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Dozens dead and injured in attack on Pakistan university

The Taliban initially claimed responsibility but an official spokesman later denied involvement.

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It comes just over a year after the massacre of more than 130 students at a school in the nearby city of Peshawar.

Masked by the cover of thick, wintry fog, militants scaled the walls of the Bacha Khan University before storming into classrooms and opening fire on students and teachers.

Those killed were apparently shot in the head.

The violent and bloody siege triggered a three-hour long gunfight with the army and police.

Among the dead are students, guards, policeman and at least one teacher.

Several of the attackers are among the dead.

As army commandos clear out student classrooms, security officials say the death toll could rise.

From a hospital bed, wounded student Tasbeeh Ullah recalls the horror that unfolded.

“I was sitting in class and the firing started. There was lot of fog and visibility was very low. Then the security personnel came and asked us to leave. We ran away from there. We went upstairs on the third floor of VC office. When I was waiting at the stairs, a terrorist came there and opened fire at me. I escaped the fire, I ran upstairs and jumped from the third floor. Then I fell unconscious.”

Days before the attack, schools in the nearby city of Peshawar had been closed over possible security threats.

Now there are questions over whether enough had been done to prevent it.

In Karachi, students and members of civil groups gathered to condemn the assualt.

This protestor is angry over the security breach.

“We ask, when security agencies had the knowledge, why they could not provide security? And for how long will we in Pakistan be targeted and killed by the Taliban? For how long?”

The attack comes just a year after the 2014 Peshawar school attack that killed more than 130 people, most of them children.

A senior Pakistani Taliban commander intitally claimed responsibility for the assault, saying it involved four of his men.

But an official spokesman from the Taliban later denied the group was involved, calling it “un-Islamic”.

The latest attack comes despite a country-wide anti-terrorism crackdown.

In a statement, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assured Pakistanis he is committed to the battle against terrorism.

Pakistan’s Information Minister, Pervaiz Rasheed, says the operation against militants, called Zarb-e-Azb, remains ongoing.

“The terrorists have carried out a cowardice act. Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb is continuing and terrorists are being chased. They have been eliminated up to a good extent. Their fleeing men tried to find a soft target and attack it. Today, they attacked a university. I met the university students. They are firm and enthusiastic that they will continue their education.”

World leaders have condemned the attack, with neighbouring India especially vocal.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to denounce the attack and offer his condolences to the families of the deceased.

While India’s Junior Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Rajiv Pratap, has questioned whether the Pakistani government is doing enough to stop terrorism.

“The world has recognised this fact that terror is brewing and the epicentre of terror has now become Pakistan. So, there is a big question that needs to be answered. We cannot forget that Osama bin Laden, who was found in the backyard of a military camp for more than a decade when he was camping there and the Pakistan government did not act. “

 

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Anti-IS coalition meets in Paris

The ministers, including from Australia, United States, France and Britain, met in the French capital seeking to accelerate gains and retake IS strongholds.

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But critics say their efforts are so far insufficient, with I-S spreading its ideas further abroad.

Seven defence ministers have met with just one ultimate objective: defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne joined the talks in Paris, attended by leaders from the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

They’ve issued a joint statement recommitting their governments to work to accelerate and intensify the campaign against IS, which is also known as ISIL or Daesh.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter says there is broad agreement on a coordinated plan to battle IS over the next year and take back key cities in Iraq and Syria from the militants.

He’s extended President Obama’s metaphor likening the militant group to a cancer.

“The three key objectives of the counter-ISIL military campaign are, first: to destroy the ISIL cancer’s parent tumour in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centres in Raqqa and Mosul; second the combat the metastasis if the ISIL tumour worldwide, and third to protect our people at home.”

The Paris setting for the talks itself sends a message, coming just over two months after the city endured deadly shooting and bombing attacks claimed by IS.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says it’s time to increase the collective effort by putting in place a coherent military strategy.

