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Health Briefs:  AIDS Status Report; Global Warming and Health; Caveman Diet


UN/WHO HIV STATUS REPORT

A report on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic released this week by the United Nations and World Health Organization says that Sub-Saharan Africa remains the hardest-hit region of the world, while the epidemic continues to grow in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

In 2005, according to the report, there were 5 million new cases of HIV/AIDS. Forty million people worldwide are infected and 25 million have died since the first infections were reported in 1981.

Antiviral-drugs have saved between 250,000 to 350,000 lives, but the report says access to the medications is limited, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where one -out -of ten people needing treatment received it.

Jim Kim with WHO's Department on HIV/AIDS says greater prevention efforts could slow the epidemic. "We have known that for every form of transmission of the virus, we have effective ways of preventing transmission," he says. "In fact, in the United States and other developed countries, mother-to-child transmission of HIV has been cut almost to zero. Luckily, we have the means to do that in developing countries as well. We have all the drugs and the protocols are easily carried out in any developing country setting. We just haven't done it."

The report also notes that HIV patterns are changing with the increasing numbers of women infected. In several African countries, three-fourths of all young people living with HIV/AIDS are women. Desmond Johns, director of the New York office of the joint UN Program on AIDS, believes greater awareness of this trend will lead to better prevention strategies for young women. He says they "will be the focus of special attention in terms of the (development of) the female condom, microbicides and other female controlled methods of prevention."

The reports finds that the fastest growth of HIV infection is in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, particularly Russia and Ukraine, where the number of people living with HIV has increased 20-fold in less than ten years. Jim Kim with WHO says the epidemic there is being driven by intravenous drug users. "The good news is that we have today measures that can be taken that can stop transmission among drug users," he says. "One is methadone maintenance therapy, to take people away from injection drug use and put them on oral pills that stave off the affects of (heroin) withdrawal. The other mechanism is providing sterile needles so that they are not sharing needles and that they prevent the spread of HIV through the use of shared needles.

On a positive note, the UN/WHO. report says two African countries - Zimbabwe and Kenya, saw a decline in rates of infection. The spread of HIV/AIDS also slowed in the Caribbean, the 2nd most affected region of the world.

GLOBAL WARMING/HEALTH

A new study finds that global warming is driving up rates of malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea… contributing to 5-million illnesses and more than 150,000 deaths a year. According to its lead author, Jonathan Patz of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, most of those deaths and illnesses will occur in the world's poorest countries - the nations least responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases.

"Already, the poor countries of the world have tremendous burdens of diseases," he says. "Take Africa, for example, where nearly 90% of all cases of malaria occur. Malaria is a very temperature-sensitive disease. Already you've got malnutrition, diarrheal disease and malaria and other infectious diseases in poor countries today, and these are climate sensitive diseases that, if you ratchet up the temperature a little bit, that favors an increase in some of these diseases."

Mosquitoes that carry the parasites for malaria and dengue fever, for example, thrive in warm, wet weather. Mr. Patz, also a professor at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Population Health, calls the disparity between the nations emitting the most carbon dioxide and those feeling the greatest health impacts of climate change an enormous global ethical challenge. "The United States has not yet ratified this global warming treaty -- the Kyoto Protocol -- and I think the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases really needs to step up to the plate and join the rest of the world in confronting climate change," he says.

Some experts, however, are reluctant to place the blame for death and illness in developing countries on global warming. They argue that a lack of money prevents those nations from responding effectively to new health threats, whatever their cause

CAVEMAN DIET

A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arkansas has developed new technology to analyze the fossilized teeth of early humans. Using computer software and a powerful microscope, scientists can better understand the foods our ancestors ate.

Johns Hopkins University anatomy professor Mark Teaford says information so far implies that early humans evolved and altered their diet according to seasonal and other changes.

"As we get to know more about primate behavior in modern primates," he says, "we find that their diets are extremely variable and as a result what we end up with is a better perspective on the reality of it. This technique gives us a chance to look at the range of variation in early human ancestors and say, okay, what were they possibly doing back then? And what we're pulling out of it is they were eating a wide variety of things."

Mr. Teaford says paleontologists and physical anthropologists have had a somewhat naive view on diet, in part due to the limitations of time-consuming, subjective approaches to analyzing teeth. He says it is a huge step to have a reliable technology that detects subtler diet variations.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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