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    Thursday, April 30, 2009

    CNN - Justice David Souter to retire from Supreme Court, source says

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    Justice David Souter to retire from Supreme Court, source says

    After more than 18 years on the nation's highest court, Supreme Court Justice David Souter is retiring, a source close to Souter told CNN Thursday.

    Souter will leave after the current court term recesses in June, the source said.

    Filling Souter's seat would be President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court appointment -- and the first since George W. Bush's picks of Samuel Alito in 2006 and Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005.

    Souter, 69, was tapped for the court by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, but disappointed many conservatives when he turned out to be a typical old-fashioned Yankee Republican -- a moderate, with an independent, even quirky streak.

    Souter's departure will leave the two oldest justices -- and the most liberal -- still on the bench. Retirements for John Paul Stevens, 89, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, have been rumored for years, with many expecting that one or the other would be the first to give a new Democratic president a Supreme Court vacancy.

    Souter's decision came as something of a surprise, although he has long been known to prefer the quiet of his New Hampshire farmhouse to the bustle of the nation's capital.

    CNN - DNA leads to suspect in 1970s Los Angeles serial killings

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    DNA leads to suspect in 1970s Los Angeles serial killings

    A man who Los Angeles police believe raped and murdered dozens of women decades ago was arrested by cold case investigators this month after a computer matched his DNA to evidence from two killings in the 1970s.

    John Floyd Thomas Jr., 72, may have begun his killings as far back as 1955 and he could be one of the worst serial killers in United States history, according to Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton.

    "We have yet to reach the depths of what he has done," Bratton said Thursday.

    Until his April 2 arrest, Thomas was a Los Angeles insurance adjuster. Police now call him the "Southland Strangler" -- named for the geographical section of Los Angeles County where they suspect he killed at least 30 women and raped many more.

    Thomas, who sits in a Los Angeles jail, has been charged with two killings -- in 1972 and 1976 -- but prosecutors will likely add more cases when he faces arraignment on May 20, Bratton said.

    While Thomas was arrested "a number of times between 1955 and 1978" for sex crimes and burglaries, detectives did not have the technology to identify him as a suspect when the region was terrorized by a series of killings then blamed on the "Westside Rapist," Bratton said.

    Officials, using new computer databases and software, are now "looking to see what the patterns were," said Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Charlie Beck.

    "A lot of work has yet to be done," Beck said.

    Bob Kistner had just begun his law enforcement career in 1976 when his great aunt, 80-year-old Maybelle Hudson, was beaten, raped and strangled to death in the garage of her Inglewood, California, home.

    He had just retired as a sergeant with the Long Beach, California, Police Department when he got the call recently that investigators linked Thomas to her murder.

    "I waited my entire career for that phone call," Kistner said.

    It was a routine call to Thomas from an LAPD officer last fall that led to the break in the case.

    Thomas, a registered sex offender, is required by California law to provide a DNA sample for inclusion in the state's database.

    Because of a backlog of cases, Thomas was not asked until October to report to a patrol station to have the inside of his cheek swabbed.

    "He was very cooperative," the patrolman who took the sample said.

    The California Department of Justice called LAPD cold case detectives on March 27 to tell them the DNA came up as a match to rape kit evidence collected from Ethel Sokoloff, who was 68 in 1972 when she was found beaten and strangled in her Los Angeles home.

    Those detectives had sent the biological evidence from the Sokoloff case to a state lab in 2002 as part of their review of about 6,000 unsolved murders in Los Angeles that happened between 1960 and 1996.

    DNA analysis in 2004 concluded that Sokoloff's killer also beat, raped and killed Elizabeth McKeown, 67, in 1976, Beck said.

    The murders of three other older women -- including Maybelle Hudson -- were also linked by DNA to a common killer, he said.

    "Because of Thomas's criminal background, the close proximity of his homes to murder locations, similar victim descriptions [white elderly females] and other evidence that suggests the type of modus operandi used by the suspect, detectives strongly believe Thomas is very likely the suspect in 'The Westside Rapist' cases," a police statement said.

    Thomas is single, although he has been married five times, police said.

    While he served about 12 years in prison between 1955 and the late 1970s for his previous convictions, he has no record since his last arrest in 1978, police said.

    Deputy Chief Beck said the growing use of DNA databases and computers to match them to crime evidence will likely lead to more cold case killers being identified.

    CNN - Scientists dig for lessons from past pandemics

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    Scientists dig for lessons from past pandemics

    If there's a blessing in the current swine flu epidemic, it's how benign the illness seems to be outside the central disease cluster in Mexico. But history offers a dark warning to anyone ready to write off the 2009 H1N1 virus.

    In each of the four major pandemics since 1889, a spring wave of relatively mild illness was followed by a second wave, a few months later, of a much more virulent disease. This was true in 1889, 1957, 1968 and in the catastrophic flu outbreak of 1918, which sickened an estimated third of the world's population and killed, conservatively, 50 million people.

