In Ivory Coast, there’s a new tool in the fight against counterfeit pharmaceuticals. A start-up company now helps pharmacies digitally trace the sale of drugs to their customers. Yassin Ciyow has more in this report narrated by Lionel Gahima.
COVID-19 infections have hit a new record in the Australian state of Victoria. Authorities blame rule-breakers for the latest surge in cases.
More than 1,400 new daily locally acquired cases of COVID-19 were reported in Victoria Thursday. Five more people have died.
The numbers have soared despite some of Australia’s strictest stay-at-home orders. Melbourne, the Victorian state capital, has become the third-most locked-down city in the world according to the city’s mayor. Residents have endured more than 235 days of lockdown since the pandemic began. Household visits are banned.
Victorian authorities have said illegal gatherings and house parties over a public holiday long weekend the last weekend in September were behind the sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the state. Officials also said many people had ignored lockdown directives to be with friends and family to watch the Australian Rules Football grand final on television, one of the country’s most popular sporting events.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said when rules are broken, infections increase.
“They go up faster, of course, if people do not follow the rules,” he said. “They go up faster if people are out visiting each other in their homes. That is not a sense of blame. If people continue to visit each other in their homes, they will bring the virus with them, they will spread the virus. Many of these cases were completely avoidable.”
A recently discovered delta variant cluster is causing concern in Queensland state, while 941 new infections and six deaths were reported Thursday in neighboring New South Wales.
Millions of Australians remain in lockdown in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and other parts of eastern Australia.
Despite a surge in cases, authorities are pressing ahead with plans to ease lockdowns as vaccination rates increase.
In New South Wales, lockdown restrictions will end for fully immunized residents when rates hit 70%. They currently stand at 64%.
Federal authorities have said Australia’s international borders, which have been closed to most foreign nationals since March 2020, should reopen by Christmas.
A total of 102,700 coronavirus cases have been detected in Australia since the pandemic began, 1,278 people have died.
A company in suburban Washington, D.C., is using cutting-edge technology to create lifelike video avatars to drop into music and training videos, games and other immersive environments. It’s an entry point to the so-called metaverse, as VOA’s Arzouma Kompaoré discovered while touring Avatar Dimension’s new studio.
In the shadows of Washington’s government office buildings, Gary Hayes searches for another dose of heroin, chasing a high that will last only a few hours before he wants more.
“It’s hard to stop using when you are living on the streets and there’s no treatment help,” Hayes told VOA. The 28-year-old Black man, who lives in a homeless tent encampment in the nation’s capital, has struggled with substance abuse disorder for a decade.
“I overdosed twice in the last year, but I know several people who died,” Hayes said, reflecting on the deadly opioid epidemic playing out during another health tragedy, the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number on record, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics released in July. U.S. health officials attribute the rise in deaths to powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Overdose deaths: Black vs. white
In the District of Columbia, more than 400 people died from opioid overdoses last year, and most were African American. The medical examiner’s office reported that fentanyl or fentanyl analogs were present in many cases.
“In some communities, we’ve seen deaths among African Americans eclipse the death rates among whites over the past several years,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “Many people who have died from the opioid epidemic or otherwise developed addiction are African American or other people of color living in urban areas.”
Opioid overdose deaths among African Americans have been on the rise since 2013, according to a study published in the journal Addiction. Simultaneously, opioid use among white Americans leveled off for the first time since the 1990s, when doctors began overprescribing the opioid painkiller that sparked the health crisis.
“Historically, the opioid epidemic has at times been painted as an epidemic of rural white working-class families, but opioids don’t discriminate,” Alexander told VOA. “The addiction that one develops looks just the same, regardless of the color of your skin.”
According to the CDC, between 1999 and 2019, nearly 500,000 lives in the U.S. were lost to overdoses involving opioids, both prescription and illicit types. The epidemic has impacted many communities, and U.S. health officials believe the crisis has worsened since the pandemic started.
While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the COVID-19 outbreak, the latest data show a sharp rise in overdoses during the pandemic.
“It’s gone from being called the opioid crisis to the overdose crisis,” said harm reduction activist Britt Carpenter, director of the Philly Unknown Project, a group that advocates for the homeless. He says the pandemic has reversed progress made in reducing opioid addiction in recent years.
Carpenter walks the streets of the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, trying to help the homeless people he sees using opioids. “It’s been a younger demographic of users from the suburbs in their 20s, coming into the city to live on the streets and use drugs,” Carpenter told VOA. “In the last 18 months, some of the neighborhood streets have become overwhelmingly filled again with people.”
In August, Philadelphia city workers and police cleared out two large homeless encampments in Kensington, where, according to officials, hundreds of people had been living and several drug overdoses had been reported. “The outreach and recovery world have their hands full now,” Carpenter said.
In Philadelphia County, illicit fentanyl was present in more than 80% of drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In September, the DEA issued a public safety alert warning Americans of an alarming increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“Drug traffickers, both here and abroad, are increasingly using counterfeit pills to package and distribute the poison that illicit fentanyl is,” said Thomas Hodnett, acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s Philadelphia Division. Law enforcement officials say most of the counterfeit pills coming into the United States are produced in Mexico and China.
