South Korea declares war on MERS


A family of tourists wearing face masks stand on a street in the popular Myeongdong shopping area in Seoul, on June 4, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ed Jones)

Seoul (AFP) – South Korea reported on Friday a fourth death from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), as an infected doctor fuelled fears of a fresh surge in cases and prompted Seoul’s mayor to declare “war” on the virus. Five new cases overnight took the number of infected people to 41 in what has become the largest MERS outbreak outside Saudi Arabia, with close to 2,000 people in quarantine or under observation. The latest fatality was a 76-year-old male patient who died Thursday after testing positive for the virus on May 21.

Criticised for its lack of transparency in addressing the health scare, the Health Ministry finally confirmed the name of the hospital where the first patient to be diagnosed with MERS was treated.
The ministry said anyone who had visited the hospital in Pyeongtaek, about 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Seoul, between May 15-29 should report to a clinic for screening.

The government had initially declined to name any hospitals treating cases of MERS, for which there is no vaccine or cure, arguing it could cause them unfair commercial losses.

– Infected doctor fuels fears –

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Of particular concern was the positive test of a doctor at a major Seoul hospital who was understood to have taken part in public meetings attended by up to 1,500 people while infectious.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon criticised the government for not sharing information about the doctor’s movements, and said his administration would take the lead in ensuring public safety.

“From now on, Seoul city is embarking on a war against MERS. We will take swift and stern measures… to protect the lives and safety of our citizens,” Park told reporters Friday.

Health Minister Moon Hyong-Pyo apologised for the public anxiety caused by the outbreak, but rejected Park’s criticisms, saying the mayor was encouraging “mistrust and misunderstanding”.

The government had been handling the doctor’s case carefully to avoid public panic, Moon added. More than 1,000 schools, from kindergartens to colleges, have temporarily shut down across the country, while the government’s MERS hotline has been taking thousands of calls a day.

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According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) MERS has now infected 1,179 people globally, with 442 deaths. More than 20 countries have been affected, with most cases in Saudi Arabia.

The virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people when it appeared in Asia in 2003.

– Possible mutation? –

The WHO has said it expects more infections in South Korea, while stressing there was currently “no evidence of sustained transmission in the community”.

A health ministry statement said a WHO team would visit next week, citing concerns that the virus has been showing a “slightly different” pattern from the one detected in Middle East.

“We have yet to determine whether there has been any mutation,” said Choi Bo-Yul, the head of a civilian task force set up to help with the outbreak.

Among the recent infections was an Korean Air Force chief master sergeant, who represented the first MERS case among members of the military.

The airman is serving at the air base in Osan, south of Seoul, which also hosts the US 51st Fighter Wing.

In a message to base personnel, the fighter unit’s chief medical officer, Colonel Krystal Murphy, said around 100 people who had been in contact with the infected man had been asked to remain at home.

“We recommend everyone exercise caution and use good hygiene practices to prevent any further spread,” Myers said. A large number of public events have been cancelled and organisers of the World Student Games in the southwestern city of Gwangju next month admitted they were “very anxious.”

“No country has cancelled so far, but obviously we’re keeping a close eye on what is a worrying situation and hope it will come under control soon,” an official with the Universiade’s organising committee told AFP.

Counterfeit medicines and drugs, a public health menance !


Fake medicines may contain toxic substances that include heavy metals (e.g. aresenic) and additives (e.g. steroids). – AFP

The drugs you are taking may be fake

Counterfeit drugs are a booming criminal industry with serious consequences for public health.

Many of us have a strong faith in the power of modern medicine.

We go to the doctor or pharmacist, get the prescribed pills, take them religiously and expect to be cured of whatever ails us.

Oftentimes, this faith is justified, but in an age where fake products abound, have you ever wondered about the authenticity and quality of the drugs that you are ingesting?

According to a 2013 Emerging Markets Health Network report, 3-5% of all medicines being circulated in Malaysia were fakes.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam has also been reported as saying that the ministry had seized some 33,704 unregistered products worth RM43.22mil last year alone.

While this is not high compared to other middle- and low-income countries – for example, the International Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group in Indonesia estimates that about one-quarter of medicines on the Indonesian market are fake – it is certainly something to be worried about as it concerns our health.

University of Oxford’s Reader in Tropical Medicine, Prof Dr Paul Newton says that it is difficult to estimate the global size of the problem as there is not enough data.

According to him, there are very few studies, and very few of those are done in a scientifically-rigorous manner, adding that there are certainly hotspots of such problems around the world.

Pfizer Global Security director Mark Robinson shares that the pharmaceutical company sees the highest number of fake drug seizures in Asia, compared to the rest of the world.

But he adds: “That’s because we are targeting (illegal) labs, seizing the drugs before they reach the market.” He observes that in 60 countries around the world, patients went into a legitimate, licensed pharmacy and got counterfeit drugs.

In addition, he notes that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over half of those who buy drugs online from unverified websites receive counterfeit medicines.

Two types of fake

Fake drugs, also called poor quality drugs, can be divided into two types: counterfeit and substandard.

Prof Newton explains that counterfeit medicines are made by criminals with the intent to deceive patients and healthcare workers for monetary gain.

