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Lecture Series

14, 19, 21, 26, 28 January 2010
Image of the Lecture

The participants summarise their talks

  • Volcanoes: sources of life or decline of civilizations
    Ramón Ortiz
    Since antiquity it is known that the volcanoes present initiating signs that occasionally are clearly perceptible by the population. A correct interpretation of these signals have allowed the evacuation of the city of Akrotiri upon the eruption of the Thera caldera 3500 years ago, as well as Pompeii and Ercolano upon the eruption of the Vesuvius in the year 79. Nevertheless, these signs are not always perceptible or even interpreted the correctly, an this way some volcanic disasters have occurred along the 20th century: Mont Pelee in Martinique in 1912, although there were many evidences, the authorities refused to evacuate and 30000 people died; Nevado de Ruiz in Colombia in 1985, when multiple alerts from Bogota where not understood by the local authorities of Armero and caused the death of 30000 people in that locality; and a bad decision based in a scientific report that assumed the eruption was over, caused 2000 deaths in the eruption of Chinchon in Mexico in 1982. The experienced gained after the eruptions of the Mt. St. Helens (USA, 1980), the disasters of Chinchón and Nevado de Ruiz, the eruptions of Pinatubeo (Filipinas 1991) and Unzen (japan 1991), as well as the scientific advances in crisis management derived from the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, and specially, the European projects on Volcanic risk, have allowed to establish a clear structure of management that begins by totally separating the technical and scientific aspects from the political. 
  • Pests. About viruses that are transmited to man
    Luis Enjuanes

    Viruses are an integral part of the ecosystem, they exist wherever there is life, and are the most abundant living beings in the planet. As a matter of fact their biomass is as abundant as the biomass of prokaryotes. Viruses are very abundant in marine waters, exceeding a million particles every millilitre. There are around 1030 viruses in the sea in total. If we queued, all viruses present in the sea would compose a line long enough to connect the 60 closest galaxies. Some of the viruses that have infected humans are associated to the first precursors of mammals and have coevolved with us. Other viruses have entered human populations in recent times. In the last 10.000 years of human history, dramatic changes have affected both humans and the viruses that infect us. Many animals have been domesticated, human population, as well as travelling, have increased drastically. Some viruses were transmitted from animals to humans as it occurs nowadays. Virulent viruses like measles and smallpox have reached a point of equilibrium with mankind in recent times. These viruses would either kill their host or provide them with long-term immunity. Thus, these viruses could only survive in large human populations with possible hosts always available for propagation. The less virulent viruses established a long-term relationship with their hosts; this implies that probably they were the initial ones to adapt to first human populations. These viruses include retroviruses (endogenous human viruses), herpesviruses and papillomaviruses.

    The barriers between human and animal infections are very small and viruses constantly cross these barriers. Almost two thirds of the total transmissible human diseases are zoonosis, which means that they are acquired from vertebrate animals. Similarly, around 75% of emergent human diseases are also zoonosis, and many are food related. The flu, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), the severe acute respiratory syndrome cause by the SARS-CoV virus, the West Nile virus, salmonellosis, spongiform encephalopathy, trichinosis and brucellosis are all human infection transmitted from animal to man.

    The routes and efficiency of viruses transmitting between humans are very variable. Putting it simply, transmission occurs through contact (oral-faeces), air, and blood, with the help of vectors like mosquitoes and ticks, or vertically from parents to sons. There are high mortality viruses like the Hantavirus, Ebola or Zaire that cause haemorrhagic fevers, which fortunately can only be transmitted through contact with infected patients. But there are other low-mortality viruses like the flu or SARS that can be transmitted through the air associated to small particles. Insects like the mosquitoes also play a key role in the transmission of viruses. This is the case  of the virus that causes yellow fever.

    Viruses interact with hosts in very different ways. Both battle each other using a complex arsenal of resources to try to keep the other one under control. These resources are part of the genetic characteristics of the virus and the organism’s cells. The later use different lines of defense to prevent the viruses from infecting.

