Arrests as Madagascar Opposition Protest Living Costs

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR — Police in Madagascar detained two leading members of the main opposition party on Saturday during a protest in the capital against rising living costs and economic hardship.

Several hundred anti-government demonstrators gathered in the center of Antananarivo in the morning, watched by a heavy military and police presence.

Police said they arrested Rina Randriamasinoro, the secretary general of the opposition Tiako I Madagasikara (TIM) party, and its national coordinator Jean-Claude Rakotonirina following tensions between demonstrators and security forces. The pair were later released.

“They were arrested and placed in police custody because they made comments inciting hatred and public unrest,” Antananarivo’s prefect Angelo Ravelonarivo told AFP.

Inflation has soared to the highest level in decades in many countries, fueled by the war in Ukraine and the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Organizers had wanted to hold the rally inside a warehouse belonging to opposition leader Marc Ravalomanana, but demonstrators arrived to find security forces blocking access to the venue.

Protesters then staged a sit-in outside the building.

Footage shared on social media showed police pulling Randriamasinoro and Rakotonirina from the crowd before taking them away in a police vehicle.

“The rally was authorized yesterday by the prefect and then this morning we discovered the police outside the gate,” said opposition lawmaker Fetra Ralambozafimbololona.

The arrests sparked further remonstrations, with demonstrators vowing not to leave the area until the two men were released — before eventually dispersing in the afternoon.

Randriamasinoro and Rakotonirina were eventually let go early in the evening, a police spokesperson said, adding authorities were yet to decide whether to press charges against them.

Protests are rare in the country with the opposition and rights groups accusing the government of President Andry Rajoelina of stifling dissent and rarely allowing demonstrations.

“We can’t say anything anymore,” said Samuel Ravelarison, a 63-year-old accountant attending the rally. “We came to demonstrate against the high cost of living.”

Ravelonarivo, the prefect, said that while the demonstration had not been banned, he had suggested it be held at a different location away from the city center.

One of the poorest nations in the world, Madagascar is still reeling from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a series of extreme weather events.

Tropical storms and cyclones have battered the country this year, killing more than 200 people, adding to the damage of a severe drought that has ravaged the island’s south leading to malnutrition and instances of famine.

Rajoelina, 48, first came to power in 2009, ousting Ravalomanana with the backing of the military.

He returned to the presidency in 2019, after beating his predecessor in an election beset by allegations of fraud.

Source: Voice of America

USAID Chief Visits Horn of Africa Amid Severe Regional Hunger Crisis

U.S. aid officials are calling on countries in the Horn of Africa to speak out against the Russian government’s blockade of Ukrainian ports, which have held back grain exports needed to feed millions of hungry people in the region. Officials also are pleading with armed groups in Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan to allow free passage of foodstuff in areas under their control.

The U.S. government’s top aid officials are on a three-day visit to East Africa, where nearly 20 million people are in a state of severe hunger and food insecurity aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and cutoff of Ukrainian food exports.

In her first stop in the region, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, speaking in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, said a concerted effort is needed to overcome the regional humanitarian crisis.

Earlier in the week, Power announced $1.2 billion in new money for Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya and spoke Friday of how the money will be dedicated to meeting the food crisis in Kenya.

“That’s an enormous sum of money and it speaks to the amount of need here, but again we need other donors to step as well,” Power said. “At the same time we try to mobilize those resources we need to be pushing for access to hard-to-reach areas, and no party to the conflict should be impeding the safe passage of humanitarian relief.”

Kenya will receive about $255 million of the latest U.S. contribution. Some 4.1 million people are food insecure in Kenya, up from 3.5 million in March this year.

Kenya’s minister for public service and gender Margaret Kobia said the government has been able to provide humanitarian assistance in the arid and semi-arid areas of the country.

“The government has been giving cash transfers since September last year,” Kobia said. “We feel that even for those who are moving from one location to another, cash transfer remains a mode that can reach them wherever they are so long as they have a telephone.”

The Horn is experiencing a drought that is leaving millions on the brink of starvation.

