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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 »

UN calls for better birth control access to avoid Zika defects

The UN has urged Zika-stricken countries to give women better access to birth control and abortions to slow the virus' spread. The WHO called for $25 million to fight the virus amid fears 4 million could become infected. Amid growing concern about the Zika virus, which is thought to be linked to babies born with abnormally small heads, the UN Human Rights office called on Latin and South American countries to stop restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion. The Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights said it is worried pregnant women aren't able to access accurate information and medical options after contracting the virus, which is spread through mosquito bites and possibly through sex. "We are asking those governments to go back and change those laws," said UN OHCRH spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly, "because how can they ask those women to become pregnant but not offer them information that is available and the possibility to stop their pregnancies if they wish?" Pouilly said in a region where sexual violence is rampant, women must have the option of safe and legal abortion services. In most of South America, abortion is either illegal or restricted to cases of rape, where the mother's life is threatened or when there are other severe health issues. Outbreak spreading Earlier this week, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be global emergency after it spread to more than 20 countries in the Americas. WHO officials said on Friday they would seek $25 million for a six-month program to fight the virus amid fears of up to 4 million cases. Although Zika normally causes no or only mild symptoms, the link to birth defects has strengthened the case for coordinated international action. On Friday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suspected link between Zika and a birth defect known as microcephaly appears "stronger and stronger." As well as abnormally small heads, babies with microcephaly are born with an underdeveloped brain. Condoms advised Separately, US health officials warned men who traveled to areas most affected by the virus to use condoms if they have sex with a pregnant woman. The guidance suggested abstinence as an alternative protection measure. Paulo Gadelha, president of the Fiocruz Research Institute, said at a news conference that scientists have found live samples of the virus in saliva and urine samples, but called for further study and said it was not clear which bodily fluids could transmit the virus. He said pregnant women should avoid kissing people other than a regular partner or sharing cutlery, glasses and plates with people who have symptoms of the virus. The advice comes as Brazil's Carnival season got underway on Friday. The celebrations include massive street parties where it is common for people to kiss strangers. Also on Friday, Germany said it had 15 known cases of the Zika virus, a spokesman for the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine told the dpa news agency.

The UN has urged Zika-stricken countries to give women better access to birth control and abortions to slow the virus’ spread. The WHO called for $25 million to fight the virus amid fears 4 million could become infected. Amid growing concern about the Zika virus, which is thought to be linked to babies born with abnormally small heads, the UN ... Read More »

US reports Zika infection through sex

Health officials in Texas have reported a case of the Zika virus being transmitted through sexual contact, and not a mosquito bite. The infected person is said to have acquired it from someone who traveled to Venezuela. Local health officials in Dallas on Tuesday reported a case of the Zika virus being sexually transmitted, heightening fears of the spread of the mosquito-born virus. It comes a day after the World Health Organization declared Zika an international public health emergency. "The patient was infected with the virus after having sexual contact with an ill individual who returned from a country where Zika virus was present," a statement from Dallas County Health and Human Services said. It later said on Twitter the country was Venezuela. The county said it had received confirmation of the case from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A CDC spokesman confirmed the results for a Zika infection but said local officials investigated the mode of transmission. Authorities said there were no reports of the virus being locally transmitted by mosquitoes. Sexual transmission not proven Only one possible person-to-person case of sexual transmission has been reported internationally. But health officials have said more evidence is needed to confirm whether Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact. The WHO has said the virusis spreading rapidly in the Americas and could infect 4 million people. A global response unit has been launched to fight the virus. Caution urged for women The virus has been linked to microcephaly, in which babies have abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains. Researchers believe that if a pregnant woman is bitten by an infected mosquito, particularly in the first trimester, she faces a higher risk of having a child with birth defects. The virus has now spread to 26 countries and territories including Brazil, which is the country hardest hit, with 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly that may be linked to Zika. Brazilian authorities have vowed to proceed with the 2016 Olympics despite the health scare. Ireland reports first cases The first Irish cases of the virus were detected in two people with a history of traveling to an affected country, the country's Health Service Executive said on Tuesday. The two individuals are unrelated and neither is at risk due to pregnancy. They've been described as currently well and fully recovered. Meanwhile, Nicaragua confirmed its first two cases in pregnant women on Tuesday and Chile reported its first case of the virus. The race is on to find a vaccine to prevent the virus taking hold. There is no treatment or vaccine for Zika, which is in the same family of viruses as dengue fever. However, Germany has developed the first test for Zika.

