Stephen Hawking says eliminating neglected tropical diseases ‘within our grasp’

British physicist Stephen Hawking cited polio and guinea-worm as success stories of diseases on the brink of disappearing. (Reuters)
Updated 14 December 2017
0

Stephen Hawking says eliminating neglected tropical diseases ‘within our grasp’

CAMBRIDGE, England: Parts of the world have made huge progress toward stamping out debilitating tropical diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis, and success is “within our grasp,” British physicist Stephen Hawking said.
“The last mile on the journey to elimination is always the most difficult,” Hawking said in a speech on Tuesday, citing polio and guinea-worm as success stories of diseases on the brink of disappearing.
Hawking, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease aged 21 and communicates via a cheek muscle linked to a sensor and computerized voice system, also honored his late father’s medical work in Africa, China and the US.
Frank Hawking pioneered a treatment for lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, which causes enlarged body parts.
“He worked in sometimes very difficult conditions, but he never gave up and he believed fully in the role of science to build a better world,” said his son. “He believed in humanity and our ability to find solutions to problems.”
The event in the English city of Cambridge marked the one billionth treatment of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) by international charity Sightsavers, dispensed in the Nigerian village of Kudaru. Hawking called it “a monumental milestone.”
NTDs are a group of painful infections affecting one in five people globally, according to Sightsavers which trains thousands of community volunteers to dispense medication and gather data.
The diseases are most prevalent in areas of extreme poverty, and often trap individuals in a cycle of social exclusion.
They are also found in parts of North America and Europe, not just in developing countries, said Anthony Solomon, medical officer for NTDs at the World Health Organization.
“Having them also increases the likelihood that people will stay poor and become poorer, because it affects people’s income-generating ability,” he said on the sidelines of the event.
Despite this, Solomon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation there is now enormous momentum to “consign these diseases to the history books.”
Philip Downs, technical director of NTDs at Sightsavers, said funding and political will had galvanized around the diseases, leading to major wins.
Ghana, for example, is on course to become the first sub-Saharan African country to eliminate trachoma, a leading cause of blindness.
Sightsavers plans to sustain progress by working with government water and sanitation departments and strengthening national health systems to build resilience.
“We don’t want the diseases to come back,” said Downs.
Britain has pledged £360 million (SR1.802 billion) toward NTD programs between 2017 and 2022.
Michael Bates, minister of state at the UK Department for International Development, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation British taxpayers had funded about a quarter of the 1 billion treatments.
Hawking said his work to answer pressing scientific questions had led him toward black holes and the Big Bang theory.
“Your challenges are huge and more practical than mine, but your search for solutions to your big questions is no less important,” he told the event.


Loss of Earth’s intact forests speeds up: scientists

The last forest frontiers also play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity, weather stability, clean air, and water quality. (Shutterstock)
Updated 20 June 2018
0

Loss of Earth’s intact forests speeds up: scientists

  • Nearly ten percent of undisturbed forests have been fragmented, degraded or simply chopped down since 2000, according to the analysis of satellite imagery
  • Some 500 million people worldwide depend directly on forests for their livelihood

PARIS: Earth’s intact forests shrank annually by nearly 90,000 square kilometers — an area the size of Austria — from 2014 to 2016, 20 percent faster than during the previous 13 years, according to findings presented at a conference in Oxford this week.
Despite UN-led efforts to halt deforestation, nearly ten percent of undisturbed forests have been fragmented, degraded or simply chopped down since 2000, according to the analysis of satellite imagery.
Average daily loss over the first 17 years of this century was more than 200 sq km (75 sq miles).
“Degradation of intact forest represents a global tragedy, as we are systematically destroying a crucial foundation of climate stability,” said Frances Seymour, a senior distinguished fellow at the World Resources Institute, and a contributor to the research.
“Forests are the only safe, natural, proven and affordable infrastructure we have for capturing and storing carbon.”
The last forest frontiers also play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity, weather stability, clean air, and water quality.
Some 500 million people worldwide depend directly on forests for their livelihood.
So-called “intact forest landscapes” — which can include wetlands and natural grass pastures — are defined as areas of at least 500 sq km (200 sq miles) with no visible evidence in satellite images of large-scale human use.
Concretely, that means no roads, industrial agriculture, mines, railways, canals or transmission lines.
As of January 2017, there were about 11.6 million sq km (4.5 million sq miles) of forests worldwide that still fit these criteria.
“Many countries may lose all their forest wildlands in the next 15 to 20 years,” Peter Potapov, an associate professor at the University of Maryland and lead scientist for the research, told AFP.
On current trends, intact forests will disappear by 2030 in Paraguay, Laos and Equatorial Guinea, and by 2040 in the Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Myanmar, Cambodia and Angola.
“There could come a point in the future where no areas in the world qualify as ‘intact’ anymore,” said Tom Evans, director for forest conservation and climate mitigation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“It is certainly worrying.”
In tropical countries, the main causes of virgin forest loss are conversion to agriculture and logging. In Canada and the United States, fire is the main culprit, while in Russia and Australia, the destruction has been driven by fires, mining and energy extraction.
Compared to annual declines during the period 2000-2013, Russia lost, on average, 90 percent more each year from 2014 to 2016.
For Indonesia, the increase was 62 percent, and for Brazil it was 16 percent.
The new results are based on a worldwide analysis of satellite imagery, built on a study first done in 2008 and repeated in 2013.
“The high resolution data, like the one collected by the Landsat program, allows us to detect human-caused alteration and fragmentation of forest wildlands,” said Potapov.
Presented at the Intact Forests in the 21st Century conference at Oxford University, the finding will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication, said Potapov, who delivered a keynote to the three-day gathering.
Addressing colleagues from around the world, Potapov also challenged the effectiveness of a global voluntary certification system.
Set up in 1994 and backed by green groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the self-stated mission of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.”
Many forest-products carry the FSC label, designed to reassure eco-conscious consumers.
But approximately half of all intact forest landscapes inside FSC-certified concessions were lost from 2000 to 2016 in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, the new data showed.
In Cameroon, about 90 percent of FSC-monitored forest wildlands disappeared.
“FSC is an effective mechanism to fragment and degrade remaining intact forest landscapes, not a tool for their protection,” Potapov said.
National and regional parks have helped to slow the rate of decline.
The chances of forest loss was found to be three times higher outside protected areas than inside them, the researchers reported.