“Its resilience should strengthen our action. We should keep fighting this organisation on all fronts. We’ll root them out on the ground and from people’s minds.”

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon explained the priorities of the coalition.

“You will now see, I hope, more attacks on the oil wells, on the supply roots, on the logistics, the arms dumps and on the command and control and on the leadership of this evil organisation.”

IS lost control of the western Iraqi city of Ramadi last month in a sorely needed victory for US-backed Iraqi forces.

But critics, including some in the US Congress, say the US strategy is still far too weak and lacks sufficient military support from Sunni Arab allies.

US Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says IS still poses a potent threat.

But US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is confident about the outlined strategy to wipe out IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria and limit its spread.

Mr Carter also announced that the 26 nations involved in the anti-I-S coalition, as well as Iraq, will meet in Brussels next month to continue the talks.

 

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have met to discuss next week’s planned Syria peace talks.

Differences over who is eligible to join the UN-mediated talks are threatening to delay the start of the negotiations.

But Mr Lavrov says they will go ahead.

“We don’t have any thoughts on moving the start of talks from January to February. This is the position of both Russia and the United States. We are confident that in the coming days in January these talks will begin.”

The negotiations between the Assad government and the opposition are to be the first step in a proposed 18-month political transition for Syria, which has been mired in civil war for four years.

 

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Key global defence ministers discuss anti-IS strategy

Defence chiefs from the US, Britain, Australia, France and four other countries have pledged to intensify their fight against Islamic State, in an effort to capitalise on recent battlefield gains against the militants.

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Attending a meeting in Paris on Wednesday to discuss a joint strategy against the militant group were British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne.

Australia has 780 defence personnel deployed in the Middle East providing training and conducting air strikes over Iraq and Syria in a bid to counter IS.

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The jihadist group lost control of the western Iraqi city of Ramadi last month, in a sorely needed victory for US-backed Iraqi forces.

“We agreed that we all must do more,” Carter told a news conference after talks in Paris among the “core” military coalition members, which also included Germany, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands.

A joint statement by the Western ministers re-committed their governments to work with the US-led coalition “to accelerate and intensify the campaign.”

The Paris setting for the talks itself sent a message, coming just over two months after the city was struck by deadly shooting and bombing attacks claimed by Islamic State.

Le Drian sounded an upbeat tone about the campaign, saying Islamic State was in retreat.

“Because Daesh is retreating on the ground and … because we have been able to hit its resources, it’s now time to increase our collective effort by putting in place a coherent military strategy,” he said.

Fallon said the goal was now to “tighten the noose around the head of the snake in Syria in Raqqa.”

Carter forecast that the coalition would need to ramp up the number of police and military trainers. He also emphasized preparations to eventually recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State and the expanding role of US special operations forces in Iraq and Syria.

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US officials have declined to set a timeline for what could be a long-term campaign that also requires political reconciliation to ultimately succeed.

Carter announced a meeting next month of defence ministers from all 26 military members of the anti-Islamic State coalition, as well as Iraq, in what he described as the first face-to-face meeting of its kind.

“Every nation must come prepared to discuss further contributions to the fight,” he said. “And I will not hesitate to engage and challenge current and prospective members of the coalition as we go forward.”

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WWII veteran to meet Australian girlfriend

A US World War II veteran will travel to Australia to reunite with his wartime girlfriend after more than 70 years.

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The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reports that 93-year-old Norwood Thomas will travel to Adelaide next month to reunite with 88-year-old Joyce Morris.

Thomas, who now lives in Virginia, told Morris that he would love to see her again in person when the two recently spoke via Skype.

The pair reconnected after Morris, nee Durrant, asked her son if it was possible to find people on the internet.

According to US broadcaster ABC News, her son was able to find Thomas because he had made the news by skydiving at the age of 88.

Morris’s son then got in touch with Thomas’s son and they set up the Skype call for the former lovers.

The pair originally met just outside London in 1944, a few months before Thomas parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division.

