Tag Archives: epidemic

Half a year into the pandemic, there are still people who haven’t heard of it — and it’s bad for everyone

In the age defined by a pandemic, you’d be surprised to find out that someone hasn’t heard about the outbreak. But some pretty large groups of people haven’t.

United Nations Operation in Somalia vehicles in Mogadishu in the 1990s.
Image via Wikimedia.

We’re almost half-year into the most disruptive event most of us have ever lived through. Given how much it impacted our lives, how it holds headlines, you’d think that everyone heard about the coronavirus by now.

And yet, migrants arriving in Somalia are surprised to hear United Nations workers tell them of COVID-19. A year-long internet blackout in the states of Rakhine and Chin in Myanmar, imposed by the government amidst a conflict with the Arakan Army, a local insurgent group, means that many people there likely haven’t heard about the pandemic, either.

Old news

“We’ve been interviewing migrants for many years,” said Celeste Sanchez Bean, a program manager with the U.N. migration agency based in Somalia, to Associated Press (AP). “I’m not super shocked that levels of awareness of the coronavirus are still very low.”

Monitors for the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency keep watch over the border of Somalia, as it lays right in the middle of some of the world’s most dangerous routes — across the Red Sea, through Yemen into rich Gulf countries.

As part of this effort, they question migrants on their origin, destination, and reason for travelling, so they can spot potential traffickers or other evil-doers. Since the outbreak, they’ve also started asking them whether they’re aware of the coronavirus.

Image modified after user Image Editor / Flickr.

Bean explained that in the week ending June 20, 51% of the 3,471 people tracked said they had never heard of COVID-19. The percentage of people who hadn’t heard of it was 88% in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Most people going this way are young men from rural Ethiopia with no education and with generally poor internet access. Some were not even aware Yemen was engulfed in a war despite the fact that they were going that way.

Such findings showcase how hard it may be for relatively remote populations to even be aware that there’s a pandemic going on. With this in mind, co-coordinating a truly global response to what is a very much global problem seems hopeful at best. Still, the U.N. is working on spreading the word. Refugees are given a basic rundown of the latest events, the symptoms to watch out for, and are educated on how to keep themselves safe.

Communication breakdowns

Myanmar, meanwhile, doesn’t have the connection issues of Ethiopia — but it does have a local insurgency problem.

Authorities imposed an Internet shutdown in nine specific areas and townships in Rakhine and Chin back in June 2019. The step was taken over concerns that the insurgent Arakan Army (which wants more autonomy for Rakhine’s Buddhist population) might be using mobile internet to organize and “target the army”, according to Bussiness Insider. Rakhine is home to the Rohingya Muslim population. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled persecution into neighboring states.

Myanmar with Rakhine State highlighted.
Image modified after Google Maps.

The shutdown has since been lifted from one of these towns but remains in effect in the other eight.

“We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” a government official said as the shutdown was extended from June to August this year.

Meanwhile, humanitarian workers in these regions are reporting that whole communities are unaware that there’s a pandemic at all. AP cites Htoot May, an MP for the Arakan National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s parliament, as saying that the has to explain the pandemic to people “from the beginning”, telling them about social distancing and proper hand hygiene.

Such cases show that we still live in a world where the flow of information can become politicized, or is simply insufficient to keep everybody in the loop.

A pandemic, especially one like the COVID-19 outbreak for which we have no natural defenses, is ultimately a global issue. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ with highly infectious diseases. As long as communities don’t know that there’s a threat, they’ll be completely vulnerable. And if they are left unprotected, there’s always the risk of a new wave taking place.

We all are very much failing people such as those in Myanmar and Africa during this pandemic.

Free access to and flow of information is vial in such cases, which makes the fact that some people are still unaware of the pandemic surprising, but also very worrying.

Brazil says Zika epidemic is officially over

Although authorities are still on alert, the Zika epidemic seems to have backed off.

Countries where people have gotten Zika virus (as of January 2016). Image via Wikipedia / CDC.

It was one of the scariest and most unexpected outbreaks in recent years — the Zika virus was thought to be almost benign, causing no major issue, and almost never requiring hospitalization. However, Zika, which is transmitted either through mosquito bites or through sex, provided a nasty surprise when thousands of babies were born with severe birth defects such as microcephaly, due to the inconspicuous virus.

To make things even worse, the hotspot of the outbreak was Brazil, a country which was supposed to hold the 2016 Olympics (and did). As more and more cases were being reported in Brazil and neighboring countries, there was a concern that with people from all over the world coming to Brazil, the diseases would spread everywhere. Brazil declared a national emergency state in 2015, starting a campaign to eradicate the mosquitoes that spread the diseases.

Meanwhile, in 2016, there were 170,535 cases reported from January to April alone, causing the WHO to declare it a public health emergency of international concern. The word “pandemic” was increasingly used.

With Zika transmission reported in 23 countries and territories of the Americas as of early February, “the level of alarm is extremely high,” said World Health Organization Director-general Margaret Chan, MD, MPH. A committee convened by Chan officially declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern Feb. 1, indicating that the disease constitutes an international public health risk and requires a coordinated response.

