Whenever we think about Ashton Kutcher, most of us tend to think about all of the awesome roles that he has played over the years. What some of us do not Continue reading “Ashton Kutcher Quietly Saved 6,000 Children From Human Sex Trafficking”
Scientists have successfully used CRISPR, a tool that cuts DNA with more precision than any other genome editing technology, to fix a genetic defect in human embryos that can cause serious heart problems, according to a landmark new study in the journal Nature. This is the first use of CRISPR on human embryos in the U.S.
Chinese scientists have reported using CRISPR to correct genetic defects in human embryos, but some of the embryos they used weren’t viable.
Shoukhrat Mitalipov, from Oregon Health & Science University, collaborated with researchers at the Salk Institute, as well as with scientists from China and South Korea, to improve on those results. They applied CRISPR at the earliest stage possible—when the embryo is still a single cell—to ensure that the genetic changes they introduced were propagated to every cell of the embryo as it divided and developed. Because the embryos were created for research purposes only, none were allowed to develop beyond three days.
CRISPR, which was introduced in 2012, precisely cuts DNA but does not repair it. If combined with other techniques, however, researchers say it could both cut out disease-causing genes and replace them with healthy versions to essentially cure genetic human diseases. So in order to further the science, Mitalipov and his colleagues wanted to test what happened when CRISPR was used in a human embryo. Theoretically, once CRISPR broke the DNA in the appropriate place to cut out a mutation, the cell’s natural repair mechanisms would kick in to repair the injury, fixing the defect this time with the proper code—much like how a word processor’s autocorrect function fixes spelling mistakes.
Unfortunately, this process isn’t very efficient in adult cells in which CRISPR has been tested, so Mitalipov expected similarly low yields in the embryos.
To his surprise, however, he found that embryos were very effective at fixing breaks in DNA.
He created embryos that contained a specific defect known to cause a heart condition by fertilizing healthy donor eggs from various women with sperm from a man who carried the genetic mutation for the disease. He then introduced CRISPR to splice out the mutated gene in more than 50 embryos just after the sperm fertilized the eggs, when the embryos were still just one cell. Several days later, 72% of the embryos showed no sign of the mutated gene; the gene was essentially corrected in all of their cells.
It turns out that the embryo relies on the normal copy of the gene, in this case from the egg, to fix the break made when CRISPR cut out the mutated gene. They key was to introduce CRISPR early enough so the embryo’s own DNA repair system could fix the mutated gene. That’s encouraging for one potential use of CRISPR in the future as a way to correct inherited genetic disease, says Mitalipov, since the embryo seems to have a built-in, reliable way of repairing the injury caused by splicing out an abnormal gene.
“Genetic diseases that are heritable can be treated this way as early as possible,” he says. “It’s the best way to treat the disease before the genetic mutation is actually transmitted to the embryo.”
Currently, the most reliable way of screening for such inherited defects is by using IVF, screening the resulting embryos for the mutation and transferring only those without the mutation for pregnancy. But that may require several cycles of IVF, which is expensive and carries with it side effects and complications, before enough genetically healthy embryos are created.
The study results don’t mean that editing human embryos to correct genetic diseases will be available at hospitals anytime soon. While that’s the goal, the findings are just the first in a series of studies that will need to be done to document the safety and reliability of using CRISPR to fix human disease. For one, the efficiency of the CRISPR and repair process is still about 70%. “There is still work to do to improve the efficiency,” says Mitalopov. “But I think that’s possible to do.”
He’s also encouraged by the fact that the gene editing and repair did not introduce other errors in the DNA. While it’s the most accurate DNA editor available, one of CRISPR’s drawbacks is that it can cut the genome in unintended places, especially where letters in the code look very similar to the target (again, similar to the way autocorrect can sometimes introduce more errors in attempting to fix a misspelling). Mitalipov’s team found no such off-target effects, a sign that CRISPR editing, at least in this study, was relatively safe. He notes, however, that may simply be an artifact of the particular gene he targeted; there may be coincidentally no parts of the genome that have similar sequences as the gene that CRISPR cut.
Even beyond the medical questions, there are also ethical concerns about the power inherent in manipulating the human genome. While correcting devastating diseases such as the heart condition Mitalipov studied, which can cause sudden death in young people, isn’t ethically controversial, using CRISPR to modify other genes—for intelligence, say, or athleticism or physical attributes like eye color or height—is much more problematic. The concerns are especially acute when it comes to eggs, sperm and embryos, since changes in these can be passed down to the next generation and forever change the human gene pool. The embryos that Mitalipov created were never intended to be transferred for pregnancy. But had they been allowed to develop, they would not contain the heart disease mutation, and they would not pass on the mutation to their offspring. The CRISPR editing would essentially eliminate the mutation from that family’s pedigree. Editing changes in already developed cells in adults aren’t inherited, so are less worrisome in terms of their legacy.