“I was out with a friend, and being young, we had our eyes out for young ladies,” he told the ABC.

“We were on a bridge crossing the Thames when we looked down and saw these two fine, young ladies.

“We went down, paddled around the Thames in rowboats for a bit, later got some drink and food and Joyce and I just clicked.”

But after the war they went their separate ways – Thomas said he wrote to Morris and asked her to move to the United States as his wife but she declined, saying she had just begun training as a nurse.

“I realised I had more feelings for her than she did for me,” he said.

He later married another woman, with whom he was together for 56 years before her death at the age of 75.

After she died he began thinking about his long lost love.

“She’d always pop up as a pleasant memory, and it turns out that she’d been thinking of me this whole time too.

“Her son looked me up on the internet and contacted me. I found out she’s been living in Australia.”

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In the Skype conversation Morris told Thomas that she’d married and then divorced, and that she now kept a photo of him that she said ‘good morning’ to every day.

Both have suffered from ill health in recent years; Thomas has battled prostate cancer and Morris is nearly blind.

But after their story went public two months ago, more than 300 people made donations online to help the two rekindle their romance. Others mailed cheques directly to Thomas’ house.

About $US7,500 ($A10,845) has been donated.

The Virginian-Pilot reports Air New Zealand has also made arrangements to send Thomas and his son to Australia free of charge. Thomas and Morris are expected to spend Valentine’s Day together.

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Diamonds eye sweep after win in opener

Australia’s netball world champions have set their sights on a series sweep of England after weathering a fourth-quarter fightback to take the opening Test.

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Australia triumphed 58-52 in Liverpool in front of a raucous crowd on Wednesday, powering to victory on the back of stellar shooting displays from Caitlin Bassett (20/21) and Caitlin Thwaites (21/25) and a standout performance by goalkeeper Sharni Layton.

Player of the match Layton was a constant menace in defence, finishing with six interceptions and five deflections, and said the team was determined to go undefeated in the best-of-three series which continues with game two in London on Friday (Saturday 0630 AEDT).

“We didn’t come over here just for a fairy match. We definitely want to wrap it up. We don’t want to drop a game,” she said.

“I’m sure they’re going to come out even stronger and hungrier.

“They’re sold out games in London and (the crowd) is going to get right behind them as well.

“I’m expecting a tougher game. We’re really going to have to look at what we did tonight.

“We definitely didn’t have a perfect performance and if we want to stay on top there’s a lot of work we need to do because they’re an extremely strong side.”

Despite showing some cobwebs in their first match of 2016, Australia had the better of the first half, winning each quarter by two goals to open up a 30-26 lead at the major break.

Coach Lisa Alexander tested out several new combinations and made sweeping changes at halftime as the new era of Australian netball begins to take shape following the triple retirements of Kim Green, Rebecca Bulley and Julie Corletto after the World Cup.

England’s swarming defence put pressure on the Diamonds’ midcourt, which produced several uncharacteristic turnovers as combinations took time to gel.

However, the outstanding work of Layton and laser shooting from Thwaites ensured Australia remained on top at halftime.

The introduction of star shooter Bassett for the second half, paired with Natalie Medhurst who had started in the unfamiliar position of wing attack, swung the match further in Australia’s favour.

The pair combined for 15 goals as the tourists stretched their lead to seven at the final change.

Liz Watson, the 21-year-old Melbourne Vixens centre, got her first taste of international netball when introduced for the final quarter, as Alexander continued to tinker with her lineups.

“I think it’s great that Lisa put new combos out there,” Layton said.

“We do have to learn to gel together looking forward over the next four years.

“Those combinations will continue to gel like those old ones have.

“It is nice to have the confidence (of the old combinations) but I’ve got confidence in all the girls with whatever we put out.”

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Australian shares open higher despite global market turmoil

The Australian share market has opened higher today.

