WHO: Nearly 200 Cases of Monkeypox in More Than 20 Countries

The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.

During a public briefing on Friday, the U.N. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.

“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behavior,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.

Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, U.S., Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.

Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount. On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.

U.K. officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106. And Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases on Friday.

Doctors in Britain, Spain, Portugal, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have noted that the majority of infections to date have been in gay and bisexual men, or men who have sex with men. The disease is no more likely to affect people because of their sexual orientation and scientists warn the virus could infect others if transmission isn’t curbed.

WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”

Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.

As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the U.S. begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to curb the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission. No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85% effective.

She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.

Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.

“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said. “So, the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.

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Nobel Laureate Denounces Rape as Weapon of War

When asked if he is afraid for his life, Dr. Denis Mukwege responded candidly: “I am human.” Due to the nature of his work, the renowned gynecological surgeon has received death threats for years.

But the Congolese Nobel Peace Prize laureate said he draws his strength from the women he treats. Patients who come to him to heal after going through unimaginable horrors.

“The women I’m treating are so powerful,” Mukwege said in an interview with VOA’s Straight Talk Africa TV program. “What I’m doing is just a small sense if I compare what they [rape survivors have been through] in the situation of conflict where everyone wants to use them.”

He is now honoring the women he says inspired him, including his mother, in a new book titled “The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing.” In it, he reexamines the agency of women in spaces and platforms where decisions are made and at times despite some patriarchal societies that often fail women, he said, women continue to give back and nurture for a greater good.

Ukraine, Ethiopia rape survivors

Mukwege’s work is particularly relevant today as sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. He used two examples to illustrate the urgency of the issue: Ukraine and Ethiopia.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, his foundation had established contact with women in Donbas who were raped in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. There have been more than 700 reports of rape by Russian forces in Ukraine since the February invasion, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman said May 9. In northern Ethiopia, both government and Tigrayan forces have been accused of sexual violence. Nisha Varia, formerly the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, told VOA that rape in Tigray is being used as a weapon and is accompanied by ethnic slurs and other degradation.

Mukwege said when rape is used during conflicts, it is “used to humiliate, to just make the so-called enemy to feel powerless, to be in a situation that is completely humiliating and you can’t really fight against it. It’s a weapon, but it’s a strategy of war,” he said.

But he said he is heartened by an international outcry about the violence against women in Ukraine. He would like to see the same outcry against atrocities in other parts of the world.

“The international community should react in each conflict because the suffering is universal and the reaction against the suffering or to take care of the suffering people should be also universal,” he said, adding that “the case of Ukraine shows us that if there is a will, we have the capacity to stop atrocities.”

Mukwege said a universal sentiment connects most women who have been raped, whether he speaks to victims in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. He said perpetrators leave a sense of fear and that you hear victims saying, “they’ll kill me,” he said. “Most of the women have the impression that they don’t exist at all after being raped.”

Mukwege, who met with senior U.S. officials and first lady Jill Biden during his visit to Washington, is also calling for more efforts to prosecute perpetrators so women can receive justice.

 

“I think that justice is very important. It’s not revenge,” he said. “Justice is not only pressure against the perpetrators, but justice is needed for victims because in the process of healing, victims need really to be recognized as a victim. They need really to get someone with this power, this authority, to say you are not guilty. It’s not your fault.”

Justice and resilience

Death threats against Mukwege at times come from unknown sources and he has been forced to live at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, where he treats rape survivors. “I can’t leave the hospital without an escort. I have the police who are taking care of me,” he said. “To get this kind of life living in the hospital with your patients and my family and so on. This is a terrible thing.”

Since 1999, Mukwege and his team have treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence at the hospital he founded. The hospital also treats the psychological trauma of women caught up in the ongoing violence between militia groups in the eastern DRC.

Mukwege said those resilient women are the best hope for some of the world’s war-torn regions. After they have healed, they demand change.

“When women stand up after being treated, they didn’t stand for themselves, they are standing for themselves and for their children, for their family. For me, this is really wonderful. Society can’t protect them, but when they get healing and stand up, they stand up and raise their voice for all the community.”

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Japan to Resume Tourism in June; Only Packaged Tours for Now

Japan will open its borders to foreign tourists in June for the first time since imposing tight pandemic travel restrictions about two years ago, but only for package tours for now, the prime minister said Thursday.

Beginning June 10, Japan will allow the entry of people on tours with fixed schedules and guides, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

Tourists from areas with low COVID-19 infection rates who have received three vaccine doses will be exempt from testing and quarantine after entry.

