Friday, February 17, 2006
Bird flu may be closer than we think
With bird flu continuing its march around the world, we decided to interview Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's leading infectious disease expert, for tonight's show. He thinks bird flu could be in the United States in less than a year.
"I would not be surprised if in a period of several months to a year we would
see this even in the United States." - Dr. Anthony Fauci
For a long time, we believed bird flu was a disease that was "over there." Americans paid little attention because it was as peculiar as monkey pox and Gambian rats. But slowly the virus has marched around the world in birds and in humans.
Now, Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says it would not be surprising if it came here relatively soon. Are we ready? The answer is almost certainly no.
We don't have enough medicine, vaccines or hospital beds if bird flu starts spreading in the United States. We learned valuable lessons this past year from disasters like Katrina. If there are obvious warnings, we need to pay attention. It is not cause for panic, just attentiveness and action.
Nigeria fights bird flu with blunt knives, bare hands
Bird Flu has hit Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and the continent's biggest poultry producer, with a vengeance. In one part of the country alone, more than 140,000 chickens have been culled, and that's just the beginning.
In farm after farm we visited for tonight's show, we witnessed disturbing scenes of chickens being slaughtered without proper supervision or equipment, with health officials using blunt knives, without gloves or protective suits, the animals' blood spraying the officials' clothes and bodies.
In some cases, the birds were dumped into pits and set alight. But in others, they were simply tossed into shallow pits and left there to rot in the hot African sun. This, scientists say, poses a problem. Uninformed locals, many of them poor, illiterate and living in remote areas, have been dipping into the pits and coming up with armloads of dead and possibly contaminated chickens. They told us they felt the whole culling exercise was a waste of what they called good meat and that they would take the birds home and cook them for their hungry families.
Health officials fear this could be the beginning of a potential pandemic, as this is one way the bird flu virus can mutate from animals to humans. And in open-air meat markets like one we visited in downtown Kano, chickens continue to be a big seller, with locals telling us they believe bird flu is a myth and that until they see evidence of humans being infected, they won't stop buying and eating chickens.
That may be too late. Although no one in Nigeria has died of bird flu, the virus has already killed more than 90 people around the world. Unfortunately, Nigeria seems to be providing the perfect uncontrolled environment for the H5N1 virus to thrive.
Did Katrina evacuees bring more crime to Houston?
You won't find any public officials in Houston who will say, "Crime is up because of the Katrina evacuees." That's not smart politics. But you will find plenty of Houston residents who feel that way.
To tell the story of how the massive influx of evacuees has affected crime in Houston, we decided to visit the Fondren neighborhood in the southwest part of the city, because this is where many evacuees wound up settling.
The mainly working-class neighborhood, which consists mostly of low-rise apartment complexes, was plagued by crime long before Katrina evacuees arrived. But officers who work this beat say they've seen a significant spike in emergency calls since they got here. One officer told me, "Oh, we're a lot busier."
Across Houston, there have been a series of high-profile crimes involving Katrina evacuees. Houston police say evacuees have been victims or suspects in about 20 percent of the city's homicides, more than double their percentage in the population. This is leading to a feeling among some Houstonians that perhaps the evacuees are wearing out their welcome.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Molestation allegations rock small Texas town
We spent time recently in the small east Texas town of Wills Point, where several people have come forward to make some very unpleasant allegations about one of the town's leaders.
We talked to two men who told us Mike Jones, a member of the city council for the past 12 years, molested them when they were young teenagers. One of those alleged victims confronted Jones at a city council meeting this week. It got so raucous that the accuser was arrested by police and threatened with a taser gun.
Jones has filed a slander lawsuit against the man who confronted him at the city council meeting, and tells us the allegations are all untrue. He says he's being picked on because he's a successful politician and businessman.
We also talked with firemen who accuse Jones of ogling them while they took showers in the firehouse. Jones also denies these allegations.
This is a tough story to cover because of the nature of the allegations and the strong denials of the accused. Who's telling the truth? Who isn't? The reputation of more than one person is at stake.
Regardless of the truth of the allegations, there is little chance this will wind up in a criminal court. The district attorney says the statute of limitations has expired.
Houston straining under weight of Katrina evacuees
I was off last night in Arizona shooting a story for an upcoming broadcast and am now on a plane heading for Houston, Texas. Tonight's broadcast will be from there.
We want to see how some of the people who evacuated from the Gulf Coast to Houston because of Hurricane Katrina are doing. This city took in more than 100,000 evacuees after the storm. It is coping now with growing pressure on its schools and hospitals while contending with an apparent increase in crime.
Despite these issues, I continue to be amazed by the resilience of so many people in the face of tragedy. Many have lost homes, jobs, everything they know, and yet they persevere.