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At 10.10am the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was up 56.7 points, or 1.17 per cent, at 4,898.2, while the broader All Ordinaries index was up 54.0 points, or 1.10 per cent, at 4,950.9.

On the ASX 24, the share price index was up 48 points at 4,859, with 16,501 contracts traded.

Global markets tumble as oil drops to 13 year low

Global equity markets dropped to their lowest levels in two and a half years on Wednesday to put them on pace for one of the most dismal monthly performances on record, as oil once again tumbled to 13-year lows.

The MSCI World equity index .MIWD00000PUS slumped 3.4 per cent to its lowest level since June 2013. The index has already dropped 11.1 per cent in January, which if sustained would be the worst monthly loss since October 2008, the month after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.

The declines left the index down 20.5 per cent from its high on May 22, confirming a bear market on an intraday basis, generally defined as a drop of more than 20 per cent. 

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Wall Street tumbled more than 3 per cent, with each of the 10 major S&P sectors down more than 2 per cent, led lower by a drop of almost 6 perc ent in the energy .SPNY sector. Nearly 200 stocks in the benchmark S&P were down 20 per cent or more from their 52-week high.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI fell 502.56 points, or 3.14 percent, to 15,513.46, the S&P 500 .SPX lost 59.34 points, or 3.15 percent, to 1,821.99 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 126.79 points, or 2.83 percent, to 4,350.16.

There have been steeper monthly drops only three times in the MSCI World index’s 28-year history, two of which occurred during the financial crisis in 2008.

“The damage being done in energy is spreading,” said Brian Fenske, head of sales trading at ITG in New York.

“Just getting up every morning and seeing the S&P futures down 1 to 2 per cent has a near-term psychological impact and puts some investors into risk-off mode,” Fenske said.

U.S. crude plunged to a low of $26.30, its lowest since May 2003 after the International Energy Agency warned the market could “drown in oversupply.” WTI CLc1 was last off 6.6 per cent to $26.59 while Brent crude LCOc1 lost 4.8 per cent, to $27.38.

European shares closed at their lowest level since October 2014, with the FTSEurofirst 300 .FTEU3 down 3.3 percent, to notch its biggest single-session decline in six weeks.

France’s CAC .FCHI and Britain’s FTSE .FTSE both tumbled more than 3 per cent for their worst session declines of the year and Germany’s DAX .GDAXI lost 2.8, for its worst daily drop since the first trading day of 2016.

Another key commodity, copper CMCU3, slipped 1.1 per cent, driving falls of 5.2 and 5.1 per cent respectively in Europe’s basic resources .SXPP and energy .SXEP sectors.

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Oil shares in Europe are down more than 14 perc ent already this year and at their lowest levels since March 2003. That has been a major weight on the FTSEurofirst 300, which is down nearly 12 per cent in 2016 and more than 23 per cent from its high in April.

The Nikkei share average .N225 shed 3.7 per cent to its lowest close since Oct. 24, 2014.

The safe-haven yen JPY= climbed as risk appetite soured, dragging the dollar to a one-year low, as investors trimmed the chances of more tightening by the Federal Reserve. The U.S. currency was down 1 per cent at 116.44 yen after hitting a session low of 115.96 yen.

While the dollar fell against the yen, it was strong against emerging market currencies, compounding the misery for many countries already suffering from low oil prices.

Demand for U.S. bonds, another asset sought in times of uncertainty, was high, with yields on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes US10YT=RR down to 1.9477 per cent, after falling as low as 1.93 per cent, up 25/32 in price.

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Drug firms ask for help in superbug fight

More than 80 international drug and biotech firms have urged governments to work with them to combat drug-resistant superbugs which could kill tens of millions of people within decades unless progress is made and new antibiotics found.

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In a declaration at the World Economic Forum in Davos, they called for co-ordinated efforts to cut unnecessary use of antibiotics and support development of new ones, including through changing drug prices and investing in research.

