Bushfire smoke is bad for your eyes, too. Here’s how you can protect them



When the hazardous particles found in bushfire smoke come into contact with our eyes, this can cause inflammation.
From shutterstock.com

Katrina Schmid, Queensland University of Technology and Isabelle Jalbert, UNSW

As we continue to contend with smoke haze in various parts of the country, many Australians may find themselves with watery, burning, irritated or red eyes.

Data from countries with consistently poor air quality suggest there could also be a risk of longer term effects to our eyes, particularly with prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke.

Although P2/N95 masks can protect us from inhaling harmful particles, unfortunately they can’t protect our eyes.

But there are certain things you can do to minimise irritation and the risk of any longer term effects.




Read more:
We know bushfire smoke affects our health, but the long-term consequences are hazy


Irritation in the short term

The eye’s surface is continuously exposed to the environment, except when our eyes are shut when we sleep.

Bushfire smoke contains dust, fumes (such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides), and tiny particles called PM10 and PM2.5.

When the smoke comes into contact with our eyes, the fumes and small particles dissolve into our tears and coat the eye’s surface. In some people, this can trigger inflammation, and therefore irritation.




Read more:
Bushfire smoke is everywhere in our cities. Here’s exactly what you are inhaling


The presence of a marker called matrix metalloproteinase-9, or MMP-9, indicates the eye is inflamed.

During periods of poor air quality from bushfires in the United States, MMP-9 was present in the eyes of more people than it ordinarily would be.

Longer term risks

We know very little about how pollution from bushfire smoke might affect our eyes over the longer term, or what damage repeated or chronic exposure might do.

But we do know people who live in areas with high levels of air pollution, such as China, are three to four times more likely to develop dry eye.

Dry eye is a condition where a person doesn’t have enough tears or they are of such poor quality they don’t lubricate and nourish the eye. We need high quality tears to maintain the health of the front surface of the eye and provide clear vision.

For people who already have dry eyes – often older people – poor air quality may increase the damage. The smoke and pollution may cause intense stinging and a feeling of grittiness to the point they can barely open their eyes.

Avoid rubbing your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse.
From shutterstock.com

While dry eye is a result of damage to the surface of the eyes, it’s also possible pollutants entering the blood stream after we breathe them in could affect the blood supply to the eye. This in turn could damage the fine vessels within the eye itself.

Research has suggested high levels of air pollution in Taiwan may increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration, which could be an example of this.

We need more research into the long-term effects on our eyes of prolonged poor air quality, particularly from bushfire smoke. But what we do know suggests it’s possible bushfire smoke could be causing subtle damage to the eyes, even in people without any symptoms.




Read more:
Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock


What can you do to protect your eyes from the smoke?

  • the best option is to avoid going outside when air quality is at is worst, where possible
  • wearing sunglasses or glasses when outside if you need them might stop some of the dust carried in the wind from contacting the eye’s surface (but it won’t stop the tiny particles getting in)
  • avoid wearing contact lenses if possible.

Some tips if your eyes are irritated

  • flush your eyes as often as you can, with over-the-counter lubricant eye drops if you have some on hand. If not, use sterile saline solution or clean bottled water
  • if your eyes are itchy, flush them and then place a cool face washer over your closed lids
  • don’t rub your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse.

If your eyes are red and sore and these steps don’t help, it’s best to see an eye care professional.




Read more:
From face masks to air purifiers: what actually works to protect us from bushfire smoke?


The Conversation


Katrina Schmid, Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology and Isabelle Jalbert, Associate Professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The case of the pirated blueberries: courts flex new muscle to protect plant breeders’ intellectual property



Not all blueberries are the same. A variety called Ridley 1111 is at the centre of an important lawsuit for intellectual property and plants.
Shutterstock

David Jefferson, The University of Queensland

A few weeks ago, the Federal Court of Australia ordered a farmer in New South Wales to pay A$290,000 to a blueberry-producing company because he had grown and sold a proprietary variety of the fruit without permission.

At issue in the blueberry case were questions of intellectual property. Who owns the plant varieties that are commercialised in Australia and other countries? Who can grow them? If you are the owner of a particular variety, how can you prove someone else has grown it without your permission, and what can you do about it?

