Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

NME’s weekly science dose (Oct 25 – Oct 31)

If there is one thing that the Middle East has an abundance of (besides oil), it would be conflicts. We start our weekly update with a visit to two of these conflict zones: Iraq and Syria.

A recent the survey on the number of people killed in Iraq, the first since 2006, has found that nearly half a million people have died due to the war, though not all deaths are a direct result of violence. Around 40% of those deaths were due to poor healthcare and sanitation, as well as infrastructure failures, which have increased since the US-led invasion of Iraq. Baghdad was the worst hit with violence, but even though the news tend to report most about explosive cars and suicide bombs, gunshots were responsible for 63% of the war-related violent deaths – more than three times those killed by bombs and explosives actually.

In neighbouring Syria, the ongoing civil war is creating a healthcare crisis across the country. Many doctors have fled in fear for their lives, leaving inexperienced doctors – and often veterinarians – to handle the influx of injured people due to the fighting. Experienced doctors outside the country are trying to ease these doctors into these daunting situations using modern technology to help them. Webcams and Skype are being set up in operation rooms to allow doctors thousands of kilometres away to guide local doctors on tricky operations. They are also offering video tutorials to teach them about other conditions they are likely to meet as they try to fill the healthcare void in their country.

On a non-conflict related threat (but still a very real one), researchers found that the increasing aridity of global drylands due to climate change may alter the nutrients cycle in the soil, leading to a decrease in carbon and nitrogen but an increase in inorganic phosphorous in the soil. This could negatively affect the people who depend on drylands for living, since it could lead to a decrease in the plant productivity. It will also decrease the capacity of these ecosystems to act as CO2 sinks and capture the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Beyond the hood

The Kepler telescope has found an interesting new exoplanet, reported in yesterday’s Nature. It has a similar size to Earth, a similar density to Earth and probably has a similar core to Earth. But that’s where the similarities end. The exoplanet which is dubbed Kepler-78b, is a lava planet, with temperatures on the surface usually reaching 2000-2800°C. It’s year is only 8.5 hours long, orbiting its star about 100 times closer than our planet orbits the Sun.

In fact, it is so close to its star that scientists are confused it could form where it did. While it may not the habitable planet we are all waiting for, it’s an important step in the search for Earth-like planets, now that scientists can measure planets this small.

On a more earthly note, two new treatments for Hepatitis C are nearing approval, with scientists saying these can make a cure for the viral epidemic, for the first time, a real option. This is the first HCV treatment since interfeuron came into use, and and when taken with ribavirin, eliminates hepatitis C in around 80% of people. The main hurdle for these drugs would be the cost, since most of the people who carry the hepatitis C virus worldwide may not be able to afford the treatment. However, for countries such as Egypt where nearly one in every five carries the virus, the new treatment may be the most important break the healthcare system ever got to fight the spread of the epidemic.

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