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Highly contagious plague in Madagascar kills dozens

Madagascar is struggling to contain an outbreak of plague in several cities. Over 20 people have died. Plague can be treated when diagnosed early, says WHO Madagascar country representative Charlotte Ndiaye. DW: Madagascar has suffered plaque outbreaks almost every year since 1980. How serious is this year's outbreak that has left over 20 dead and over 100 infected? Charlotte Ndiaye: The [bubonic] plague is an endemic disease in Madagascar, but this year we've had a pneumonic plague [a form of plague that can spread human-to-human via droplets]. It has been detected in several cities in Madagascar since August 17. It is an urban outbreak - we have the pneumonic plague in the capital Antananarivo and different big cities in Madagascar. It's highly transmissible - person-to-person - and quickly causes death without treatment. Many people don't actually know about the plague, they just know it comes from rats. What are the key things people need to know to prevent it and stop its spread? The first thing is to take urgent measure. The second thing is to be well-informed, so it means when people have symptoms of fever, buboes [inflammatory swelling of a lymph gland] or other symptoms, they have to quickly go to a health center. And at the health center we are able to do rapid diagnostic tests and also to give them antibiotic drugs. What is important to know is that the plague can be treated. We have to diagnose the disease early. We are doing everything we can to support the government's efforts. At the moment, we have deployed WHO staff in all different cities. And we have mobilized funds and we are working to provide surveillance, equipment and drugs to the country. We are coordinating all partners in order to deploy our efforts in all different cities. Why are there recurrent outbreaks in Madagascar? As you may know, every year between September and April, unfortunately we've had cases of plague in Madagascar. The common form we usually had is bubonic plague, but this year due to the lack of action we have pneumonic plague among people who are living in cities. Why in the cities? Is there a reason behind it? The first case was because someone left the village and traveled to the city. And during the travel, he was sick and he contaminated people on the bus, people in different hospitals. Is there any link between poor living areas and plague? Absolutely, as you may know, people in Madagascar are really poor and people have a problem of hygiene. That's why most of the time, cases of plague are coming from villages. But the problem we have today is the movement from people in villages to cities so that is why we have this urban plague this year. How can Madagascar prevent such recurrences in the future, because it happens every year and many people are losing their lives? The first thing for WHO and for all partners is to bring awareness to the government, to put the problem of the plague as a priority. And also to put emphasis on surveillance which is key when it comes to plague and other epidemics. WHO has worked very closely with the ministry of health, in order to put in place electronic surveillance, in all the 22 regions of the country so that we are informed early and know how to take care of people who have been diagnosed with plague. Charlotte Ndiaye is the WHO country representative in Madagascar.

Madagascar is struggling to contain an outbreak of plague in several cities. Over 20 people have died. Plague can be treated when diagnosed early, says WHO Madagascar country representative Charlotte Ndiaye. DW: Madagascar has suffered plaque outbreaks almost every year since 1980. How serious is this year’s outbreak that has left over 20 dead and over 100 infected? Charlotte Ndiaye: ... Read More »

WHO: Tobacco lobby blocking anti-smoking measures

Measures aimed at curbing tobacco-related deaths now reach more than 60 percent of the world's population, the WHO says. But attempts by the tobacco lobby to sway government policy remain a "deadly barrier." Tobacco controls and warnings about the dangers of smoking have quadrupled worldwide over the past decade, saving millions of lives, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In a report on the global tobacco epidemic the UN agency said tobacco was the world's leading cause of preventable death, killing 7 million people each year. "That's equivalent to wiping out the entire population of Bulgaria or Paraguay every year. That's not acceptable," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the report's launch in New York. Victims include 890,000 people who die annually from second-hand smoke exposure. In an effort to bring down those numbers, countries accounting for 4.7 billion people, or around 63 percent of the world's population, have implemented at least one measure recommended by the WHO, including bans on advertising, tax hikes, graphic health warnings and anti-smoking legislation. That's a "dramatic increase in life-saving tobacco control policies in the last decade," the report said, recalling that in 2007 only 15 percent of the world's population was covered. Powerful interests But despite certain control measures being rolled out in more places, the WHO pointed out that tobacco companies seeking to influence health policy continued to pose a serious problem. The report accuses tobacco giants of using deceitful tactics such as "exaggerating the economic importance of the tobacco industry, discrediting proven science and using litigation to intimidate governments." It said such interference had stalled health policy developments, such as the creation of smoke-free public places or plain packaging, in many countries. It also warned that countries with partly state-owned tobacco companies should take steps to protect important health policy decisions from their commercial interests. One example is Japan, where the government has a stake in Japan Tobacco Inc. "I think in this special situation there might be a conflict of interest in economic revenues from a partly state-owned industry and health of the population," Kerstin Schotte, a WHO medical officer, told reporters in New York. Significant progress While almost 50 percent of the global population in 78 countries are exposed to strong graphic warnings on cigarette packs, only 15 percent live in countries that have implemented bans on advertising and promotion, the report said. It added that the most effective form of tobacco control - price increases - is one of the least used worldwide. At the report's launch, WHO director of prevention of noncommunicable diseases Dr Douglas Bettcher said developing countries had made significant progress in introducing warnings on packets and banning smoking in workplaces in recent years. He also praised efforts in Britain, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand, but pointed out that Germany is one of just two EU countries not to have complete advertising bans in force.