The case is an important one in an area of law that may affect how we develop new varieties of plants. This type of work is important to address challenges such as food security and climate change adaptation.




Read more:
Will patenting crops help feed the hungry?


Australia’s intellectual property law was changed last February to give courts more options to protect plant breeders’ rights. This case is one of the first to take those revisions into account, which give courts more options to impose sanctions for infringements.

The plant breeders’ rights system works like a patent or trademark for plant varieties: when breeders create a new variety, they can register it and obtain exclusive rights to grow and sell it.

The system is designed to encourage breeders – who may include scientists, companies, or growers themselves – to develop innovative plant varieties. In other words, the possibility of commercial exclusivity functions as a profit incentive.

The case of Ridley 1111

The recent case (Mountain Blue Orchards v. Chellew) was about a blueberry variety named Ridley 1111. It has appealing characteristics for growers and consumers alike: the berries ripen early and have a notable dark blue colour and firmness.

The NSW-based growers Mountain Blue Orchards obtained plant breeders’ rights for Ridley 1111 in September 2010.

This March, Mountain Blue filed a claim before the Federal Court. They alleged that a grower based near Grafton in NSW named Jason Chellew had obtained, grown, and sold Ridley 1111 blueberries without authorisation.

Earlier this month, the Federal Court found in Mountain Blue’s favour. The court ordered Chellew to destroy the infringing plants and pay Mountain Blue A$290,000 in damages. This sum included compensatory damages, additional damages, interest, and litigation costs.

How do you prove someone has pirated your plants?

Establishing infringement for plant varieties is more difficult than for products protected with other kinds of intellectual property.

If someone is using your trademarked brand name, or is selling a widget that you patented, it is relatively straightforward to show infringement by deconstructing these things into their component elements.

In contrast, plants are complex living organisms that change based on human and non-human influences alike.

DNA testing played a role in the Ridley 1111 case, but this alone may not be enough to prove infringement. A protected variety may have only minor genetic differences from other varieties. Likewise, two individual plants of the same variety may have tiny genetic differences due to random mutations.

Furthermore, plant breeders’ rights infringement may occur at a small scale over diffuse areas, making it difficult for rights owners to enforce their rights.

Finally, it is difficult to collect evidence of possible infringement. If plants are grown on private property they can be hard to see, and third parties may be reluctant to help. Rights owners may also be wary of possible adverse business or public image consequences from pursuing a case.

A new kind of damages

Another difficulty in plant breeders’ rights infringement cases relates to the limits of how much impact even a successful case might have.

Until last February, courts could only award damages based on a calculation of the actual loss suffered by the rights owner. It can be difficult to put a number on this loss, which meant that many in the agricultural industry saw plant breeders’ rights infringement as having few practical consequences.

The Ridley 1111 case is a sign that this may be changing, however. It is one of the first the Federal Court has considered since February’s comprehensive amendments to Australian intellectual property law, which now allows judges to award additional damages.

Courts can now consider several factors when setting damages in an infringement case, including how flagrant the infringement is and the need to deter future infringements. This brings plant breeders’ rights into line with other forms of intellectual property law such as patents and trademarks.

The resulting penalties can now be much higher. This could encourage growers to pursue licensing deals with the owners of protected varieties, when in the past they might have risked a lawsuit to save on royalty payments.

However, this assumes growers are aware of the possibility of heightened penalties, and that rights owners can prove that infringement actually occurred.




Read more:
To feed the world in 2050 we need to build the plants that evolution didn’t


Encouraging innovation

What effect will these changes have on the ground? It is probably too ambitious to argue that these changes alone will lead to increased innovation in plant breeding, as some industry groups have claimed.

The development of new plant varieties involves significant investments of time and other resources. What’s more, breeding often relies on substantial collaborations between the private sector and public or academic research institutions.

So while the possibility of obtaining additional damages in an infringement action may have some effect, other factors will continue to affect the development of new plant varieties.

These include the ongoing need for governmental support of plant breeding initiatives, the development of effective partnerships between the public and private sectors, and an accurate understanding of the kinds of crops that would be best suited to Australia’s climatic and agronomic peculiarities and to the desires of Australian consumers.The Conversation

David Jefferson, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From face masks to air purifiers: what actually works to protect us from bushfire smoke?


