News Ireland daily BLOG Thursday

Thursday 1st August 2013

Irish Parents having to take on extra debt to fund bill of €800 school costs


Irish parents will have take on extra debt to fund their children’s return to school.

They are fearful that their children will miss out unless they have all the books and other items recommended by the school.

It now costs €800 to kit out a child for their first year in secondary school, a new survey from children’s charity Barnardos shows.

This is roughly the same cost as last year, but parents are under huge pressure to fund back-to-school costs because their incomes have collapsed.

And the survey found that parents are angry that they are forced to go to expensive, specialised shops to buy uniforms instead of being able to buy them in better-value chain stores.

Crested jumpers are €45, more than three times the cost of a plain jumper in a department store, the survey found.

Getting a child equipped to go into junior infants is setting the average parent back €350. For a child going into fourth class in primary school, the cost is €400.

School books and uniforms continue to pose the highest cost to parents, although voluntary contributions and school transport costs also weigh heavily on parents’ budgets.

Barnardos’ boss Fergus Finlay said that prices had stabilised since last year, but at the same time parents’ incomes had reduced.

But the State’s Back-To-School Clothing and Footwear Allowance was virtually halved in the last Budget, putting huge pressure on unemployed parents.

Mr Finlay said: “There continues to be an expectation that parents can afford these costs, but the survey paints a different picture.

“It is a hugely stressful time for parents as many are forced into debt, forgo bills and take out loans in order to meet these costs. They are afraid their child’s education will suffer if they don’t have everything they need.”

Huge frustration among parents was uncovered in the survey over the inability to pass on books because of new editions being printed.

Parents are also annoyed about different books being chosen by teachers, and the use of expensive workbooks that can’t be recycled.

Barnardos said more than half of parents have access to a book rental scheme at primary level. Four out of 10 parents have a rental scheme in their children’s secondary school.

But the schemes need to be extended to all schools, Mr Finlay said.

Close to seven out of 10 parents with children in both primary and secondary level have been asked for a voluntary contribution. Many schools chase parents for the payment, Barnardos said.

 Schools were called on to:

* Introduce more book rental schemes.

* Reduce the uniform items with the school crest on them or switch to a plain uniform.

* Eliminate the 23pc VAT applicable on e-textbooks so that it is on par with printed textbooks which are exempt from VAT.

Unless this happens Barnardos said the switch to digital learning was outside the reach of most parents.

IMF warns Irish Coalition Government not to let up on austerity


The IMF has warned the Irish Government that they must implement the full €3.1bn in cuts and taxes in the Budget.

The stern message comes as ministers continue to send out mixed messages on whether there will be any ease up in our austerity.

Peter Breuer, the IMF’s resident representative in Ireland, says the Coalition must stick to its plan of bringing in cuts and taxes worth a total of €5.1bn over the next two years.

This means sticking to the original plan of having a €3.1bn adjustment in October and €2bn for 2015.

And he warned the Coalition poorer than expected growth figures are a “wake up call” it cannot rely on exports to drive economic recovery – and more must be done to stimulate the domestic economy.

Mr Breuer’s intervention comes as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn accused the Troika of being “intrusive” in its insistence that the full cuts must be implemented.

But Fine Gael junior Finance Minister Brian Hayes said the Coalition should actually go further to create market confidence in Ireland.

Labour in particular have argued the €1bn benefits achieved through the promissory note deal should be used to ease the October Budget.

It also claims there is enough wriggle room to ease up on austerity but still stay on target to bring the deficit down to 5.1pc, with the ultimate target of getting it to 3pc the year after.

But, speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, Mr Breuer has urged the Government to “keep the momentum”.

“Why? To ensure that the benefits of all the efforts and sacrifices made are secured and put Ireland firmly on the path of sustained recovery.”

“We continue to support a total effort of €5.1bn during 2014-15 to maintain the credibility that has been built-up painstakingly over the last few years and help ensure durable market access.

“This scale of effort will also help reach the government’s 3pc of GDP target by 2015.”

His comments will be seen as a setback to members of the Coalition – particularly Social Protection Minister Joan Burton who wants to use the promissory note proceeds to ease up on cuts.

While Mr Breuer said economic growth has been disappointing, he said some economic indicators are positive, like the housing market and employmentfigures.

He said the challenge is to promote “sustained recovery amid ongoing fiscal consideration”.

Mr Breuer also said slower than expected growth this year “was a wake-up call” which made it clear “Ireland cannot rely on export led growth”.

“Overall, we are expecting modest positive growth this year as the external environment improves and the domestic economy stabilizes.

“Sustained recovery will increasingly require a job-creating revival of domestic demand,” he said but added a worldwide recovery is a “vital ingredient for domestic recovery”.

“Continued stabilization in employment and house prices would support incomes and net worth. A sense that the crisis is being overcome could allow some easing in precautionary savings.”