Health officials in Texas have reported a case of the Zika virus being transmitted through sexual contact, and not a mosquito bite. The infected person is said to have acquired it from someone who traveled to Venezuela. Local health officials in Dallas on Tuesday reported a case of the Zika virus being sexually transmitted, heightening fears of the spread of ... Read More »

Olympics to go ahead, says Zika-hit Brazil, but urges pregnant women to stay away

Brasilia has warned pregnant women not to take the risk of traveling to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. Both Brazil and the IOC have welcomed a move by the WHO to declare a health emergency over the Zika virus. As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) welcomed measures taken to stop the spread of the Zika virus on Monday, the Brazilian government issued a warning for pregnant women to stay away from the summer games in Rio de Janeiro. President Dilma Rousseff's chief of staff, Jaques Wagner, issued the unprecedented warning that " the risk, which I would say is serious, is for pregnant women. It is clearly not advisable for you (to travel to the Olympics) because you don't want to take that risk." The mosquito-borne illness, which has no medical cure and usually leaves an adult patient after a period of rest, is suspected of causing thousands of cases of the developmental disorder microcephaly in children whose mothers contract the virus while pregnant. "If you're an adult, a man or a woman who isn't pregnant, you develop antibodies in about five days and (the disease) passes," Wagner clarified. Wagner also applauded the decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a global health emergency , calling it a "positive" move that "alerts the whole world." IOC: Less mosquitoes in winter IOC President Thomas Bach also hailed the call by WHO, saying that he believed enough was being done to tackle the extent of the virus so that athletes should not worry about traveling to participate in Rio 2016. "We welcome this decision by the World Health Organization because it helps raise even more awareness and to provide even more resources to fight the virus," Bach told the press. "We are in the close contact with the WHO and we see also that so far there is no travel ban being pronounced by the WHO," he continued, adding that the Olympics will take place during winter in Brazil, a time when mosquitoes prefer not to breed. The Games, which run from August 5 to 21, will take place during a "dryer, cooler climate significantly reduces the presence of mosquitoes". Zika, originally detected in Africa in the 1940s, was not considered a global threat until last year's unusual outbreak in Latin America. Brazil has become the worst affected country, with some 4,000 suspected cases of related birth defects.

Brasilia has warned pregnant women not to take the risk of traveling to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. Both Brazil and the IOC have welcomed a move by the WHO to declare a health emergency over the Zika virus. As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) welcomed measures taken to stop the spread of the Zika virus on Monday, the ... Read More »

Zika cases in pregnant women double in Colombia

Health officials say the number of pregnant women with the Zika virus has doubled in a week. The virus has been linked to babies being born with smaller than normal brains and is spreading through the Americas. Health officials in Colombia announced Saturday that more than 2,000 pregnant women have now been infected with the mosquito-born Zika virus, making Colombia the second hardest-hit country after Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak. The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect which prevents fetus' brains from developing properly. The disease has no known cure and is said to be untreatable, and can cause permanent damage to a child's motor and cognitive development. The virus is said to be carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The national health institute said in an epidemiology bulletin that there are 20,927 confirmed cases of the disease in Colombia, with 2,116 pregnant women among them. There are so far no reports of death from the disease in the country. The announcement comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that the virus is "spreading explosively" across the Americas, predicting three to four million cases this year. The WHO is due to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to address the spread of the disease. Preparing for the worst Meanwhile, Colombian authorities have ordered hospitals to prepare, as the government expects more than 600,000 people to become infected with the virus. In addition, authorities in the country have asked women to delay conceiving by six to seven months to avoid potential infection. The health ministry has allowed abortions, as the deformity of the fetus meets health requirements. Many women, especially those living far away from large cities, find it difficult to find legal abortion providers. Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Puerto Rica have also warned women to delay conceiving. Brazil, the hardest hit country, has reported 3,700 cases of microcephaly so far. In August the country is due to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The International Olympic Committee assured teams the Olympics would be safe from the virus, but urged visitors to protect themselves.

