Skeptical reporter @ 2013-07-05

Skeptical Reporter for July 5th, 2013

Netherlands is facing a measles outbreak. The number of reported cases of measles in the Bible Belt region has gone up to 161 and five children have been hospitalised, the public health institute declared. The true figure is likely to be higher because not all patients will go to their family doctor. The outbreak is largely affecting children aged four to 12 who attend orthodox Protestant schools. Many of the country's strict Protestant communities do not vaccinate their children on religious grounds. The outbreak began in May with 54 reported cases in the past ten days.

In the Phillipines, classes were suspended at a school in Mandaluyong City after around 20 students aged between 12 and 16 started acting strangely—screaming, crying, fainting and convulsing—prompting claims that they were possessed by evil spirits. Julie Esparagoza, an 8th Grade teacher at the public school, said the incident started shortly after 9 a.m. and initially involved two girls from her section. One of the girls suddenly stood up and began acting strangely while the other lost consciousness.  According to Editha Septimo, the officer in charge of the high school section, some of the affected students were taken to the principal’s office while the others were brought to a classroom where a doctor attended to them. She added that she had no choice but to suspend classes in the entire school after parents started rushing to the school to get their children out of fear that they would also be “possessed.” Those who witnessed the incident were divided about what happened. Septimo was skeptical and called the incident a case of “mass hysteria” caused by students who just wanted attention. A priest that was contacted to help the children said the incident was clearly a case of “evil spirits possessing the students.”

Ever heard about the curse of the pharaohs? Well, how about the curse of a 2,500-year-old chief of a nomadic Scythian tribe that brings about floods, droughts, livestock decimation and high atmospheric pressure? Though the curse of the pharaohs has repeatedly been debunked as myth, the Scythian curse is very real, say locals in a remote area of eastern Kazakhstan where the chieftain’s remains were discovered – and where they will be reinterred to appease his spirit, to the despair of archaeologists. In 2003, an archaeological expedition dug up a burial mound in the Shiliktinskaya Valley to find a Golden Man – a presumed leader of the Saka tribe, a branch of the Scythian nomads that populated Central Asia and southern Siberia in the 1st millennium BC. Since the mound was excavated, the area around it has been hit by several floods, a drought, a mass loss of livestock and an increase in births of children with learning disabilities, locals said. Scholars dismissed the rumors, pointing to global climate change as the reason for the area’s problems. But archeologists had to concede to reinter the Golden Man at the request of the Kazakh Culture Ministry and after “unrest” among locals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and international regulators shut down 1,677 illegal online pharmacy websites this week, and seized more than $41 million worth of illegal medicine worldwide, according to a statement by the FDA. The authorities seized the offending websites, and posted messages on them warning visitors about the websites' alleged illegal activities, and the potential harms of buying counterfeit drugs. Some websites used names similar to some major pharmacy retailers in the United States to imply an affiliation with these retailers. Other drugs sold on these websites included medications that have potentially life-threatening side effects, and should be used only when prescribed by a doctor.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

A telescope in Hawaii built to seek out asteroids that might one day threaten the Earth has discovered the 10,000th near-Earth space rock ever seen. The powerful Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) caught sight of the 300 meters-wide asteroid 2013 MZ5 on June 18th. The large rock poses no danger to Earth, researchers said. "The first near-Earth object was discovered in 1898," Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, said in a statement. While 10,000 is a big number, there are many more close-flying space rocks still out there waiting to be found. Scientists estimate that near-Earth space hosts millions of asteroids, some of which could pose a danger to our planet down the road. Near-Earth objects come in all shapes and sizes. Asteroids and comets are labeled NEOs if they come within about 45 million kilometers of Earth's orbital distance, according to NASA officials.

The Earth experienced unprecedented recorded climate extremes during the decade 2001-2010, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. Its new report says more national temperature records were reported broken than in previous decades. There was an increase in deaths from heatwaves over that decade. This was particularly pronounced during the extreme summers in Europe in 2003 and in the Russian Federation during 2010. But despite the decade being the second wettest since 1901 (with 2010 the wettest year recorded) fewer people died from floods than in the previous decade. Better warning systems and increased preparedness take much of the credit for the reduced deaths. The WMO says smarter climate information will be needed as the climate continues to change. The decade was the warmest for both hemispheres and for both land and ocean surface temperatures. The record warmth was accompanied by a rapid decline in Arctic sea ice, and accelerating loss of mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and from glaciers. Global mean sea levels rose about 3 mm per year - about double the observed 20th century trend of 1,6 mm per year. Although overall temperature rise has slowed down since the 1990s, the WMO says temperatures are still rising because of greenhouse gases from human society.

The recently discovered fourth and fifth moons of Pluto now have official names: Kerberos and Styx. The International Astronomical Union, charged with official name designations, stipulates that names derive from Greek or Roman mythology. The names - referring to a three-headed dog and a river separating the living from the dead, ranked second and third in an international public vote. The winning submission, Vulcan, was vetoed by the IAU. The two moons - each just 10-25km across, were formerly known simply as P4 and P5. They were only discovered in July 2011 and July 2012, respectively.

Tiny human livers grown from stem cells get to work when they are transplanted into mice, cranking out proteins and breaking down drugs that mice normally can't, say scientists in Japan who created the working organs. The human "liver buds" grew blood vessels and produced proteins such as albumin that are specific to humans. The researchers further confirmed the livers were working by showing that transplanting a liver into a mouse whose liver was lethally damaged allowed the animal to live longer then expected. "It's a human liver, functioning in a mouse," said study researcher Takanori Takebe, a stem-cell biologist at Yokohama City University in Japan.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

The Romanian Mathematics Olympiad group has won four gold medals and two silver medals at the Balkans Mathematics Olympiad that took place in Cyprus this year. The latest edition of the Olympiad had 120 participants from 16 counties. Each country can be represented by a group of six students who must me up 20 years old.

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