Japan this week is hosting small experimental package tours from four countries, Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. That experiment, which involves only 50 people who received special visas, not tourist visas, is to end May 31.

“Free and active exchange of people is the foundation of economy and society, as well as that of Asia’s development,” Kishida told his speech at a Tokyo hotel Thursday.

Japan, while watching the infection situation, will gradually accept more tourists in stages to the level of arrivals before the pandemic, he added.

After facing criticism that its strict border controls were xenophobic, Japan began easing its restrictions earlier this year and currently allows entry of up to 10,000 people a day, including Japanese citizens, foreign students and some business travelers.

Japan will double the cap to 20,000 a day from June 1, which will also include package tour participants, said Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet official in charge of pandemic measures.

The scale of the package tours and other details will be finalized after officials evaluate the results of the current experimental tours, he said.

It will take some time before foreign visitors can come to Japan for individual tourism, Shimoaraiso said.

Japan this week also eased requests for mask wearing. While masks are still requested on public transportation, hospitals and other public facilities, people can take off masks outdoors where others are not around or talking. Despite the easing, most Japanese so far are seen sticking to wearing masks in public.

Japan’s tourism industry, hit hard by the border controls, is eager for foreign tourism to resume. COVID-19 infections have slowed in Japan since earlier this year and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activity.

Kishida said during a visit to London earlier this month that he planned to ease the border controls as early as June in line with the policies of other Group of Seven industrialized countries, but gave no further details.

Foreign tourist arrivals fell more than 90% in 2020 from a record 31.9 million the year before, almost wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen ($31 billion). 

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Nigerian Albinos Demand Authorities Restore Free Cancer Treatment 

Nigerian Cynthia Ukachi, who has albinism, first noticed the changes on her skin in 2018. When she went to the hospital, she was told it was an early stage of skin cancer, and that it had started because of exposure to the sun.

Thanks to a government support scheme that offered free skin cancer care for albinos, she had surgery to remove the affected areas and was treated.

However, Ukachi says the malignant skin cells returned months ago, long after the government ended its free treatment plan.

“I have three on my neck, I have two at my back and I just have this on my forehead here,” she said. “It looks very small but it’s very painful and it can bleed.”

Without the government support, about 4 million albinos in Nigeria could be at risk of skin cancer, according to aid groups.

Too expensive for her

Ukachi says she cannot afford the treatment. Every affected skin area can cost up to $350 to treat.

“Noticing this issue again, I already knew what it was, but I couldn’t go back to the hospital, knowing I’ll be asked to pay, and the money is what I do not have,” she said. “If the government wants me to live, if the government wants persons with albinism to live, they should reinstate the free cancer treatment.”

Nigerian authorities started the program in 2007, and the Albinism Association of Nigeria says around 5,500 patients including Ukachi benefited from it before it was discontinued for lack of funding.

Jake Epelle, a skin cancer survivor and AAN’s president, said, “Even the current administration started the skeletal implementation at the beginning of their tenure but then reneged. The reason is simply the poverty of funds and the fact that they cannot continue to offer this treatment. The effect is that persons with albinism are dying in droves.”

Medical experts say albinos in sub-Saharan Africa are a thousand times more likely than the general population to develop skin cancer because of the partial or complete absence of melanin, a pigment responsible for eye, hair and skin color.

In Nigeria, myths and discrimination associated with the condition make it far more difficult for albinos to get jobs and afford skin cancer treatment.

Authorities respond

This month, during a national awareness day to remember people living with albinism, AAN renewed its call for the government to reinstate the free skin cancer treatment.

Nigerian authorities responded. James David Lalu, executive secretary of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, said, “We had discussions with the permanent secretary of the federal ministry for health for us to be able to revisit this. We’re going to provide some funding support to do that. Additionally, by next year we’re going to provide proper budgetary allocation that will support this cancer treatment for our people.”

AAN cautions there is no time to lose as free treatment is the only lifeline for people around the country like Ukachi, who fears she will run out of time.

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Five Ways Climate Change Is Making Poor People Poorer

Heat waves like the ones roasting South Asia this year don’t just sap people’s strength. They drain people’s finances in ways that are not always obvious.

It’s one of the ways climate change is weighing on the economy and making poor people poorer.

“These effects are global, they are pronounced, and they are persistent,” said Teevrat Garg, an economist at the University of California-San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

South Asia is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change-driven heat waves. But temperature extremes are becoming more common worldwide as the planet warms.

  1. Too hot to work

March and April were the hottest or near-hottest months on record across South Asia.

Climate change made this heat wave about 100 times more likely, according to the U.K. Met Office.

