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New app gives throat cancer patients their voice back

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Vlastimil Gular’s life took an unwelcome turn a year ago: minor surgery on his vocal cords revealed throat cancer, which led to the loss of his larynx and with it, his voice.

But the 51-year-old father of four is still chatting away using his own voice rather than the tinny timbre of a robot, thanks to an innovative app developed by two Czech universities.

“I find this very useful,” Gular told AFP, using the app to type in what he wanted to say, in his own voice, via a mobile phone.

“I’m not very good at using the voice prosthesis,” he added, pointing at the hole the size of a large coin in his throat.

This small silicon device implanted in the throat allows people to speak by pressing the hole with their fingers to regulate airflow through the prosthesis and so create sound.

But Gular prefers the new hi-tech voice app.

It was developed for patients set to lose their voice due to a laryngectomy, or removal of the larynx, a typical procedure for advanced stages of throat cancer.

The joint project of the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Prague’s Charles University and two private companies — CertiCon and SpeechTech — kicked off nearly two years ago.

The technology uses recordings of a patient’s voice to create synthetic speech that can be played on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops via the app.

Ideally, patients need to record more than 10,000 sentences to provide scientists with enough material to produce their synthetic voice.

“We edit together individual sounds of speech so we need a lot of sentences,” said Jindrich Matousek, an expert on text-to-speech synthesis, speech modelling and acoustics who heads the project at the Pilsen university.

‘A matter of weeks’

But there are drawbacks: patients facing laryngectomies usually have little time or energy to do the recordings in the wake of a diagnosis that requires swift treatment.

“It’s usually a matter of weeks,” said Barbora Repova, a doctor at the Motol University Hospital, working on the project for Charles University.

“The patients also have to tackle issues like their economic situation, their lives are turned upside down, and the last thing they want to do is to make the recording,” she told AFP.

To address these difficulties, scientists came up with a more streamlined method for the app, which is supported by the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic.

Working with fewer sentences — ideally 3,500 but as few as 300 — this method uses advanced statistical models such as artificial neural networks.

“You use speech models with certain parameters to generate synthesised speech,” said Matousek.

“Having more data is still better, but you can achieve decent quality with less data of a given voice.”

The sentences are carefully selected and individual sounds have to be recorded several times as they are pronounced differently next to different sounds or at the beginning and end of a word or sentence, he added.

So far, the Pilsen university has recorded 10 to 15 patients, according to Matousek.

Besides Czech, the Pilsen scientists have also created synthesised speech samples in English, Russian and Slovak.

‘Baby dinosaurs’

Gular — an upholsterer who lost his job due to his handicap — managed to record 477 sentences over the three weeks between his diagnosis and the operation.

But he was stressed and less than satisfied with the quality of his voice.

“Throat cancer patients often suffer from some form of dysphonia (hoarseness) before the surgery, so in combination with a limited speech sample it makes the voice sound unnatural,” said Repova.

In a studio at the Pilsen university meanwhile, entrepreneur Jana Huttova is recording outlandish phrases.

The 34-year-old mother of three faces the risk of losing her voice to minor throat surgery — an operation on her parathyroid gland.

“The Chechens have always preferred a dagger-like Kalashnikov,” she says, reading from the text before her.

“I have small kids and I want them to hear my own voice, not a robot,” Huttova said.

Then she moved on to her next sentence: “We were attacked by a tyrannosaur’s baby dinosaurs.”

Connected to the brain

Matousek believes that in the future, patients will be able to use the app to record their voice at home using a specialised website to guide them through the process.

And he hopes that one day it will go even further.

“The ultimate vision is a miniature device connected to the brain, to the nerves linked to speech — then patients could control the device with their thoughts,” he said.

This kind of advanced solution is a very long way off, said Repova.

“But look at cochlear implants — 40 years ago when they started, we had no idea how it would develop, how widely they would end up being used,” she said, referring to the inner-ear implants used to tackle severe deafness.

“A happy end would be a device implanted in the throat that could talk with the patient’s own voice,” she told AFP.

“It’s realistic: it may not come in a year or even in 10 years, but it’s realistic and we’re on the way.”