For now, there are legal and regulatory hurdles to moving the research closer to human trials. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) does not provide funding for using CRISPR in human embryo research. The Food and Drug Administration is banned from considering studies that involve genetic altering of human eggs, sperm or embryos. Mitalipov and his team used funding from Oregon Health & Science and did not rely on any NIH support.
There is an old saying that speaks to the current state of AI: “To someone holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As companies, governments, and organizations scramble to be in the vanguard of this new generation of artificial intelligence, they are trying their best to persuade everyone that all of our human shortcomings will be absolved by this technological evolution. But what exactly will it solve? Machine learning is an incredibly powerful tool, but, like any other tool, it requires a clear understanding of the problems to be solved in the first place — especially when those problems involve real humans.
Human versus machine intelligence
There is an oft-cited bit from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series in which an omniscient computer is asked for the ultimate answer to life and the universe. After 7.5 million years, it provides its answer: the number 42. The computer explains to the discombobulated beings who built it that the answer appears meaningless only because they never understood the question they wanted answered.
What is important is identifying the questions machine learning is well-tailored to answer, the questions it struggles with, and perhaps most importantly, how the paradigmatic shift in AI frameworks is impacting the relationship between humans, their data, and the world it describes. Using neural nets has allowed machines to become uncannily accurate at distinguishing idiosyncrasies in massive datasets — but at the cost of truly understanding what they know.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter explores the themes of intelligence. He contemplates the idea that intelligence is built upon tangled layers of “strange loops,” a Möbius strip of hierarchical, abstracted levels that paradoxically wind up where they started out. He believes that intelligence is an emergent property built on self-referential layers of logic and abstractions.
This is the wonder that neural nets have achieved — a multi-layered mesh of nodes and weights that pass information from one tier to the next in a digital reflection of the human brain. However, there is one important rule of thumb in artificial intelligence: The more difficult it is for a human to interpret and process something, the easier it is for a machine, and vice versa.
Calculating digits of π, encrypting messages using unimaginably huge prime numbers, and remembering a bottomless Tartarean abyss of information can occur within the blink of an eye using a computer, which manages to outperform millennia of human calculations. And yet humans can recognize their friend’s face in an embarrassing baby photo, identify painters based on brush strokes, and make sense of overly verbose and ruminating blog entries. These are domains that machine learning has made vast improvements in, but it is no wonder that as the human brain-inspired architecture of neural nets brings machines up to parity, and in some cases beyond, in areas of human cognition, machines are beginning to suffer some of the same problems humans do.
Nature or nurture?
By design, we are unable to know what neural nets have learned, and instead we often keep feeding the system more data until we like what we see. Worse yet, the knowledge it has “learned” is not discrete principles and theories, but rather contained in a vast network that is incomprehensible to humans. While Hofstadter might have contemplated artificial intelligence as a reflection of human intelligence, modern AI architects have no tendency to share the same preoccupation. Consequently, modern neural nets, while highly accurate, do not elucidate any understanding of the world for us. In fact, there are several well-publicized instances where AI went afoul, manifesting in a socially unacceptable reality. Within a day of Microsoft’s AI chatbot Tay being active, it learned from Twitter users how to craft misogynistic, racist, and transphobic tweets. Did Tay learn a conceptual sociohistorical theory of gender or race? I would argue not.
Why AI can’t be left unattended
Paradoxically, even if we assume that the purpose of an AI isn’t to understand human concepts at all, these concepts often materialize anyway. As another example of misguided AI, an algorithm was used to predict the likelihood of someone committing future crimes. Statistically based software models learned racial biases, assigning higher risks to black defendants with virtually no criminal records, if any, than to white defendants with extensive histories of violent crime. Facial recognition software is also known to have its biases, to the point that a Nikon camera was unable to determine if a Taiwanese-American woman had her eyes open or not. Machine learning is only as good as the data it is built upon, and when that data is subject to human biases, AI systems inherit these biases. Machines are effective at learning from data, but unlike humans, have little to no proficiency when it comes to taking into account all the things they don’t know, the things missing from the data. This is why even Facebook, which is able to devote massive AI resources to its efforts to eliminate terroristic posts, concedes that the cleanup process ultimately depends on human moderators. We should be rightfully anxious about firing up an AI, whose knowledge is unknowable to us, and leaving it to simmer unattended.