The heat has been brutal for farmers, construction workers and anyone who has to work outside. That’s about half the workforce in South Asia.

“Wage laborers like us work despite the heat,” Indian construction worker Kushilal Mandal told Agence France-Presse in April. “We won’t be able to eat if we don’t work.”

At these temperatures, heatstroke and even death are real risks.

Many work sites shut down early. But that means lost wages.

The U.N. International Labor Organization says that in 2030, hours lost to heat worldwide will be the equivalent of losing at least 80 million full-time jobs.

  1. Lower earnings for outdoor work

It doesn’t take a full work stoppage to hurt workers’ wages. People just can’t do as much when it’s hot.

In a study Garg co-authored, workers in Indonesia in a hot, sunny environment were 8% less productive than those in a shady environment that was about 3 degrees cooler. Doubling wages did not increase productivity.

“It’s not about workers feeling icky or lazy or just like, ‘I don’t want to work because it’s hot,’ ” Garg said. “It’s that heat is representing binding constraints on workers’ ability to do their job.”

  1. Factory slowdowns

Heat affects workers even if they are not exerting themselves. High temperatures slow down factory workers, too.

“We think of manufacturing as a thing that occurs inside. But inside doesn’t mean protected from heat. It doesn’t mean air conditioning,” said World Bank economist Patrick Behrer.

Studies as far back as 1915 show factory workers paid by the piece earn less at higher temperatures. Even call center workers get less done in hot conditions.

“It’s harder for you to pay attention. It’s harder for you to focus. You get tired more easily,” Behrer said. “All of those things feed through to reductions in productivity.”

  1. Workplace injuries

More than wages can be at risk.

“Because you’re paying less attention to what you’re doing or you’re more tired, you’re much more likely to injure yourself,” Behrer said.

On very hot days, workers are about 10% more likely to be injured on the job than on a cool day, Behrer and colleagues found in a study.

That could mean lost wages for the day, or it could be more serious. “If you get hurt on the job, that can be a permanent change in your life,” Behrer said.

  1. Poverty traps

Poorer areas are more vulnerable to the impacts of rising temperatures than wealthier areas, researchers have found. Workers tend to be in industries that are more exposed to heat. And poor people often can’t afford air conditioning. These inequalities are expected to worsen with global warming.

High temperatures also lower crop yields, which lower household incomes in largely agrarian economies such as those of South Asia.

The effects can be passed on to children in these rural households. Garg and colleagues found that students score lower on math and reading tests the year after a hot year, perhaps because their families had less money to spend on education, or even on food or health.

 

Adaptation

Societies can adapt to hotter temperatures. Factories, for example, can buy air conditioning.

But that’s money they won’t spend on better equipment or hiring more workers, Garg noted.

“Adaptation is not free. It’s expensive. It’s costly,” he said. “And in general we find that the poorer you are, the more expensive it is.”

Social safety net programs can help. Garg and colleagues, for example, conducted a study focused on a safety net program in India that supplemented income in rural areas. Since heat waves did not affect farm households’ budgets as much, the effect of heat on students’ test scores was smaller.

With heat waves becoming more common, demand for safety-net programs is growing.

“Countries are already paying for climate change,” Garg said, “because the demand on social protection is rapidly increasing as we get more and more hot days.”

“When we think about climate investments, [typically] we’re thinking about seawalls and green energy. And all of that’s quite important. But … safety net [programs] are going to play a huge role for low- and middle-income populations,” he said.

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Six Ways Climate Change Is Making Poor People Poorer 

Heat waves like the ones roasting South Asia this year don’t just sap people’s strength. They drain people’s finances in ways that are not always obvious.

It’s one of the ways climate change is weighing on the economy and making poor people poorer.

“These effects are global, they are pronounced, and they are persistent,” said Teevrat Garg, an economist at the University of California-San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

South Asia is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change-driven heat waves. But temperature extremes are becoming more common worldwide as the planet warms.

  1. Too hot to work

March and April were the hottest or near-hottest months on record across South Asia.

Climate change made this heat wave about 100 times more likely, according to the U.K. Met Office.

The heat has been brutal for farmers, construction workers and anyone who has to work outside. That’s about half the workforce in South Asia.

“Wage laborers like us work despite the heat,” Indian construction worker Kushilal Mandal told Agence France-Presse in April. “We won’t be able to eat if we don’t work.”

At these temperatures, heatstroke and even death are real risks.

Many work sites shut down early. But that means lost wages.

The U.N. International Labor Organization says that in 2030, hours lost to heat worldwide will be the equivalent of losing at least 80 million full-time jobs.

