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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


African Scientists Baffled by Monkeypox Cases in Europe, US 

Scientists who have monitored numerous outbreaks of monkeypox in Africa say they are baffled by the disease’s recent spread in Europe and North America. 

Cases of the smallpox-related disease have previously been seen only among people with links to central and West Africa. But in the past week, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, U.S., Sweden and Canada all reported infections, mostly in young men who hadn’t previously traveled to Africa. 

France, Germany, Belgium and Australia confirmed their first cases Friday. 

“I’m stunned by this. Every day I wake up and there are more countries infected,” said Oyewale Tomori, a virologist who formerly headed the Nigerian Academy of Science and who sits on several World Health Organization advisory boards. 

“This is not the kind of spread we’ve seen in West Africa, so there may be something new happening in the West,” he said. 

To date, no one has died in the outbreak. Monkeypox typically causes fever, chills, a rash and lesions on the face, hands or genitals. WHO estimates the disease is fatal for up to 1 in 10 people, but smallpox vaccines are protective, and some antiviral drugs are being developed. 

British health officials are exploring whether the disease is being sexually transmitted. Health officials have asked doctors and nurses to be on alert for potential cases but said the risk to the general population is low. The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all suspected cases be isolated and that high-risk contacts be offered smallpox vaccine. 

Nigeria reports about 3,000 monkeypox cases a year, WHO said. Outbreaks are usually in rural areas, when people have close contact with infected rats and squirrels, Tomori said. He said many cases are likely missed. 

Dr. Ifedayo Adetifa, head of the country’s Center for Disease Control, said none of the Nigerian contacts of the British patients have developed symptoms and that investigations were ongoing. 

WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, described the outbreak as “atypical,” saying the appearance of the disease in so many countries across the continent suggested that “transmission has been ongoing for some time.” He said most of the European cases are mild. 

On Friday, Britain’s Health Security Agency reported 11 new monkeypox cases, saying that “a notable proportion” of the most recent infections in the U.K. and Europe have been in young men with no history of travel to Africa who had sex with men. Authorities in Spain and Portugal said their cases were the same. 

Experts have stressed they do not know if the disease is being spread through sex or other close contact related to sex. 

Nigeria hasn’t seen sexual transmission, Tomori said, but he noted that viruses that hadn’t initially been known to transmit via sex, like Ebola, were later proven to do so after bigger epidemics showed different patterns of spread. 

The same could be true of monkeypox, Tomori said. 

In Germany, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said the government was confident the outbreak could be contained. He said the virus was being sequenced to see if there were any genetic changes that might have made it more infectious. 

Rolf Gustafson, an infectious diseases professor, told Swedish broadcaster SVT that it was “very difficult” to imagine the situation might worsen. 

“We will certainly find some further cases in Sweden, but I do not think there will be an epidemic in any way,” Gustafson said. “There is nothing to suggest that at present.” 

Scientists said that while it’s possible the outbreak’s first patient caught the disease while in Africa, what’s happening now is exceptional. 

“We’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in Europe,” said Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases. “We haven’t seen anything to say that the transmission patterns of monkeypox have been changing in Africa. So, if something different is happening in Europe, then Europe needs to investigate that.” 

Happi also pointed out that the suspension of smallpox vaccination campaigns after the disease was eradicated in 1980 might inadvertently be helping monkeypox spread. Smallpox vaccines also protect against monkeypox, but mass immunization was stopped decades ago. 

“Aside from people in west and Central Africa who may have some immunity to monkeypox from past exposure, not having any smallpox vaccination means nobody has any kind of immunity to monkeypox,” Happi said. 

Shabir Mahdi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said a detailed investigation of the outbreak in Europe, including determining who the first patients were, was now critical. 

“We need to really understand how this first started and why the virus is now gaining traction,” he said. “In Africa, there have been very controlled and infrequent outbreaks of monkeypox. If that’s now changing, we really need to understand why.”