According to Robinson, these criminals include entrepreneurs, terrorist organisations, drug syndicates and weapons dealers.

 Brick dust, used to hold the fake pill together, as well as boric acid, leaded highway paint to provide the yellow colour, and floor wax to provide shine, were found to be used in the production of counterfeit mefenamic acid by an illegal lab in Colombia. – AFP

They do it, he says, because it is profitable, because they are pretty sure they won’t get caught, and because even if they do get caught, the penalties are very low compared to the amount of money they can make.

The danger of these drugs is that they can vary from not having any active pharmaceutical ingredient to containing toxic materials. (See What’s in your fake drug)

Active pharmaceutical ingredients are the chemical compounds that treat the medical condition.

Unlike counterfeit drugs, substandard drugs are made by the original or licensed manufacturer, but do not conform to the proper standard of quality.

They are “medicines with mistakes”, says Prof Newton.

These medicines occur due to errors in the factories. Sometimes, they can be small errors, and sometimes, they can be large errors, like using the wrong active ingredient, he says.

He opines that this problem is more likely to occur in low-income countries where there is a lack of drug regulation and quality control measures.

However, as with counterfeit drugs, it is difficult to estimate the size of this problem due to the lack of data.

“Not many people are actually looking (for this problem), so we might have an unpleasant surprise,” he says, adding that in terms of public health, substandard medicines are as dangerous as counterfeit drugs.

He adds that some companies are very active in ensuring that their products are good, but, like any human activity, some cut corners and skip the quality control.

Poor regulation

According to the WHO, only one-fifth of its member states have well-developed drug regulation; half have varying levels of regulation and enforcement; and the remaining 30% have either very limited or no drug regulation at all.

In Malaysia, Dr Subramaniam was reported as saying that online drug sales are a particularly hard area to enforce as the Customs Department does not screen packages valued below RM500, due to the very high number of such packages.

“We have asked the Customs Department to screen all packages, and they are trying to do it, but I think it is quite expensive to put such a system in place,” he said after opening the Access to Safe Medicines Training Conference organised by Mediharta Sdn Bhd in January.

Prof Newton was a speaker at the same conference, while Robinson was a speaker at the launch of Pfizer’s anti-counterfeit technology, Patient Authentication for Safety via SMS (PASS), in Malaysia.

According to Robinson, the top three drugs produced by Pfizer that are found to be counterfeited in Malaysia are erectile dysfunction drug, sildenafil; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to treat pain and inflammation, celecoxib; and hypertension drug, amlodipine.

He adds that it is not only branded drugs that are counterfeited, but also generic drugs that are no longer patented, like the NSAID mefenamic acid.

“People just want to use our good name (to sell fake drugs),” he says.

Prof Newton notes that antibiotics and cardiovascular drugs are also being increasingly counterfeited in South-East Asia.

He adds that it is not only drugs that are counterfeited, but also medical devices like cardiac stents, rapid diagnostic tests and insecticide-treated bed nets – a problem particularly rampant in Africa.

Bad effects

The effects of fake drugs can be felt both on the individual level, as well as on a wider scale. For the patient, taking counterfeit drugs can range from death to developing more serious health complications.

These health complications may be caused by the actual illness being untreated due to a lack of active ingredients in the counterfeit drug, or the drug containing either toxic ingredients or the wrong active ingredients.

The latter will also make it more complicated for doctors to treat the patients, as they might be confused by the incongruent symptoms.

Counterfeit or substandard drugs that contain less active ingredients than required can also cause drug resistance, particularly if they are antibiotics.

Prof Newton adds that consuming fake drugs also ends up incurring more expense on the patients’ part, as they don’t get better and keep on buying more medications.

Patients might also lose faith in the healthcare system, he says. “If you don’t trust the pharmaceutical companies or doctors, you won’t go back and might seek other alternatives.

He notes that fake drugs will also affect genuine pharmaceutical companies, as well as government healthcare systems and non-governmental organisations that inadvertently purchase these drugs.

Both Prof Newton and Robinson hope that governments around the world will take a stronger stance against counterfeit medicines, both in terms of enacting relevant legislation with much stronger penalties for those producing fake drugs, as well as in terms of enforcement.

Patients should also be more careful of what they consume.

For example, signs that a medicine could be fake include an excessively low price, flimsy or unprofessional packaging, and not requiring a doctor’s or pharmacist’s prescription for non-OTC (over the counter) drugs.

An example of the holographic security label for registered Malaysian drugs, which features the hibiscus symbol, serial number and the letters PBKD and DCA. All drug packaging must have this label. – Photo: Health Ministry

An example of the holographic security label for registered Malaysian drugs, which features the hibiscus symbol, serial number and the letters PBKD and DCA. All drug packaging must have this label. – Photo:

An example of the holographic security label for registered Malaysian drugs, which features the hibiscus symbol, serial number and the letters PBKD and DCA. All drug packaging must have this label. – Photo: Health Ministry

In Malaysia, registered drugs also have a holographic security sticker on their packaging.