Humanitarian agencies operating in Ethiopia and Somalia are finding it challenging to access some parts of both countries because of conflict and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to move to safer areas to get access to food, water and medicine.

The United Nations and Turkey have mediated a deal to free Ukrainian grain exports. But Power said African countries need to pressure Russia to make sure the exports reach their intended destinations.

“This is going to be a challenging period for this region even if the grains can be unlocked, but every voice on the continent and around the world should be crying out in unison to Vladimir Putin, ‘Let the grains go, let the grains go Mr. Putin,’” Power said. “This is a humanitarian catastrophe in the making and anything any one of us can do to alleviate that must be done.”

Somalia gets 90 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and even those with money are finding it difficult to afford the food in the markets.

Aid agencies warn eight areas in Somalia are at risk of famine and more than 7 million people are affected by drought, which has wiped out pastures and livestock.

Source: Voice of America

Monkeypox Virus Could Become Entrenched as New STD in US

The spread of monkeypox in the U.S. could represent the dawn of a new sexually transmitted disease, though some health officials say the virus that causes pimple-like bumps might yet be contained before it gets firmly established.

Experts don’t agree on the likely path of the disease, with some fearing that it is becoming so widespread that it is on the verge of becoming an entrenched STD — like gonorrhea, herpes and HIV.

But no one’s really sure, and some say testing and vaccines can still stop the outbreak from taking root.

So far, more than 2,400 U.S. cases have been reported as part of an international outbreak that emerged two months ago.

Health officials are not sure how fast the virus has spread. They have only limited information about people who have been diagnosed, and they don’t know how many infected people might be spreading it unknowingly.

They also don’t know how well vaccines and treatments are working. One impediment: Federal health officials do not have the authority to collect and connect data on who has been infected and who has been vaccinated.

With such huge question marks, predictions about how big the U.S. outbreak will get this summer vary widely, from 13,000 to perhaps more than 10 times that number.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the government’s response is growing stronger every day and vaccine supplies will soon surge.

“I think we still have an opportunity to contain this,” Walensky told The Associated Press.

Monkeypox is endemic in parts of Africa, where people have been infected through bites from rodents or small animals. It does not usually spread easily among people.

But this year more than 15,000 cases have been reported in countries that historically don’t see the disease. In the U.S. and Europe, the vast majority of infections have happened in men who have sex with men, though health officials have stressed that anyone can catch the virus.

It spreads mainly through skin-to-skin contact, but it can also be transmitted through linens used by someone with monkeypox. Although it’s been moving through the population like a sexually transmitted disease, officials have been watching for other types of spread that could expand the outbreak.

Symptoms include fever, body aches, chills, fatigue and bumps on parts of the body. The illness has been relatively mild in many men, and no one has died in the U.S. But people can be contagious for weeks, and the lesions can be extremely painful.

When monkeypox emerged, there was reason to believe that public health officials could control it.

The tell-tale bumps should have made infections easy to identify. And because the virus spreads through close personal contact, officials thought they could reliably trace its spread by interviewing infected people and asking who they had been intimate with.

It didn’t turn out to be that easy.

With monkeypox so rare in the U.S., many infected men — and their doctors — may have attributed their rashes to some other cause.

Contact tracing was often stymied by infected men who said they did not know the names of all the people they had sex with. Some reported having multiple sexual interactions with strangers.

It didn’t help that local health departments, already burdened with COVID-19 and scores of other diseases, now had to find the resources to do intensive contact-tracing work on monkeypox, too.

Indeed, some local health officials have given up expecting much from contact tracing.

There was another reason to be optimistic: The U.S. government already had a vaccine. The two-dose regimen called Jynneos was licensed in the U.S. in 2019 and recommended last year as a tool against monkeypox.

When the outbreak was first identified in May, U.S. officials had only about 2,000 doses available. The government distributed them but limited the shots to people who were identified through public health investigations as being recently exposed to the virus.

Late last month, as more doses became available, the CDC began recommending that shots be offered to those who realize on their own that they could have been infected.