“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty,” Chan said Jan. 28 in announcing the committee. “Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”

The symptoms of Zika vary in intensity, but are pretty generic in nature. Image credits: Beth.herlin.

Study after study shed more light on the virus and the disease, but at this point in time there is no real treatment for Zika. You just have it. You might not even feel sick or just exhibit flu-like symptoms, but then you pass it to a woman. If she becomes pregnant, then the child is at great risk. So it isn’t exactly the regular kind of disease that comes and kills you or makes you feel really bad. Instead, it’s a disease whose threat might greatly spread in the long run.

Thankfully, Brazil’s anti-mosquito campaign proved to be effective and in 2017, there were only 7,911 cases of Zika from January to April. That’s still a concerning figure, but it’s a 95% reduction compared to the similar period in 2016.

“The end of the emergency doesn’t mean the end of surveillance or assistance” to affected families, said Adeilson Cavalcante, the secretary for health surveillance at Brazil’s Health Ministry. “The Health Ministry and other organizations involved in this area will maintain a policy of fighting Zika, dengue and chikungunya.”

Ebola countries record first week with no new cases

It’s the first time since March 2014 that the three African countries at the heart of the Ebola epidemic have not reported a new case of the outbreak.

ebola virusThe Ebola Virus Epidemic in 2014 and 2015 killed somewhere between 50% and 70% of all the people it infected, being one of the most dangerous outbreaks in modern history. It was the first Ebola outbreak to reach epidemic proportions, especially aided by a dysfunctional healthcare system, a mistrust of government officials after years of armed conflict, and the delay in responding to the outbreak for several months. At the heart of this outbreak, there were three countries in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The first two countries alone had over 80% of all reported cases, and for a time, it seemed like the situation couldn’t be controlled and would continue to spread.

But thanks to interventions by doctors, local authorities and the WHO, cases in 2015 fell sharply. Liberia has already been declared free of the disease after 42 days without a new case, while Sierra Leone had its last one on 28 September and Guinea’s last case was on 27 September – this means that we have over one week without a new case, which is, of course, quite a positive development.

However, the WHO warns that the disease could pop up again at any time, especially as the whereabouts of several “high-risk” people linked to recent patients in Guinea and Sierra Leone are not known.

WHO Says Governments Indifference Contributing to Ebola Crisis

The WHO says that the government’s lack of action is adding much to shape the Ebola epidemic ravaging through West Africa and threatening the entire planet. The situation became more serious, and the WHO has released a document demanding for more action if we want to control this epidemic and future ones.

Image via CDC.

The WHO has manned up and took a big part of the blame for not implementing containment programs fast enough. According to a report, there are over 21,000 cases which killed over 8,000 people – though the number is likely a gross underestimate. But WHO also points the finger at world governments; after receiving reports from the over 30 nations which are members of WHO’s executive board, the agency condemned world governments that had been responsible for imposing International Health Regulations in public health risk areas by closing borders as well as stopping who came from affected countries.

[MUST READ] We are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history

To improve and expand response capacity, the organization addresses the need for having enough of the right experts on its regular staff and for expanding partnerships in surge situations, such as the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). The WHO is not fit to handle such large scale problems; they only have a skeleton staff to handle logistics. However, anthropologists to advise on how to handle interventions in different cultures are pretty much lacking from the organization.

The WHO wrote five proposals that would enable them to handle future health emergencies, but all of them require some outside help. A bigger budget is required to address rapid response scale-ups when needed, as well as a special “emergency fund”. Many countries are not able to offer a good enough response to an epidemic, and some countries, especially in Western Africa, lack even the minimum requirements for a response; many areas lack even basic hygiene.

Ebola was declared an epidemic on 8 August 2014, with the WHO director saying:

“Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own. I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible.”

While the international community did react and helped, the reaction simply wasn’t strong enough, WHO concludes. The most affected countries were the ones from Western Africa – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Painkiller addictions are the worst drug epidemic in US history

Fatal overdoses due to painkillers have reached epidemic levels, greatly exceeding those from heroin and cocaine combined, becoming the worst drug epidemic in US history.

Painkiller_1475416c

Prescriptions for painkillers in the United States have nearly tripled in the past two decades, and the results are dreadful. In 2012, enough painkillers were prescribed to keep every single citizen medicated around the clock for a month – or once every 12 days for an entire year.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing talked of a painkiller addiction epidemic:

“According to the CDC, this is the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history,” he said. “CDC has data demonstrating that around the same time doctors began aggressively prescribing these medications in the late 1990s, there have been parallel increases in rates of addiction.”

Even worse, he adds, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Kolodny said, is “failing miserably” at fighting against the epidemic:

“The way to turn this epidemic around is for doctors to prescribe painkillers more cautiously,” he said. But that can only happen, Kolodny said, when the FDA changes labeling requirements for painkillers, “making it easier for medical schools and the larger medical community to prescribe these meds more cautiously.”

Meanwhile, the US is loading its guns and going harder and harder against “illegal drugs” – again, even while mortality associated with painkillers alone tops that of heroin and cocaine combined, authorities seem to ignore this issue. The so-called “war on drugs” stigmatizes psychological addiction, but at the same time, it encourages the consumption of “prescription drugs”. The study, which was published in The Lancet examined four categories of illegal drugs – opioids (which include painkillers and heroin), cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis (on which interestingly enough, you can’t overdose, even though it’s illegal).

