Vegetative Brains Show Signs of Awareness

Scientists have detected glimmers of awareness in some vegetative brain-injury patients and have even communicated with one of them — findings that push the boundaries of how to assess and care for such people. The new research suggests that standard tests may overlook patients who have some consciousness, and that someday some kind of communication may be possible. In the strongest example, a 29-year-old patient was able to answer yes-or-no questions by visualizing specific scenes the doctors asked him to imagine. The two visualizations sparked different brain activity viewed through a scanning machine. This was a patient who was believed to be vegetative for five years. The new work, published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine, came from researchers in Britain and Belgium.

Report: 40% of Cancers are Preventable

About 40% of cancers could be prevented if people stopped smoking and overeating, limited their alcohol, exercised regularly and got vaccines targeting cancer-causing infections, experts say. To mark World Cancer day on Thursday, officials at the International Union Against Cancer released a report focused on steps that governments and the public can take to avoid the disease. According to the World Health Organization, cancer is responsible for one out of every eight deaths worldwide — more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. WHO warned that without major changes, global cancer deaths will jump from about 7.6 million this year to 17 million by 2030.

In the report from the International Union Against Cancer, experts said about 21% of all cancers are due to infections like the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes cervical cancer, and hepatitis infections that cause stomach and liver cancer. While the vaccines to prevent these cancers are widely available in western countries, they are almost nonexistent in the developing world. Nearly 80% of the world’s cervical cancer deaths are in poor countries, according to the agency.

Medical Spending Continues to Increase

Spending on health care consumed an estimated 17 cents of every dollar spent last year in the United States, representing the largest one-year increase since the federal government started tracking the number in 1960. By 2019, health care spending will represent 19.3% of the nation’s total economic output, according to a report released today by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. he rapid increase in health care spending as a percentage of the economy — up from 16.2% in 2008 to 17.3% last year — can be partly explained by the recession. Although the nation’s gross domestic product declined in 2009, health care spending rose to an estimated $2.5 trillion in 2009, or $8,047 per person, according to the report. That number will grow to $4.5 trillion in 2019, or 19.3% of the GDP, which is the entire economic output of the USA. The proportion of health care spending is projected to remain flat in 2010 and 2014 as the economy improves, the report said.

For all the hue and cry over a government takeover of health care, it’s happening anyway. Federal and state programs will pay slightly more than half the tab for health care purchased in the United States by 2012, says a report by Medicare number crunchers released Thursday. the shift to a health care sector dominated by government is being speeded up by the deep economic recession and the aging of the Baby Boomers, millions of whom will soon start signing up for Medicare.

Obama Blasts D.C. ‘Tower of Babble’ at Prayer Breakfast

President Obama criticized Washington’s coarsened political culture at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, including a reference to “birthers” who claim he was not born in the United States. “Surely you can question my policies without challenging my faith — or for that matter my citizenship,” Obama said. Renewing his call for more civility in Washington, D.C., Obama said, “this tower of babble can lose the sound of God’s voice.” Gay rights is another example, he said. People can have legitimate disagreements about gay marriage, but everyone can agree that it’s wrong to physically attack someone for their sexual orientation. He added: “I assure you, I’m praying a lot these days.”

  • The primary concern is to which god Obama prays

Obama’s Budget Curbs Border Programs

The Obama administration is proposing to scale back some border security programs set up after the 9/11 attacks and ramp up aviation security following the attempted Christmas bombing, in what some conservative lawmakers say is a dangerous priority shift. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says her department’s $56.3 billion budget for next year, up 2% over this year, enhances security “across the board.” The Border Patrol, which doubled to 20,000 agents during the Bush administration, would lose 180 agents through attrition. A “virtual” fence of pole cameras and sensors aimed at stopping illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and terrorists on the U.S.-Mexican border, faces a $225 million cut from $800 million last year. Five of the Coast Guard’s 13 elite Maritime Security and Safety Teams (MSST), created since 2001 to protect waterfront cities, would be eliminated. The existing 643 miles of concrete-and-steel border fence would be maintained but no new barriers would be built.