"What option do we have?" one woman asked me this past weekend in New Orleans. She was about to be evicted from the hotel where she was staying. Of course, she's right -- getting up each morning, putting one foot in front of the other -- what else can you do when your world has crumbled?
Massive morgue outside New Orleans rests in peace
Just yesterday, nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina, yet another body was removed from a New Orleans home. Normally, doctors would use advanced forensic techniques to try to identify the body.
But Louisiana's medical examiner, Dr. Louis Cataldie, says he no longer has the necessary equipment. That's because FEMA has closed the enormous, $17 million morgue it built about an hour drive north of New Orleans. Cataldie was using the morgue's high-tech equipment to help him the identify the bodies of Katrina victims.
Just after Katrina hit, officials feared a death toll upwards of 10,000 or 20,000. But after only 60 bodies were examined at the facility, FEMA closed the morgue on Monday, saying its work was done and that keeping it open would cost $230,000 every week. The bunk beds, washers and dryers, and gym equipment for its staff are being mothballed. The state-of-the-art autopsy gear already has been shipped out.
Cataldie says he thought most of the 2,100 people still listed as missing would have been documented by now. But, as it turns out, Cataldie thinks there are another 60 to 100 bodies still buried in the rubble of New Orleans' Ninth Ward. With the closing of the morgue, Cataldie hopes to set up shop soon in a washed-out funeral home in New Orleans.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
How would you spend $300 million?
What could you do with $300 million? That's how much money the federal government has spent on a ghost town of empty mobile homes sitting in Arkansas. My CNN colleague Susan Roesgen visited this ghost town a few days ago and wrote about it here
The mobile homes are supposed to be used for temporary housing for Katrina victims, and FEMA says they will be soon, but red tape and some apparently bad planning have stranded them in Arkansas.
I spent yesterday on the phone talking to New Orleans residents about what else could have been done with that money. Real estate agents say more than 2,500 permanent homes could have been built and sold to working class folks. Then the money could have been turned around to build even more.
The school board has spent $20 million from its operating budget to reopen 20 schools. Educators say with $300 million almost every school in town could be running again. On it goes: Hospitals, police services, public transportation. People from New Orleans say there are many, many ways $300 million could have been better spent.
I pulled out my calculator and figured out one of my own. With $300 million, you could make a carpet of dollar bills more than five feet wide all the way from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. Imagine that.
Forget for a moment about government handouts, about relief fraud, about who is to blame for the myriad mistakes that happened before, during and since the storm. This is $300 million of your tax dollars. Could you come up with a better plan for it?
Wasps enlisted in war on terror
I don't know about you, but I hate bugs. I can't stand the sight of them and their tiny little eyes, their creepy antennae. I can't even bring myself to kill them in my house. I have to call my husband.
But now, my feelings about bugs may have to change, because they may one day be our first line of defense in the war on terror. That's right, bugs fighting in the war on terror.
I'm working on a story for tonight's show about a Georgia research scientist who figured out a way to train wasps to identify the smell of vanilla and chocolate. The U.S. Department of Defense spotted an opportunity and asked him to train wasps to detect nerve gas and explosives like TNT too. And he's actually done it.
The scientist, Dr. Joe Lewis, trains the wasps by getting them to associate food with the odor they're supposed to detect, almost like giving a dog a treat after he does something well. Wasps have a keen sense of smell and can detect chemicals at very minute levels.
So one day, you may see airport police or the TSA working with a handful of wasps to detect killer substances. What a thought! The training process takes only a few minutes, which is a good thing, because these wasps typically live for just three weeks.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
'You are taking your life in your hands'
I don't think I have ever seen as many people in lab coats squeezed into such a small area. At Tulane University Hospital in downtown New Orleans, this crowding was cause for celebration.
One of nine New Orleans-area hospitals forced to close in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, Tulane reopened its emergency room and 63 hospital beds today. Any health care improvement in this city ahead of Mardi Gras is big news.
Emergency care spikes about 30 percent each year during the big party, according to doctors in the city. They tell me they typically see lots of cuts and bruises and some more serious injuries resulting from alcohol and fights during Mardi Gras.
Despite the festive atmosphere at Tulane, one finds a very different scene at the New Orleans Convention Center and its makeshift medical center. No celebrating here.
Dr. Peter DeBlieux directs the emergency room, which is made up of six or so military surplus tents. Don't laugh. Doctors treat about 5,000 patients each month in this space, many of them uninsured poor. It's been going on nearly five months.
DeBlieux says doctors are doing an amazing job with what they have, but he says they need more resources. "You are taking your life in your hands," he told me. At one point, my producer, Silvio Carrillo, who speaks Spanish, had to translate for a doctor who couldn't understand his Honduran patient.