Related:

 

The counterfeit menace – Health

Hiking with children is good for the whole family


Hiking_family

Hiking as a family has built strong bonds, made beautiful memories and improved health. And everyone has learnt to be more creative in tackling obstacles as they are no longer couch potatoes!

THE day I traded my high heels for hiking shoes, the malls for hills and the stale city air for fresh jungle air, my life was never the same again.

It all began when my dear hubby Adrian Yeong took up hiking. He had been hiking close to six months to improve his health and fitness when I saw the changes in him: he had shed 13 kilos and was much fitter and healthier than before. Finally one day, I agreed to join him.

Wasting no time, he got me my first pair of hiking shoes. I had my first taste of hiking at the Challenger trail in Gasing Hill, Petaling Jaya, on August 1, 2010. Since then, Gasing Hill has become our regular training ground.

Friends who heard of our hiking activities thought we were crazy to hike three times a week and when they learnt that we also brought our younger four children along with us, in their dictionary, we were well…insane. Why bother doing such tiring activities?

Many would not consider hiking with kids, supposedly because: “They will complain!”, “They will cry!”, “They will not want to walk!”

Our children being city kids were no angels either. They were always trying to find excuses to escape from hiking so that they could spend time at home instead, watching television and playing computer games. But as parents, we had the last say and so our hiking journey began…

The writer carrying her youngest son, Joseph, on her back, while climbing Gunung Datuk.

By training our children, who were then one-plus, three, seven and ten years old to hike, all of us eventually got fitter and stronger. Our speed and endurance improved. In a short span of five months, Adrian and I did 50 hikes while our kids went on 30 hikes with us.

We had explored almost all the hills and a few waterfalls in the Klang Valley. After a while, it felt a bit boring hiking the same hills. I dreamt of exploring further but often doubted if we were up to the challenge of hiking more than an hour plus with our young kids.

Little did I know that one day I would get to know a Facebook friend, Michael Mui, and that our feet would soon hit real mountains. Mui got to know of our family hiking activities and invited us to join him to hike Gunung Angsi and Gunung Datuk (both in Negri Sembilan).

In his own words, he described these mountains as “a stroll in the park!” That was our first event with the Freewill Hikers Club, a dynamic hiking group based in Johor led by Captain Richard Yeoh. My husband, being an adventurous guy, took up the idea immediately and the rest is history.

On August 11, 2012, Adrian and I, together with our young hikers, hiked our first two mountains Gunung Angsi and Gunung Datuk, on consecutive days. My two kids Audrey (then aged 12) and Dylan (nine) hiked on their own accompanied by our new friends while I carried Joshua (five) on and off as he happened to be a bit moody in the beginning.

The writer with her husband, Adrian Yeong, and their kids on the peak of Broga Hill, Selangor.

My capable hubby backpacked Lil Joseph (three years old and 12kg in weight) up to the peak of Gunung Angsi and back. Hiking more than an hour with heavier loads than other hikers made it tough.

To make matters worse, wearing the new hiking boots I got him as a surprise, he twisted his ankle during the hike. Despite having applied some ointment over the night, he still had not recovered from the injury and so I volunteered to backpack Lil Joseph up Gunung Datuk the next day.

I remembered assuring my dear hubby that I would hand the little boy over to him should the going get too tough. My hubby agreed to my suggestion. That was my first hike carrying my son up a mountain.

It was my first experience and I found Gunung Datuk to be a steep mountain, with endless roots along the way. Carrying my little boy up weighed me down though I found it quite easy to go on all fours, pulling myself up by tree roots.

Our new friends from Freewill Hikers were very helpful and took care of our two older kids, Audrey and Dylan. While Audrey was slow and steady, Dylan flew up with them and managed to reach the peak in 1 hour 40 minutes; whereas, with my load, we took about 30 minutes more.

It was tiring and our friends kept bluffing us — “You are almost there”, “15 minutes more to the peak”, “Just another 15 minutes more” — in the name of encouragement.

To reach the actual peak of Gunung Datuk, the writer’s family had to clamber up these ladders.

Nevertheless, we made it. At the false peak, I told my husband: “Darling, you take over. I am too tired!”

I handed my little boy over to my hubby to tackle the metal ladder that leads to the actual peak of Gunung Datuk as I was just too exhausted. We had all made it up to Gunung Datuk!

Those were our first two mountains — tough but rewarding. The next few months that followed saw us at Gunung Lambak, Gunung Belumut and Gunung Panti (all three in southern Johor, near Kluang).

Our toughest hike with Lil Jo was Gunung Belumut. Our little boy now weighed 15 kilos and he had not been trained as he was small. He also often pretended to be a 4WD stuck in the mud whilst hiking with his siblings, an idea he got from the multiple off-road trips we had gone for.

I uttered a prayer in the morning, “Dear God, I don’t know how we are going to make it hiking up Belumut but I ask for your help and enablement, in Jesus’ name.”

I came up with a plan. Conserve our energies, get the boy who normally walked only for half an hour to hike as far and as fast as he could. Motivating him, I said, “Jo, you need to look for 10 ant trails and you will get an ice-cream.”

The writer (centre) with her children, husband (right) and Lee Keam Keong of Freewill Hikers at the peak of Gunung Belumut (1,010m) in Kluang, Johor.