The AI community cannot be haphazard about throwing open the AI gates. Machine learning works best when the stakeholders’ problems and goals are clearly identified, allowing us to chart an appropriate course of action. Treating everything as a nail is likely to waste resources, erode users’ trust, and ultimately lead to ethical dilemmas in AI development.
Mike Pham is a technical product manager at Narrative Science, a company that makes advanced natural language generation (Advanced NLG) for the enterprise.
Inside Hoyo Negro, the underwater cavern where the skeleton was found.Roberto Chavez Arce
A 12,000-year-old human skeleton discovered nestling among the remains of mountain lions, sabre-toothed tigers and bears in an underwater cave in Mexico has revealed insights into how giant extinct species lived and migrated in the Americas.
Cave divers discovered what is thought to be the remains of the oldest and most complete early human skeleton found in the Americas. They descended the 55-metre flooded cave known as Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole, in the Yucatán Peninsula.
The hole acted as a trap for animals during the ice age, 13,000 years ago. Animals including mountain lions and tapirs as well as several extinct species including sabretooth cats, short-faced bears, an elephant-like gomphothere and a previously unknown species of giant ground sloth.
The layout is such that in the previous ice age, when sea levels were lower, the animals could walk comfortably along horizontal tunnels, only to find the cavernous and inescapable Black Hole at the end.
Cave palaeontologists from East Tennessee State University are presenting the findings on Saturday (26 August) at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology held this year in Alberta, Canada.
The find of the human skeleton – an adult woman – is perhaps one of the most exciting finds.
“This represents the oldest and most complete early human skeleton in the Americas, and she co-existed with a variety of megafauna,” said Schubert.
“The preservation of the fossil material is extraordinary, and will allow us to reconstruct various aspects of anatomy, evolutionary relationships, and behaviour. The diversity of the fauna gives us an exciting new picture of this region in the midst of rapid climatic and environmental change,” Schubert said.
The bones date from a period long after the Panamanian land bridge had formed, joining Central and South America about 3 million years ago. This allowed large animals to cross the bridge both ways, extending their range by thousands of kilometres.
The remains of the short-faced bear, a relative of today’s spectacled bear, are a case in point of this migration of the American megafauna.
“The remains of the short-faced bear Arctotherium are particularly significant, representing not only the most complete and abundant material from one location, but also the first evidence that they crossed from South America into North America,” Schubert said.
Relations between the United States and Egypt went from smooth to rocky when the administration announced the halt of $291 million in aid over human-rights concerns. The el-Sisi government criticized Washington’s “misjudgment” and “lack of understanding,” but otherwise responded cautiously as a delegation led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was visiting Cairo.
The contretemps came as a surprise. President Donald Trump had anointed President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as an authoritarian favorite. On meeting in April the U.S. president unleashed his usual over-the-top praise, saying that the Egyptian strongman, whose security forces “disappeared” many critics and imprisoned anyone who resisted his rule, had “done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” Insisted President Trump, “We are very much behind President el-Sisi.” Human rights went unmentioned.
Even the State Department said little about the subject. Until now.
Roughly $96 million in funding has been canceled while another $195 has been suspended, but it could be restored if the el-Sisi regime makes unspecified improvements in its policies. While a welcome expression of American concern, the aid action won’t have a significant impact on the increasingly authoritarian el-Sisi regime. Cairo still will pocket about $1.3 billion in U.S. funds this year. And both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have contributed generously to the el-Sisi government’s coffers. Indeed, with its aid Riyadh purchased not only Cairo’s support against Qatar but two islands, to the consternation of the Egyptian public.
Nevertheless, the U.S. rebuke provides important lessons about the Trump administration. First, the State Department, which in this case certainly means Secretary Rex Tillerson, desires to do right. With the president’s general dismissal of human-rights concerns and embarrassing endorsement of el-Sisi, as well as the tendency of some White House officials to see every foreign relationship through the prism of radical Islam and terrorism, observers widely assumed that el-Sisi would get a free pass on his manifold abuses.
But no. The government has been cracking down not only on political opponents but anyone disobeying the regime. At the beginning of August, fifty policemen, heretofore a mainstay of regime repression, were hit with prison terms for organizing a strike.