    The occurrence of epidemics has been constant along human history and will probably continue in the future. In 1930 Scrapie was described, a new disease affecting lambs that had to be caused by filterable agent such as virus, or an even smaller organism. In 1960, Carlton Gajduseck (US National Institute of Health, NIH) described Kuru, a disease similar to Scrapie in humans, which caused tremors, loss of equilibrium and speech, and finally death. This disease was analogue to Creutzfeldt–Jakob syndrome caused by a genetic anomaly.

    During the War of Korea (1951-1953) a haemorrhagic fever affected 2.000 United Nations soldiers. Its transmissible nature was registered after testing that the disease could disseminate through the serum and urine of infected mice. The epidemiologic evidence suggested that wild mice where the carriers of the virus producing the diseases. In 1976 the virus was finally identified in mice and it turned out to be the Hantavirus that received the name of the Hantaan river in Korea, the first place where it was identified. Until the present, it has been detected in Japan, Russia, Sweden, Finland, France, USA and South America, which include countries very close to Spain. This virus normally kills half of the people that get inffected.

    Bats are animals infected by a wide variety of viruses that are later transmitted to human populations. It is the case of the Nipah virus or SARS-CoV virus among other.
    The West Nile virus remerged in New York in 1999, a location were it never had been detected before. The emerging strain was related to another one previously detected in Israel. After that, the virus has extended through the USA, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In October 2006, 31 cases had been confirmed and 25 more were probable only in New York, and caused 7 deaths. The virus was isolated in birds living in parks in the areas of New Jersey and Connecticut. The genes of the virus obtained from birds were exactly the same as the virus affecting humans. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and affects many domestic animals, including horses and birds. The first time it was isolated was in a province of the West Nile, in Uganda, in 1937, in the blood of a woman suffering fever; although the largest infection was recorded in 1974 in South Africa. This virus is currently very spread around the World.
       Recently, we are seeing how old infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria or Dengue are starting to reappear. Also new mortal haemorrhagic diseases caused by viruses have developed in South America and Africa. A collection of infectious mortal diseases caused by viruses receiving exotic names such as Lassa, Rift Valley, Semliki Forest virus, Crimea-Congo, Marburg, Ebola, Japanese encephalopathy, etc., which are extending towards Occident. The chikungunya virus transmitted by mosquitoes has had an explosive dissemination in countries around the Indian Ocean. In the French island or Reunion approximately 1 of every 10 inhabitants have been affected, and the virus has already reached Mauritius and Seychelles.

    It is estimated that currently the Hepatitis C virus affects around 170 million people worldwide, and it is expected that in a near future it will further extend in a alarming way. This virus causes persistent infections and liver cancer and there is no vaccine to control its dissemination. In November 2002 the SARS caused by a coronavirus has infected more than 8000 people causing a 10% of deaths. Zoonosis is a huge danger for human populations.

    All the data put together suggest that due to the emerging diseases and reappearance of other already known, it will be necessary to work on developing new vaccines against them. And this need is further reinforced due to the current development of biological weapons in at least a dozen countries, including Russia and USA, as well as due to the possible activation of bioterrorism.

  • Pandemic: a story of emerging and re-emerging viruses
    Rafael Nájera

  • Earthquakes. Their destructive potential and how to protect ourselves
    Francisco Vidal

    Earthquakes are the most devastating, unpredictable, and frightening natural dangers. Destructive earthquakes are not common events, especially in areas of moderate of low seismic activity, but they have a huge destruction potential in the environment and are a serious threat for life, implying enormous social and economical costs. Earthquakes are unavoidable events that happen suddenly and cannot be predicted by science yet. Nevertheless, what can be predicted is their effect over the environment. The quantification of the probable damages and losses (physical, economical, and social) caused by an earthquake is what we define as seismic risk.

    As the damage is a result from the interaction between the seismic destruction potential (seismic danger) and the vulnerability of the exposed elements liable to the damage, it is possible to reduce the risk by reducing this vulnerability and the exposition to the seismic action. Once the risk evaluations estimate that there is an unacceptable risk in certain areas, it becomes urgent to take preventive and protective measures that can diminish the destructive effect of an earthquake, especially to reduce the potential lethal and economic impact, and to face a fast-as-possible recovery after the event. Seismic-resistant constructions and disaster plans are the best way to reduce damages and injuries.