Health officials say the number of pregnant women with the Zika virus has doubled in a week. The virus has been linked to babies being born with smaller than normal brains and is spreading through the Americas. Health officials in Colombia announced Saturday that more than 2,000 pregnant women have now been infected with the mosquito-born Zika virus, making Colombia ... Read More »

Two US residents test positive for Zika virus

Two US residents, both of whom recently traveled abroad, have tested positive for the tropical-borne Zika virus. The virus is causing alarm in a number of Latin American and Caribbean countries. Officials in Virginia and Arkansas confirmed the test results on Tuesday. In both cases officials declined to identify exactly where they may have contracted the disease. However, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr Marissa Levine said the Virginia resident traveled to a country where the Zika virus transmission is ongoing. She added the person posed no risk to others, as it is not mosquito season in Virginia. "Zika virus is acquired through the bite of an infected mosquito," Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Marissa Levine said in a statement. Zika is generally considered a milder form of other mosquito borne illnesses such as dengue fever. But Brazil, has seen a spike in Zika cases at the same time it has seen dramatic rise in new born babies suffering a rare birth defect. Not scientifically proven It has yet to be scientifically proven but the suspicion is that pregnant women infected with the Zika virus are giving birth to babies afflicted with microcephaly - that is, babies with unusually small heads who may suffer brain damage as a result. The virus has surged in Brazil, where officials have simultaneously seen an increase in birth defects. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put out a list of Latin American and Carribean countries with confirmed cases of Zika, and recommends that pregnant women consider postponing travel there. The 22 countries affected are, in Latin America: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. In the Caribbean: Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St. Martin and Puerto Rico. Also, Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa; and Samoa in the South Pacific. Passenger refunds Two US airlines - United and American - are offering refunds to some or all passengers with reservations to any of the countries on the CDC list . President Barack Obama met with his senior health advisers on Tuesday, and urged them to accelerate research into diagnostic tests, vaccines and therapeutic drugs, and work to inform Americans about the Zika virus and ways to protect against infection. But it will likely take years to come up with an effective vaccine. "This is not going to be overnight," said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. The World Health Organization predicts the virus will spread to all countries across the Americas except for Canada and Chile.

Two US residents, both of whom recently traveled abroad, have tested positive for the tropical-borne Zika virus. The virus is causing alarm in a number of Latin American and Caribbean countries. Officials in Virginia and Arkansas confirmed the test results on Tuesday. In both cases officials declined to identify exactly where they may have contracted the disease. However, Virginia Health ... Read More »

Brazil steps up fight against Zika virus ahead of Olympics

Brazil has promised to protect athletes and visitors from disease-carrying mosquitoes ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Fear has spread after the disease was linked to birth defects in the region. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro said Monday that the city would step up inspections and ramp up security measures as the Zika virus, which is carried by mosquitoes, continued its spread in the Americas. More than 3,000 health inspectors in Rio de Janeiro will target known breeding grounds for the insects in an attempt to stem the spread of the disease as the city prepares to host the Summer Olympics in August. Officials said inspectors will also begin spraying insecticide around the Sambadrome, the outdoor area where the annual Carnival celebrations are due to take place early next month. "The mayor's office will be intensifying inspections," City Hall said in a statement. "About a month before the opening of the Games a team will visit all competition sites to eliminate possible concentrations." Spreading through the Americas The Zika virus has raised concerns over the past week as new cases were reported in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, the virus is likely to spread throughout the Americas - only Chile and Canada would be spared. The virus, which is not spread from person to person, causes flu-like symptoms that usually clear up within a week. But in pregnant women the virus can lead to serious birth defects including microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. Brazil has seen a spike in such cases over the past several months. The country's health minister said last week that the particular mosquito responsible for spreading the disease has become more widespread.

Brazil has promised to protect athletes and visitors from disease-carrying mosquitoes ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Fear has spread after the disease was linked to birth defects in the region. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro said Monday that the city would step up inspections and ramp up security measures as the Zika virus, which is carried ... Read More »

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