  1. Lower earnings for outdoor work

It doesn’t take a full work stoppage to hurt workers’ wages. People just can’t do as much when it’s hot.

In a study Garg co-authored, workers in Indonesia in a hot, sunny environment were 8% less productive than those in a shady environment that was about 3 degrees cooler. Doubling wages did not increase productivity.

“It’s not about workers feeling icky or lazy or just like, ‘I don’t want to work because it’s hot,’ ” Garg said. “It’s that heat is representing binding constraints on workers’ ability to do their job.”

  1. Factory slowdowns

Heat affects workers even if they are not exerting themselves. High temperatures slow down factory workers, too.

“We think of manufacturing as a thing that occurs inside. But inside doesn’t mean protected from heat. It doesn’t mean air conditioning,” said World Bank economist Patrick Behrer.

Studies as far back as 1915 show factory workers paid by the piece earn less at higher temperatures. Even call center workers get less done in hot conditions.

“It’s harder for you to pay attention. It’s harder for you to focus. You get tired more easily,” Behrer said. “All of those things feed through to reductions in productivity.”

  1. Workplace injuries

More than wages can be at risk.

“Because you’re paying less attention to what you’re doing or you’re more tired, you’re much more likely to injure yourself,” Behrer said.

On very hot days, workers are about 10% more likely to be injured on the job than on a cool day, Behrer and colleagues found in a study.

That could mean lost wages for the day, or it could be more serious. “If you get hurt on the job, that can be a permanent change in your life,” Behrer said.

  1. Poverty traps

Poorer areas are more vulnerable to the impacts of rising temperatures than wealthier areas, researchers have found. Workers tend to be in industries that are more exposed to heat. And poor people often can’t afford air conditioning. These inequalities are expected to worsen with global warming.

High temperatures also lower crop yields, which lower household incomes in largely agrarian economies such as those of South Asia.

The effects can be passed on to children in these rural households. Garg and colleagues found that students score lower on math and reading tests the year after a hot year, perhaps because their families had less money to spend on education, or even on food or health.

 

Adaptation

Societies can adapt to hotter temperatures. Factories, for example, can buy air conditioning.

But that’s money they won’t spend on better equipment or hiring more workers, Garg noted.

“Adaptation is not free. It’s expensive. It’s costly,” he said. “And in general we find that the poorer you are, the more expensive it is.”

Social safety net programs can help. Garg and colleagues, for example, conducted a study focused on a safety net program in India that supplemented income in rural areas. Since heat waves did not affect farm households’ budgets as much, the effect of heat on students’ test scores was smaller.

With heat waves becoming more common, demand for safety-net programs is growing.

“Countries are already paying for climate change,” Garg said, “because the demand on social protection is rapidly increasing as we get more and more hot days.”

“When we think about climate investments, [typically] we’re thinking about seawalls and green energy. And all of that’s quite important. But … safety net [programs] are going to play a huge role for low- and middle-income populations,” he said.

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Pfizer to Offer Low-Cost Medicines, Vaccines to Poor Nations 

Pfizer said Wednesday that it will provide nearly two dozen products, including its top-selling COVID-19 vaccine and treatment, at not-for-profit prices in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The drugmaker announced the program at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, and said it was aimed at improving health equity in 45 lower-income countries. Most of the countries are in Africa, but the list also includes Haiti, Syria, Cambodia and North Korea.

The products, which are widely available in the U.S. and the European Union, include 23 medicines and vaccines that treat infectious diseases, some cancers and rare and inflammatory conditions. Company spokeswoman Pam Eisele said only a small number of the medicines and vaccines are currently available in the 45 countries.

New York-based Pfizer will charge only manufacturing costs and “minimal” distribution expenses, Eisele said. It will comply with any sanctions and all other applicable laws.

The drugmaker also plans to provide help with public education, training for health care providers and drug supply management.

“What we discovered through the pandemic was that supply was not enough to resolve the issues that these countries are having,” Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said Wednesday during a talk at Davos.

He noted that billions of doses of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty, have been offered for free to low-income countries, mainly through the U.S. government, but those doses can’t be used right now.

Earlier this month, the head of the World Health Organization called on Pfizer to make its COVID-19 treatment more widely available in poorer countries.

Comirnaty brought in nearly $37 billion in sales last year, and analysts expect the company’s COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid to add almost $24 billion this year, according to the data firm FactSet.