Also recently targeted were critical observers, most notably NGOs attempting to monitor el-Sisi’s excesses. During the Mubarak dictatorship the Al Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence publicized abuses, helped victims and challenged perpetrators. When I visited in 2014, staff members explained that the use of torture was more prevalent than ever. The el-Sisi government, angry about the scrutiny, shut down the organization in February.
The legislation targeting domestic NGOs also applies to Western organizations. The United States and European states protested the measure, approved last November, and believed they had received assurances from the el-Sisi regime that the law would not be implemented. But after President Trump’s ingratiating welcome of the Egyptian dictator, Cairo put the legislation into effect. Washington seemed disinclined to do any more in opposition.
While no effective foreign policy can ignore national interests to promote human rights, the government’s actions should be constrained by moral considerations. And when Washington can advance human liberty abroad at little cost or risk, it should do so. At the very least the United States should do no evil and refuse to underwrite abusive regimes absent compelling justification.
None are present in Egypt today. Cairo need not be bribed to eschew war with Israel. Terrorism is a growing problem, but Egypt’s military favors using U.S. military assistance to purchase high-priced toys that offer prestige rather than meet the country’s most pressing security needs.
Worse, the nation is at war with itself. Yet Washington’s generous annual subsidy, a mix of economic and military aid, underwrites a regime that has forced dissent underground and left violence as the only opposition avenue available. Ultimately, President el-Sisi could find himself facing the same fate as former President Hosni Mubarak, abandoned by his own elite supporters to an angry public once they decided that he had become a liability. Better for the United States not to be identified with a brutal regime which kills lawlessly, jails promiscuously, censors relentlessly and enriches shamelessly.
The other lesson is that President Trump doesn’t much matter when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Whether by design or happenstance, virtually nothing he believes appears to matter.
This isn’t new. The president criticized both NATO and the U.S.-Korea alliance, but his chief aides reassured the very countries the president criticized. President Trump joined Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in denouncing Qatar, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put Washington in Doha’s corner. The president beat the war drums against North Korea, going mano-a-mano with Kim Jong-un, while most everyone else in his administration insisted that war was not imminent.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Research into gene editing to cure human diseases should continue and be supported with public funds, says an international group of organizations with genetics expertise. But embryos with DNA edits shouldn’t be developed into human beings just yet — there are too many unanswered questions — and countries around the world should determine ethically how to proceed, the group says.
The statement comes just one day after groundbreaking research showed that scientists in the US successfully edited human embryos to correct a gene mutation that causes a dangerous heart condition. (The embryos were destroyed after a few days.) It’s also at odds with the US’s current policy of banning National Institutes of Health funding for research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos. Congress also barred the Food and Drug Administration from considering clinical trials involving the technology.
TOO MANY UNANSWERED SCIENTIFIC AND ETHICAL QUESTIONS
In a statement published today in The American Journal of Human Genetics, the group argues that gene editing with powerful tools like CRISPR has great potential to rid humanity of some of the nastiest diseases. However, there are too many unanswered scientific and ethical questions to allow DNA changes that can be passed on from generation to generation to leave the lab. The group argues that before that happens, the global community needs to discuss when editing DNA is allowed, for which diseases, and what the ethical justifications are.
The statement was jointly authored by the American Society of Human Genetics, the Association of Genetic Nurses and Counsellors, the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors, the International Genetic Epidemiology Society, and the National Society of Genetic Counselors. It was also endorsed by a variety of organizations with genetics expertise from all over the world, from the UK to Asia to Africa.
The potential of gene-editing tools like CRISPR is limitless: by precisely editing human DNA, CRISPR could be used to treat incurable diseases. Scientists in China are already using the technology to help patients fight lung cancer. In the future, human embryos could be edited to make them resistant to HIV, or eliminate genes responsible for causing genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia.
CUSTOMIZABLE “DESIGNER BABIES”
But there are many concerns around genetically engineering humans. CRISPR is a very precise cut-and-paste tool, but it’s not perfect: sometimes, it can lead to editing errors; other times, the desired DNA changes are picked up only by some cells, not all. When genetic changes can be passed down from generation to generation, even a small mistake could change the human gene pool forever — and we don’t really know what the consequences might be.
Then there are the ethical implications: in theory, gene editing could be used to create customizable “designer babies,” complete with specific traits like hair or eye color. Bioethicists fear this will lead to eugenics programs, where people sporting undesired traits are suddenly considered “unfit” for society. Gene editing could also increase inequalities within and between societies: the technique is likely to be expensive, and that will determine who can access it. “Genetic disease, once a universal common denominator, could instead become an artifact of class, geographic location, and culture,” the authors of the statement write.