Haiti Fundraising Scams Soar

Federal law enforcement officials have gotten more than 170 complaints about fundraising scams tied to Haitian earthquake relief, and they’re bracing for more online cons using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Scams are growing more diverse, and the FBI has a special team of computer analysts, fraud investigators and white-collar crime experts reviewing complaints. The FBI and at least five state attorneys general have issued alerts on Haiti relief scams.

Tight Times Put Gravel Back on Roads

Gravel roads, once a symbol of quaint times, are emerging as a sign of financial struggle in a growing number of rural towns. High costs and tight budgets have prompted communities in Maine, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont to convert or consider converting their cracked asphalt roads back to gravel to cut maintenance costs, officials in those states say. New technology allows asphalt to be recycled into a durable gravel-like surface that is cheaper to maintain and adequately prevents potholes and mud. Thirty-eight counties in Michigan replaced a total of 100 miles of asphalt roads with gravel because of decreasing funds in 2008-09. In Montcalm County, Mich., 10 miles were converted to cut patching costs in 2009.

Sales-Tax Hike Goes to Arizona Voters

A divided Arizona Legislature on Thursday sent a temporary 1-cent-per-dollar increase in the state sales tax to voters, setting a May 18 election date. The 34-25 vote in the state House was a win for Gov. Jan Brewer, who has been pushing for the tax hike since she became governor a year ago. It capped nearly a year of debate over the wisdom of tax hikes to ease budget problems. The Senate had approved the increase Tuesday in a narrow 16-12 vote. The bipartisan votes were a rarity in the Legislature, where attempts over the previous months to pass the tax referral drew unified Democratic opposition, along with a few Republican dissenters.

  • Rather than search for more revenue options (i.e. direct or indirect taxes on you and me), it is time for the size of government to be scaled way back. But the fat-cats would rather have us bear the brunt than them.

Congress Increases Debt Limit by $1.9 Trillion

The House on Thursday voted to allow the government to go $1.9 trillion deeper in debt — an increase of about $6,000 more for every U.S. resident that provided a vivid election-year reminder of the nation’s perilous financial condition. The huge debt increase, approved 217-212, is only enough to keep the government afloat for about another year as it borrows more than 40 cents of every dollar it spends on programs like defense, health care, feeding the poor and protecting the environment. The huge increase — to $14.3 trillion — in the cap on federal borrowing was designed by Democratic leaders to ensure that the rank and file won’t have to vote again to run up another increase before facing voters increasingly angry over government spending and debt in the November midterm elections. Already, the accumulated debt amounts to roughly $40,000 per person, $160,000 for a household of four.

Lobbying Industry Booms in Recession

The recession has battered the U.S. economy, but the lobbying industry is humming along in the nation’s capital, even for companies that have shed thousands of jobs in the past year. The 20 trade associations and companies that spent the most on lobbying increased their spending by more than 20% in 2009 to $507.7 million, up from $418.2 million a year earlier, according to a USA TODAY report. The top 20 include oil giant ConocoPhillips, which announced nearly 1,300 layoffs in January 2009, and drug maker Pfizer, which shed 4,200 jobs since completing its merger with drug company Wyeth last fall.

  • Our upside down political system built on debt and special interests can’t come crashing down soon enough

Economic News

The unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly in January to 9.7% from 10% while employers shed 20,000 jobs, the government said Friday. The rate dropped because a survey of households found the number of employed Americans rose by 541,000, the Labor Department said.

The number of newly laid-off workers filing initial claims for jobless benefits rose unexpectedly last week, evidence that layoffs are continuing and jobs remain scarce. The rise is the fourth in the past five weeks. The number of people continuing to claim benefits was unchanged at 4.6 million.

  • The disparity between unemployment numbers increasing and jobless claims also increasing is primarily due to the statistical error inherent in these surveys, which the government doesn’t like to admit.

