Hormonal contraception linked to HIV risk

Women using the Pill or other hormonal contraceptives are roughly twice as likely to contract HIV or pass on the AIDS virus to a partner, according to a study published on Tuesday.

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The research was carried out among 3,790 heterosexual couples in Africa where one partner had the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) while the other was uninfected.

The findings, if confirmed, could have huge repercussions for policies on contraception and HIV prevention.

The authors say it strengthens the need for safe-sex messages, in which the condom is promoted as a shield against the AIDS pathogen.

The couples were monitored for an average of 18 months during which 167 individuals became infected, 73 of them women, according to the study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Transcribed into a benchmark of prevalence, HIV transmissions were 6.61 per 100 person-years in couples where women used hormonal contraception, compared to 3.78 per 100 person-years among those who did not.

Rates of infection from women to men were 2.61 per 100 person-years among women who used hormonal contraception, but 1.51 per 100 person-years among those who did not.

Most of the women who took part in the study used injectable, long-lasting contraceptive forms such as the Depo-Provera shot. Only a small number used the Pill. In the latter group, there was an increase in HIV risk but not big enough to be conclusive.

Over the last two decades, scientists have launched several investigations into whether hormonal contraceptive use affects HIV risk, but the probes have returned conflicting results.

This is the first large-scale study to return clear proof of the risk.

The investigators noted that women who took injectable contraceptives had “raised concentrations” of HIV genetic material in their cervical secretions.

The study, led by Renee Heffron of the University of Washington, suggests that doctors advise women of the potential increased risk and warn them of “dual protection” with condoms.

The study was conducted between 2004 and 2010 in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia as part of a trial of a therapy against the herpes simplex virus, which is common among people with HIV.

In 2009, more than 33 million people were living with HIV and 2.6 million people became newly infected, according to figures released last year by UNAIDS.

Manning to face charges over WikiLeaks

Bradley Manning, the US soldier alleged to have passed to WikiLeaks a trove of military and diplomatic documents, will have a first hearing before a military court next month, the Pentagon says.

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Manning, who has spent the past year-and-a-half in prison, is to appear before a December 16 tribunal in Fort Meade, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, military officials say.

Army officials say Manning is to appear at an “Article 32 hearing”, the first step in a court martial that could end up in a life sentence.

“The primary purpose of the Article 32 hearing is to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the government’s case as well as to provide the defence with an opportunity to obtain pre-trial discovery,” a Pentagon statement said on Monday.

It added that the hearing, which is scheduled to take place the day before his 24th birthday, is “similar to a civilian grand jury, with additional rights afforded to the accused”.

Manning allegedly gave thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which later published them online. He is charged with “aiding the enemy”, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Manning is the only suspect facing trial in the United States for the document dump — a massive intelligence breach which led to an embarrassing daily drip of diplomatic revelations and military secrets in newspapers and websites around the world.

Manning, who was arrested in July 2010, served as a US intelligence official in Iraq.

His conditions in detention, which have included solitary confinement and being forced to sleep naked, have drawn the attention of Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the British government.

Gaddafi urges mass protest

Muammar Gaddafi called on Libyans to take to the streets and wage a campaign of civil disobedience against the country’s new leaders on Thursday, the first word from the fugitive leader in just over two weeks.

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Gadaffi said the National Transitional Council, which has assumed leadership of the country since then-rebel forces swept into Tripoli in late August, has no legitimacy because it was not nominated or appointed by the Libyan people.

Gaddafi made the statement in an poor quality audio recording and it was not possible to verify his identity, but it was broadcast on Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece of his resistance.

Revolutionary forces, aided by NATO airstrikes, have gained control over most of the North African nation and forced the leader and two of his sons into hiding.

Gaddafi has made several speeches on Al-Rai as he tries to rally supporters, who are still waging fierce resistance in his besieged hometown of Sirte, the town of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli and pockets in the south.

He was last heard on 20 September calling the revolution a “charade.”

The broadcast comes as NATO mapped out conditions to end the Libya air war.

NATO has vowed to keep bombing until Gadaffi’s forces stop attacking civilians and the new leadership can ensure security across the country.