Research paper here.

Haiti spreading cholera and maybe polio; now will we care ?

It’s been a little over a year since the earthquake that caused so much damage and cost so much lives, and people are starting to wonder what the situation is like in Haiti; or actually, not so many people are wondering about that. United Nation’s special envoy, former Canadian Governor-General Michaelle Jean sums it up pretty well in an open letter to the industrialized world, who should be leading the aid: “What began as a natural disaster is becoming a disgraceful reflection on the international community”.

Haiti was one of the poorest countries in the world even before this tragedy, with limited access even to drinking water. It’s obvious that this matter hasn’t received the attention it should have, and as always, mother nature has a way of punishing us for not respecting our responsibilities. More and more independent public health networks are reporting that the cholera epidemic that came as a side effect of the earthquake is spreading more and more in the Dominican Republic, and it has also reached Mexico, Spain, and the United States. Maybe this will get everybody’s attention.

Also, some patients have been showing signs that indicate polio. People, we’re talking two of the most dangerous diseases in the world; especially polio, and here’s why. In polio, only 1 in 200 cases show symptoms, which means it could spread into a global epidemic even before we know what we’re dealing with. Now call me insensitive, but in a weird kind of way, I call this karma.

The Bubonic Plague came from China

A bubonic plague smear, prepared from a lymph removed from an adenopathic lymph node, or bubo, of a plague patient, demonstrates the presence of the Yersinia pestis bacteria that causes the plague. (c) Getty Images.

The bubonic plague, known to history as The Black Death or simply The Plague, was responsible for marking one of Europe’s most darkest hours, twice decimating the continent’s population, killing off two thirds. The disease is caused by a Gram-negative bacterium called Yersinia pestis, of zoonotic nature, especially carried by rodents – more exactly rats. Forget about the grim reaper, if you were living in the middle ages and saw a rat, it would have been like staring death in eyes. However, the rats wouldn’t have been the ones you needed to worry about, but the fleas who actually transmitted the plague. Practically, the infected fleas piggybacked rats until hopping off onto humans were the bacteria wreaked havoc.

The exact origins of the bubonic plague have long been discussed, most historians agreeing at a time that the disease was most probably brought from the far east via the central Asia Silk Road. This Sunday, however, an international team of medical geneticists, who studied the disease’s DNA signature, confirmed that the Black Death originated in China more than 2,600 years ago.

Scientists sequenced 17 strains of Yersinia pestis, going from mutated patogen to mutaden patogen by building a family tree. Eventually, the strains were tracked down to China, where the root of the tree is situated and all bubonic plague waves have their origins. The study, published online on Sunday by the journal Nature Genetics, was led by Mark Achtman of University College Cork in Ireland.

“The results indicate that plague appeared in China more than 2,600 years ago,” France’s Museum of Natural History, which took part in the research, stated.

“The work highlights specific mutations in the bacterium showing how the germ evolved within given geographical regions,” the museum stated in a press release. “But it demonstrates in particular that successive epidemic waves originated as a whole in Central Asia and China.”

[via NY TIMES]

The swine flu paaanic [pics, slightly NSFW]

Swine flu has been officially declared a pandemic, and although it’s not one of the deadliest by any standards, it can be deadly (just like the average flu can). However, despite the fact that the deaths/infected ratio is around 0.1%, people are going absolutely crazy about it, blowing everything out of proportions. Here are some examples of swine flu related panic, protests against it, and, well, other stuff.

weds

Til swine flu do us part

They'll probably be just like the first pic in a year or two

They'll probably be just like the first pic in a year or two

4098219436_e9c90cd76a

protest-2

Diana, the goddess of hunt

Diana, the goddess of hunt

swine-flu-orlando

doggy

pooh

The cure

The cure

Current flu vaccines inactive against the Swine flu

For some reason, many people believed the current flu vaccine will be effective against this swine flu that’s already expanding and very difficult to control. Still, even some researchers claimed that it will be at least somewhat effective. Guess what – it won’t. Or at least the vast majority of scientists claim it won’t.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly claimed the flu vaccine has nothing to do with the swine flu. However, on the other side, Robert Webster, a “flu guru” says the following: “If I hadn’t already had the vaccine, I’d take it”.CDC researchers took ferrets never infected with an influenza virus and injected them with this year’s vaccine and they found out it offered absolutely no protection.

Actually, the worst thing here is the fact that they don’t have a lot of information; as a result, many respectable medical researchers prefer to stay quiet and focus their energy on other approaches to the whole situation (which seems to be quite a good idea, if you ask me; instead of debating if a current vaccine is good or not, let’s get one that works 100% or close to 100%, and find out how well the other one works after that, because it’s obvious that if the current flu vaccine is does any good, it only works in a small fractions of cases).

However, to stay on topic, “There’s a likelihood that there’s at least partial protection”, according to Julio Frenk, the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and the former secretary of health in Mexico, so we could guess he knows the situation in Mexico pretty well