Demand has exceeded supply, with clinics in some cities rapidly running out of vaccine doses and health officials across the country saying said they don’t have enough.

That’s changing, Walensky said. As of this week, the government has distributed more than 191,000 doses, and it has 160,000 more ready to send. As many as 780,000 doses will become available as early as next week.

Once current demand is satisfied, the government will look at expanding vaccination efforts.

The CDC believes that 1.5 million U.S. men are considered at high risk for the infection.

Testing has also expanded. More than 70,000 people can be tested each week, far more than current demand, Walensky said. The government has also embarked on a campaign to educate doctors and gay and bisexual men about the disease, she added.

Donal Bisanzio, a researcher at RTI International, believes U.S. health officials will be able to contain the outbreak before it becomes endemic.

But he also said that won’t be the end of it. New bursts of cases will probably emerge as Americans become infected by people in other countries where monkeypox keeps circulating.

Walensky agrees that such a scenario is likely. “If it’s not contained all over the world, we are always at risk of having flare-ups” from travelers, she said.

Shawn Kiernan, of the Fairfax County Health Department in Virginia, said there is reason to be tentatively optimistic because so far the outbreak is concentrated in one group of people — men who have sex with men.

Spread of the virus into heterosexual people would be a “tipping point” that may occur before it’s widely recognized, said Kiernan, chief of the department’s communicable disease section.

Spillover into heterosexuals is just a matter of time, said Dr. Edward Hook III, emeritus professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

If monkeypox becomes an endemic sexually transmitted disease, it will be yet another challenge for health departments and doctors already struggling to keep up with existing STDs.

Such work has long been underfunded and understaffed, and a lot of it was simply put on hold during the pandemic. Kiernan said HIV and syphilis were prioritized, but work on common infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea amounted to “counting cases and that’s about it.”

For years, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis cases have been rising.

“By and large,” Hook said, doctors “do a crummy job of taking sexual histories, of inquiring about and acknowledging their patients are sexual beings.”

Source: Voice of America

Cheetahs to Return to India After 70 Years in Deal With Namibia

India and Namibia have signed an agreement to bring cheetahs to the forests of the South Asian country, where the large cat became extinct 70 years ago.

According to the agreement signed Wednesday, eight African cheetahs will be transferred from Namibia to India in August for captive breeding at the Kuno National Park (KNP) wildlife sanctuary, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Indian officials said that as part of the “ambitious” project, 12 more African cheetahs from South Africa are expected to be brought to the park, though a formal agreement between the two countries has not yet been signed.

The KNP wildlife sanctuary is the new Indian home for African cheetahs, complying with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines, including a specific focus on site quality, abundant prey base and vast swaths of grasslands.

“The main goal of cheetah reintroduction project is to establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator,” a statement from the Indian Environment Ministry said.

The arrival of the cheetahs is expected to coincide with India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations on August 15, 2022.

After signing the agreement in New Delhi with Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav tweeted: “Completing 75 glorious years of Independence with restoring the fastest terrestrial flagship species, the cheetah, in India, will rekindle the ecological dynamics of the landscape.”

In another tweet, he said, “Cheetah reintroduction in India has a larger goal of re-establishing ecological function in Indian grasslands that was lost due to extinction of Asiatic cheetah. This is in conformity with IUCN guidelines on conservation translocations.”

A statement from the Environment Ministry said the KNP can currently host up to 21 cheetahs, but after the restoration of a wider landscape, its capacity will be increased to about 36.

The cheetah, the fastest land animal, has been rapidly heading toward extinction and is classified as a vulnerable species under the IUCN’s red list of threatened species. An estimated 7,000 cheetahs remain in the wild and almost all of them are in Africa.

The plummeting number of cheetahs across the world is blamed mostly on the depletion of habitats and poaching. Hunting, loss of habitat and food scarcity led to the animal’s extinction in India.

It is believed that more than 10,000 Asiatic cheetahs roamed the wilds of India during the 16th century.

The cheetah population in India dwindled during the 19th century, largely because of bounty hunting by local Indian kings and ruling British officials.