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Health Ranger posts new microscopy photos of covid swabs, covid masks and mysterious red and blue fibers

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(Natural News) What follows is a series of microscopy photos of covid swabs (a synthetic swab, then a cotton swab), a covid mask and some zoomed-in photos of mysterious red and blue fibers found in the masks.

The magnification range for these photos is 50X to 200X. Most were taken with white light, but several (as indicated) were taken with UV light.

The images shown here are 600 pixels wide. We have higher resolution images available to researchers and indy media journalists; contact us for those hi-res images.

More microscopy investigations are under way, and new images will be posted as they are finalized.

First, this series shows the carbon fiber layer of a covid mask, illuminated with UV light:

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5,800 test positive, 74 die of coronavirus at least 14 days after getting fully vaccinated

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(Natural News) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday, April 15, confirmed some 5,800 breakthrough coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the U.S.

A breakthrough COVID-19 case is defined as someone who has detectable levels of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – at least 14 days after getting fully vaccinated against the disease.

Nearly 400 breakthrough cases required treatment at hospitals and 74 died. A little over 40 percent of the infections were in people 60 years and above and 65 percent were female. About 29 percent of the vaccine breakthrough infections were reportedly asymptomatic. The figures were for cases through April 13.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told a congressional hearing on Thursday that the causes of the breakthrough cases are being probed. “Some of these breakthroughs are, of course, failure of an immune response in the host. And then some of them we worry might be related to a variant that is circulating. So we’re looking at both,” she said.

The CDC is monitoring reported cases “for clustering by patient demographics, geographic location, time since vaccination, vaccine type or lot number, and SARS-CoV-2 lineage.” It has created a national COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough database, where state health departments can enter, store and manage data for cases in their region.

Where available, respiratory specimens that tested positive for COVID-19 will be collected for genomic sequencing “to identify the virus lineage that caused the infection.”

Positive test less than two weeks after getting fully vaccinated is not a breakthrough case

The number of cases the CDC has identified does not include people who contracted COVID-19 less than two weeks after their final dose. The two-week marker is important, said infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

A human body should have enough time to develop antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 after that timeframe. Before then, a person won’t necessarily have the built-up immunity needed to fight off an infection. According to Dr. Adalja, cases that occur before the two-week mark are not considered breakthrough cases.

Dr. Adalja also noted that more research is needed to determine if highly infectious variants of the virus are behind the breakthrough cases. “It is crucial to study breakthrough cases to understand their severity, their contagiousness and what role variants may be playing,” Dr. Adalja said.

More than 78 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the U.S. as of April 15.

“To date, no unexpected patterns have been identified in case demographics or vaccine characteristics,” the CDC said in a statement. “COVID-19 vaccines are effective and are a critical tool to bring the pandemic under control.”

But the CDC conceded that “thousands of vaccine breakthrough cases will occur even though the vaccine is working as expected.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agreed with the CDC. “These vaccines that we’re using are fabulous but they’re not perfect,” he said. “At best, they’re 95 percent effective in preventing serious illness, but minor illnesses can occur.”

According to U.S. drug regulators, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is 95 percent effective in preventing infection. Moderna’s was shown in a clinical trial to be 94.1 percent effective while Johnson & Johnson’s was 66.9 percent effective. Only Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which received its emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Feb. 27, was tested when variants were circulating.

The percentages are based on results from vaccine recipients two weeks after the final vaccination.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated in a briefing last week that the breakthrough cases are not a cause for concern.

“I think the important thing is to look at what the denominator of vaccinated people is. Because it is very likely that the number of breakthrough cases is not at all incompatible with the 90-plus percent vaccine efficacy,” he said. “So I don’t think that there needs to be concern about any shift or change in the efficacy of the vaccine.”

More info needed before drawing conclusions from breakthrough cases

The percentage of vaccine breakthroughs in a population depends on multiple factors, including vaccine efficacy, the amount of virus circulating and the length of time since vaccination, according to Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida.

“I love to see small numbers as much as anyone, but know that numbers like this cannot be directly interpreted as a measure of vaccine efficacy (although I have a feeling they will be). We can only interpret them against a background rate in unvaccinated people,” Dean wrote on Twitter.