So I promised him and we went hunting all the way. He played with twigs, pretending they were rifles and he was soon blasting and shooting away, chasing his brother Joshua and another a new friend, a boy about six, named Rain, who was the grandson of Captain Richard Yeoh of the Freewill Hikers Club.

He played all the way and when he was tired, I gave him some drinks to boost his energy. I also talked, joked and laughed with him in order to distract him from the distance we had to cover. Lo and behold, my four-year-old boy successfully hiked up to the peak in four hours without being carried. It was a miracle indeed. My prayers were answered.

On the way down, Lil Joseph was now tired and had to be carried by his strong daddy. Adrian later shared that it was easier to carry a 15kg bagpack rather than our little boy as he kept swaying to and fro in the baby carrier as he tackled the tough steep terrain, squeezing through tight spots and at times jumping over gullies and large tree roots. After descending for over two hours, his neck and shoulders were stiff.

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and we’ve had to build up our strength as well as our endurance in hiking. Being positive has made us conquerors. With sufficient training and preparations, we’ve tackled various mountains.

Our conclusion on hiking with kids: it’s not easy and did not happen overnight. But it’s not mission impossible either as kids have new engines and are fast learners.

By clocking the hours and allowing them to master hiking skills, we’ve built up their fitness and confidence. After time, they have become capable hikers.

Hiking together as a family has been rewarding as we’ve built strong bonds and made beautiful memories. We’ve inculcated healthier lifestyles and our children have learnt to tackle obstacles, to never give up and be optimistic.

It has taught them outdoor skills and built their appreciation of nature. It has made them strong, courageous and creative.

This is a win-win situation and I strongly encourage families to take up hiking as a regular family activity. Just make a change in your life and that of your family. Bring them out hiking. All you need is a good pair of hiking shoes, determination and motivation.

Go for it folks, don’t be a coach potato!

Backpacks, trekking poles, head lamps, a dry bag, a sleeping bag and a poncho are among the prizes being offered for those who write in about their Star2 Adventure Challenge.

By JESSY PHUAH The Star/Asian News Network

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 Shereen Teng clambering up rocks at Gunung Rinjani. It took death and sickness to make one girl change herlife… and start hiking….

Wake up and live: Hiking can build confidence, health, endurance, stamina and fitness!


Hiking_Shereen Teng
Shereen Teng clambering up rocks at Gunung Rinjani.
It took death and sickness to make one girl change her life… and start hiking.

Shereen Teng? That petite girl … a hiker? You must be kidding. This was the reaction of anyone who knew me well back then.

I was a couch potato-cum-workaholic who was glued to the TV during my free time. After work, I rushed home to watch my favourite Korean actor in action – Lee Min Ho. During peak periods, I spent hours in the office working like there was no tomorrow.

But in 2011, my life took a 360 degree turn and I transformed from a typical “girlish” lady into an outdoor person.

Let me reminisce what inspired me to transform my lifestyle back then. I had just joined a new company and firstly, there was shocking news about a lady there. After being diagnosed with cancer, she passed away three months later, leaving behind her two little children.

Secondly, during the first week on my new job, I worked until the wee morning hours even though I had very high fever. To keep my temperature down, the doctor jabbed me with painkillers. I was eventually hospitalised for one night due to an extreme allergic reaction (my whole body was swollen).

Hiking_Shereen Teng1

Teng (seated in orange) with her team mates at the top of Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia. Photos: SHEREEN TENG

These two events woke me up. I didn’t want to die as a person with a meaningless life. And so I decided it was time to make a difference in my life and all those around me.

Being a Facebook addict, I browsed through many groups and found Boots n Fins, which organises activities such as hiking and scuba diving.

I decided to try hiking. Who knows, maybe I would enjoy it.

I signed up for a hike to Gunung Datuk, Negri Sembilan. There were carpooling arrangements, and I braced myself to meet a couple of strangers – YY Wong and Tamil Selvam – in front of Subang Parade. People thought I was crazy because I might end up being kidnapped!

But I had to take my chances. Being my inaugural hike, I was not prepared with the proper gear. Instead, I was just clad in a shirt, long pants and sports shoes. After an hour of driving, we reached the place. It was a very bright sunny day, perfect weather for hiking.

The initial part of the hike past a river was reasonably easy. Then, we had to ascent a very steep trail. My heart sank and I thought, “Why in the world did I sign up for this? Why torture myself?”

I hardly exercised back then and I worried if my legs could handle it. But step by step, I pulled myself uphill, stopping many times to catch my breath. Along the way, I met a girl called San San and her friends. It was strangely conforting to see that they were also exhausted.

After hiking for about three hours, I reached the top. The view was breathtakingly beautiful and I immediately fell in love with the place!

At the top of Gunung Kutu, near Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor.

Then we had to descend and my leg muscles started to cramp. Oh no! We had to hike a long way back to reach the trailhead. I used all my strength and slowly pulled myself together. After hiking for an hour, I almost wanted to give up, but I had no choice – no one was going to carry me down.

San San and the other girls, kept on encouraging me and shouted, “Jia You! Jia You!” in Mandarin, which means “Do your best!”. Yet, I was exhausted and could hardly feel my legs. I felt as if I was crippled, sitting in a wheelchair.