With Gaddafi diehards surrounded by the new leadership’s forces in Sirte and Bani Walid, and the fallen Libyan leader in hiding, NATO defence ministers set out criteria for terminating the six-month-old mission.

“It’s clear that the end is in sight. Gaddafi forces are fighting for a lost cause,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference on Thursday after two days of talk between NATO defence ministers in Brussels.

“We are determined to pursue our operation as long as threats persist, but to end it as soon as conditions permit,” he said.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said after a working lunch with counterparts that there was a “pretty clear consensus” among alliance ministers on four conditions that need to be met to terminate the mission.

The first condition, he said, is “what happens” in the battle for Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte, one of the last two bastions of the former regime along with the southern desert town of Bani Walid.

The three other conditions included whether Gaddafi forces maintained the capability to attack civilians, whether Gaddafi himself could command fighters and whether the new leadership could secure the country.

He says they’re determined to pursue their operation as long as threats persist, but to end it as soon as conditions permit.

Volatile Kyrgyzstan heads to polls

The election is a race between Prime Minister Almazbek Atambeyev, a moderate who is reassuring to the West, and two more nationalist candidates who have vowed mass protests if the polls after not fair.

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The vote is a key test for the ex-Soviet nation of 5.3 million people neighbouring China after the unrest of 2010. In its 20 years of independence, Kyrgyzstan has yet to see a peaceful transition of presidential power.

A steady stream of voters, many wearing the traditional rimmed kolpak hat, cast their ballots in Bishkek, and early signs were of a strong turnout in the election with 9.67 percent casting their ballots by 0600 GMT, the central election commission said.

“I am confident that the people of Kyrgyzstan today will vote calmly and quietly, without any negative displays, for their nation’s future,” outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva – who is not standing – said as she cast her vote.

Otunbayeva took power in 2010 after an uprising ousted the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, blamed for rampant corruption and cronyism. She set about creating the only parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.

The April 2010 uprising was the second revolution of Kyrgyzstan’s independence after the 2005 Tulip Revolution that ousted post-Soviet leader Askar Akayev and installed Bakiyev in his place.

But Otunbayeva was immediately faced with the worst crisis in Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet history when some 470 people were killed in violence in the south between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek community.

“I know that the people of Kyrgyzstan value peace. We stood at the abyss a year ago and we understand the value of unity,” said Otunbayeva, a close ally of Atambeyev.

Casting his vote, Atambayev said Kyrgyzstan had rejected the model of authoritarian presidential leadership that marks every other ex-Soviet Central Asian state and needed a “free, democratic country”.

OBSERVING THE POLLS

Doug Wake, first deputy director at OSCE’s Office for Democratic Insitutions and Human Rights which is observing the election, said it was clear there was “great interest” from voters in the “historically important polls”.

He praised the choice available to voters but said imperfect voter lists were a negative factor. Even Otunbayeva’s own son, Atay Sadybakasov, said he had been told he was not on the voter lists at his polling station.

The violence-hit south is only just recovering and its precarious calm could be threatened by a victory from the main Kyrgyz nationalist candidates Kachimbek Tashiyev of the Ata Zhurt party and the former speaker of parliament, Adakhan Madumarov.

Tashiyev, a former boxer, draws the bulk of his support from the divided south, and he and Madumarov have both warned of mass protests if the elections are judged to be fraudulent.

Madumarov told AFP earlier this week that in the case of fraud he would organise protest rallies. Tashiyev told reporters on Friday that “millions” would rise up if the elections were seen to be unfair.

Some polls – not always reliable in Kyrgyzstan – have shown that Atambayev has a chance of winning in the first round, while if he fails to garner more than 50 percent of the vote he would face a second-round run-off.

“I voted for Atambayev as we hope that when he becomes president Kyrgyzstan will rise up and have a better future,” said Lyudmila Perunova, 70, a pensioner.

Car worker Kerim Omarov said: “I’m voting for Tashiyev. He’s a real man and keeps his word.”