The 83 pharmaceutical companies and eight industry groups urged governments around the world to commit money “to provide appropriate incentives…for companies to invest in R&D to overcome the formidable technical and scientific challenges of antibiotic discovery and development”.

Any use of antibiotics promotes the development and spread of so-called superbugs – drug-resistant infections that can evade the medicines designed to kill them.

International alarm about the superbug threat is rising after the discovery in China of a gene called mcr-1 that makes bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics.

“For the world to continue to have new antibiotics, we need investments in basic science and novel incentive models for industry R&D, and to protect our existing treatments we need new frameworks for appropriate use,” said Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson.

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill was asked in 2014 by Britain’s prime minister to conduct a full review of the problem and suggest ways to combat it.

In his initial report, he estimated antibiotic and microbial resistance could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion by 2050.

While the problem of infectious bugs becoming drug-resistant has been known since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, it has grown as drugmakers have cut back investment in the field.

In their Davos declaration, the companies pledged to encourage more appropriate use of new and existing antibiotics, including more judicious use of the drugs in livestock.

They also promised to increase investment in R&D and work to ensure affordable access to antibiotics.

Britain’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, said the declaration was “a clear sign of industry’s collective commitment to beating the threat of antimicrobial resistance”.

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Defence ministers discuss anti-IS strategy

Defence Minister Marise Payne says coalition nations fighting Islamic State must capitalise on recent battlefield gains by ensuring stability in areas won back from militants.

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Defence chiefs from coalition partners including the US, Australia, Britain and France have pledged at a meeting in Paris to boost coordinated efforts in combating Islamic State.

The talks focused on the military strategy of the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, and ensuring partners “coordinate and collaborate on that strategy”, Senator Payne said in Paris.

“We know that as we make gains in places such as Ramadi we must ensure that stabilisation continues after those gains and that we support local communities in re-establishing themselves and engaging in their own country.”

Iraqi forces, backed by coalition air support, were able to wrest back control of the western Iraqi city last month.

In Washington earlier this week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the militant group’s use of technology and social media was “very sophisticated and agile” and required a more rapid response.

Senator Payne said the talks in Paris pursued the issue further.

“I think this is an international question, not just a question for Australia, and very much has been part of our discussion today that this is a multi-faceted activity,” she said.

“It’s more than just a military campaign. It requires engagement in the modern battle platform, if you like, and that includes social media.”

In a joint statement, the defence ministers re-committed to working with the US-led coalition “to accelerate and intensify the campaign” against Islamic State.

“We agreed that we all must do more,” US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter told reporters after the talks, which involved the “core” military coalition members, including Germany, Italy, Australia and The Netherlands.

Australia has 780 defence personnel deployed in the Middle East providing training and air support and is the second largest contributor in Iraq after the US.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Islamic State was in retreat but that “it’s now time to increase our collective effort by putting in place a coherent military strategy”.

A meeting of defence ministers from all 26 military members of the international coalition against Islamic State will be held next month.

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Doctors Think Teenagers Should Be Screened Annually for Depression

Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that kids and young adults ages 11 to 21 be screened annually for depression, a nod to the notion that, yes, mental health is an integral part of a kid’s overall well-being.

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The recommendation comes after a series of sobering studies on mental health and young people. In 2013, for example, suicide was the leading cause of death after “unintentional injury” (accidents, in other words) for those ages 15 to 34. The reasons for the increase aren’t clear, though some recently have pointed to increasing amounts of parental and societal pressure to do well in school. Regardless, in 2013, the American Psychological Association conducted a survey that found one in three young adults reported symptoms of depression, an illness that can of course lead to suicidal thoughts.

So doctors are hoping that the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” way of thinking will play out in this instance. But there’s a catch. Methods of screening for childhood depression — which often consist of interviews with kids and their parents along with the use of tempered-down adult depression tests — have faced criticism for being inaccurate, often misdiagnosing what turns out to be anxiety. The AAP has released its mental-health screening suggestions with a variety of options for young adults, but critics argue that false positives — that is, people diagnosed as depressed when they are actually not — is a real, potentially dangerous issue.  

