Citizens' Issues
19th-century Kathmandu tower collapses
The Dharahara, a nine-storeyed 19th-century tower, collapsed here after a huge earthquake shook Nepal and caused widespread devastation on Saturday, a media report said.
 
Hundreds of people are reportedly trapped in the debris, a posting on Twitter said.
 
According to bloggers, the tower, built in 1832, was an iconic monument erected by Nepal's first prime minister, Bhimsen Thapa.
 
It was built as a military watch tower but became one of Kathmandu's key landmarks.
 
The quake measured 7.5 on the Richter scale, later revised to 7.9 by USGS. Half an hour later, another earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale hit 49 km east of Lamjung.

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155 killed as major quake rocks Nepal, shakes India
At least 155 people were killed and many were left bloodied when a massive earthquake shook Nepal and India, causing widespread devastation. Buildings collapsed, roads cracked and phone lines snapped as the earth trembled.
 
The earthquake measured a staggering 7.9 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre at Nepal's Lamjung district some 75 km northwest of capital Kathmandu. There were six strong aftershocks. Over 150 were killed in the devastation, according to Nepal's ministry of home affairs, while six people died in India.
 
The Kathmandu airport was shut, triggering cancellation of flights from India to Kathmandu. An Indigo flight had to return to Delhi. Unconfirmed reports said avalanches on Mount Everest were triggered by the earthquake. Several mountaineers were unaccounted for, although the defence ministry in India said that a team of army climbers from India were safe, and have been asked to help in rescue operations.
 
People scurried out of their homes and offices, with prayers on their lips, as the quake struck at 11.41 a.m. India time.
 
A number of old buidings, including the Dharahara - a nine-storeyed 19th-century tower - in Kathmandu, collapsed. There was also damage to the walls surrounding Nepal's royal palace. 
 
The temblor was devastating. Those trapped in the rubble cried out in pain and the rescuers worked feverishly to pull them out. Eyewitnesses said the casualty figure would be very high in Kathmandu itself as dozens of large buildings had collapsed to mere rubble.
 
Images showed that the quake had left the people of Nepal stunned. There was panic in Nepal which bore the brunt of the massive temblor. Besides capital Kathmandu and Besisahar in Lamjung, the cities which were affected include Bharatpur, Pokhara and Kirtipur.
 
Police spokesman Kamal Singh Ban told the media that they have received information about the death of 10 people in the Pokhara area. 
 
At least four people were killed and several were injured in capital Kathmandu.
 
One person was killed when an old building collapsed in the premises of the Indian consulate here. The victim was a Nepalese national, according to a journalist based in Kathmandu.
 
Xinhua news agency reported that at least three people were confirmed killed and two others were injured.
 
In India, five people, including two children, were killed in Bihar while one person died in West Bengal.
 
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said they are "working to reach out to those affected, both at home & in Nepal".
 
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh said disaster response agencies such as the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were put on alert after an earthquake hit northern India.
 
He expressed grief over the situation in Nepal, adding "my heart goes out to the people of Nepal who have been hit by a massive earthquake. We stand by the people of Nepal in the difficult times".
 
Reports from across north India said people ran out of their homes and offices even as buildings shook due to the quake and the strong aftershocks.
 
The tremors were so strong that people feared for their lives. Some of them began to pray and tried to get as far away as possible from the buildings. Most ran to open grounds. Many of the high-rises saw people evacuate in large numbers.
 
"I suddenly found my chair shaking. I live on the fourth floor in an apartment. I just rushed out of my building...shouting and requesting people not to use the lift," said Ravindra Kumar, a resident at Sirsi road in Jaipur.

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Private cord blood banks are fooling the public, say doctors

Blood collected from umbilical cord after childbirth is a rich source of stem cells similar to those in bone marrow. These cells could some day be used as treatment if the child ever falls ill with certain diseases

Cord blood banking (CBB) with dubious benefits has become a moneymaking scam in India and needs tighter control to protect gullible parents from being exploited, top medical researchers say.

Blood collected from umbilical cord after childbirth is a rich source of stem cells similar to those in bone marrow. These cells could some day be used as treatment if the child ever falls ill with certain diseases.

The business of harvesting and storage of cord blood for future use has surged in the past decade into big business with 15 private banks offering this service. They target expectant mothers by touting cord blood as a form of "insurance" in case their children ever get sick.