In views of all this, the international group agreed on three key positions:
For now, embryos with edited DNA shouldn’t be developed into actual babies.
There’s too much we don’t know about the safety of gene editing to allow engineered humans who can pass down mutations to roam the Earth. What are the potential health effects of even slight editing mistakes? We don’t know yet. We need to develop ways to identify and track these unwanted mutations, and create a consensus on what genome edits are acceptable, considering the potential for unintended consequences.
Limiting public funds doesn’t really stop research, the authors argue, as President George W. Bush’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell research showed. The study published yesterday on edited embryos, for instance, was funded by Oregon Health and Science University, the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea, and several other foundations. Banning public funds could push this kind of research abroad, where there could be fewer regulations and less oversight. Providing public funds ensures that human gene editing research is conducted for the public interest, and with complete transparency, the authors argue.
In the future, human gene editing shouldn’t be allowed unless its use is justified medically, ethically, and all while taking into consideration the opinion of doctors, scientists, and the general public, including the people affected by genetic diseases.
The global community should start discussing which genetic diseases should be addressed by gene editing. Things to consider are how severe the condition is, how treatable, and whether there are other potential ways of curing it, the authors say. Independent advisory bodies should review and make recommendations about the clinical use of gene editing. And finally, it’s time to start discussing the ethical implications of engineering humans — with all stakeholders, including the general public. “Ultimately, these debates and engagements will inform the frameworks to enable ethical uses of the technology while prohibiting unethical ones,” the authors write.
Engineering disease-free humans isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but as yesterday’s breakthrough showed, the science is advancing fast. And before science fiction is turned into science fact, it’s best that society as a whole is on the same page about the dos and don’ts of genome editing. “As basic science research into genome editing progresses in the coming years, we urge stakeholders to have these important ethical and social discussions in tandem,” Kelly Ormond, lead author of the statement and professor of genetics at Stanford University said.
Education unions across the world are joining the March for Science today, celebrating scientific research, academic freedom, and freedom of thought.
In its statement to mark the March for Science on 22 April, Education International (EI) declares its support for the mission of the March for Science, “to champion well-funded and publicly accessible science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity”, and “to unite a diverse, nonpartisan group to support science for the common good”.
Value of research
In solidarity with the broad movement joining the March for Science to defend scientific research and academic freedom following the recent attacks on those freedoms, especially in the United States, EI emphasises the following points:
Research must be free. Researchers must be free to initiate and conduct research without fear of retribution and must always be protected against any and all pressure that would limit or alter their findings. Research is an endeavour that is key to both human and societal wellbeing. As such, it must be pursued in the broadest sense so that it contributes to increasing knowledge across all fields of study. Yet, research can only contribute to improving the planet’s prospects and the collective human interests when two fundamental freedoms are guaranteed: the freedom to conduct research and academic freedom.
Democracy requires that scientific knowledge be publicly available as a global common good. The State must take measures to achieve the progressive realisation of scientific democracy by promoting debates and developing opportunities for knowledge exchange between researchers and civilian stakeholders. To this end, the State must guarantee intellectual freedom of research and the professional autonomy of the scientific field upstream of the decisions aimed at developing public policy. The aim of EI and its affiliates is evidence-based public policy making and not public policy based evidence.
Biological waste could be used for long-distance space travelAlexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images
Researchers have developed a way that could help astronauts recycle their waste for producing products needed for long space journeys.
The experts from Clemson University presented their work at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in a bid to change how astronauts handle their waste in space. According to them, unlike people on Earth, spacefarers – on journeys spanning several years – won’t want to throw any waste, because waste molecules can be repurposed to produce something useful for such trips, for instance, polyesters and nutrients.
With that in mind, the team started exploring various ways to treat and recycle waste – generated primarily by eating, breathing, and using materials. They soon discovered that biological waste such as urine and exhaled air can be used to fuel a yeast called Yarrowia lipolytica for creating polymers.
A variety of yeast strains, according to their work, can grow using nitrogen from untreated urine and carbon from the exhaled air. The engineered strains can then be used to produce nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart, eye and brain health, and monomers that can be linked to create polyester polymers.
The nutrients, which last only for a few years, can be produced during the journey or after reaching the destination, but the polymers can be 3D printed during the journey to produce plastic parts needed for different purposes.
Carrying added weight on long space trips – such as to Mars – has been a longstanding issue for spaceflight experts. The more weight (space parts and other equipment) astronauts take on board, the more fuel they’ll need to sustain the journey. However, the ability to recycle waste into useful products or parts could be a smarter way to maximize the utility of everything that’s on board.