    Lone Simonson, an epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health, who has studied the course of prior pandemics in both the United States and her native Denmark, says, "The good news from past pandemics, in several experiences, is that the majority of deaths have happened not in the first wave, but later." Based on this, Simonson suggests there may be time to develop an effective vaccine before a second, more virulent strain, begins to circulate.

    As swine flu -- also known as the 2009 version of the H1N1 flu strain -- spreads, Simonson and other health experts are diving into the history books for clues about how the outbreak might unfold -- and, more importantly, how it might be contained. In fact, the official Pandemic Influenza Operation Plan, or O-Plan, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is based in large part on a history lesson -- research organized by pediatrician and medical historian Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan.

    A cheerful man with thick-rimmed black glasses and a professor's manner, Markel was tapped by the CDC to study what worked and what didn't during the 1918 flu disaster. Markel and colleagues examined 43 cities and found that so-called nonpharmaceutical interventions -- steps such as quarantines and school closings -- were remarkably successful in tamping down the outbreak. "They don't make the population immune, but they buy you time, either by preventing influenza from getting into the community or slowing down the spread," Markel told CNN.

    Markel describes a dramatic example in the mining town of Gunnison, Colorado. In 1918, town leaders built a veritable barricade, closing down the railroad station and blocking all roads into town. Four thousand townspeople lived on stockpiled supplies and food from hunting or fishing. For three and a half months, while influenza raged in nearly every city in America, Gunnison saw not a single case of flu -- not until the spring, when roads were reopened and a handful of residents fell sick. Life magazine: Killer epidemic of 1918

    Nonpharmaceutical interventions, or NPIs, also proved effective in big cities such as New York, according to Markel. In fact, the sooner cities moved to limit public gatherings or isolate patients, the less severe their experience tended to be -- as much as an eight- or ninefold difference in case and death rates, he says. Based on this guidance, the CDC preparedness plan devotes dozens of pages to potential NPIs, from voluntary isolation to reorganizing company work schedules to reduce the density of people sitting next to each other in the office or while riding trains and buses.

    If it seems odd to base medical strategy on 90-year-old newspapers, the approach is increasingly popular. "There's a big case for looking at history," says Simonson. "We call it archaeo-epidemiology. You go to libraries and places like that, dig around, collaborate with people like John Barry and try to quantify what really worked."

    Barry is the author of "The Great Influenza," perhaps the signature history of the devastating 1918 pandemic. He says the historical record shows that isolating patients worked to slow the spread of flu in 1918, but that attempted quarantines -- preventing movement in and out of cities -- was "worthless."

    While Barry supports the CDC's general containment strategy, in the past he has charged that Markel's findings rest on flimsy historical research. After the findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Barry wrote a letter in response, saying it wasn't swift action but rather an earlier wave of mild flu, acting like a vaccination, that was probably responsible for New York's relatively low caseload. In the letter, he noted, "New York City health commissioner Royal Copeland did tell reporters...that he would isolate and quarantine cases," but based on his own articles in the New York Medical Journal, he "apparently never imposed those measures."

    It looks superficially like an academic feud, but in this field, different conclusions can suggest radically different approaches to quashing a pandemic. Nowhere is this more true than in research that builds computer models to predict the spread of outbreaks, based on previous ones. Markel, along with most analysts, says that in prior pandemics, the so-called R-naught number -- the number of new infections caused by each infected person -- has been approximately 2.0. The current U.S. pandemic control strategy is based on computer simulations that assume a flu virus with an R-naught between 1.6 and 2.4.

    Last year, however, Simonson and Viggo Andreasen concluded that the true R-naught of the 1918 flu virus was probably somewhere between 3 and 4. Since an epidemic grows exponentially -- each person sickens three others, each of whom infects three more, and so on -- this is a tremendous difference. "It says it's going to be harder than we thought" to control a pandemic," Simonson says with grim understatement.

    Barry agrees. "I do think that some of these things, like isolating [sick people], will take off some of the edge. We hope they'll do more than that. But to think they'll stop a pandemic, that is just not going to happen."

    Simonson says control measures such as the steps taken by Mexico in recent days -- closing schools and restaurants, for example -- are still worth the effort. "It doesn't mean we should give up, because we don't know the R-naught [for swine flu]. We don't know how easily this spreads." But she adds, NPIs are at best a way to buy time. "We just badly need a vaccine. That's the most important thing."

    To date, the CDC has emphasized personal protective steps such as washing hands and using hand gels, as opposed to tightening border controls or issuing formal directives to close schools or limit public gatherings. Such steps have been left to state and local officials, who have responded in a variety of ways.

    One reason for the delay in stronger guidelines is that swine flu caught planners off guard; they had anticipated being able to recognize a pandemic overseas, weeks or at least days before it hit the United States. At the same time, CDC acting director Dr. Richard Besser said Thursday that it's important to let officials tailor their response to local conditions. "They can take the recommendations we're providing and apply them locally. [By doing that] we hope to learn and see what are the most effective control strategies."