Measures aimed at curbing tobacco-related deaths now reach more than 60 percent of the world’s population, the WHO says. But attempts by the tobacco lobby to sway government policy remain a “deadly barrier.” Tobacco controls and warnings about the dangers of smoking have quadrupled worldwide over the past decade, saving millions of lives, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). ... Read More »

After South Korea, Japan, China discovers two more cases of human bird flu

China has discovered two more cases of human bird flu infection. South Korea and Japan are working to contain outbreaks of different strains of the virus. In Xiamen, a city in China's eastern Fujian province, local authorities halted poultry sales from Thursday in the Siming district, after a 44-year-old man was diagnosed with H7N9 flu on Sunday, state news agency Xinhua reported. A man diagnosed with the H7N9 strain of bird flu is being treated in Shanghai, after travelling from the neighboring province of Jiangsu, the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning said on its website. The patient is being treated in hospital and is stable condition, the South China Morning Post reported. The latest incidents come after Hong Kong confirmed an elderly man was diagnosed with the disease earlier this week. Health officials in South Korea and Japan are also working to contain outbreaks of different strains of the virus - which is most likely to strike in winter and spring. Both countries have ordered the killing of tens of millions of birds in the past month, stoking fears of regional spread. China's authorities said they would ban imports of poultry from countries where there are outbreaks of highly pathogenic bird flu. It already prohibits imports from more than 60 nations, including Japan and South Korea. Heavy losses expected The poultry industry is expecting heavy financial losses, in particular as farmers in China are preparing for the year's peak demand during Lunar New Year celebrations at the end of January. Farmers have in recent years taken measures to prevent the disease. The last major bird flu outbreak in mainland China in 2013 killed 36 people and caused about $6.5 billion (6.2 billion euros) in losses to agriculture.

China has discovered two more cases of human bird flu infection. South Korea and Japan are working to contain outbreaks of different strains of the virus. In Xiamen, a city in China’s eastern Fujian province, local authorities halted poultry sales from Thursday in the Siming district, after a 44-year-old man was diagnosed with H7N9 flu on Sunday, state news agency ... Read More »

Bird flu spreads in Germany, sparking fears for holiday meals

Tens of thousands of new cases of bird flu have been reported in Germany, as the disease spreads across Europe. Authorities are concerned about the economic consequences, with poultry in high demand during the holidays. Germany revealed more cases of a dangerous strain of avian influenza on Saturday, alongside reports that the disease had spread to Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Croatia. The H5N8 virus has affected some 30,000 chickens in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Authorities said an area of 3 square kilometers (1.2 square miles) around the affected farm had been sealed off. Berlin has set up a crisis management task force to tackle the issue, after reports also came in from Austria that another large outbreak was suspected in an area along the border with Bavaria. Authorities urge extreme caution At the same time, Switzerland has confirmed that a number of dead birds found along Lake Geneva were confirmed to be carrying the H5N8 virus. Bern and Vienna both immediately took steps to contain the disease from spreading further, authorities said. This particular strain of avian influenza arrived in Europe from South Korea in 2014, brought by migratory waterfowl. Massive culling followed after wild ducks, geese and swans passed the disease to farmed birds like chickens and turkeys. Authorities have urged extreme caution and care on the part of farmers and food inspectors. The upcoming holiday season will increase the demand for duck, goose and chicken, and the flu outbreak could have serious economic consequences. Avian influenza spreads easily among domestic poultry, but only certain subtypes - H5N1 and H7N9 - are known to infect humans.