The last three Asiatic cheetahs were hunted down in 1948 by an Indian king in central India. In 1952, the cheetah was declared officially extinct in the country.

Just a dozen or so Asiatic cheetahs are left in the wild right now — all in Iran.

In 2010, India initiated an effort to revive the cheetah population at the KNP wildlife sanctuary by bringing in African cheetahs. But in 2012, an Indian court stalled the project, noting it would come in conflict with a then-ongoing plan to introduce lions in the sanctuary.

In 2020, India’s Supreme Court announced African cheetahs could be introduced in a “carefully chosen location” in India on an experimental basis. Since then, India has been making an effort to ship in the African cheetahs.

Indian officials are hopeful that this time, the plan to introduce African cheetahs in India is going to succeed, and the country will be able to revive its cheetah population.

Source: Voice of America

Peacekeepers in CAR carry out almost 1,200 patrols seeking armed militants: UN

UNITED NATIONS— The UN mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), in a bid to expel armed groups, conducted 1,191 patrols in the last week, a UN spokesman said.

“The mission also reports that it reinforced its presence in Birao, which is in the Vakaga prefecture, as an early warning measure in response to rumors of violence,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Stephane Dujarric, Guterres’ chief spokesman, citing the mission known as MINUSCA, reported on June 29 that UN peacekeepers routed members of armed groups occupying Ouanda Djalle, allowing displaced residents to return home. Many civilians, deeply impacted by the militants’ recent arrival, were forcibly evicted and living in very precarious conditions.

Peacekeepers secured the city, and military operations continued, allowing displaced people to return to their homes, Dujarric said.

Ouanda Djalle is a town in CAR’s Vakaga prefecture about 175 km south of Birao.

Haq said the UN secretary-general’s special representative for the CAR, Valentine Rugwabiza, on Wednesday donated 50,000 liters of fuel for use in eight health centers to help with fuel shortages in the country. Prime minister and health minister of the CAR attended the handover.


Africa Prepares Rollout of World’s First Malaria Vaccine

Preparations are underway for the mass rollout of the world’s first malaria vaccine to protect millions of children in Africa.

The rollout is being funded by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for nearly $160 million.

The World Health Organization said Gavi’s multimillion-dollar funding marks a key advance in the fight against one of Africa’s most severe public health threats. It noted that countries in sub-Saharan Africa bear the brunt of the yearly toll of more than 240 million global cases of malaria, including more than 600,000 reported deaths. The main victims are children under age 5.

WHO regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said one child dies every minute in Africa, with catastrophic consequences for families, communities and national development.

The vaccine was introduced in Africa in 2019. Since then, more than 1.3 million children have benefited from the lifesaving inoculations in three pilot countries — Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. Moeti said those countries have reported a 30 percent drop in hospitalizations of children with severe malaria and a 9% reduction in child deaths.

“If delivered at scale, millions of new cases could be averted, and tens of thousands of lives saved every year,” Moeti said. “We were encouraged to see that demand for the vaccine is high, even in the context of COVID-19, with the first dose reaching between 73% to over 90% coverage.”

Thabani Maphosa, managing director of country programs at Gavi, called the vaccine the most effective tool in the fight against malaria, one that will save children’s lives. However, he said, demand for the lifesaving product will outstrip supply.

“Our challenge during this critical phase is to ensure the doses we have available are used as effectively and equitably as possible,” Maphosa said. “With this is mind, Gavi today is opening an application window for malaria support.”

He said the three pilot countries, which already have experience in rolling out the vaccine, will get first crack at applying for and receiving funding. So, practically speaking, Maphosa said, they will require little help in setting up their systems to get the operation underway.

Maphosa said a second round of funding will take place at the end of the year. At that time, he said other countries with moderate to high cases of severe malaria can submit applications for support.

Source: Voice of America

WHO to decide on sounding highest alarm on monkeypox; 14,000 cases reported by 70 countries

GENEVA— The World Health Organization will reconvene its expert monkeypox committee on Thursday to decide whether the outbreak now constitutes a global health emergency — the highest alarm it can sound.