Slowly, I kept on going, even though my legs felt like lead. After an hour more of sheer torture, I finally reached the bottom.

For a week after the hike, I could hardly walk. Yet it was the most memorable hiking experience ever. And it led me to many more adventures. Hiking has strengthened me physically and mentally. I have joined other groups such as the KL Hiking and Trail Running group.

I can hardly believe it … but I have made a difference in my life. I am overjoyed that I have succeeded in climbing many mountains, including Rinjani (Indonesia) and Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. My journey in hiking will never cease. I am glad to say that I am no longer a couch potato!

If I can do it, I am sure everyone can too. Carpe Diem! Seize the day!

By Shereen Teng The Star/Asia News Network

Building stamina: A hiker goes from hill to Mount KinabaluHiking_Jason Lim

Jason Lim made it to peak of Mount Kinabalu on his second try.

After struggling and sweating buckets, climbing a modest hill, one hiker has since done Kinabalu three times.

“Let’s climb Mount Kinabalu,” said a friend. That’s how it all started for my big climb up there.

Since joining the workforce in 2001, life was mostly about work and then spending the hard-earned money on food, gadgets, holidays, etc.

Exercise decreased and pounds were beginning to build up, no thanks to my job which sometimes involves hours of “yum cha” (tea drinking) business development sessions.

Mount Kinabalu first struck my interest when my colleague showed wonderful pictures taken during her climb to the summit. And in early 2008, when Ben, one of my “yum cha” kaki, suggested a climb to Mount K, I promptly agreed.

This was the beginning of my hiking journey. Prior to that, I had also noticed that my fitness level was at the lowest level since school days. Joining the trip was a way to push myself to be fit again and to prove that I still had what it takes.

Our training brought me to Bukit Tabur, Apek Hill and Batu Caves (all around Kuala Lumpur) as well as Gua Tempurung (Perak). These were places which I would not have thought of going if I had not taken up the challenge.

I still remember our first hike at Apek Hill in Cheras, KL. At the end, I felt like I had just gone through a detox programme, after sweating out what seemed like litres of toxins from my body. Though it was really tiring, I felt completely “refreshed” and knew that there was a lot more to be done.Hiking_Jason Lim1

Jason Lim (centre) with his friends on a training climb up Bukit Tabur, near Kuala Lumpur. Photos: Jason Lim

Among all the places I’ve climbed, I would say Bukit Tabur has probably the most wonderful scenery. It’s also challenging enough to build your endurance and stamina.

We had about six months to prepare for our big climb. For anyone planning to conquer Mount K, I would say it’s good to train up your stamina consistently. However, my training regime was not very consistent – I paid for this later.

Our climb was on Aug 30 and 31, 2008 (Merdeka Day) and the seven of us rented a van to send us to Kinabalu Park from Kota Kinabalu (KK) city before sunrise.

The climb started in a joyous and excited mood, but close to the third kilometre of the trail, accident struck. The trail was wet and slippery from an earlier downpour and Ben accidentally slipped, fracturing his ankle. The team were shocked and sad for him as he was the one who had pulled the group together for this trip and made all the arrangements. He had to be escorted back to Kinabalu Park by our guide, and eventually transferred to KK for hospital admission.

Our spirits were a bit down but we continued our journey and eventually the last of us reached (the halfway point of) Laban Rata around 4pm.

Rain started to pour midway and we had to put on raincoat for the last half of the hike.

The journey to the peak started around 2:30am the next day. Of the six of us, only four completed it. One of us suffered from altitude sickness not long after starting the climb, while the other one who didn’t make it was myself. I gave up about 500 metres away from the peak.

But having made it that far, I was still very proud of my achievement, though there were some regrets till this day for not completing it. At that time, somehow I just didn’t feel like I had the stamina. Now you know why I say consistent training is important.

Drenched with rain at Laban Rata, halfway to the Mount Kinabalu.

 We continued our regular hiking sessions after his recovery, and less than two years later, I went back to Mount K again with Ben and different group members. Better prepared and trained this time, I eventually made it to the peak this round. However Ben didn’t due to altitude sickness.

But the most important part of it was, both of us had tried our best. And along the way, we built a friendship that we treasure. Thanks Ben for bring me back to fitness!

The climbs up Mount K have definitely brought back the “exercise mode” back to me. I started running, cycling and hitting the gym more from then on.

As for my health, I have managed to prevent my blood pressure level from going up further, and my stamina has also improved so much. I did a third Mount K climb in 2012 and the time taken to reach Laban Rata was 25% less than the first climb.

I have come so far since my first training session at Apek Hill where I was struggling to just keep up with the other regular climbers who were mostly uncles and aunties!

 

By Jason Lim The Star/Asia News Network

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The life force to Koreans: hiking the fabulous Korea’s moutains ..

 Mountain culture and customs are hot-wired into the lives of each Korean. What better way to get under their skin than to hike together with them? SOUTH Korea lies along a peninsula that is hugely mountainous, with a spinal …

The life force to Koreans: hiking the fabulous Koreas’ mountains


Korea's mountainsMore spell-binding Korean landscapes are found beyond Seoul in the Seoraksan mountain range.