Tens of thousands of new cases of bird flu have been reported in Germany, as the disease spreads across Europe. Authorities are concerned about the economic consequences, with poultry in high demand during the holidays. Germany revealed more cases of a dangerous strain of avian influenza on Saturday, alongside reports that the disease had spread to Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, ... Read More »

Singapore confirms local Zika outbreak

Singapore has reported a spike in cases of locally transmitted Zika virus. The infection only causes mild symptoms in humans but is dangerous for pregnant women as it's been linked to serious birth defects. Singapore has confirmed 41 cases of locally transmitted Zika virus, the city-state's health ministry said Sunday. All of the cases related to residents or workers within the Aljunied Crescent and Sims Drive area, a suburban residential and industrial district, authorities said. Some 36 of the cases were from foreign laborers who worked in the area. "They are not known to have traveled to Zika-affected areas recently, and are thus likely to have been infected in Singapore," the statement added. "This confirms that local transmission of Zika virus infection has taken place." Dozens of National Environment Agency (NEA) technicians cleaned drains and sprayed insecticide in the mainly residential area early on Sunday, and volunteers and contractors handed out leaflets and insect repellent. Residents said they were reassured by the visible anti-mosquito effort. "I'm very scared of mosquitoes because they always seem to bite me, they never bite my husband," Janice, 31, who gave only her first name, told the Reuters news agency. "This concerns me because maybe in a couple of years I want to have another (child)." Singapore reported the first imported case of the Zika virus infection in May after a 48-year-old man contracted the virus after a visit to Brazil earlier in the year. On Saturday, health officials say they confirmed the first case of local transmission and expect the mosquito-borne virus to spread. "(The Ministry of Health) cannot rule out further community transmission in Singapore since some of those tested positive also live or work in other parts of Singapore," the statement said. "We expect to identify more positive cases." Authorities say they have tested 124 people, primarily construction workers, with 78 testing negative and five cases pending, the report read. In all, 34 patients have fully recovered. The current strain of the Zika virus that is sweeping through Latin America and the Caribbean originated in Asia, where epidemiologists speculate people could have built up greater immunity.

Singapore has reported a spike in cases of locally transmitted Zika virus. The infection only causes mild symptoms in humans but is dangerous for pregnant women as it’s been linked to serious birth defects. Singapore has confirmed 41 cases of locally transmitted Zika virus, the city-state’s health ministry said Sunday. All of the cases related to residents or workers within ... Read More »

Zika exacerbated by ‘massive policy failure,’ says WHO chief

The head of the UN's public health body has blamed inadequate mosquito control policy for the proliferation of the virus. Europe is at risk of a Zika outbreak, according to the WHO's latest assessment. WHO Secretary-General Margaret Chan on Monday blamed "massive policy failure" for the spread of the mosquito-borne virus Zika across many parts of North and South America. "The spread of Zika, the resurgence of dengue and the emerging threat from chikungunya are the price being paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s," Chan said during her speech to the 69th World Health Assembly. The WHO chief noted that the "failure to provide universal access to sexual and family planning services" revealed an "extreme consequence" of the Zika virus outbreak. "The rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika warns us that an old disease that slumbered for six decades in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up on a new continent to cause a global health emergency," Chan added. In April, US officials announced that that there was a likely link between Zika and a rise in newborns with microcephaly, a rare condition resulting in a smaller head than normal. The WHO has investigated the link between the virus and the medical condition. More than 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika in Brazil, with over 1,000 cases of microcephaly registered since last year, according to AFP news agency. The mosquito-borne virus has also been reported in several countries in the Americas and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Haiti and Mexico. Europe alert Earlier this month, the WHO officials warned "there is a risk of spread of Zika virus disease in the European region." The UN's public health body said an outbreak was more likely in countries where Aedes mosquitoes are present. "With this risk assessment, we at WHO want to inform and target preparedness work in each European country based on its level of risk," said Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe. "We call particularly on countries at higher risk to strengthen their national capacities and prioritize the activities that will prevent a large Zika outbreak," added Jakab.