Lidia Morawska, Queensland University of Technology

Bushfire smoke has now been blanketing parts of Australia for months. This week the air quality in Sydney reached new lows, reported to be 12 times hazardous levels in some parts of the city on Tuesday.

Beyond being stifling and unpleasant, people are experiencing irritated eyes and breathing difficulties.

Statistics emerging from hospital records show an increase in emergency hospital admissions for a range of diseases from asthma to heart disease and stroke.

We’ll only fully understand the longer term health effects in the weeks and months to come.

When the situation is as bad as it has been in Sydney over the past few days, people stop asking questions about whether air pollution has an impact on health; we know it has. The question on everybody’s mind now is: how can I protect myself and my family?




Read more:
Now Australian cities are choking on smoke, will we finally talk about climate change?


Does staying indoors help?

Our natural instinct tells us if the conditions outside are bad, we should seek refuge inside. The indoor environment provides some protection against bushfire smoke and outdoor air pollution in general, but the degree of protection depends on the type of building and importantly, its ventilation.

Buildings such as shopping centres, most modern office buildings and hospitals are equipped with heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, which incorporate air filters.

The efficiency of these systems depends on the filter technology and the size of the filtered particles. Smaller particles are generally more difficult to catch and remove, but sophisticated technology can achieve this. It varies, but what we call HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters can remove close to 100% of airborne particles.

The particles we’re concerned about in bushfire smoke are ultrafine particles. So these are likely to be removed with HEPA filters, but could get through less sophisticated filters.

Residential homes and apartments are not commonly equipped with HVAC systems. Instead, they’re naturally ventilated, typically by opening the windows. So in residential houses, the indoor concentrations of pollutants are often close to the outdoor concentrations, particularly when the windows are open.

Even if the windows are closed, outdoor pollutants will penetrate indoors if the building is “leaky”, meaning there are cracks the air can get through. This is the case in many old buildings, particularly those built from timber.

Air purifiers

One option to improve the quality of indoor air is to use air purifiers. Air purifiers use a system of internal fans to pull the air through a series of filters that remove airborne particles. The air purifier then circulates the purified air back into the room.

But again, the protection offered by purifiers can range from low to very high. As with filtration systems, the level of protection depends on the type of purifier you have. Those equipped with HEPA filters are much more efficient.




Read more:
How does poor air quality from bushfire smoke affect our health?


Their effectiveness also depends on the volume of air the purifier services, the setting (one room or several interconnected rooms), the ventilation rate (this is measured by how many times the whole volume of air is exchanged per hour) and how it is set to operate (continuous or intermittent).

To put this in context, operating a purifier equipped with a HEPA filter in a typical bedroom would significantly reduce the concentration of air pollution in the bedroom, most likely to a safe level. However, operating a less efficient purifier in a large, open plan house is not likely to help much.

Face masks

Many people consider face masks to be the best protection against air pollution. But for the most part, they merely provide a false sense of security.

Firstly, a mask is only effective if it’s properly fitted: if the fit is not perfect, most of the small particles, such as those present in the pollution plume from bushfires, will get through.

Secondly, the efficiency of the mask depends on the behaviour of the person wearing it. This includes how long you wear the mask for and how often you take it off. Considering wearing a mask is uncomfortable – particularly when it’s hot – it’s not easy to keep it on all the time.

Industrial style masks are more fitted than simple fabric masks, so can be more effective – but still depend on the wearer’s behaviour. These are not practical to wear all the time.

And if it’s questionable whether a mask will protect an adult, it’s even less likely to protect a small child. A child cannot be expected to tolerate the inconvenience and discomfort of correctly wearing a mask.




Read more:
I’ve always wondered: why many people in Asian countries wear masks, and whether they work


In summary, indoors we are protected to some degree from outdoor air pollution, so consider staying inside where possible – particularly if you have an existing health condition.

You might like to wear a mask or invest in an air purifier. These may help to some degree, but are emergency measures that don’t in themselves represent a solution.

While the air quality is likely to improve in Sydney and other affected regions as these fires ease, our changing climate means we can only expect to be in this situation more and more. The only real way forward is to address the climate crisis urgently and decisively.The Conversation

Lidia Morawska, Professor, Science and Engineering Faculty; Director, International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health (WHO CC for Air Quality and Health); Director – Australia, Australia – China Centre for Air Quality Science and Management (ACC-AQSM), Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia to send naval and air assistance to protect Middle East sea lanes: Morrison


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.

Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.

Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.

Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.

This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.

Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.

“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.

“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”




Read more:
Morrison looking at details for commitment to protect shipping


Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.

The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”

The Australian contribution will be

  • a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;

  • an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and

  • ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.

One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.

Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.

The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.

Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many



The Morrison government must have a plan for Australia’s involvement if the “peacekeeping” descends into hostility.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.

Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.

But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.

It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.




Read more:
Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature


Nor is it clear what form Australian engagement might take to deter Iran’s threats to tanker traffic. This includes its seizing of a British-flagged vessel.

Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.

The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.

Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.

In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.

This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.

Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?

What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?

What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.

We have seen this before in 1984, when traffic in the Gulf was brought to a standstill by Iran floating mines into busy sea lanes.

What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?

In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.

The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.

That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.




Read more:
US-Iran conflict escalates again, raising the threat of another war in the Middle East


Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.

Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.

Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.

These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.

Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.

In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.

As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:

Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.

What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.

Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.

The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.

Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison looking at details for commitment to protect shipping


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has flagged the government is working with the United States and Britain on details for an Australian role in helping safeguard shipping passages in the Middle East.

Morrison told a news conference in Townsville on Thursday he had spoken to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night and “indicated to him that we were looking very carefully at our participation in this initiative”.

Morrison stressed it would be a multinational operation.

This is not a unilateral initiative by any one country, and it is about safe shipping lanes, it is about deescalating tensions and making sure that the current situation does not worsen.

He said the government had not “made any decisions on this yet. We want to be fully satisfied about the operational arrangements that are in place”. It was very early days and it would be a while before things came together.




Read more:
Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature


In practice though, the government has obviously agreed in principle, subject to satisfactory arrangements being worked out. Its role is somewhat complicated, however, by the fact it does not have a ship in the region.

The US’s request for Australian assistance was discussed at the weekend AUSMIN talks.

Morrison said there were other countries which were in a similar position to Australia – “engaging before making any full decisions”.

He stressed the maritime issue “should be clearly divorced from the broader issues that relate to Iran and the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that the US pulled out of last year].

“That’s a separate issue. This is about safe shipping lanes and ensuring that we can restore at least some stability to what is a very unstable part of the world at the moment,” Morrison said.

“There has been a very disturbing series of events that we’ve seen in the Straits of Hormuz, and freedom of navigation and safe shipping lanes is very important to the global economy and that is a matter that is as important in that part of the world as it is in many other parts of the world.”

China hits back at Liberal chair of security committee

The Chinese authorities have accused Liberal MP Andrew Hastie of “Cold-War mentality and ideological bias”, after he drew on the example of France’s “catastrophic” failure to comprehend the threat of a rising Nazi Germany in an article warning about the dangers from a rising China.

Hastie, chair of the powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare. Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.

Even worse, we ignore the role that ideology plays in China’s actions across the Indo-Pacific region. We keep using our own categories to understand its actions, such as its motivations for building ports and roads, rather than those used by the Chinese Communist Party.

The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power.

Hastie referred to action Australia had taken such as foreign espionage legislation and more closely monitoring infrastructure.

But “right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities — our little platoons — then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”




Read more:
Australia depends less on Chinese trade than some might think


A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said in a statement:

We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on “China threat” which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias. It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China-Australian relations.

History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.

We urge certain Australian politicians to take off their “colored lens” and view China’s development path in an objective and rational way. They should make efforts to promote mutual trust between China and Australia, instead of doing the opposite.

Morrison played down the Hastie comments, noting he was a backbencher not a minister.

We will continue to work to have a cooperative arrangement with China. Of course, there is much to be gained from that relationship, particularly from the trade side, but let’s not forget that relationship is far broader than just the economic one.

But equally, our relationship with the United States is a very special one indeed and there is a deep connection on values and that’s of no surprise to anyone.

So we believe we can continue to manage these relationships together, but I don’t think anyone is in any way unaware of the challenges that present there.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia likely to tick off on US request to help protect shipping in Middle East



Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, and Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds at the AUSMIN talks in Sydney.
AAP/Rick Rycroft

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The federal government is expected soon to approve a commitment in response to the United States’ request for allies to help protect shipping as tensions with Iran remain high.