Mountain culture and customs are hot-wired into the lives of each Korean. What better way to get under their skin than to hike together with them?SOUTH Korea lies along a peninsula that is hugely mountainous, with a spinal ridge running for 735 km from the DMZ boundary in the north to the East China Sea down south.

This mountain range has monumental relevance to the people of Korea as it is believed to provide the life force to the nation: its arterial rivers drain seawards, bearing sustenance for the inhabitants living in the lowlands. Many historical events that occurred on these mountains have been documented whilst just as many myths and folklore have been re-told over generations.

For the tourist, hiking the mountains of the Korean peninsula would seem like a natural activity, to immerse in the culture of this dynamic country.

The terrain is not high, the tallest peak being Cheonhwangbong at 1,915m, in Jirisan National Park, at the southern tip of the range. The next highest peak is Daecheongbong, 1,708m in altitude, squatting on Seoraksan National Park diametrically to the north.

The ranges are inter-linked through a series of hiking trails, following the ridge line closely and crisscrossing valleys and rivers. Temples, villages, farms and shelters dot the hills.

Soothing: The scenic mountain ranges of Korea are rich in bio-diversity. The N Seoul Tower is a popular tourist attraction. Go early to avoid the long queues for the cable car.

Such an eco-system has made mountain hiking a national pastime that is likely to overtake taekwando in popularity as a sport. There’s also a whole line of Korean celebrity fashion wear for hikers. Unfortunately, for the tourist, not much promotional information on hiking is available from official tourism literature.

It would take a lifetime to explore the legendary mountains of Korea and we had limited time to spare before our wedding anniversary celebration back in Seoul.

Day trip to Seoraksan

We took a 3-hour bus ride to Sokcho, a tourist town on the north-eastern coast of the Korean peninsula and an entry point into Seoraksan National Park.

The park showcases the Seorak mountain range, and is loved by the locals for its natural beauty and bio-diversity. Hikers come to marvel at the uncanny ruggedness of the “Dinosaur Ridge” and soak up the fables of the mountains’ origins.

There are many trails up picturesque Seoraksan, numerous short ones requiring half-day’s effort and several longer routes that are more than 10km in distance.

A good option for tourists is to hop on the cable car, not far from the Visitor Information Office, and catch a ride up to Gwongeumseong Fortress at a height of about 900 m. This was the option we selected together with a long queue of like-minded tourists. We reached the counter at 10.30am but all tickets were sold out.

Without wasting any more time, we opened the map, picked out what looked like an easy route and headed out to Biseondae Cliff.

It was only 2.3km one-way and took us through a forested area, tracing a path beside a gushing stream. The fresh air and fine drizzle made the pace invigorating.

 Many eateries are found along the trails of the park.

We skirted a pool of crystalline water at the bottom of a huge rock face, which I took to be Biseondae Cliff, and crossed a short bridge whereupon the trail ended abruptly at a locked gate. Beyond laid wilderness that could be experienced only with a permit from the ranger’s office. We clambered up a rocky slope and joined some hikers on a break.

“Where are you from?” queried the ajeossi (middle-aged man). I told him we were from Malaysia, as I shared a chocolate bar with his 10-year old son. I remarked that the scenery here had a mystical and mysterious air.

He nodded, “Ah, as mysterious as the disappearance of your airplane”. I guess he was referring to MH370. We both nodded and sighed. They wished us a good trip and moved on. We stayed a while to admire the view of the distant peaks framed in by the hillside trees. On our way down we stopped by a tea house. Bibimbap downed with a hot bowl of miso soup tasted a lot better here than in the lowlands.

We dozed on the bus back to Seoul. That chilly night in Seoul, we captured our last “high” at the N Seoul Tower, atop Namsan. Standing 236m tall, the tower accords a night scene of the city.

We were feeling pretty tired, but fulfilled. So, I suggested we take the cable car up instead of climbing the stairs. I didn’t hear any objections.

Hiking near Seoul

THE view from Bugaksan might have been more panoramic if not for the faint haze hanging over the “ancient quarters” of Seoul that April morning.

To the south-west, we could just make out the hillock of Inwangsan and the colourful string of hikers inching up its summit trail, while afar north, the rocky peaks of Bukhansan glared in the sun.

Seoul, the 600-year old capital city of South Korea, is encircled by a fortress wall that links four surrounding hills, Bugaksan, Ingwangsan, Namsan and Naksan. Of these, Bugaksan is the tallest at 342m and is located in the neighbourhood of Samcheong-dong, majestically overlooking Cheongwadae (Blue House), the President’s official residence and office.

We had taken the northern route of the fortress wall, entering through Hyehwamun Gate, muddling through a residential area up a steep incline, and, with some orienteering instinct, located the path that followed the ancient stone wall, leading us up a hill of cherry trees.

Due to its proximity with the Blue House, this section of the trail requires foreigners (who are called “aliens” in official documents here) to sign in at Malbawi Station with their passports (or “Alien Registration Card”) and sign-out at Changuimun Station.