The head of the UN’s public health body has blamed inadequate mosquito control policy for the proliferation of the virus. Europe is at risk of a Zika outbreak, according to the WHO’s latest assessment. WHO Secretary-General Margaret Chan on Monday blamed “massive policy failure” for the spread of the mosquito-borne virus Zika across many parts of North and South America. ... Read More »

UN health body calls for closing the immunization gap

The WHO's 2016 World Immunization Week promotes vaccines as the most successful, safe and cost-effective way to stop deaths from preventable diseases. Millions of people worldwide lack the most routine immunizations. The world is filled with nasty, but preventable, illnesses, some of which can cause disability or even death: human papillomavirus (which can lead to cervical cancer), diphtheria, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), pneumonia, polio, rotavirus, rubella and tetanus. During World Immunization Week, held from April 24 to 30, the UN's health body wants to remind adults and children that a simple shot can prevent these diseases and many more. To do so, the World Health Organization (WHO) has scheduled a series of regional events and vaccination campaigns to showcase successes and highlight areas where global efforts need to focus. A priority for WHO is the estimated 18.7 million infants worldwide who have not been immunized against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus - vaccines that are routine in many nations. Sixty percent of those children are in just 10 countries. In Africa's "meningitis belt," running from Senegal to Ethiopia, a vaccine introduced five years ago has already been given to 230 million people. In what WHO describes as a "game changer," potential new vaccines against dengue fever, Ebola and malaria could define the future of immunization programs and health care. Missing goals Despite gains across several fronts, the world is lagging on achieving the goals set forth in a 2012 Global Vaccine Action Plan. Only one of the six targets - introducing new or underutilized vaccines to at least 90 low- or middle-income countries - was on track to meet the goal of 2020. Coverage for a triple vaccine for diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis rose to 83 percent globally, but 65 countries are still below the 90 percent target. The goal of eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus by 2015 was missed, as was wiping out measles from four regions and eliminating rubella from two regions. Half of the children around the globe have not received a rubella vaccine. In 2015, Africa moved closer to eliminating the disease after Nigeria was certified polio-free. The disease now remains endemic to only Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of the most dangerous places in the world for health workers. In a major step, a new polio vaccine regimen was introduced this month around the globe as part of a final push to finish off the disease.

The WHO’s 2016 World Immunization Week promotes vaccines as the most successful, safe and cost-effective way to stop deaths from preventable diseases. Millions of people worldwide lack the most routine immunizations. The world is filled with nasty, but preventable, illnesses, some of which can cause disability or even death: human papillomavirus (which can lead to cervical cancer), diphtheria, hepatitis B, ... Read More »

WHO launches worldwide effort to completely eliminate polio

Officials hope a coordinated effort to launch a new vaccine worldwide will finally eliminate the polio virus. But going from a handful of cases to absolute zero is more difficult than it sounds, and will cost billions. More than 150 countries and territories launched a new effort on Sunday that health experts hope will lead to the complete eradication of the polio virus within the next year or two. Polio cases are currently just a fraction of the 1 percent of cases known in 1988, when 350,000 cases were recorded in 125 countries around the world. But eliminating the last strands of the virus could prove tricky, in part because it involves a well-synchronized switching of vaccines across the globe - and that starts today, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The switch needs to be coordinated to prevent outbreaks in places where the old vaccine is no longer being used. The changeover is due to be completed by May 1. Thousands of monitors will be deployed around the world to confirm that the problem vaccine is no longer in use, according to the WHO. The old (trivalent) vaccine is geared to inoculate people from three strands of the virus. But the second strand has already been successfully eliminated in nature and now only exists through the vaccine. This is now the cause of most vaccine-caused infections, as it can gestate in the gut and be passed on to others via fecal-contaminated water. Wild polio The wild version of the virus now exists only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The new (bivalent) vaccine is designed to inoculate recipients from only two strands (one and three) of the virus. There have only been 12 cases worldwide this year, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so the prospect of spending $5.5 billion (4.9 billion euros - the cost estimated by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative) to eliminate polio may seem exorbitant. But Michel Zaffran, the WHO's director of polio eradication, said even more money will need to be spent to keep the disease from coming back. "Taking our foot off the pedal now could mean polio will within a few years spread straight back into large parts of the world and create 100,000 or 200,000 cases," Zaffran said. "The job has not been done and will not be done until we have fully eradicated the virus." This is not the first time health officials have come close to eliminating the virus only to suffer setbacks. The GPEI was set up in 1988 with the aim of eliminating the virus by the year 2000. That effort failed but experts say the effort is worth the cost of eliminating the virus once and for all.