Speaking at a joint news conference after the AUSMIN talks, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Sunday said the government was giving the request “very serious consideration”.

Although Reynolds said no decision had yet been made, it would be highly unlikely the request would not receive a favourable answer.

Meanwhile, on Sunday it was reported that Iran state TV said the country’s naval forces had seized another foreign tanker and that seven sailors had been detained. The Iranians said the vessel, carrying 700,000 litres of fuel, was smuggling the fuel to Persian Gulf Arab states.

It is not clear what form Australian assistance would take.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said, when talking about a possible request, “it’s not unheard of to have Australian frigates in that part of the world engaged in maritime operations”.

However Australia does not currently have a ship in the region. An alternative would be to help with aircraft.

Reynolds said the Australian government’s position was very clear.

“We are deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region and we strongly condemn the attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman,” she said.

“The request that the United States has made is a very serious one and it is a very complex one. That’s why we are currently giving this request very serious consideration.”

US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the news conference that the US had been very clear that the purpose of the proposed operations had been twofold.

“First of all, to promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commence through all waterways.

“Number two, is to prevent any provocative actions by Iran that might lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.

“When we first advanced this idea several weeks ago, we had good response from some of our allies and partners. We continue to develop that idea,” he said.

The AUSMIN talks were attended by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Reynolds, Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

Esper also met Morrison on Sunday afternoon and Morrison had Pompeo to dinner on Sunday night.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is herd immunity and how many people need to be vaccinated to protect a community?



The vaccine coverage needed for herd immunity varies from disease to disease.
Ryoji Iwata/Unsplash

Hassan Vally, La Trobe University

The term herd immunity comes from the observation of how a herd of buffalo forms a circle, with the strong on the outside protecting the weaker and more vulnerable on the inside.

This is similar to how herd immunity works in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Those who are strong enough to get vaccinated directly protect themselves from infection. They also indirectly shield vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated.

There are various reasons a person may not be able to be successfully vaccinated. People undergoing cancer treatment, and whose immune systems are compromised, for instance, are impaired in their ability to develop protective immunity from all vaccines. Often, people who can’t be vaccinated are susceptible to the most serious consequences from being infected.

Another vulnerable group are babies. Infants under six months of age are susceptible to serious complications from influenza. Yet they can’t be given the flu vaccine as their immune systems are not strong enough.




Read more:
Kids are more vulnerable to the flu – here’s what to look out for this winter


How does herd immunity work?

For a contagious disease to spread, an infectious agent needs to find susceptible (non-immune) people to infect. If it can’t, the chain of infection is interrupted and the amount of disease in the population reduces.

Another way of thinking about it is that the disease needs susceptible victims to survive in the population. Without these, it effectively starves and dies out.

If most of the population is immunised, the disease dies out.
NIAID, CC BY

What level of coverage provides herd immunity?

How many people need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity varies from disease to disease.

Measles can be transmitted through coughing and sneezing and the virus causing measles can survive outside the body for up to two hours. So it’s possible to catch measles just by being in the same room as someone who is ill if you touch a surface they’ve coughed or sneezed on.

In contrast, Ebola can only be spread by direct contact with infected secretions (blood, faeces or vomit) and therefore requires close contact with an ill person. This makes it much less spreadable.




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Fast-spreading killers: how Ebola compares with other diseases


We can determine how contagious a disease is by tracking its spread throughout a population. In doing so, we can attribute each disease a reproductive number denoted by the symbol Ro. The bigger the Ro the more easily the disease is spread throughout the population.

If everyone who has a disease on average infects two people, the Ro for that disease is 2. This means the disease, relatively speaking, is not particularly contagious. However, if everyone who has a disease infects ten people on average, it would have an Ro of 10, which means it’s a much more contagious disease.

We can use the Ro for a disease to calculate the herd immunity threshold, which is the minimum percentage of people in the population that would need to be vaccinated to ensure a disease does not persist in the population. The more contagious a disease, the higher the threshold.

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases to affect humans with an Ro of 12-18. To achieve herd immunity to measles in a population we need 92-95% of the population to be vaccinated.