“Having a biological system that astronauts can awaken from a dormant state to start producing what they need, when they need it, is the motivation for our project,” Mark Blenner, a researcher working on the project, told Phys.org.
Though Blenner and his teammates can only engineer small amounts of polyesters and nutrients at this moment, the group believes they can boost the output in coming years. The system could be used on Earth for human nutrition and fish farming. They also plan to produce a variety of monomers for creating different types of polyesters with varying physical properties.
A major modern breakthrough in nutrition and food science has been identifying the health benefits of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). These “healthy sugars” are the second most abundant sugar in breast milk and crucial to proper infant growth and nutrition. However, they don’t feed the infant itself. Instead, they feed specific bacteria in the infant’s gut that lead to those health benefits.
These prebiotics (or bacteria-feeding sugars) can improve adult gut health as well. As such, companies have been trying to develop a process to produce these sugars that is economically feasible. Now, it seems that a California startup, Sugarlogix, has accomplished this feat and is ready to begin selling their product. As a former research assistant in this field, I am ecstatic about what Sugarlogix is doing.
According to Fast Company, Sugarlogix is producing at least one HMO via fermentation. This sugar, called 2′-fucosyllactose, can be fed to specific bacteria like Bifidobacterium longum infantis in infant and adult stomachs. Only this microbe can break it down, using it to grow enough to force out potentially infectious bacteria like pathogenic E. coli. By ingesting this healthy sugar, we could lower our risk of Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and other illnesses linked to improper gut health.
Sugarlogix plans to first release their product as a supplement before introducing it into yogurt, kombucha, and other probiotic-rich foods. The prebiotic can also be theoretically taken in conjunction with supplements of the necessary bacteria.
Unlike most sugars, these are not an energy source for humans. However, they are an incredible dietary and health supplement that I highly recommend taking once available. Gut health is extremely important to overall well-being, and this could be one of the best ways to improve it.
Markets are seen as a soft target for attacks by Boko Haram Getty
There has been a fourfold increase in the number of children used as bombers in northeast Nigeria this year, the United Nations Children’s Agency (Unicef) has said.
Since the start of the year at least 83 children have been used as “human bombs” in attacks on civilians and Nigerian military checkpoints, the agency said, with most incidences claimed by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Of these, 55 were girls, 27 were boys, and one was a baby strapped to a girl. Most of the girls were under 15.
Military officials in northeast Nigeria say the children are often encouraged to go to busy areas, including markets, while the explosives they carry are sometimes triggered from a distance. Occasionally, children get scared approaching checkpoints and detonate the bombs without injuring anyone else.
Aid workers prefer to describe such incidents as the use of “human bombs” rather than referring to the children as suicide bombers. “Children used as ‘human bombs’ are, above all, victims, not perpetrators,” Unicef said in a statement on Tuesday.
The latest figures show a huge rise from 2016, when Unicef documented 19 cases where children were used as bombers in northeast Nigeria and neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Of these, 15 were girls and four were boys.
Teenagers who’ve escaped the group have reported being paid as little as 50p to carry out attacks by militants who promise they will go directly to heaven afterwards.
Since its insurgency began in 2009, Boko Haram has aimed to carve out a caliphate in Nigeria’s northeast and neighbouring countries. More than two million people have been displaced as the group has gained and lost territory across the region.
While the insurgents once controlled an area of land roughly the size of Belgium, a Nigerian military push in 2015 forced them back to camps in rural areas including the Sambisa Forest. This loss of territory has been accompanied by an increase in guerilla tactics and bombing designed to terrorise civilians.
In February, Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, one of the worst affected areas, put the death toll from the eight-year conflict at almost 100,000.
More than 10,000 children have gone missing over that period, according to Unicef, while officials say around 40,000 children are now orphans.
Speaking to The Independent in June, Commissioner of Higher Education for Borno State Ahmed Jaha warned that if orphans are left on the streets and aren’t given any schooling “they’ll be a disaster that is going to consume everyone.”
In its statement, Unicef said Boko Haram’s use of children as bombers also has an impact on minors who have been released, rescued or escaped from Boko Haram. “Many children who have managed to get away from captivity face rejection when they try to reintegrate into their communities, compounding their suffering.”
“All of this is taking place in the context of a massive displacement and malnutrition crisis – a combination that is also deadly for children.”
Alongside the brutal conflict, northeast Nigeria is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis. Some 450,000 children are expected to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition this year alone