    Markel agrees that the best response depends on the particular situation. "History is not predictive science. And the powers of public health officials [in 1918] were much greater. Another difference is that people's trust of doctors and government in 1918 was probably remarkably different.... But what I have found, studying epidemics, is that good planning and good relationships between local state and federal authorities, goes a long way."

    CNN - Confirmed swine flu cases leap

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    Confirmed swine flu cases leap

    Confirmed cases of swine flu worldwide increased to 236 on Thursday, up significantly from the previous day's total of 147, the World Health Organization reported.

    In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has confirmed 109 cases of swine flu, or 2009 H1N1, in 11 states, an increase of 18 from its previous total.

    Mexico, with 97 confirmed cases, showed the biggest increase in the world, WHO said. There were 26 confirmed cases Wednesday.

    The higher totals do not necessarily mean that incidence of the disease is increasing, but rather that health investigators are getting through their backlog of specimens, said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of WHO.

    The latest tally was announced one day after WHO raised the pandemic threat level to 5 on a six-step scale. WHO did not change the threat level Thursday.

    "There is nothing epidemiologically that points to us today that we should be moving toward Phase 6," Fukuda said.

    The level 5 designation means infection from the outbreak that originated in Mexico has been jumping from person-to-person with relative ease.

    "It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's director-general. "We do not have all the answers right now, but we will get them."

    The health department in Spain reported three new confirmed cases, bringing the total for the country to 13. H1N1 was suspected in 84 other cases.

    The health department in the United Kingdom also reported three new cases, to bring the total there to eight. An additional 230 cases are being investigated.

    On Thursday, Japan reported its first suspected case, which has not been verified by WHO.

    In the United States, New York has the most cases, with 50, followed by Texas, with 26. California has 14 cases.

    The CDC on Thursday added an 11th state, South Carolina, with 10 cases.

    "There are many more states that have suspect cases, and we will be getting additional results over time," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

    By Monday, he said, all states will have additional antiviral drugs from the Strategic National Stockpile that can be given to people at high risk for flu. There hasn't been a decision on whether to attempt making a vaccine specifically for H1N1, he said.

    Swine flu is a contagious respiratory disease that affects pigs and can jump to humans. Symptoms include fever, runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

    Reacting to comments earlier in the day by Vice President Joe Biden, who said he has advised his family to avoid "confined spaces" such as airplanes and subways, Besser said, "If you have a fever and flu-like symptoms, you should not be getting on an airplane. That is part of being a responsible part of our community. You don't want to put people at risk.

    "I think flying is safe, going on the subway is safe. People should go out and live their lives," he said, but added, "There is shared responsibility when it comes to preventing infectious diseases, shared responsibility when it comes to fighting a new infection for which we have incomplete information.

    "There's no one action that's going to stop this. There's no silver bullet, but all of the efforts ... will help to reduce the impact on people's health."

    Nowhere is the crisis more severe than in Mexico. Medics in Mexico City were tending to patients in tents set up outside hospitals while clad head-to-toe in biohazard suits, goggles and two pairs of glasses.

    The government has ordered a shutdown of about 35,000 public venues, mandated restaurants to serve takeout only and closed all nonessential government offices and private businesses.

    Mexican President Felipe Calderon took to television late Wednesday night, saying the country has enough medicine to cure the sick.

    "In times of difficulty, we've always come together," he said. "Together we will overcome this disease."

    In the United States, President Obama called on schools with confirmed or possible swine flu cases to consider closing temporarily.

    Ecuador joined Cuba and Argentina in banning travel to or from Mexico. Egypt began slaughtering all pigs Thursday, although no cases of swine flu have been reported in that country.

    Reuters - Facebook eyes additional funding: report

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    Facebook eyes additional funding: report

    Thursday, Apr 30, 2009 9:41AM UTC

    (Reuters) - Social-networking website Facebook has held meetings with private equity firms to explore raising another round of funding, the New York Post reported on Thursday, citing sources.

    Facebook could not be immediately reached for comment.

    Facebook held "valuation discussions" with Providence Equity Partners, General Atlantic, Bain Capital, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, among others, the paper said, citing multiple sources close to or involved in the situation.

    The process has been informal and no term sheets have been drawn up, the sources told the paper.

    The private-equity firms value the website in the $2 billion to $3 billion range, lower than Facebook's estimate of $5 billion to $6 billion, the sources told the paper.

    The talks have created friction with Facebook's existing investors, who have poured in $400 million into the website and would like a return on their investment before seeing their stakes diluted through a new round of funding, the paper said.

    Facebook's existing investors include Greylock Partners, Meritech Capital Partners and Microsoft Corp.

    (Reporting by Ajay Kamalakaran in Bangalore; editing by Simon Jessop)

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