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Climate-Driven Heat Waves Increasing Inequality

March and April were the hottest or near-hottest months on record across South Asia. And climate change made this heat wave 100 times more likely, the U.K. Met Office says. Heat waves like these don’t just sap people’s strength; they drain people’s finances in not always obvious ways —just another example of how climate change is weighing on the economy and making poor people poorer. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

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Tedros Re-Elected as Head of World Health Organization

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) members re-elected Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as director general by a strong majority for another five years, the president of the World Health Assembly said on Tuesday.

The vote by secret ballot, announced by Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh from Djibouti at a major annual meeting, was seen as a formality since Tedros was the only candidate running.

Ministers and delegates took turns to shake hands and hug Tedros, a former health minister from Ethiopia, who has steered the U.N. agency through a turbulent period dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The president had to use a gavel several times to interrupt the applause.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach tweeted on Tuesday: “Just re-elected as Director General of #WHO: @DrTedros. 155/160 votes, spectacular result. Congratulations, fully deserved.”

Germany recently overtook the United States as the U.N. health agency’s top donor.

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Malawi Rolls Out Cholera Vaccine to Contain Outbreak

Malawi has rolled out a vaccination campaign to help stop an outbreak of cholera.  Authorities report more than 350 cases and 17 deaths from cholera across eight districts of southern Malawi.

Malawi’s Ministry of Health declared the cholera outbreak in early March after the first case was confirmed in the Machinga district in southern Malawi.

The disease has so far spread to eight districts including Nsanje, Chikwawa and Blantyre.

In its latest report on Monday, the ministry said the country had recorded 367 cholera cases in all with 17 deaths and 19 hospital admissions.

Dr. Gertrude Chapotera represented the World Health Organization at the launch of the vaccination campaign Monday in Blantyre.

She said the campaign is running with support from various global partners, including the Gavi Vaccine Alliance and the Global Task for Cholera Control.

“We are supporting the Ministry of Health with up to 3.9 million doses that will be administered in two rounds,” she said. “So this actually is the beginning of the first round with the campaign starting from today the 23rd of May running up Friday this week the 27th of May.”

Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with bacteria. The disease affects both children and adults and, if untreated, can kill within hours.

Dr. Gift Kawalazila is director of Health and Social Services in Blantyre.  He says the district has so far seen nearly 100 cases of cholera, with five deaths but only three hospital admissions as of Monday.

“This means that cholera is a disease that can easily be reversed and we have treatment options with us,” said Kawalazila. “So, the general message to the general population is that they should quickly present themselves to our health workers in our different health facilities whenever they notice the signs and symptoms of cholera which is profuse diarrhea and vomiting in some cases.”

Health authorities say many people are turning up for vaccination, with some districts running short of the doses.

Alinafe Longwe is among those who received the cholera vaccine in Blantyre.  Longwe says she did not get the COVID-19 vaccine, citing fears of blood clotting and other health issues.  

“But with this one, I haven’t heard any issues, so I am okay with it and I have received it and I am fine,” said Longwe.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health says it has intensified public education preventing cholera infections. These include the use of clean water for domestic purposes and observing personal hygiene.

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WHO Says No Evidence Monkeypox Virus Has Mutated

The World Health Organization does not have evidence that the monkeypox virus has mutated, a senior executive at the U.N. agency said on Monday, noting the infectious disease that is endemic in west and central Africa has tended not to change. 

Rosamund Lewis, head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Program told a briefing that mutations are typically lower with this virus, although genome sequencing of cases will help inform understanding of the current outbreak.

The more than 100 suspected and confirmed cases in the recent outbreak in Europe and North America have not been severe, the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonoses lead and technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said.

“This is a containable situation,” she said.

The outbreaks are atypical, according to the WHO, as they are occurring in countries where the virus does not regularly circulate. Scientists are seeking to understand the origin of the cases and whether anything about the virus has changed.

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COVID Pandemic, Ukraine War Color WHO International Meeting

The Ukraine war, with disease and destruction following in its wake, loomed large Sunday as the WHO convened countries to address a still raging pandemic and a vast array of other global health challenges. 

“Where war goes, hunger and disease follow shortly behind,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on the opening day of the U.N. agency’s main annual assembly.

The assembly, due to run through Saturday, marks the first time the WHO is convening its 194 member states for their first largely in-person gathering since COVID-19 surfaced in late 2019.

Tedros warned that important work at the assembly to address a long line of global health emergencies and challenges, including the COVID-19 crisis, could not succeed “in a divided world.” 

“We face a formidable convergence of disease, drought, famine and war, fueled by climate change, inequity and geopolitical rivalry,” he warned.

The former Ethiopian health minister said he was viewing the ravages in Ukraine through a personal lens: “I am a child of war.”