Asked why more the city's health care system isn't in better shape, DeBlieux says local, state and federal leaders have yet to agree on a plan. His conclusion: "Pathetic."
Love is a many-splendored...mental illness?
I want to say first and foremost that I am a romantic. I really am. I am a scientist as well, however. So, I decided to do a little research into the science of love. It is worth investigating, after all, especially on Valentine's Day. It is an emotion for sure, but what exactly makes it so powerful?
It turns out Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, decided to put it to the test. She found 17 people who were madly in love and scanned their brains while they were looking at a picture of their sweetheart. She wanted to find out what happens in the brain when someone experiences intense feelings of love.
What she found is that there is no separate "love" part of the brain. Instead, the reward/pleasure part of the brain lights up strongly, just like it does when someone eats chocolate or when an addict gets a fix.
If that doesn't take all the poetry out of love, consider this: Serotonin levels were 40 percent lower in lovebirds, just as they are in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, according to Brown and her two fellow researchers, Art Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York and anthropologist Helen Fisher, love is a motivation bordering on mental illness.
And it gets worse. It is predictable that the dopamine-drenched craze that fuels intense love will wear out; sometimes over days, sometimes over years.
But remember, I am a romantic. So in this one case, I will dispense with science and just follow my heart. I will buy flowers for my wife and take her out to a nice dinner. Sometimes, it is better not to know all that is going on in our brains at any given time.
You too can be a 40-year-old virgin
Someone told me that women are having their vaginas rejuvenated. That's right, rejuvenated and reconstructed and revirginized even. I thought they were kidding. But my producer and I looked into it, and sure enough, it's an emerging surgical trend.
Vaginal rejuvenation costs thousands of dollars and is done with a laser. It includes a variety of procedures, such as women getting their labia made smaller because it is uncomfortable for them to engage in physical activity or have intercourse, women getting their vaginal canal tightened as it was pre-baby delivery, and other women going one step further by getting their hymen (the gateway to the vaginal canal) tightened. This last procedure can, in a sense, make a woman a virgin again.
In many instances, the women who get this surgery need it for medical reasons. But not all. Some women do this as a gift to their husband or significant other.
I interviewed one couple for this story who has been married 18 years and has two children. The wife recently had her hymen replaced as an anniversary gift for her husband. We also talked with the doctor who did the surgery and even got to be in the operating room during another woman's surgery.
You can see the video (the PG version) tonight, February 14th, Valentine's Day. These women say it's the perfect gift. But beware, it isn't cheap.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Porn-to-go starting to take off
Call it pocket porn, mini-porn, even porn-to-go. I am sitting in an edit suite completely dazzled by the cultural trend that is racing across the screens in front of me.
When the video iPod debuted back in October, there was great acclaim over the idea that we could download music videos, prime time television shows, and even movies, and carry them with us and watch them when and where we liked. Four months later, we're downloading alright. But on iPods, video cell phones and PDAs, some of the hottest content by far is pornography.
People in the porn industry, and even some major communications companies, say they've never seen anything like it. Since the dawn of the Internet, people could bypass adult video stores or hotel movie rentals in search of pornography. But now, they don't even need to have the stuff stored on their computers. So people are loading up the little hard drives on their hips with, well...hips...and a whole lot more.
It's intriguing, titillating, even a bit amusing. But I'm left wondering how I'm going to feel the first time I'm with my kids and we run up on someone watching a pod full of porn.
Katrina mobile homes immobile in Arkansas
I've lived in New Orleans 13 years now, a Yankee who got sucked in by the smell of gardenias in February and couldn't pull away.
My house is in the part of New Orleans we've started to call the "sliver by the river," the narrow strip along the Mississippi that didn't flood. So I'm typing this from the study of my 100-year-old home, with its hardwood floors and high ceilings, feeling lucky and guilty and numb.
The failure of the levees wiped-out 217,000 homes in New Orleans. Tens of thousands of people are desperate for any kind of temporary housing that will allow them to stay here while they rip the moldy sheetrock out of their homes and try to start over. But there's little housing available.
Apartment rents have doubled, FEMA-paid hotel rooms are being phased-out, and FEMA trailers are in short supply. Then this past week, I saw -- like an oasis in the desert -- 11,000 FEMA mobile homes, real homes, 3-bedroom, 2-bath beauties (comparatively speaking) -- sitting in an Arkansas cow pasture.
FEMA says these mobile homes aren't allowed in a flood plain, which pretty much rules out most of southeast Louisiana. Why did FEMA order them in the first place if they can't be used in areas where people need them? That's what I asked, but nobody seems to know. So the mobile homes sit there, immobile, 450 miles away from the Gulf Coast.