Guards are posted at intervals within eye-shot of hikers. One young cadet approached me to view my camera photos and requested some to be deleted. The pictures were mainly landscape shots, mostly bird’s eye views of the city, which didn’t look pretty anyway, back-lit by the morning sun.

It was a quarter past eleven when we arrived at the top of Bugaksan. The guard, more militia than forest ranger, had been monitoring the growing crowd at the plot, and sternly ushered any lingerers to move on. No picnic here, literally, just pictures.

The Koreans are actually a helpful and friendly lot. On the way up we had approached more than a few ajumma (“aunty”) for directions and they were profuse with their assistance; expressive hand gestures and finger pointing, and a continuous barrage of verbal directions, delivered in Korean.

We nodded our gamsa-hamnida (“thank you”) and they gleefully let us off. Still clueless, we were comforted to know that at least we were in hospitable country.

The descent to Changuimun was unexpectedly steep, and the high steps slowed the pace somewhat. Overall, the hike was enjoyable, requiring just three hours, which left us plenty of time to slip back downtown for another helping of sumptuous Korean spicy soup.

By Lee Meng Lai The Star/Asia News Network

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Living life to the fullest


living-life-to-the-fullest
Chan, an avid mountaineer and myelofibrosis patient, with a photo of himself (in red jacket) and fellow climbers at the summit of Mount Kinabalu. Photo: UU BAN/The Star >>

Despite having a rare blood disorder, Tan Sri Chan Choong Tak not only continued his active lifestyle , but also took up mountain-climbing.

FORMER Dewan Negara president Tan Sri Chan Choong Tak’s motto in life is to live it to the fullest.

Not surprising then that among his many accomplishments are two Malaysian Book of Records titles as the oldest Malaysian to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak (on Aug 31, 2003, at the age of 70) and the oldest Malaysian to reach the top of Mount Kinabalu’s King George Peak (on Aug 29, 2004, at the age of 71).

Uhuru Peak is the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro, which is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world (from sea level) and the tallest mountain in Africa, while King George Peak is located on the more challenging and lessclimbed Eastern Plateau of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah.

What makes these two records more significant – aside from the impressive fact that Chan only took up mountain-climbing in his sixties – is that he was suffering from a rare bone marrow disorder at the same time.

His condition, primary myelofibrosis, is one of a group of diseases called myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are caused by abnormal production of blood cells in the bone marrow.

In the case of myelofibrosis, the problem lies in the abnormally-increased production of megakaryocytes, which are the cells that directly give rise to platelets. This results in an initial increased number of platelets in the body.

Cytokines – protein growth factors that are produced by megakaryocytes – are also correspondingly increased.

And as these cytokines are what stimulate the bone marrow’s fibroblasts to produce collagen, this results in an excessive amount of collagen being made.

The collagen deposits in the bone marrow as webs of fibre – similar to scar tissue on the skin – resulting in the disease’s characteristic fibrosis of the bone marrow.

With the collagen taking up so much space in the bone marrow, regular blood cell production is disrupted.

Red blood cells (RBCs) are usually decreased in number and abnormally formed, resulting in anaemia, while white blood cells (WBCs) are abnormal and immature, resulting in increased infection rates.

With production of blood cells in the bone marrow disrupted, the spleen, which is the body’s secondary supplier of blood cells, steps up to meet the body’s needs.

This extra work usually causes the spleen to enlarge (splenomegaly), resulting in pain or a feeling of fullness below the left rib.

Occurring commonly in those above 50 years of age, myelofibrosis is caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation (i.e. not inherited) in the affected person’s blood stem cells. This is what causes the uncontrolled production of megakaryocytes.

The cause of the mutation itself in primary myelofibrosis is, as yet, unknown.

Accidental discovery

As the symptoms of myelofibrosis, like fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, frequent infections and easy bruising, are quite vague, diagnosis can be quite difficult.

In Chan’s case, he did not notice any signs or symptoms of myelofibrosis prior to his diagnosis.

In fact, it was a combination of a road accident and his wife, Puan Sri Cecelia Chia’s sharp eyes that alerted them to the possibility of a problem.

He shares: “My son gave me a racing bike for my 60th birthday – that was 21 years ago. So, I used to cycle around. Then, I met with a road accident.”

Chan was cycling along the narrow, winding roads of his hillside residential area in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, when he suddenly met an oncoming car.

With no space to avoid the car, he braked hard and was thrown to the ground in a head-first fall.

“My helmet broke and I thought I would be paralysed. My friend, who is a doctor, straightaway rang up the hospital and they sent the ambulance,” he says.

Fortunately, Chan suffered no major injuries from the accident.

However, his cardiologist son insisted that he be checked more thoroughly for brain injuries, which resulted in him seeing a neurologist.

While his brain turned out to be fine, his wife noticed that his platelet count from the blood test were quite high – between 600,000 to 700,000 platelets per cubic millimetre, when the upper limit for normal is 400,000.

His son then sent him to consultant haematologist Dr Ng Soo Chin, who prescribed hydroxyurea to bring down his platelet count.

That seemed to work quite well for Chan, and it was, in fact, shortly after this that he began mountain-climbing with a group of fellow MBA (Masters of Business Administration) alumni from Tenaga Nasional Bhd.