Current data indicates full vaccine coverage for five year olds in Australia is sitting at around the 95% level. However, vaccination rates in some communities have fallen below ideal levels, making them susceptible to measles outbreaks.

The overwhelming success of measles vaccinations means many people have no memory of what this disease looks like, and this has resulted in its effects being underestimated. Measles can cause blindness and acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which can result in permanent brain damage.




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Herd immunity, or community immunity, as it’s sometimes called, is a powerful public health tool. By ensuring those who can be vaccinated do get vaccinated we can achieve herd immunity and prevent the illness and suffering that comes from the spread of infectious diseases.The Conversation

Hassan Vally, Associate Professor, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage – and an overhaul of our laws



This week’s police raids have forced us to think again about the role of the media in a democracy.
David Gray/AAP

Peter Greste, The University of Queensland

A few days ago, Waleed Aly asked a not-so-rhetorical question in The Sydney Morning Herald. He wondered how many Australians were worried about the fact that the Australian Federal Police had spent a good portion of this week raiding the offices and homes of journalists who’ve published stories clearly in the public interest.

His conclusion? Not many. He went on to argue that it is because we have developed a culture of accepting excessive state power, with no real thought about the consequences for civil liberties or the functioning of our democracy.

Sadly, I would have to agree with Aly, but as with so many surveys, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

What if we asked, “Hands up who feels comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and departmental spokespeople for information about what our government is up to? Who thinks that is a good way to run a democracy?” Then, I bet you’d get a very different answer.




Read more:
Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy


I agree that Australian media are hardly trusted by the public, but I am also convinced that most Australians recognise the need for some kind of independent watchdog keeping track of politicians and the government on our behalf. It might be imperfect and messy, but a free press has performed that role well enough to keep us broadly on track for much of our history.

Earlier this week, my colleague and fellow University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Ananian-Welsh laid out the intricate web of national security laws passed in recent years that collectively serve to straight-jacket journalists and threaten legitimate whistle-blowing.

In a number of research projects, we have been looking at both these laws and their impact on reporting, and while we still have a long way to go, the early results suggest something deeply troubling.

While they may have helped shore up national security, the laws have also led to a net loss of transparency and accountability. It has become harder for journalists to reach and protect sources and keep track of wrong-doing by government officials. It has also become harder for them to safely publish in the public interest without risking long years in prison or cripplingly expensive and traumatic court cases.




Read more:
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An overhaul of Australia’s legal landscape

My organisation, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, has published a white paper that offers a better way of balancing those two crucial elements of our democracy – national security and press freedom.

The most important of its seven recommendations is a Media Freedom Act. Australia has no legal or constitutional protection for press freedom. It isn’t even formally recognised in law; the High Court has merely inferred that we have a right to “political communication.”

That needs to change. The AJF is proposing a law that would write press freedom into the DNA of our legal system. It would both prevent our legislators from unnecessarily restricting journalists from doing their jobs and give judges a benchmark they can use whenever they are adjudicating cases that deal with media freedom issues.

That alone isn’t enough though. The second recommendation in the white paper calls for changes to the national security laws themselves.

Currently, many of the current laws that Ananian-Welsh laid out in her article include a “public interest” defence for journalists. But as we have seen in this week’s raids, that does nothing to stop the AFP from trawling through journalists’ documents for sources and forcing everyone into court.




Read more:
Media raids raise questions about AFP’s power and weak protection for journalists and whistleblowers


Instead, there should be an exemption for journalists and their sources when reporting on matters of public interest.

That isn’t to suggest that journalists should be immune, though. Rather, the onus should be shifted to the authorities to show why the public interest defence should not apply. It is also important that the exemption include whistleblowers.

Beyond national security, there are a host of other laws that have contributed to a wide culture of secrecy at odds with the principles of open government.

Payouts under defamation laws now routinely run to millions, potentially destroying news organisations and chilling further investigative work. Shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources in court are also inconsistent across states and need to be strengthened.

Suppression orders that judges use to smother reporting of certain court cases are being applied with alarming frequency and urgently need review. And whistleblower legislation needs to be strengthened to encourage and protect anybody speaking out about wrongdoing in government or elsewhere.