The mayor of Los Angeles has ordered the immediate layoff of 1,000 city employees to help to balance the city’s budget. City budget analyst Miguel Santana says the cuts are necessary because of the city’s $208 million budget gap.

The Labor Department said worker productivity rose more than expected in the October-December quarter as companies squeezed more output from their employees. Productivity rose a seasonally adjusted 6.2% in the fourth quarter,. The increase follows two quarters of sharply rising productivity. Productivity often rises at the end of recessions as companies ramp up output before hiring new workers.

Many retailers reported modest sales gains for January, as limited racks of holiday clearance items failed to entice shoppers to spend more freely. “Retailers are breathing another sign of relief,” said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. “There are more winners than losers.” But he emphasized that shoppers were still tight with their purse springs.

Executives in AIG’s financial products division are getting $100 million richer, and the White House pay czar calls the bonuses outrageous but legal. The payments are contractual obligations entered into years ago, and AIG executives have pledged to repay $39 million out of $45 million in previous bonuses to the U.S. Treasury.

Toyota acknowledged design problems Thursday with the brakes in its prized Prius, adding to the catalog of woes for the Japanese automaker as it reels from massive gas-pedal recalls in the U.S.

Video game software sales in 2009 were down 8% in the top three global markets, says a recent industry research report. Japan experienced the smallest decline, as software sales slid by 2%. Both the U.S. (7%) and the U.K. (14%) saw larger drops in software purchases.

EU Economic Woes Pound Stocks

A rout in stock markets that began in Europe spread to Wall Street on Thursday and around the globe to Asia on Friday, amid fears that Europe may be the world’s next financial flashpoint. Pressure has been mounting across the Atlantic as Greece, Portugal and a handful of struggling countries that use the euro scramble to pay off mountains of debt accumulated from years of profligate spending. The Dow Jones industrial average slid 2.61 percent, or 268.37 points, to 10,002.18 Thursday, after briefly falling below 10,000 for the first time since November, as American investors grew more uncertain about Europe’s economy. Stock markets across Europe slumped as much as 6 percent, and worries that the troubles might push even big European nations like Spain into a financial crisis drove the euro to $1.37, a seven-month low against the dollar.

Haiti

Parents in Callebas,a struggling village above Haiti‘s capital said Wednesday that they willingly handed their children to American missionaries who are being investigated on child-trafficking allegations. Orphanage worker Isaac Adrien said he told the villagers their children would be educated at a home in the Dominican Republic so that they might eventually return to take care of their families. Many parents jumped at the offer when the Baptist group arrived in a hired bus after the Jan. 12 quake. “It’s only because the bus was full that more children didn’t go,” said Melanie Augustin, 58, who gave her daughter, Jovin, 10, to the Americans. The 10 Baptists, most from Idaho, were arrested last week trying to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic without required documents.

To find Haiti‘s lawmakers, drive to the police academy, then hunt through the rows of corrugated tin shacks sitting on cement blocks. Inside some of them, members of parliament, whose headquarters collapsed, have been meeting in special session. Many are seething because they have had no input into how the massive influx of earthquake aid is being allocated. Haiti’s government has been decimated by the earthquake. Most official buildings — including the National Palace, collapsed. Many government officials were killed, and those who weren’t were looking for missing family members or sorting through damaged property. The government has been unable to pay its remaining employees.

Iran

The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened to strike a “telling blow” against “global arrogance” on February 11. That date will mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and installed the radical mullahs in Tehran. The coming anniversary is also being used as a rallying point by the opposition to continue their attacks on Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent and corrupt theft of the presidential election in Iran. This new threat—and the action that is likely to follow—is thought to be an attempt to divert popular unrest against the Iranian government by focusing anger outward against an enemy nation. The US government clearly is taking this threat seriously, as the Administration has announced deployment of new troops, ships and Patriot anti-missile defense systems to the Gulf Region.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ruled out on Wednesday Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s suggestion that three detained American hikers in Iran be swapped for Iranian citizens held in the United States. Clinton said the hikers, along with other Americans jailed in Iran, should be released immediately on humanitarian grounds. She said there is there is no basis for their continued detention. Her comments came a day after Ahmadinejad suggested in a television interview that the three American hikers be traded for Iranians that Tehran says are currently in U.S. jails. Ahmadinejad also suggested talks were underway regarding such a swap, which Clinton denied.

