YES WE CAN? YES SIR!
This past Wednesday, commuters throughout six major metropolitan centers, most notably New York City, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, enjoyed a pleasant surprise: a free copy of The New York Times to go along with their daily grind. The contents of said paper may not have been so pleasant, depending on one's sociopolitical leanings.
The headline story of the free paper read, "Iraq War Ends," along with less important scoops such as "Court Indicts Bush on High Treason Charge" and "National Health Insurance Act Passes." While some of the readership took these headings at face value (after all, who can we trust if not the media?), word quickly spread that the free paper was in fact a clever hoax perpetrated by The Yes Men, the brainchild of two artist-activists, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (real names Jacques Sevin and Igor Vamos).
Famous for masquerading as WTO representatives at business conferences around the world, The Yes Men sought to disclose the organization's opaque and troubling history of overlooking the welfare of the marginalized in the Third World in such inventive ways as donning a three-foot-long golden phallus that could control labor productivity at the end of a presentation on management policies.
Apparently, they have moved on to bigger, better things in their critique of mainstream media, complete with a very convincing website doppelganger (www.nytimes-se.com). But that's not all. The Yes Men dated their NYT, July 4, 2009, in order to present to their readers the possibility that all these social reforms, including a national oil money fund used for climate change research, universal health care and progressive tax reforms, can be possible in a matter of months, as long as we the people hold our new President-elect-for-change accountable to the promises he's made. As for the real Times, they have largely ignored the simulacrum, giving only a blog post's worth of coverage to the event on their web site, along with the terse disclaimer, "This is obviously a fake issue of the Times."
In spite of, or perhaps because of, their silence, I can't help but wonder how Thomas Friedman would respond to this charge by his impostor: "The sudden outbreak of peace in Iraq has made me realize, among other things, one incontestable fact: I have no business holding a pen, at least with intent to write." At least you don't have to wipe away pie crust this time, Tommy Boy.
SCHOOL OF THE LIVING DEAD?
While many schools suffer from overpopulation problems, a recent incident has left a South Kingston, Rhode Island school in quite the opposite dilemma. According to WPRI.com, Wakefield Elementary School fell victim to a Norovirus outbreak on Friday that infected 75 students and a few faculty members. The infection is characterized by vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain, and usually clears up within two or three days of initial infection. Including those students who were kept home to avoid illness, nearly one third of the school's population was absent.
South Kingston school Superintendent Robert Hicks assured the community that the Wakefield Elementary cafeteria was not the source of the outbreak. The Rhode Island Department of Health supports this statement, having ruled out food as the origin for the virus.
Now, I'm no biologist, but I have seen quite a few fictional descriptions of the rise of the living dead, and this outbreak is a tell-tale sign. It is true that the Norovirus causes intestinal infection in a very benign sense. However, should we really let our guard down just because the virus is harmless? It is a well-known zombie movie trope that the main character is pelted by media-driven foreshadowing of the spreading zombie infection just before the apocalypse brings society to its knees. In Night of the Living Dead, it was the radio that tried to warn the oblivious protagonists that men and women had started to show signs of cannibalism. Shaun of the Dead displayed a TV news reporter explaining the symptoms of a new virus outbreak to a distracted Shaun. This Norovirus outbreak is just the type of random news report that you as the main character would ignore just before zombies appear all around you.
Hicks told the Providence Journal that the school is being thoroughly cleaned in accordance with recommendations from the Department of Health. The cycle of the highly contagious outbreak likely will be stopped after the weekend.
I'm not saying that this common and relatively innocuous virus heralds the end of the world. However, if you find yourself surrounded by the undead children of Wakefield Elementary School with only a stick and three CDs of Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad to defend yourself, just know that I tried to warn you.
IT'S TIME TO GO
The time is drawing near for the US withdrawal from Iraq. On Sunday, all but one member of the Iraqi cabinet voted in favor of a pact that delineates a strict timeline for all future US operations in Iraq and sets an official withdrawal date. The agreement comes none too soon, as the UN mandate for legal US operations in Iraq expires December 31, 2008.
According to the pending agreement, all US combat troops must leave Iraqi cities and towns by July 30, 2009; coalition forces must withdraw fully from Iraq by December 31, 2011. Iraqi negotiators had pushed for specific dates to be mandated in the pact, and their success is a rebuke to President George W. Bush, who maintains that US combat troops should not leave Iraq until the country is stable enough for them to go. The agreement also rattled the Mahdi Army, led by the Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which seeks the immediate termination of US operations in Iraq.
The cabinet vote on the pact came after nearly a year of negotiations between the US and Iraq. The Iraqi parliament has not yet voted on the pact, but is expected to approve it as well, with representatives from both the Sunni and Kurdish voting blocks expressing their support. Additionally, a representative for Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the leading Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, said in a Saturday statement, "We support the majority decision."
Significantly, the pact also sets parameters for future US actions in Iraq. For example, it forbids US troops stationed in Iraq from carrying out special forces raids into sovereign nations. In October, US military helicopters attacked al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq, according to the Associated Press.
The pact also will increase the authority of the Iraqi government over US troops in Iraq, giving it jurisdiction over troops and contractors who commit "major and premeditated murders" while off-duty and outside of US facilities, according to a copy of the pact obtained by CNN. Previously, all US troop and contractor crimes fell under US legal jurisdiction.
The agreement explicitly bars any use of chemical, nuclear, radiological or biological weapons in Iraq and restores Iraqi control over the country's airspace upon implementation of the agreement.
On Saturday, supporters of the Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr marched peacefully through Baghdad to protest the agreements, hoping to pressure the Iraqi parliament into rejecting the deal.