U.S. health officials believe the pandemic lockdowns and the availability of potent drugs last year dramatically increased overdoses and addiction rates.
“I know a lot of people who had made progress in their recovery, then relapsed,” Arman Maddela, a recovering addict, told Reuters. Maddala, who lives in San Diego, California, lost his sobriety and began using heroin and fentanyl last year. “Being alone and isolated in your living space without any reason to leave the house is enough for someone struggling with addiction to relapse and dig themselves into a hole,” he said.
Harm reduction advocate Carpenter agrees. “One trait of addiction is isolation. The pandemic lockdowns made it hard for people to attend support group meetings in person or visit their therapists.”
With the easing of many pandemic restrictions this year, more drug counseling programs reopened in-person services. At the same time, U.S. medical researchers are working to develop new treatments for opioid addiction with further hopes of reducing fatal drug overdoses.
Clinical trials are under way for the first vaccine to be tested in the U.S. for opioid abuse disorder. The vaccine would create antibodies that prevent opioids such as oxycodone from reaching the brain and later impairing a person’s breathing. The serum could be given in combination with other opioid-based medications used to treat addiction.
“A vaccine that lasts for several months could help many more people beat their addiction and potentially protect them from an overdose death if a patient relapses,” said Sandra Comer, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, where the research is being conducted.
With billions of dollars being spent on the coronavirus pandemic, some health care specialists are calling on the government to allocate more money for comprehensive addiction prevention and treatment programs.
“We need to be sure these treatments are available and that individuals with addiction have unfettered access because it can reduce the risk of dying by as much as 50%,” said Alexander. “We know this can be done because there are millions of Americans living healthy successful lives in recovery today.”
YouTube will ban any video that claims vaccines are ineffective or dangerous, including those that question vaccines for measles and chickenpox, the company announced Wednesday.
“Specifically, content that falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects, claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease, or contains misinformation on the substances contained in vaccines will be removed,” the Google-owned company said in a blog post announcing the new enforcement measures.
The company said “vaccines in particular have been a source of fierce debate over the years, despite consistent guidance from health authorities about their effectiveness.”
“Today, we’re expanding our medical misinformation policies on YouTube with new guidelines on currently administered vaccines that are approved and confirmed to be safe and effective by local health authorities and the WHO.”
The company said it “will continue to allow content about vaccine policies, new vaccine trials and historical vaccine successes or failures.”
YouTube’s COVID-19 vaccine policy has met with some backlash for being overly aggressive.
On Tuesday, the company removed Russian state-backed broadcaster RT’s German-language channels, saying they violated the company’s COVID-19 policy.
On Wednesday, Russia threatened to block YouTube, calling the channel removals “unprecedented information aggression.”
YouTube said it has removed over 130,000 videos over the past year for violating its COVID-19 policies.
Some information in this report comes from Reuters.
The U.S National Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday is expected to announce the extinction of 23 species, including the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, an elusive bird long-sought after by bird watchers throughout the southeast United States.
The New York Times reports the list of extinctions includes 11 birds, eight freshwater mussels, two fish, a bat and a plant. Many of them were likely extinct, or almost so, by the time the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.
The measure is intended to provide special protection for rare species on the brink of extinction.
U.S. officials have determined no amount of conservation would have been able to save these particular species.
Fish and Wildlife Species Classification Specialist Bridget Fahey told the Times, “Each of these 23 species represents a permanent loss to our nation’s natural heritage and to global biodiversity. And it’s a sobering reminder that extinction is a consequence of human-caused environmental change.”
Wildlife experts cite loss of habitat, usually due to human activities, as the top driver of extinction of species. Farming, logging, mining and damming take habitat from animals, while pollution and poaching drive down numbers as well.
U.S. government scientists do not declare extinctions casually. It often takes decades of fruitless searching. About half of the species in this group were already considered extinct by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of animals and plants.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tend to move more slowly, in part because it is working through a backlog, but also to exhaust all efforts to follow up reports of sightings.
In the case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, there have been numerous unconfirmed reports of both sightings of the large, colorful red, white and black bird with a large beak and head feathers, and of hearing its distinctive call in the woods.
The U.S. broadcaster National Public Radio reports the IUCN is not putting the bird on its extinction list because they believe it may still exist in parts of Cuba.
Some information in this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters news organizations.
A bunch of new technologies are popping up that could help bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050, and all need investment. Governments worldwide are having to decide which one suits their geography and how much they can spend on a given technology. More with VOA’s Mariama Diallo.
Produced by: Kimberlyn Weeks
According to the Pakistani government, over 45,000 angioplasty operations are conducted in Pakistan each year; an operation in which a small mesh tube is inserted into a blocked artery to allow blood to flow through it. Up until recently Pakistan had to import these medical devices, but now they’re being manufactured in country. VOA’s Asim Ali Rana files this report narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.
Camera: Wajid Hussain Shah Produced by: Asim Ali Rana