Chan was then a director of the company, and had gone to Ohio University, United States, to study his MBA along with other Tenaga Nasional executives.

“So, as I climbed, I continued to take hydroxyurea and everything was normal.

“But Soo Chin said, hydroxyurea will eventually bring down your red corpuscles (another term for RBCs), and recommended anagrelide,” he says. Anagrelide is a platelet-reducing agent.

Accelerating disease

Chan continued happily with the two medications, until the year 2011, 18 years after his initial diagnosis.

By then, he was seeing consultant haematologist Datuk Dr Chang Kian Meng at Hospital Ampang, Selangor, as Dr Ng had advised him to continue his follow-ups at a public hospital as his medications are quite expensive.

Chan shares that Dr Chang started him on epoetin alfa and pegylated interferon that year as his blood cell levels were fluctuating.

While interferon decreases the production of blood cells in general, epoetin alfa stimulates the production of RBCs to counteract the effects of anaemia.

However, his haemoglobin levels dropped even further, and he started requiring blood transfusions about once every two months.

The transfusions made a big difference as he reports feeling “very energetic” after receiving the first one. (Fatigue is a common symptom of anaemia.)

The following year, it was the WBCs turn to go “completely haywire”, when a blood test revealed that they had dramatically increased to about 56 from the regular range of about 4 to 10.

He also started experiencing profuse night sweats and cramps, along with the occasional itchiness that had started in his seventies – all of which are among the symptoms of myelofibrosis.

“Then, both Dr Chang and Soo Chin agreed that I had entered into myelofibrosis in acceleration,” he says.

The only cure for myelofibrosis is a bone marrow transplant, but aside from the difficulty of finding a suitable donor and the riskiness of the procedure, Chan’s age rendered him unsuitable for such a treatment.

Fortunately for him, a new drug had recently been approved by both the European Commission and the United States Food and Drug Administration for use in myelofibrosis at that time.


A new drug

The drug, ruxolitinib, inhibits certain enzymes in the JAK pathway, which regulates blood cell production. Half of primary myelofibrosis cases are caused by mutations in the JAK genes, which results in the dysfunctional production of blood cells in the bone marrow.

However, the drug was not available in Malaysia then. (It was only launched in the Malaysian market in 2013.)

This is where his political connections as a Gerakan life member and former secretary-general came in useful.

Then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon offered to help pass on the letter Chan had written to the Health Ministry requesting approval to use the drug on compassionate grounds, to the Health secretary-general.

Four days later, Chan received the approval he needed, and received his first dose of ruxolitinib in October 2012.

Since then, after some adjustments in dosage, Chan’s blood cells are back in the normal range and his last transfusion was in December 2013.

He is currently doing well enough for his doctor to lower his dosage of ruxolitinib, while still taking epoetin alfa and interferon.

Life goes on as normal for this active 81-year-old, who still climbs hills, reads newspapers of various languages and blogs daily, works out in the gym and does regular morning calisthenics.

Of his condition, Chan shares that he never felt the need to know about the disease, being only interested in his blood test results.

“I didn’t know what myelofibrosis was all about until I was asked to do this interview. That was the first time I went into Google to see what was myelofibrosis,” he says with a laugh.

“But I knew it was a dangerous disease, but I wasn’t bothered. I continued to carry on with my normal life.”

He adds: “I’m not bothered with what happens because I have full trust in my doctors.

By Tan shiow China The Star/ANN

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Let the sunshine & natural light in for better health, quality life, more sleep at night


Sunshine_windowsA study has concluded that windows in the workplace could mean up to 173% more white light exposure during the day and an average of 46 minutes more sleep at night. – AFP

A STUDY from Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign indicates that all-day exposure to natural light, even by means of a window, leads to longer sleep duration at night, as well as increased physical activity and quality of life.

“There is increasing evidence that exposure to light, during the day, particularly in the morning, is beneficial to your health via its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism,” says senior study author Dr Phyllis Zee, a Northwestern Medicine neurologist and sleep specialist.

The study was conducted on office workers, and windows in the workplace could mean up to 173% more white light exposure during the day and an average of 46 minutes more sleep at night, researchers concluded.

They also noted a trend of workers with more light exposure being more physically active than their counterparts.

In the study, researchers surveyed 49 day-shift office workers, of which 27 worked in windowless offices and 22 had windows in their offices.

Quality of life and everything health-related was self-reported, whereas sleep was assessed by means of the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI).

A subset of 21 participants was surveyed for light exposure, activity and sleep by means of actigraphy. Ten of these participants worked in windowless environments and 11 hailed from workplaces with windows.

Actigraphy logs ambulatory physiological data, in this case motion and light illuminance, by means of a scientific wearable device.

“Light is the most important synchronizing agent for the brain and body,” says Ivy Cheung, co-lead author and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience in Zee’s lab at Northwestern. “Proper synchronization of your internal biological rhythms with the earth’s daily rotation has been shown to be essential for health.”

Sunlight is an important source of vitamin D and a CDC report indicates sun exposure is important even for breast-fed babies, despite the high quantities of vitamin D in breast milk.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. – AFP Relaxnews

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