Officials hope a coordinated effort to launch a new vaccine worldwide will finally eliminate the polio virus. But going from a handful of cases to absolute zero is more difficult than it sounds, and will cost billions. More than 150 countries and territories launched a new effort on Sunday that health experts hope will lead to the complete eradication of ... Read More »

US investigates reports of 14 sexually transmitted Zika cases as Brazil tackles virus

US health officials are investigating 14 cases of Zika infections which may have been spread through sex. The WHO, meanwhile, has lauded Brazil's efforts in stopping the spread of the virus ahead of the Summer Olympics. The CDC stressed that there was no evidence that women can spread the virus to their sex partners, but said more research was needed. There have, however, been two reported cases where Zika was sexually transmitted, including a recent one in the US state of Texas, and at least two other reports where the Zika virus was found in semen. The current advice from the CDC to men who have recently been to an area affected by the Zika virus is to use a condom when having sex with a pregnant woman or to abstain. The CDC has also recommended that pregnant women postpone trips to more than 30 destinations currently tackling the virus. 'Very good plan' to tackle Zika Following a meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan said the Brazilian government is doing all it can to fight the spread of the mosquito-borne virus. "I want to reassure you that the government is working very closely with the international Olympic movement, with the local organizing committee, supported by the WHO, to make sure we have a very good work plan to target the mosquito, and to make sure that people who will come here either as visitors or athletes will get the maximum protection they need," Chan said. "I am confident the government can do it," Chan told reporters. Many scientists believe that a recent spike in microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, could be linked to the Zika virus. Brazil's Health Ministry said Tuesday that the number of confirmed and suspected cases of microcephaly had risen to 4,690 from 4,443 a week earlier. Of these, the number of confirmed cases had climbed to 583 from 508. The Zika virus is largely spread by the same kind of mosquito that transmits other tropical diseases, including dengue and chikungunya. Although there is no definitive proof that the virus is causing the birth defects, WHO has declared Zika a global emergency. Some 1.5 million people have been infected with the Zika virus in Brazil since early 2015, but only three have died. There is currently no cure or vaccine for Zika, and the WHO has estimated that development of a immunization might take 18 months.

US health officials are investigating 14 cases of Zika infections which may have been spread through sex. The WHO, meanwhile, has lauded Brazil’s efforts in stopping the spread of the virus ahead of the Summer Olympics. The CDC stressed that there was no evidence that women can spread the virus to their sex partners, but said more research was needed. ... Read More »

Top scientists pledge to share Zika data to hasten global response

The world's top scientists have pledged to share quickly and freely all data, research and expertise into the Zika virus in a bid to combat the disease. Even as cases increase, much remains unknown about the virus. Top research institutions, funders and publishers said in a statement on Wednesday they would come together to share data in response to the public health emergency posed by the rapid spread of the Zika virus. "The arguments for sharing data and the consequences of not doing so [have been] ... thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks," the signatories wrote. "In the context of a public health emergency of international concern, there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combating the crisis." The pledge was signed by among others the journals "Nature," "Science" and "The Lancet," the Chinese Academy of Sciences, France's Institut Pasteur, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. Much remains unknown about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has caused international alarm, especially in Latin America and its epicenter in Brazil. Scientists are investigating links between the virus and newborn babies with microcephaly, or unusually small heads that can lead to death or developmental problems. A link between the virus and microcephaly has not been definitively confirmed but is suspected. There is no vaccine for the disease, which in most cases only causes mild flu-like symptoms. The publication of scientific and medical research findings in peer-reviewed journals is traditionally a long and slow process, hampering the rapid international response needed during a global health emergency. A study published in the "New England Journal of Medicine" on Wednesday strengthened the case of a link between the virus and the birth defect after the Zika was found in the brain of an aborted fetus of a European woman who had become pregnant while living in Brazil. Zika and abortion Meanwhile, the World Health Organization on Wednesday issued guidance to women on how to protect themselves from the virus, even as it said most women in areas where the virus in prevalent would have "normal infants." The UN agency, which declared a health emergency on February 1, advised women, especially those who are pregnant, to take precautions against mosquitoes and to use condoms during intercourse. The spread of the virus has also been linked to sexual contact. The spread of the virus through sexual contact and the link with microcephaly have raised the issue of abortion, especially in Latin America where the practice is widely restricted and the Roman Catholic Church holds considerable sway. According to Church doctrine, life begins at conception and condom use is prohibited. WHO on Wednesday said, "women who wish to terminate a pregnancy due to a fear of microcephaly should have access to safe abortion services to the full extent of the law." The UN health body said early ultrasounds cannot detect microcephaly, "except in extreme cases." This is significant because even in countries where abortion is legal, there are often restrictions beyond a certain time in the pregnancy.

The world’s top scientists have pledged to share quickly and freely all data, research and expertise into the Zika virus in a bid to combat the disease. Even as cases increase, much remains unknown about the virus. Top research institutions, funders and publishers said in a statement on Wednesday they would come together to share data in response to the ... Read More »

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