But he insisted fixing the banks remains the Government’s most important task, and he also said the IMF wants the loan and mortgage arrears crisis to be resolved by the end of next year – which he acknowledged will not be easy – to avoid a prolonged process that will delay economic recovery.

However, he added that the debt burden must be brought down to ensure market confidence in Ireland.

“Currently the state still spends €1bn every month more than it takes in while its debt burden is high at just over 120pc of GDP. Confidence that Ireland will reduce that debt burden over time is needed for durable market access.

“Since the outset of the program the IMF team has urged a focus on steady predictable budgetary adjustment as being least harmful for growth.

“To help protect the fragile economic recovery we have repeatedly urged that if growth is weaker than expected, that additional measures are not taken just to meet a particular target for the headline deficit as a share of GDP.”

But Mr Quinn said the Troika are being “intrusive” in their insistence and said they were “moving beyond” what is needed.

But Mr Hayes said: “I think we should stick to our targets and if anything we should try to be more ambitious. This would give a strong signal to the market that we are intent on correcting the public finances and bringing it under control.”

Asked if the public could shoulder a heavier burden, the junior Finance Minister suggested the domestic economy is strong.

40% of Irish households struggling to their bills – CSO figures tells us


82% of households have reduced their spending as a result of the economic downturn.

Figures from the CSO show that in the third quarter of the year, 66% of people cut back on going out to pubs and restaurants.

65% spent less on clothing and footwear, and just over half cut back on groceries compared to the previous 12 months.

14% of mortgage customers surveyed were unable to meet repayments on time at least once in the previous twelve months due to financial difficulties while more than 40% of households had experienced difficulties in keeping up with their bills and debts.

Ireland reviews wind energy export rules


EU Energy Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger (L) and Minister for Communications, Energy and Communications Pat Rabbitte address the media after attending an informal meeting of EU energy

 The Irish government expects to develop a policy framework by next year to give wind energy planners a sense of confidence, Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte said.

Rabbitte ordered work to start on a policy framework to guide an independent statutory agency, An Bord Pleanala, guidelines when it considers plans to export energy generated from wind projects.

Rabbitte said the framework would be developed over the next year. It will give local authorities, local leaders and potential project developments an opportunity to weigh in on national wind energy policies.

Ireland since 2003 has installed approximately 150 wind farms with a total electricity capacity of 1,738 megawatts. Irish companies are expected to develop plans to export energy to the United Kingdom.

Rabbitte said a national framework would be integrated with relative requirements in the European Union.

“By the end of this year we hope to make an agreement with the British side,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “By this time next year, we will be finalizing a planning framework that will give confidence and certainty to all stakeholders.”

Rabbitte in March said Ireland was falling behind in its efforts to meet a 2020 benchmark for 20 percent renewables on its grid.

Tracing germs through the aisles of Supermarkets


Bacteria growing in a dish at a lab in Flagstaff, Ariz., studying grocery meat

Twice a month for a year, Lance Price, a microbiologist at George Washington University, sent his researchers out to buy every brand of chicken, turkey and pork on sale in each of the major grocery stores in Flagstaff, Ariz. As scientists pushed carts heaped with meat through the aisles, curious shoppers sometimes asked if they were on the Atkins diet.

In fact, Professor Price and his team are trying to answer worrisome questions about the spread of antibiotic resistant germs to people from animals raised on industrial farms. Specifically, they are trying to figure out how many people in one American city are getting urinary infections from meat from the grocery store.

Professor Price describes himself as something of a hoarder. His own freezer is packed with a hodgepodge of samples swabbed from people’s sinuses and inner ears, and even water from a hookah pipe. But the thousands of containers of broth from the meat collected in Flagstaff, where his nonprofit research institute is based, are all neatly packed into freezers there, marked with bar codes to identify them.

He is now using the power of genetic sequencing in an ambitious attempt to precisely match germs in the meat with those in women with urinary infections. One recent day, he was down on his hands and knees in his university office in Washington, studying a family tree of germs from some of the meat samples, a printout of more than 25 pages that unfurled like a roll of paper towels. Its lines and numbers offered early clues to Professor Price’s central question: How many women in Flagstaff get urinary infections from grocery store meat? He expects preliminary answers this fall.

Researchers have been warning for years that antibiotics — miracle drugs that changed the course of human health in the 20th century — are losing their power. Some warn that if the trend isn’t halted, there could be a return to the time before antibiotics when people died from ordinary infections and children did not survive strep throat. Currently, drug resistant bacteria cause about 100,000 deaths a year, but mostly among patients with weakened immune systems, children and the elderly.

There is broad consensus that overuse of antibiotics has caused growing resistance to the medicines. Many scientists say evidence is mounting that heavy use of antibiotics to promote faster growth in farm animals is a major culprit, creating a reservoir of drug resistant bugs that are finding their way into communities. More than 70 percent of all the antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals.

Agribusiness groups disagree and say the main problem is overuse of antibiotic treatments for people. Bugs rarely migrate from animals to people, and even when they do, the risk they pose to human health is negligible, the industry contends.