HPV VACCINE NOW FOR BOYS TOO
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is currently the most common sexually transmitted disease around the globe. Last Thursday, the research-driven pharmaceutical Merck and Company, publicly released findings that young men could benefit from their HPV vaccine, Gardasil. Introduced in June 2006, the company's vaccine was originally intended to protect young women ages nine to 26 from four strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. In males, contracting HPV can lead to the development of genital warts as well as anal and penile cancer.
A team of scientists led by Anna Giuliano at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, Florida conducted research on 4,065 young men ages 16 to 26 in 40 different countries. The researchers discovered that when Gardasil was given to men who had never contracted HPV, it was 90 percent effective in preventing the development of genital warts, and helped to reduce the occurrence of perianal intraepithelial neoplasia--a precancerous condition.
While Gardasil is aimed at protecting girls and young women from four strains of HPV-6, 11, 16, 18, scientists found that the vaccine was 45 percent effective in preventing the onset of the virus in young men who had never contracted HPV.
For women, Gardasil is administered as three injections over the course of 6 months, with two months in between the first and second injections, followed by an additional four months between the second and third injections. For maximum efficiency, the vaccinations should be given before young women are sexually active. While the vaccine has not been officially approved for men yet, Gardasil injections during research were administered the same way for men as they are for women.
Cynthia Capra, Nurse Practitioner and Clinical Care Manager at Brown Health Services, told the Independent that the development of certain cancers in men through contracting HPV is rare. On the other hand, women are far more susceptible to developing cervical cancer from HPV.
Statistics released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that approximately 20 million Americans are infected with the virus. HPV is the main agent in causing cervical cancer, which kills 3,870 women a year in the US alone. Globally, an estimated 300,000 women die of the cancer, according to the CDC. The virus has also been proven to cause anal, penile, mouth and neck cancer. Furthermore, the CDC has estimated that the virus was the cause of 25,000 cases of cancer each year in the US between 1998 and 2003.
While Gardasil and its competitor, GlaxoSmith Kline's Cervarix, are currently approved exclusively for use with girls and young women, the drug companies are looking to expand into new markets. Some experts suggest the vaccine should be used for male patients not only to protect against HPV, but also to protect their female partners from contracting the virus, reported Reuters last Thursday.
Brown Health Services' Medical Director, Edward Wheeler Jr., MD, told the Independent that "the ability to prevent transfer is the statistic" of greatest importance about the vaccine's efficacy in men.
Wheeler further noted that when Merck and Company was testing Gardasil for women they performed antibody studies in men as well.
Merck and Company will submit a US application by the end of the year for the use of Gardasil in males ages nine to 26, the company said in a statement.
DOWN TO THE BONE
Dr. Gero H√ºtter, a hemotologist at Berlin's Charit√© Medical University, had a leukemia patient who was not responding to standard chemotherapy, according to the Wall Street Journal. When H√ºtter recommended a bone marrow transplant, he was following a normal treatment plan. An important difference? This patient was HIV positive, and what Hutter did was (possibly) cure AIDS for the first time in medical history.
HIV undermines the human immune system by hijacking white blood cells to serve as factories for replicating the virus. It targets CD4 immune cells, the fighter cells which ward off infection, and must bind to a protein receptor called CCR5 in order to begin the replication process. Though there has been little progress in the search for a vaccine against HIV, AIDS researchers have known since the 90s that individuals with a certain DNA mutation that deactivates their CCR5 receptors are immune to infection with HIV. H√ºtter performed the transplant with marrow from the only German donor in the marrow donor pool who has this mutation, in hopes that the donor's immunity would be conferred to the HIV-infected patient.
So far, it seems to have worked. Twenty months later, HIV is undetectable in the patient's bloodstream even though the patient has been taken off of all antiretroviral treatment. However, only time will tell if the virus is still hiding in latent form. In addition, H√ºtter's procedure is uncommon and very risky. In order to transplant organs or marrow, it is necessary to radically suppress the patient's immune system to prevent the body from rejecting the transplant. Due to the extent of the immuno-suppression and the seriousness of the procedure, 30 percent of all marrow transplant patients die from the procedure. Since HIV acts by suppressing the immune system, researchers and doctors tend to be wary of further suppressing the functioning of the system. In fact, the only other time this kind of procedure was approved for an HIV positive individual was in 1995, when AIDS activist Jeff Getty was injected with baboon bone marrow in an attempt to capitalize on baboon immunity to HIV-1. The marrow cells were rejected within weeks.
The results of the current surgery are much more promising, but calling it a cure for AIDS is still premature. The high risk and high costs involved in performing a bone marrow transplant make it an unlikely candidate for large-scale use, even if it does functionally lead to a cure. AIDS is wreaking havoc on the developing world where most patients cannot afford antiretrovirals, even with the advances made by the Clinton Foundation in getting generic drugs to low income countries for less than $1 a day. High-tech surgeries are out of the question under poor clinical conditions. Even Dr. H√ºtter would not have taken such a large risk if he hadn't been faced with treating the patient for leukemia. Though an amazing story for the patient himself, this instance has large-scale significance only in its implications for gene therapy approaches to curing AIDS.
As Brown University Anthropology Professor and HIV/AIDS expert Pat Symonds put it, the procedure "needs much empirical research," and it remains to be seen, "how they would translate bone marrow into a blood injection." According to last Thursday's New York Times coverage, Dr. Irvin S. Y. Chen, director of the AIDS Institute at UCLA is working on an injection that would alter immune cells and induce the mutation, effectively providing a cure, or possibly even a preventative vaccine for HIV. Whether this theoretical possibility will work in practice remains to be seen, but for now, medicine has finally taken a first step towards making AIDS as a fatal disease obsolete.