    The strategies and actions have to be taken individually and collectively. They have to build upon a basic knowledge on earthquakes and their effects, as well in the potential dangers, vulnerability and seismic risk of the area. In this work we briefly address: 1)the direct (permanent floor deformations, intense vibration of the area) and indirect (cracks, subsidence, liquefaction, slides, and human and construction damages) seismic effects; 2) which are the the elements that influence the seismic threat of a location, including the local amplification effects and how to quantify the destruction potential of an earthquake in the field; 3) which are the intrinsic characteristics that make vulnerable each element of risk, the typical location of damages in buildings after a seismic actions, some basics of the seismic-resistant constructions, and reinforcement efforts over existing constructions; and 4) how to characterize and locate the seismic risk of an area, and the implications that this has.

    We also offer some guidance on effective measures to reduce the seismic risk; some of them on the long-medium term such as locating the seismic risk and spatial management, urban plans based in seismic micro-location, the application of seismic-resistant principles in the constructions, the monitoring and preservation of these constructions, and the reinforcement of all previous constructions and infrastructures to make them as seismic-resistant as possible in order to have an acceptable seismic risk; and other on the short-very short term such as the estimation of seismic scenarios, alert systems and early estimation of damage potential, education and training of the population on seismic security, informing them of the seismic risk, emergency and management plans, rapid intervention and victim cares, emergency procedures in the affected areas, fast evaluation of the buildings' post-earthquake habitability, and recovery of services. Lastly, we indicate a number of preventive measures to know what to do before, during and after the earthquake.

  • Deluges. Disasters of water: fatality of nature or human imprudence?
    Jorge Olcina

    Risk is a condition proper to human beings singe the dawn of Human History. The ignorance of how nature works and the initial fear to extreme phenomenons, that has turned recently into a loss of respect for the environment, have made the awaiting for a catastrophe a common element in our daily life. The possibility of suffering a natural disaster is assumed as another element influencing the development of societies in any given historical moment. Humans live in risk on the face of planet Earth, and historically this risk has had a close relationship with water.  Among the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales of Miletus stated that water was the principal substance, the motor of nature. The presence of water currents was one of the basic conditions to establish human settlements in a territory and for the development of economic activities. And this has been common throughout all periods of history, including the present. With the support of scientific and technical advances, humans have had a continuos battle for domesticating water, for adapting it to our needs, a continuous search for regularity in its natural function that not alway happens. Controlling floods and droughts has always been -and still is- one of the main tasks for the development of societies.

    Without water, the action of humans over a geographical space are very difficult; the lack of water causes supply shortages and, in extreme cases, which are still common in some regions of the Earth, famines and death. The excess of water is also a risk for human beings. An extraordinary flood wave and it subsequent overflow causes important damages in the areas affected, that ultimately can also lead to the destruction of human lives. Draughts and floods, pluviometrical and hydrologic extremes are the two natural disasters with more social-economic impact in all of the Earth.

    Very frequently, floods affect very ample regions in both developed and developing countries, causing a rupture in the normal running of societies, and in occasions can also turn into catastrophes. Water becomes an impetuous force that has no respect for the labour of man, who normally has not respected the flooding territory when installing their homes or nearby activities. There are few territories in the surface of the planet that are not affected by water floods. This is regardless of the fact that certain fluvial courses register more or less anthropization, and thus have an increased risk for human beings. In general, any territory articulated around an anthropized fluvial space, is in risk of being flooded. But the level of risk will depend on the level of respect that humans have shown towards the natural function of that particular fluvial space, especially in maintaining the drainage and overflow areas when flooding occurs.

    There are areas in the surface of the planet which are particularly vulnerable to river, and other fluvial systems, floods. These are territories densely populated where rivers have historically been the basic element for deciding the development of urban locations and economic activities. Also, the areas where traditionally water courses are small but with spasmodic functioning (streams, ravines, gullies), meaning that normally the flow rate is low or non-existent for most of the year, generating a false sense of security and, thus, fostering settlements too near, or even within the natural flow.

Fundación Juan March
Castelló, 77 – 28006 MADRID – Spain
+34 91 435 42 40 – Fax: +34 91 576 34 20