But Madumarov is seen as the stronger candidate of the two nationalists and analysts say he has shown his charisma well in televised debates, in contrast to Atambayev’s greyer demeanour.

“If Atambayev wins enough votes in the first round then victory is his. But if not, then Madumarov could overtake him in a second round,” political analyst Uran Chekirbayev told AFP.

A victory by one of the nationalists could affect the West’s relations with Kyrgyzstan, the only country in the world that hosts both US and Russian military bases, and is crucial hub for coalition operations in Afghanistan.

Polling stations opened at 08:00 am and will close at 7:00 pm (1300 GMT), with provisional results expected overnight Sunday to Monday.

Djokovic beats Nadal to win US Open

Novak Djokovic shrugged off a back scare to defeat defending champion Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (3/7), 6-1 to clinch the US Open, his third Grand Slam title of the year in an epic, brutal final.

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The world number one Serb, who had already won the Australian Open before defeating Nadal at Wimbledon, racked up his 64th win against just two losses all year.

But having been just two points from the title in the 12th game of the third set, his dreams were almost shattered when he dropped the set on a tiebreaker and needed a medical time-out on a strained back muscle.

Victory represented the top-seeded, 24-year-old’s fourth career Grand Slam trophy after making his breakthrough at the 2008 Australian Open.

Nadal, the second seed, had been hoping to collect his 11th major in his 14th Grand Slam final, but instead slumped to his sixth defeat in six meetings in 2011 against Djokovic.

The red-hot Serb who triumphed in a four-hour, 10-minute final featuring breathtaking shot-making, rock-solid defence, gruelling rallies as well as warnings for both men for taking too long between points.

Victory also allowed Djokovic, now just the sixth man to win three Grand Slams in the same year, to close in further on John McEnroe’s 1984 winning record of 82 wins against just three defeats.

Djokovic arrived on court sporting a New York fire department baseball cap, a gesture appreciated by the 23,000 crowd, just a day after the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Despite the tricky, swirling breeze, Nadal was quickly on top, breaking for a 2-0 lead before the Serb hit straight back for 2-1.

Djokovic fought off three more break points in the fourth game and the Spaniard was made to pay when impressive court coverage allowed the Serb to bury a deep forehand to break for a 3-2 advantage.

A hold and another break, aided by two drop shots which left the struggling Nadal stranded at the back of the court, had Djokovic 5-2 ahead.

The Serb comfortably wrapped up the opener in the eighth game — his six game in succession — when the second seed netted a backhand as Djokovic again closed in for a volley.

In a carbon copy of the first set, Nadal was 2-0 ahead in the next before a marathon third game, which last just over 17 minutes and two exhausting rallies of 21 and 27 shots, was claimed by Djokovic on a sixth break point.

He did it in real style, too, three times retrieving the ball from the back of the court before Nadal netted a volley.

The Spaniard was becoming increasingly irritated with his inability to sneak away from his opponent as well as constant movement in the stands.

Djokovic held comfortably before breaking a weary Nadal when the Spaniard served a third double fault after a fifth game which featured another punishing rally of 28 shots.

Nadal avoided a double break in the seventh game and his sudden, new injection of confidence pushed him to even the set at 4-4.

But it was another brief respite as back came the Serb with his sixth break of the final for 5-4 which was converted into a two-set lead when Nadal was made to look uncharacteristically heavy-footed as he fruitlessly tried to chase down a blistering Djokovic forehand winner.

In a rollercoaster third set, Djokovic broke for 2-1, Nadal hit back for 2-2, the Serb broke again for 3-2 before Nadal levelled again for 3-3.

Another lengthy rally, this time 31 shots, punctuated the eighth game where Djokovic saved a break point.

The Serb then nipped to 6-5 on his 20th break point of the final and was just two points from the title at 30-30 when Nadal hit back to take the set to the tiebreaker through which he cruised 7/3.

Djokovic then summoned the trainer for treatment on his back strain, but incredibly still managed to break for 2-0 and then 5-1 as Nadal’s spirit suddenly wilted under a sustained barrage.

A razor-sharp backhand set-up match point and the title was his with a sweeping, killer forehand.