In Ukraine and elsewhere, he said, it is clear peace “is a prerequisite for health. We must choose health for peace, and peace, peace, peace.”

But it was war that dominated the high-level speeches on the first day of the assembly.

“The consequences of this war are devastating, to health, to populations, to health facilities and to health personnel,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a video address.

He called on all member states to support a resolution to be presented by Ukraine and discussed by the assembly Tuesday, which harshly condemns Russia’s invasion, especially its more than 200 attacks on health care providers, including hospitals and ambulances, in Ukraine. 

The resolution will also voice alarm at the “health emergency in Ukraine,” and highlight the dire impacts beyond its borders, including how disrupted grain exports are deepening a global food security crisis.

But while Russia has been shunned and pushed out of other international bodies over its invasion, no such sanctions are foreseen at the World Health Assembly.

“There’s not a call to kick them out,” a Western diplomat told AFP, acknowledging the sanctions permitted under WHO rules are “very weak.”

The Ukraine conflict is far from the only health emergency up for discussion this week, with decisions expected on a range of important issues, including on reforms toward strengthening pandemic preparedness. 

“This meeting is a historic opportunity to strengthen universal architecture for security and health,” Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader Corona told the assembly. 

Among the decisions expected at the assembly is Tedros’s reappointment to a second five-year term.

His first term was turbulent, as he helped steer the global response to the pandemic and grappled with other crises, including a sexual abuse scandal involving WHO staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But while he has faced his share of criticism, he has received broad backing and is running unopposed, guaranteeing him a second term.

There will be no shortage of challenges ahead, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and demands for dramatic reforms of the entire global health system to help avert similar threats in the future.

And new health menaces already loom, including hepatitis of mysterious origin that has made children in many countries ill, and swelling numbers of monkeypox cases far from Central and West Africa —where the disease is normally concentrated.

One of the major reforms up for discussion involves the WHO budget, with countries expected to greenlight a plan to boost secure and flexible funding to ensure the organization can respond quickly to global health threats.

The WHO’s two-year budget for 2020-21 ticked in at $5.8 billion, but only 16% of that came from regular membership fees.

The idea is to gradually raise the membership fee portion to 50% over nearly a decade, while WHO will be expected to implement reforms, which includes more transparency on its financing and hiring.

The remainder came from voluntary contributions that are heavily earmarked by countries for specific projects.

“There is no greater return on investment than health,” U.N. chief Antonio Guterres told the assembly in a video address.

The COVID pandemic laid bare major deficiencies in the global health system, and countries last year agreed numerous changes were needed to better prepare the world to face future pandemic threats.

Amendments are being considered to the International Health Regulations — a set of legally binding international laws governing how countries respond to acute public health risks.

And negotiations are underway toward a new “legal instrument” — possibly a treaty— aimed at streamlining the global approach to pandemic preparedness and response.But experts warn the reform process is moving too slowly.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who co-chaired an expert panel on pandemic preparedness, warned reporters last week little had changed.

“At its current pace, an effective system is still years away, when a pandemic threat could occur at any time,” Clark said.

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US High Schoolers Design Low-Cost Filter to Remove Lead From Water

When the pandemic forced schools into remote learning, Washington-area science teacher Rebecca Bushway set her students an ambitious task: design and build a low-cost lead filter that attaches to faucets and removes the toxic metal.

Using 3D printing and high school-level chemistry, the team now has a working prototype — a 7.5-centimeter-tall filter housing made of biodegradable plastic, which they hope to eventually bring to market for $1 apiece.

“The science is straightforward,” Bushway told AFP on a recent visit to the Barrie Middle and Upper School in suburban Maryland, where she demonstrated the filter in action.

“I thought, ‘We have these 3D printers. What if we make something like this?'”

Bushway has presented the prototype at four conferences, including the prestigious spring meeting of the American Chemistry Society, and plans to move forward with a paper in a peer-reviewed journal.

Up to 10 million U.S. homes still receive water through lead pipes, with exposure particularly harmful during childhood.

The metal, which evades a key defense of the body known as the blood-brain-barrier, can cause permanent loss of cognitive abilities and contribute to psychological problems that aggravate enduring cycles of poverty.

A serious contamination problem uncovered in Flint, Michigan, in 2014 is perhaps the most famous recent disaster — but lead poisoning is widespread and disproportionately impacts African Americans and other minorities, explained Barrie team member Nia Frederick.

“And I think that’s something we can help with,” she said.

The harms of lead poisoning have been known for decades, but lobbying by the lead industry prevented meaningful action until recent decades.