Scientists say genetic sequencing will bring greater certainty to the debate. They will be able to trace germs in people to their origins, be it from a farm animal or other patients in a hospital. Representative Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York who has pushed for legislation to control antibiotic use on farms, said such evidence would be the “smoking gun” that would settle the issue.

Professor Price is seeking to quantify how extensively drug-resistant bugs in animals are infecting people. He is trying to do that by analyzing the full genetic makeup of germs collected from both grocery store meat and people in Flagstaff last year. The plummeting cost of genomic sequencing has made his research possible.

He is comparing the genetic sequences of E. coli germs resistant to multiple antibiotics found in the meat samples to the ones that have caused urinary tract infections in people (mostly women).

Urinary infections were chosen because they are so common. American women get more than eight million of them a year. In rare cases the infections enter the bloodstream and are fatal.

Resistant bacteria in meat are believed to cause only a fraction of such infections, but even that would account for infections in several hundred thousand people annually. The E. coli germ that Professor Price has chosen can be deadly, and is made even more dangerous by its tendency to resist antibiotics.

The infection happens when meat containing the germ is eaten, grows in the gut, and then is introduced into the urethra. Dr. Price said the germ could cause infection in other ways, such as through a cut while slicing raw meat. The bugs are promiscuous, so once they get into people, they can mutate and travel more easily among people. A new strain of the antibiotic-resistant bug MRSA, for example, was first detected in people in Holland in 2003, and now represents 40 percent of the MRSA infections in humans in that country, according to Jan Kluytmans, a Dutch researcher.

That same strain was common in pigs on farms before it was found in people, scientists say. Dr. Price, 44, began his career testing anthrax for resistance to the Cipro antibiotic for biodefense research in the 1990s. His interest in public health led him to antibiotic resistance in the early 2000s. It seemed like a less theoretical threat.

First line antibiotics were no longer curing basic infections, and doctors were concerned. “I thought, ‘Wow this is so obviously crazy, I have to do something about this,’ ” he said. He has done his research on antibiotics at a nonprofit founded in 2002, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, in Phoenix. His lab in Flagstaff, an affiliate, is financed mostly by federal sources, including the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department.

Dr. Price, trained in epidemiology and microbiology, has been sounding the alarm about antibiotic resistance for a number of years. He recently told a Congressional committee that evidence of the ill effects of antibiotics in farming was overwhelming.

He thinks the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to limit antibiotic use on farms have been weak. In 1977, the F.D.A. said it would begin to ban some agricultural uses of antibiotics. But the House and Senate appropriations committees — dominated by agricultural interests — passed resolutions against the ban, and the agency retreated. More recently, the agency has limited the use of two important classes of antibiotics in animals. But advocates say it needs to go further and ban use of all antibiotics for growth promotion. Sweden and Denmark have already done so.

Ms. Slaughter said aggressive lobbying by agribusiness interests has played a major role in blocking passage of legislation. According to her staff, of the 225 lobbying disclosure reports filed during the last Congress on a bill she wrote on antibiotic use, nearly nine out of ten were filed by organizations opposed to the legislation.

But the economics of food presents perhaps the biggest obstacle. On large industrial farms, animals are raised in close contact with one another and with big concentrations of bacteria-laden feces and urine. Antibiotics keep infections at bay but also create drug resistance. Those same farms raise large volumes of cheap meat that Americans have become accustomed to.

Governments have begun to acknowledge the danger. The United States recently promised $40 million to a major drug company, GlaxoSmithKline, to help it develop medications to combat antibiotic resistance. But Dr. Price says that new drugs are only a partial solution.

“A lot of people say, ‘let’s innovate our way out of this,’ ” he said. “But if we don’t get a handle on the way we abuse antibiotics, we are just delaying the inevitable.”

Bengal tiger numbers increase by 63.6% & leap to 198 in Nepal

  The number of wild royal Bengal tigers in Nepal has increased to 198, a 63.6 per cent rise in five years, a survey of the big Cats shows.

The findings are crucial for the protection of endangered tigers facing the threat of extinction from poachers, encroachment of habitat by villagers and loss of prey.

Conflicts between people and wild animals are frequent in Nepal, which has pledged to double the population of tigers by the year 2022 from an estimated 2010 level of 125.

“This is very encouraging,” said Maheshwar Dhakal, an ecologist with Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Department, adding that the Himalayan nation was on target to achieve its goal ahead of the deadline. “But the increased numbers have also added to our responsibilities and challenges for the conservation of tigers.”

Conservation experts credit the increase to effective policing of national parks, stronger anti-poaching drives and better management of tiger habitats in Nepal, where forests cover 29 per cent of the land.

However, as the number of tigers has increased over the years, so have incidents of conflict with villagers. Seven people were killed in attacks by tigers around national parks last year compared with four in 2011, park officials said. Villagers are also seeking better protection.


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