While the raids of the past week have been shocking, they have forced us all to think again about the role of the media in a democracy. If it leads to better legislation that both protects national security and media freedom, then some good might have come out of it after all.The Conversation

Peter Greste, Professor of Journalism and Communications, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What should Australian companies be doing right now to protect our privacy


David Glance, University of Western Australia

Australians are increasingly concerned about how companies handle their personal data, especially online.

Faced with the increasing likelihood that this data will be compromised, either through cyber attacks or mishandling, companies are now being forced into a more comprehensive approach to collecting and protecting customers’ personal data. The question remains – what is the best approach to achieving this goal?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has proposed that instead of talking about cybersecurity – companies, organisations and nations should be viewing the problem from a digital security risk management perspective.

Cybersecurity often overlooks risks to data that have nothing to do with a “cyber” element, even if people could agree on a definition of that term. In the case of Edward Snowden for example, he used a colleague’s credentials to access the system and copied files to a USB drive.

Digital security risk management involves getting everyone in an organisation to see digital risk as part of the overall risks that the organisation faces. The extent of risk any organisation is willing to take in any particular activity depends on the activities value. The aim is to manage the risk to a level that is acceptable to all parties.

What do you do about the weak link: humans?

It is worth remembering that in the case of the Equifax breach in which the personal details of up to 143 million customers in the US were leaked, it was largely human errors that were to blame.

Put simply, the person who was responsible for applying the patch (a piece of software designed to update a computer program or its supporting data, to fix or improve it) simply didn’t do their job. The software that was supposed to check whether the patch had been applied also failed to pick this up.

Until humans can be taken out of the equation entirely, it is almost impossible to remain entirely secure, or to avoid the inadvertent disclosure of personal and private information. Insider threat (as this type of risk is known) is difficult to combat and companies have tried various approaches to managing this risk including predictions based on psychological profiling of staff.

Automation and artificial intelligence may be a way of achieving this in the future. This works by minimising the amount of sensitive information staff have direct access to and surfacing only the analysis or interpretation of that data.

A litany of recent breaches

If you needed convincing about the vulnerability of personal data on the Internet, you only need look at Gemalto’s data breach website or DataBreaches.net.

The breaches of private and personal information don’t recognise national boundaries with hacks of companies like Yahoo having affected 3 billion users, including millions of Australians.

Of course, Australian companies and organisations have also been involved with spectacular data breaches. Last year saw the Australian Red Cross expose 555,000 customer records online.

Of more concern was the Australian Department of Health had published online what they believed were de-identified records of Medicare and pharmaceutical claims of more than 3 million patients. Researchers at the University of Melbourne discovered that the “encrypted” doctor provider numbers could be decrypted.

Are we looking at it in the wrong way?

Whilst there are practical steps companies can take to protect digital systems and data, there are more fundamental questions companies should be asking from a risk perspective. In order to navigate these questions, companies need to understand the data they collect and perhaps surprisingly, this is something most companies struggle to do.

The 13 Australian Privacy Principles from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner outline the basics of how organisations and agencies should handle personal information. The practical application of these principles involves an approach called Privacy By Design for all applications and services companies offer.

Enter confidential computing

For CSIRO’s Data61, the answer to breaches of this sort is “confidential computing”. Data61 is tasked with data innovation and commercialisation of its research ideas. Confidential computing is the remit of Data61’s latest spin-off, N1 Analytics.

The main aspect of confidential computing involves keeping data encrypted at all times and using special techniques to be able to query data that is still encrypted and only decrypting the answer.

This can even allow others outside an organisation to query internal data directly or link to it with their own data without revealing the actual underlying data to either party.

Aside from the case of allowing the use of sensitive data in research, this approach would allow a company with financial information say, to share this data with an insurance company without handing over sensitive information but theoretically letting the insurance company carry out extensive data analytics.

What companies should do now to protect your data

As a starting point, Australian companies should only collect the minimum of personal information that the business actually needs. This means not collecting extra information simply for marketing purposes at some later date for example.

Companies then need to explain in simple, clear, terms why information is being collected, what it is being used for and get users to consent to giving that information.

Companies then need to secure the data that is collected. Security involves dedicated staff understanding the data that is kept by a company and taking responsibility for its physical security and for controlling who has access, when they have access and what form they can access the data.

The ConversationLastly, they need to understand and enact a risk management approach to all digital data. This means that this is part of the overall culture of the company for every employee.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.