The storage does not come cheaply. It costs between Rs.50,000 and Rs.100,000, and some banks charge an annual fee. With India reporting 25 million or more child births a year, CBB is viewed by the industry as a cash cow.

LifeCell, which set up shop in Chennai in 2004, claims it had over 100,000 subscribers and Cryo Stemcell in Bengaluru says it has 30,000. Others are not behind.

However, unethical marketing tactics and inflated promises by these largely unregulated banks have alarmed top stem cell researchers and professional bodies of gynaecologists.

"It is time to restrict the rampant commercialization of CBB," Jyothsna Rao, Secretary of the Bengaluru-based Society of Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering, told IANS.

"The government needs to establish a high powered committee to look at this menace at the earliest," says Satish Totey, a leading stem cell researcher and CEO of Kasiak Research in Mumbai.

The original idea for CBB was for overcoming the difficulty of finding a right bone marrow donor for regeneration of blood cells, Rao said. "But this very useful adjunct to bone marrow transplantation has been reduced by some companies to the status of a cosmetic product."

LifeCell, for instance, uses a prominent film star for endorsement and one bank in Bengaluru offers "attractive prizes" to mothers who bank with them.

"Several nasty marketing methods including bribing the doctors and nursing staff are used for recruiting donors," says Rao. Hospitals too are part of the scam, adds Totey.

Last year, the Competition Commission of India fined a Mumbai hospital that was getting Rs.20,000 from a cord blood bank as commission for every patient referred to it.

While in the US and Britain operators cannot advertise cord blood as a "life insurance", Totey said families in India were fooled by claims that it was a cure for all.

"Stem cell therapy for other than blood-related diseases and metabolic disorders are in the early phase of trials and remain only speculative," he said.

"I have been very vocal against private banks making claims that are all futuristic except few of the conditions," says Jayesh Sheth of the Foundation for Research in Genetics and Endocrinology in Ahmedabad.

In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of cord blood "only" for treatment of blood-related illnesses. It asks patients to "be sceptical if cord blood is being promoted for uses other than blood stem cell regeneration".

There are other hard facts these banks do not reveal to their subscribers.

For instance, the cord blood of a newborn may not contain stem cells in sufficient numbers to be useful in adulthood, says Deepa Bhartiya, head of stem cell biology at the National Institute of Research in Reproduction in Mumbai.

Also, one's own stem cells are not useful to treat genetic disorders as they will have the same genetic flaws that caused the disease in the first place.

"And no one really knows for how many years the banked cord blood will be usable," adds Totey.

"Our operators in India do not check the viability before releasing the stem cells for transplant and nobody bothers to discard contaminated samples."

LifeCell spokesperson Krithika Narayanan, however, denies this.

"Prior to release, the samples are tested for potency and viability through tests prescribed by the American Association of Blood Bank standards," she told IANS.

According to Totey, there were very few documented cases of a child receiving his or her own banked cord blood as treatment although the sibling or a close relative may benefit from it.

Hence, private banking of cord blood may be considered "only if there is a high-risk family medical history of disease(s) currently treatable by cord blood".

LifeCell admits that in ten years it released just 34 cord bloold units of which only five were for autologous transplants for treating cerebral palsy. The rest were for transplants in patients who were not the donors.

In its 11 years of existence Bengaluru's Cryo Stemcell released stem cells for 10 transplants, mostly in donor's relatives.

"In fact cord blood stem cell transplant numbers in India are miniscule and they are mostly for cancer and thalassemia," says Totey.

For all these reasons, Italy and France have banned private banking of cord blood. Both the American Academy of Paediatrics and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada discourage this practice while encouraging the storing in public banks that store cord blood free of cost and charge only when released for treatment.

"With public banks -- where large number cord blood units from HLA (human leukocyte antigen) matched donors are possible to store -- the benefits could reach a large patient population (besides the donor)," Rao said.

"Stored cord blood units to treat blood disorders can be done only with allogeneic (not one's own) units, which could be sourced from a public cord blood bank.

"A panel of eminent gynaecologists discussed the issue of cord blood banking at our Society's meeting in February and unanimously concluded that public banking is the only answer," Rao said. "We are against the concept of private banking." But who should promote public banks?

The Drug Controller General of India said that, being only a regulatory body, it was concerned only with licensing and not promoting them.

According to Totey, the issue was discussed earlier by the Department of Biotechnology and the Indian Council of Medical Research "but they were reluctant" to promote a public bank.

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