President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged billions of dollars from an infrastructure law to fund the removal of all the nation’s lead pipes over the coming years — but until that happens, people need solutions now.

A clever trick

Bushway’s idea was to use the same chemical reaction used to restore contaminated soil: the exposure of dissolved lead to calcium phosphate powder produces a solid lead phosphate that stays inside the filter, along with harmless free calcium.

The filter has a clever trick up its sleeve: under the calcium phosphate, there’s a reservoir of a chemical called potassium iodide.

When the calcium phosphate is used up, dissolved lead will react with potassium iodide, turning the water yellow — a sign it is time to replace the filter.

Student Wathon Maung spent months designing the housing on 3D printing software, going through many prototypes.

“What’s great about it was that it’s kind of this little puzzle that I had to figure out,” he said.

Calcium phosphate was clumping inside the filter, slowing the reaction. But Maung found that by incorporating hexagonal bevels he could ensure the flow of water and prevent clumping.

The result is a flow rate of 9 liters per minute, the normal rate at which water flows out a tap.

Next, the Barrie team would like to incorporate an instrument called a spectrophotometer that will detect the yellowing of the water even before it is visible to the human eye and then turn on a little LED warning light.

Paul Frail, a chemical engineer who was not involved in the work, said the group “deserves an incredible amount of credit” for its work, combining general chemistry concepts with 3D printing to design a novel product.

He added, however, that the filter would need further testing with ion chromatography instruments that are generally available in universities or research labs — as well as market research to determine the demand.

Bushway is confident there is a niche. Reverse osmosis systems that fulfill the same role cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, while carbon block filters available for around $20 have to be replaced every few months, which is more often than her group’s filter.

“I am over-the-moon proud of these students,” Bushway said, adding that the group hoped to work with partners to finalize the design and produce it at scale. 

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WHO Expects More Cases of Monkeypox to Emerge Globally

The World Health Organization said it expects to identify more cases of monkeypox as it expands surveillance in countries where the disease is not typically found.

As of Saturday, 92 confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported from 12 member states that are not endemic for the virus, the U.N. agency said, adding it will provide further guidance and recommendations in the coming days for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox.

“Available information suggests that human-to-human transmission is occurring among people in close physical contact with cases who are symptomatic,” the agency added.

Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild and is endemic in parts of west and central Africa. It is spread by close contact, so it can be relatively easily contained through such measures as self-isolation and hygiene.

“What seems to be happening now is that it has got into the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is being spread as are sexually transmitted infections, which has amplified its transmission around the world,” WHO official David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist, told Reuters.

Heymann said an international committee of experts met via video conference to look at what needed to be studied about the outbreak and communicated to the public, including whether there is any asymptomatic spread, who are at most risk, and the various routes of transmission.

He said the meeting was convened “because of the urgency of the situation.” The committee is not the group that would suggest declaring a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest form of alert, which applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said close contact was the key transmission route, as lesions typical of the disease are very infectious. For example, parents caring for sick children are at risk, as are health workers, which is why some countries have started inoculating teams treating monkeypox patients using vaccines for smallpox, a related virus.

Early genomic sequencing of a handful of the cases in Europe has suggested a similarity with the strain that spread in a limited fashion in Britain, Israel and Singapore in 2018.

Heymann said it was “biologically plausible” the virus had been circulating outside of the countries where it is endemic but had not led to major outbreaks due to COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions.

He stressed that the monkeypox outbreak did not resemble the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it does not transmit as easily. Those who suspect they may have been exposed or who show symptoms including bumpy rash and fever, should avoid close contact with others, he said.

“There are vaccines available, but the most important message is, you can protect yourself,” he added. 

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North Korea Reports More Fevers as Kim Claims Virus Progress

North Korea said Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with feverish symptoms even as leader Kim Jong Un claimed progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 across an unvaccinated population of 26 million.

The outbreak has caused concern about serious tragedies in the poor, isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering. Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a strangely small death toll, to soften the political blow on Kim as he navigates the toughest moment in his decade of rule.

Around 219,030 North Koreans with fevers were identified in the 24 hours through 6 p.m. Friday, the fifth straight daily increase of around 200,000, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency, which attributed the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters.

North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April, although the country has only been able to identify a handful of those cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of testing supplies. After maintaining a dubious claim for 2 1/2 years that it had perfectly blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted to omicron infections last week.

Amid a paucity of public health tools, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them at quarantine facilities. Kim also imposed strict restrictions on travel between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help with the transport of medicine to pharmacies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, which has been the center of the outbreak.