Iran announced Wednesday it has successfully launched a research rocket carrying a mouse, two turtles and worms into space — a feat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said showed Iran could defeat the West in the battle of technology. Ahmadinejad also unveiled the model of a light booster rocket that is being built and three new, Iranian-built satellites, touted as the latest in the country’s ambitious space program. The Iranian space program has worried Western powers, which fear the same technology used to launch satellites and research capsules could also be used to build long-range intercontinental missiles and deliver warheads.

Iraq

An Iraqi appeals court Wednesday set aside a ban on hundreds of candidates for suspected ties to Saddam Hussein‘s regime, allowing them to run in next month’s parliamentary election and offering a chance to ease political showdowns that had deeply worried the White House. The decision could remove — at least temporarily — a major trouble spot in the planning for nationwide voting March 7 to pick lawmakers and the political blocs that will shape the next government in Baghdad. The blacklist, with more than 450 names, has been widely denounced by Sunni political leaders who view it as a way for the Shiite-led government to undercut Sunni efforts to expand political clout. Iraq‘s prime minister says he will not allow the U.S. ambassador to meddle in an effort to bar hundreds of candidates from running in March parliamentary elections because of suspected ties to Saddam Hussein‘s regime.

A suicide attacker detonated a car bomb Friday alongside a crowd of Shiite pilgrims walking to a holy city south of Baghdad, killing at least 27 people and wounding 60 Shiite pilgrims have been targeted by several bombings in recent days, and Friday’s attack struck during the culmination of a pilgrimage in which hundreds of thousands walked to the city of Karbala to mark a Shiite holy day.

Afghanistan

NATO and Afghan forces have killed 32 suspected militants in a southern province that is the focus of an imminent anti-Taliban offensive, officials said Thursday. The blast in Kandahar happened as NATO and Afghan forces are preparing for a joint offensive against Taliban militants in the neighboring province of Helmand in a major bid to break the Taliban stranglehold on the south. NATO has sent reinforcements into Kandahar, 260 miles southwest of Kabul, fearing the Taliban were encroaching on the city of 800,000 people. At the same time, the international community launched a program of economic aid and development projects.

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Thursday the security conditions there are no longer “deteriorating.” Gen. Stanley McChrystal acknowledged the Taliban has made strides and said he is “not prepared to say we’ve turned a corner.” Yet he said the Afghan government and U.S. forces are making progress that leaves him feeling more optimistic about than he did last summer, when he said conditions were backsliding.

Pakistan

A bomb tore through a bus carrying Shiite Muslim worshippers in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi on Friday, killing at least 11 people. Karachi has seen a number of attacks aimed at minority Shiites in recent weeks, including one that killed dozens at a procession for a religious holiday and sparked subsequent riots. Extremists from Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority have been blamed.

China

China has doubled the amount of energy generated from windmills last year, a report from the global wind industry said Wednesday. China became the biggest market for new wind turbines last year, as it doubled power capacity from 12 gigawatts to 25 gigawatts. The world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is turning to renewables as well as coal as its growing economy calls for more power. The Global Wind Energy Council said the sector grew rapidly last year — with total wind capacity up 31% — despite the economic downturn. The global market for new wind turbines was worth $63 billion in 2009.

Weather

A winter storm forecast to blanket areas from Philadelphia to Washington with 2 feet or more of snow caused airlines to cancel hundreds of weekend flights and schools across the region to cancel classes today and weekend activities. As it subsides Saturday evening, temperatures will drop, and winds of 20 to 30 mph will cause blizzardlike conditions. Philadelphia, canceled all 300 of today’s flights in and out of airports in the Washington area, Philadelphia and LaGuardia in New York.

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