“Similarly, ‘most breakthroughs have been in elderly adults’ should not be read as the vaccine is less effective in elderly adults. The majority of vaccinations (and the longest amount of follow-up time) have been in elderly adults. Again, we need more info to interpret.”

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More people died from fentanyl overdose than coronavirus in San Francisco last year

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(Natural News) More people died from fentanyl overdose than coronavirus (COVID-19) in San Francisco last year, a microcosm of a larger nationwide problem coinciding with the pandemic.

Data from San Francisco’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows that 708 people were killed by fentanyl in 2020, an astonishing 118 times more since the introduction of the drug in the city just five years earlier.

That figure nearly tripled the 254 COVID-19 deaths recorded in the city for the whole of last year. More than 8 in 10 deaths were male, and just under half were white. People aged 55 to 64 made up nearly a quarter of the fatalities. Nearly 40 percent of the deaths occurred in open-air drug markets such as the Tenderloin and South of Market.

The number of overdose deaths in the city could have been far worse as more than 3,000 addicts suffering from an overdose were administered with naloxone, the lifesaving medication that reverses overdoses.

San Francisco’s death rate from fentanyl overdose continues to rise this year as 135 died by overdose in January and February, putting the city on pace for more than 800 deaths by the end of the year.

The city has become a significant part of a larger trend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data on Wednesday, April 14, showing that more than 87,000 Americans died from drug overdose over the 12-month period that ended in September last year – the highest since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s.

Lockdowns lead to more cases of drug overdose

The surge represents an increasingly urgent public health crisis that may be correlated to the government’s monotonous battle plan against the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 19 last year, California became the first state in the U.S. to implement a stay-at-home order. It subsequently endured the longest lockdown of any state in the country.

The pandemic and accompanying lockdowns are believed to be partly responsible for the soaring number of drug deaths for obvious reasons. Lockdowns have badly disrupted the social services in the city, including drug addiction treatment. Drug experts say the isolation of the past 12 months is causing vulnerable residents to turn to opioids.

“We see the death and devastation getting worse right in front of us,” said Matt Haney, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member. “It’s an unprecedented spiraling, directly connected to the introduction of fentanyl in our city.”

Fentanyl first appeared on the streets of San Francisco in 2015. There were just six deaths from the synthetic opioid that year, 12 deaths in 2016 and 37 deaths in 2017. The figure skyrocketed when the drugs became widely available in the city in 2018.

Kristen Marshall, manager of the national drug harm reduction DOPE Project, noted the grim irony that while social isolation could save lives from COVID-19, it had undoubtedly contributed to the number of overdose deaths.

“Isolation is also the thing that puts people at the absolute highest risk of overdose death,” she said.

Pandemic exacerbates rise in deaths from drug overdose

The number of deaths from drug overdose started rising in the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, making it hard to gauge how closely the two phenomena are linked. But the pandemic unquestionably exacerbated the trend. The biggest jump in overdose deaths took place in April and May when fear and stress were rampant, job losses were multiplying and the strictest lockdown measures were in effect.

Many treatment programs closed during that time while drop-in centers, which provide support, clean syringes and naloxone, cut back services.

The data released by the CDC shows a 29 percent rise in overdose deaths from October 2019 through September 2020 compared with the previous 12-month period. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were the primary drivers, although many fatal overdoses have also involved stimulant drugs like methamphetamine.

Unlike in the early years of the opioid epidemic, when deaths were largely among white Americans in rural and suburban areas, the current crisis is affecting Black Americans disproportionately.

“The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans,” Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said at a national addiction conference last week.

“And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it’s chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups.”

Dr. Volkow added that more deaths than ever involved drug combinations, typically of fentanyl or heroin with stimulants.

“Dealers are lacing these non-opioid drugs with cheaper, yet potent, opioids to make a larger profit,” she said. “Someone who’s addicted to a stimulant drug like cocaine or methamphetamine is not tolerant to opioids, which means they are going to be at high risk of overdose if they get a stimulant drug that’s laced with an opioid like fentanyl.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) supported Dr. Volkow’s claim, saying that transnational criminal organizations cause a spike in overdoses by mixing fentanyl into illicit narcotics.

According to the DEA, Mexican cartels often purchase the drug components in China and use human mules to smuggle the narcotics to lucrative drug markets north of the border.

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