During a ruling party Politburo meeting on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was starting to bring the outbreak under control and called for tightened vigilance to maintain the “affirmative trend” in the anti-virus campaign, KCNA said. But Kim also seemed to hint at relaxing his pandemic response to ease his economic woes, instructing officials to actively modify the country’s preventive measures based on the changing virus situation and to come up with various plans to revitalize the national economy.

KCNA said Politburo members debated ways for “more effectively engineering and executing” the government’s anti-virus policy in accordance with how the spread of the virus was being “stably controlled and abated,” but the report did not specify what was discussed.

Even while imposing what state media described as “maximum” preventive measures, Kim has stressed that his economic goals still should be met, and state media have described large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites.

Experts say Kim can’t afford to bring the country to a standstill that would unleash further shock on a fragile economy, strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.

State media have portrayed an urgent push for agricultural campaigns aimed at protecting crops amid an ongoing drought, a worrisome development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity, and for completing large-scale housing and other construction projects Kim sees as crucial to his rule.

The virus hasn’t stopped Kim from holding and attending important public events for his leadership. State media showed him weeping during Saturday’s state funeral for top North Korean military official Hyon Chol Hae, who is believed to have been involved in grooming Kim as a future leader during the rule of his father, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea’s optimistic description of its pandemic response starkly contrasts with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths that may reach tens of thousands. The worries have grown as the country apparently tries to manage the crisis in isolation while ignoring help from South Korea and the United States. South Korea’s government has said it couldn’t confirm reports that North Korea had flown aircraft to bring back emergency supplies from ally China this week.

The North in recent years has shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of international monitoring requirements attached to those shots. The WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea so far has been unresponsive to their requests for virus data or proposals for help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of fatalities to gain immunity through infection.

It’s possible at least some of North Korea’s fever caseload are from non-COVID-19 illnesses such as water-borne diseases, which according to South Korean intelligence officials have become a growing problem for the North in recent years amid shortages in medical supplies.

But experts say the explosive pace of spread and North Korea’s lack of a testing regime to detect large numbers of virus carriers in early stages of infection suggest the country’s COVID-19 crisis is likely worse than what its fever numbers represent. They say the country’s real virus fatalities would be significantly larger than the official numbers and that deaths will further surge in coming weeks considering the intervals between infections and deaths.

North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative run of weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes a brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

The challenges posed by a decaying economy and the COVID-19 outbreak are unlikely to slow his pressure campaign. U.S. and South Korean officials have said there’s a possibility the North conducts another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.

Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to relax crippling U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.

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Musk Visits Brazil’s Bolsonaro to Discuss Amazon Rainforest Plans 

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk met with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday to discuss connectivity and other projects in the Amazon rainforest. 

The meeting, held in a luxurious resort in Sao Paulo state, was organized by Communications Minister Fabio Faria, who has said he is seeking partnerships with the world’s richest man to bring or improve internet in schools and health facilities in rural areas using technology developed by SpaceX and Starlink, and also to preserve the rainforest. 

“Super excited to be in Brazil for launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas & environmental monitoring of Amazon,” Musk tweeted Friday morning. 

Illegal activities in the vast Amazon rainforest are monitored by several institutions, such as the national space agency, federal police and environmental regulator Ibama. 

But deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has surged under Bolsonaro, reaching its highest annual rate in more than a decade, according to official data from the national space agency. Bolsonaro’s critics say he is largely to blame, having emboldened loggers and land grabbers with his fervent support for development of the region. 

During the event, Bolsonaro said the region was “really important” to Brazil. 

“We count on Elon Musk so that the Amazon is known by everyone in Brazil and in the world, to show the exuberance of this region, how we are preserving it, and how much harm those who spread lies about this region are doing to us,” he said. 

Bolsonaro and Musk appeared in a video transmitted live on the president’s Facebook account, standing together on a stage and answering questions from a group of students. 

“A lot can be done to improve quality of life through technology,” Musk told the crowd. 

Although none of the students asked about Musk’s prospective purchase of Twitter, Bolsonaro said that it represented a “breath of hope.” 

“Freedom is the cement for the future,” he said, calling the billionaire a “legend of freedom.” 

Musk has offered to buy Twitter for $44 billion, but said this week the deal can’t go forward until the company provides information about how many accounts on the platform are spam or bots. 

Like Musk, Bolsonaro has sought to position himself as a champion of free speech and has opposed the deplatforming of individuals including his ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump. 

The meeting with Bolsonaro occurs just five months before the far-right leader will seek a second term in a hotly anticipated election.

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