A second meeting of the WHO’s emergency committee on the virus will be held to examine the evidence on the worsening situation, with nearly 14,000 cases reported from more than 70 countries.

A surge in monkeypox infections has been reported since early May outside the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic.

On June 23, the WHO convened an emergency committee of experts to decide if monkeypox constitutes a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — the UN health agency’s highest alert level.

But a majority advised the WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that the situation, at that point, had not met the threshold.

Now a second meeting will be held, with case numbers rising and spreading to six more countries in the past week.

If the committee advises Tedros that the outbreak constitutes a PHEIC, it will propose temporary recommendations on how to better prevent and reduce the spread of the disease and manage the global public health response.

But there is no timetable for when the outcome will be made public.

Ninety-eight percent of reported cases “are among men who have sex with men (MSM) — and primarily those who have multiple recent anonymous or new partners,” Rosamund Lewis, the WHO’s technical lead for monkeypox, told a press conference on Wednesday.

They are typically of young age and chiefly in urban areas, according to the WHO.

The committee will look at the latest trends and data, how effective the countermeasures are and make recommendations for what countries and communities should do to tackle the outbreak.

Regardless of the committee’s PHEIC decision, the “WHO will continue to do everything we can to support countries to stop transmission and save lives,” Tedros told the press conference.

He said the WHO was validating, procuring and shipping tests to multiple countries, but said one of the most powerful tools in the fight against monkeypox was information.

“That’s why WHO is continuing to work with patients and community advocates to develop and deliver information tailored to the affected communities,” Tedros said.

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said the LGBTQ community was one of the most engaged and responsible, having worked hard over decades to combat HIV, “so therefore we have full confidence that this community can, and will, and is, engaging very closely”.

A viral infection resembling smallpox and first detected in humans in 1970, monkeypox is less dangerous and contagious than smallpox, which was eradicated in 1980.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that as of Monday, 7,896 confirmed cases had been reported from 27 countries in the European Economic Area.

The worst affected were Spain (2,835), Germany (1,924), France (912), the Netherlands (656) and Portugal (515).

“Particular sexual practices are very likely to have facilitated and could further facilitate the transmission of monkeypox among MSM groups,” it said.

Danish company Bavarian Nordic is the lone laboratory manufacturing a licensed vaccine against monkeypox and jabs are currently in scarce supply.

New York, the epicentre of the US outbreak with more than 460 cases, had either administered or scheduled 21,500 vaccines by Sunday, with long lines of men aged 20 to 40 queueing to get a shot.

Loyce Pace, the US assistant secretary of state for global public affairs, said it was “very hard” for the world to handle monkeypox on top of Covid-19 and other health crises.

“I know it can be scary… and, frankly, exhausting,” she told reporters at the US mission in Geneva.

However, “we know a lot more about this disease, we’ve been able to stop outbreaks previously and we, importantly, have medical counter-measures and other tools available.”


New York State Reports First US Polio Case in Nearly a Decade

An unvaccinated young adult from New York recently contracted polio, the first U.S. case in nearly a decade, health officials said Thursday.

Officials said the patient, who lives in Rockland County, had developed paralysis. The person developed symptoms a month ago and did not recently travel outside the country, county health officials said.

It appears the patient had a vaccine-derived strain of the virus, perhaps from someone who got live vaccine — available in other countries, but not the U.S. — and spread it, officials said.

The person is no longer deemed contagious, but investigators are trying to figure out how the infection occurred and whether other people may have been exposed to the virus.

Most Americans are vaccinated against polio, but unvaccinated people may be at risk, said Rockland County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert. Health officials scheduled vaccination clinics nearby soon and encouraged anyone who has not been vaccinated to get the shots.

“We want shots in the arms of those who need it,” she said at a Thursday press conference announcing the case.

Feared disease

Polio was once one of the nation’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis, many of them in children.

Vaccines became available starting in 1955, and a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of U.S. cases to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: Voice of America