Our Weekly Science Picks: Australia nears the eradication of cervical cancer whilst Arnold Schwarzenegger – of all people – wages war on climate change

By Marian Shivji

Hi there – Marian Shivji here, back from a sunny month away in Ecuador, to round up the latest in the wonderful world of science for you. This week features everything from remarkable strides in cracking the secrets of Jupiter to a bag of human hands washed ‘ashore’ on a Russian riverbank.

Australia edges closer to becoming the first-ever country to eradicate cervical cancer

Every two minutes, a woman dies of cervical cancer. Behind 99.9 percent of these cases is the human papillomavirus (HPV) as the fatal pathogen. Since 2007, The Australian federal government has run a massive vaccination programme against the virus. The programme initially distributed vaccinations to girls aged 12-13, free of charge, before extending its remit to adolescent boys in 2013. Now, the programme also covers girls and boys under nineteen for two free doses of the vaccine.

According to a new study, these efforts have reaped resounding success as HPV prevalence among Australian women aged 18 to 24 has plummeted from 22.7 percent to just 1.5 percent over the last 10 years . Remarkably, only 53 percent of all women in Australia have been vaccinated against HPV. The marked decline in prevalence can therefore be explained by “herd immunity”. This form of immunity occurs when a significant portion of a population is vaccinated, which hinders the spread of a disease enough to protect the unvaccinated population. Taking this vaccination programme in conjunction with extensive cervical screening – and the recent introduction of a more advanced screening test by the Australian government – positions Australia to become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer entirely.

Only a handful of countries across the world have a widely available, fully financed vaccination program against HPV. In 2016, 78.6 percent of 15-year-old Australian girls and 72.9 percent of 15-year-old Australian boys had received vaccinations to HPV. In America, however, only 50 percent of girls between 13 and 17 and 38 percent of boys between 13 and 17 had received the vaccination, as per data published by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. In the US, the HPV vaccine can cost as much as $450 for the full regimen, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Two-thirds of the world’s population of women don’t have access to what Australian women do. The situation in the developing world is especially dire, where papillomavirus incidence rates remain high. The efficacy of the Australian example along with other successes in other accessible vaccination programmes, such as a recent trial that took place in Bhutan, truly exemplify how these seemingly expensive programmes can yield a lucrative ROI in the case of easing the burden of cervical cancer later down the line.

Fisherman goes out for a stroll along a Siberian riverbank only to discover a bag of 54 human hands

Source: The Siberian Times

Whilst ambling along the frigid expanses of south-eastern Russia, perhaps the last thing one may want to encounter is a severed human hand on his path. Earlier this week, however, a fisherman made such an unfortunate discovery on the banks of the Amur River. The man first stumbled across one hand, reported The Siberian Times, before uncovering a bag filled with 54 single human hands – or 27 pairs, if you prefer.

The latest reports detail that the hands are not the result of a sinister government regime or the workings of a criminal enterprise. In fact, the hands were just the result of a lazy medical forensics lab in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, clearly lacking in proper protocol for disposal. This is according to a statement made by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. Further, medical bandages and those plastic shoe covers characteristic of hospitals were also found near the severed hands, suggesting they were indeed connected to a medical facility. Though the means of dumping of the hands was clearly far from legitimate, the committee maintains that there was no foul play in originally removing the hands from their bodies.

With little clarity on the medical process behind the detached hands, the discovery is still causing suspicion. While it remains unclear as to why a forensic lab would reasonably need to cut off hands, their removal in this sense is not necessarily unusual. During autopsies, various organs are often removed – whether temporarily or permanently – while causes of death are being established. At this stage, though, it’s not clear why so many hands would be placed in a single bag as a part of some medical exercise. It’s all very Greek* to me.

* Read – Russian.

Finally, a true climate hero waiting in the wings… And it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger?

We previously reported on New York’s plans to sue five of the world’s largest oil companies over climate change, as lead by Mayor Bill De Blasio. We are now even more thrilled to report that the former Governor of California – or perhaps better known for bulging biceps and the Terminator – Arnold Schwarzenegger has jumped on the band wagon, setting out his ambitions for similar action. Of course, it wouldn’t be Arnie without injecting some characteristically bold phrasing and movie-like flare into his endeavour.

Speaking at SXSW in Austin for Politico’s Off Message podcast, Schwarzenegger announced his intentions to prosecute various oil companies for “knowingly killing people all over the world” through global warming.

He went on to compare the oil and tobacco industries, both in terms of their clear harm to society and in their attempts to mislead the public on the danger of their products. “To me it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco,” he told Politico. He then added, “if you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first degree murder. I think it’s the same thing with oil companies.”

Oil companies have an established reputation for obscuring the clear detriment of their industry, whether it be their greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants to the secondary environmental damage produced via their extraction processes. One landmark study examining ExxonMobil found that the powerful conglomerate regularly suppressed the findings of their own scientists while churning out editorials that dismissed anthropogenic connections to climate change.

Whether Arnie has a solid link between this obfuscation and first degree murder is yet to be seen. Perhaps the best hope at this stage, as referenced by Schwarzenegger himself, is forcing fossil fuel companies to acknowledge the dangers of oil and coal, in the same way tobacco companies must legally do so now. It would be naïve, however, to believe that oil conglomerates will simply give up their side show of misdirection and lobbying campaigns.

Not one, but four steps closer to understanding the ever-elusive gas giant, Jupiter

Credit: NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

Until recently, scientists knew surprisingly little about the deep interiors of gas giants, such as Saturn and Jupiter. This week saw a range of advances in this area, stemming from the observations of NASA’s Juno spacecraft. One of the major goals of the Juno mission, whose focus turned to Jupiter in July 2016, has been to study the planet’s interior, explicating the inner workings below its cloudy surface. During each flyby, Juno soars low over the planet’s cloud tops, probing beneath its external layer to study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, weather layer and magnetosphere.

In four new studies published separately in Nature (hereherehere, and here), the latest results from the spacecraft have been revealed. While they focus on different areas of research, they largely have a similar theme. While previous studies of Jupiter focused on the planet’s most obvious features – its dark bands, bright zones, and big red spot –these four studies use small signatures from the gas giant’s gravitational field to dig much deeper, providing incredible insights into what life is like below the clouds on Jupiter’s surface.

In one study, Luciano Iess and colleagues found that the planet’s unusual gravitational field, lacking north-south symmetry, is owing to wind flows in its atmosphere and interior. In the second, Yohai Kaspi and colleagues confirmed that Jupiter’s atmospheric jet streams extend as far as 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) down from the cloud tops. The group also determined that Jupiter’s atmosphere accounts for 1 percent of its total mass. In the third, Tristan Guillot and his team went even deeper to determine what lies below these jet streams. Their analysis suggests that 3,000 kilometers into Jupiter is a fluid mix of hydrogen and helium that rotates like a solid body. Finally, Alberto Adriani and colleagues took a closer look at the cluster of cyclones encircling Jupiter’s poles. While scientists have known the existence of these cyclones for quite some time, the study reveals where they come from or and why they never manage to merge, the latter of which owes to the polygonal patterns formed by the cyclones.

NASA’s Juno mission has clearly made invaluable strides in our understanding of Jupiter. We now know that the planet’s environmental pressures and patterns has given rise to hiding cyclones that create stunning patterns, deep-diving jet streams, and a rigid, yet fluid, body. These studies do more than greatly increase our understanding Jupiter, though. They could tell us more about similar planets, such as Saturn, and maybe even help us understand the origin of our solar system.

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