The AAP has attempted to create screening guidelines and a step-by-step evaluation method to separate cases of depression among this age group from other mental-health issues that might be affecting the patient to combat this criticism. But the troubling part for many observers and critics isn’t just the messiness of screening and figuring out if a kid is clinically depressed or having a different mental-health issue. It’s also the antidepressants, which bring some potentially deadly side effects. (Though, on the other hand, when the FDA warned people of this side effect, researchers found that teenage suicide rates actually spiked when antidepressant use was curbed.)

The complicated conclusion is this: While the AAP recognizes there is a troubling pattern of suicide among teenagers and young adults, there isn’t a surefire way to diagnose depression. Still, this is a first step toward recognizing the important role of mental health in the overall health of an individual. As the AAP notes in a press release, “Feelings need checkups, too.”

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Hug it out bro: the importance of World Hug Day

Hugging – we have a love hate relationship with the warm fuzzy embrace.

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Being wrapped around our colleagues makes us feel awkward, but cuddling our partners, friends and family usually gives us a feeling of love and a sense of protection.

Today is World Hug Day, celebrated by a handful of countries every year and its time Australia, the nation that gave birth to the free hugs movement, got in on the big bear hug too.

Here’s why …

The feel good factor

We’re hard wired to share and benefit from physical contact with each other, it makes us feel happier and healthier when we hug, squeeze or pat each other because touch “lights up the reward centre in the central nervous systems,” says Sabine Read, a registered psychologist and social commentator for radio station 3AW.

“Even a warm handshake, a pat on the back, or lying close to mate on the couch can help contribute to improving our emotional and physical well-being.”

Hugging ­means less trips to the doctor

Hugging definitely helps us feel good but according to researchers in the Untied States it does more than that – hugging reduces the chances of us getting sick.

You wouldn’t be alone if you thought hugging to prevent illness sounded illogical. But a study that saw 404 volunteers infected with the common cold found that those who were hugged more were less likely to become ill because they were less stressed.

Embracing increases life expectancy

In Sweden, studies even showed that people had a better chance of living longer and links between a healthier lifestyle – less smoking and drinking –  if they increased the amount of physical contact with others.

If hugging is so beneficial – what stops us from doing it more often?

A lack of touch and hugging also leads to sadness, loneliness and depression. So why aren’t we squeezing each other to death. “Fear, rejection, hurt, family of origin influences and cultural benefits” are all reasons why we avoid hugging. Read says that it’s “important to explore these barriers that prevent us from touching each other.

“Most of us can benefit from learning how to ask for the touch we desire. Often relationship difficulties are correlated with a lack of touch,” says Read who often works with couples and families and sees the sadness and loneliness that arises through lack of touch.

Babies need lots of hugs too

Not only adult’s benefit, hugging is important to babies’ early development. Sharon Daniels, a Cairns based psychologist said: “There has been much research on orphans who were not hugged as babies, they often have problems with thriving, in addition to emotional issues later in life.

“Where children have difficulty forming attachment to other people, they often have difficulty bonding with their own children,” says Daniels. Sabina Read added that frequent and loving touch reassures babies. But importantly “it has also been associated with improved sleep and greater social development in infants”.

We need to hug lots of different people

Everyone profits from hugging in fact. Both the initiator and the recipient get much more than just a warm fuzzy feeling out of the two handed embrace. And everyone should hug everyone, as a diversity of huggers – yes that means colleagues too – is the best way to wreak the benefits.  “I think we do with more hugging,” says Daniels, “although we need to be mindful of when it is appropriate and when it is not”.

“World Hug Day may sound corny, but in a world where fear, pain, hurt, anger and disconnect surround us, I like the idea that World Hug Day may serve as a reminder of the pleasure and important of touch for each and every one of us,” says Read.

So why should we limit our embraces to one day – get hugging Australia.