treatment that lowered mortality by 0.4 percentage points or half a percentage point,” study leader Ashish Jha tells The Washington Post, “we would think of that as a clinically important treatment we want to use for our patients.” It’s unclear exactly why female doctors outperform their male counterparts. Previous studies suggest women spend more time with their patients and are more likely than men to offer reassurance, follow clinical guidelines, and provide preventive care.
Health scare of the week
Rising melanoma rates
Over the past decade people have become more aware of the dangers of melanoma and the importance of avoiding exposure to harmful UV rays. Nevertheless, new research reveals that the number of Americans being diagnosed with this serious form of skin cancer—and dying from it—is still on the rise. One in 54 people in the U.S. can expect to develop invasive melanoma over a lifetime, compared with one in 58 in 2009, the study found. The number of cases of early-stage melanomas has increased even more dramatically, jumping from one in every 78 people in 2009 to one in every 58 people in 2016, Medscape.com reports. What accounts for the worrisome trend? “An aging population with high levels of sun exposure throughout their lives, prior to the widespread adoption of sunscreens and sun-protective clothing, may be contributing to the increased incidence of melanoma,” says lead author Dr. Alex Glazer. Other lifestyle habits, such as indoor tanning, may also be fueling the statistical spike, as well as improved detection, which could mean that more cases are being diagnosed and reported.