Day: April 11, 2017

Research Reveals Huge Burden of Guinea Worm

Guinea worm is on course to become the second human disease to be eradicated, after smallpox, thanks largely to intervention overseen by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Little was known about the infection for decades, as diseases like malaria took priority. However, previously unpublished research from the 1970s, released this month, shows the burden the disease has had on millions of people.

Guinea worm is contracted when people drink water contaminated with tiny crustaceans that contain the worm larvae. A year later, a meter-long female worm emerges through a painful blister, often disabling the infected person for months.

Professor Brian Greenwood, a British scientist, first came across Guinea worm in the 1970s when working in northern Nigeria. He says little was known about the disease, despite millions suffering from it across Africa and India.

“People were much more concerned with malaria, bilharzia and other tropical infections,” Greenwood said. “And part of the reason was that these people were so disabled they never got to the clinic or the hospital. So that if you looked in hospital records, you did not see this as a big problem.”

Greenwood spent four years studying the disease and trying to find out why sufferers often developed repeat infections, without developing immunity.

“We extracted some of the worms,” he said. “And the traditional way is winding them out on a matchstick, just gradually. And the problem is that if the worm then snapped inside, then they got a very severe reaction.”

Greenwood credits the Carter Center, a charitable foundation set up by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for helping fight the disease to the brink of eradication.

There is no vaccine or treatment. Instead, community education programs teach people to filter drinking water and avoid entering water sources. 

Speaking in 2011, Carter described the initial difficulties.

“It was kind of an insult to say ‘this disease comes out of your pond,'” he said. “So we have had to do a lot of diplomacy and convincing the people there to take care of their own problems. Well, it has worked. And now almost every nation on earth has eradicated or eliminated Guinea worm.”

When the Carter Center first became involved in 1986, there were around 3.5 million cases in 21 countries; last year, 25 cases were recorded in only three countries — Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Greenwood’s early study of Guinea worm remained unpublished, as he was directed to focus on malaria and meningitis instead; but last year in London, he met Carter, who persuaded him to publish the research.

“I hope that we have been able to document what a horrible disease this was,” Greenwood said. “And it is really important that people realize that. And if we do get eradication in the next year or two, which I hope will be the case, that this will not just be seen as a minor thing, but to be a really very important public health triumph.”

The last few cases of Guinea worm remain because they are the most difficult to reach. Many are in conflict areas like South Sudan, but scientists are optimistic this ancient disease can be eradicated within the next few years.


Report: Millions of Migrant Gulf Laborers Forced to Pay for Right to Work

South Asian migrants powering the construction boom in oil-rich Gulf countries are often illegally made to pay for their own recruitment, adding to hardships of poor working conditions and wages, according to an investigation released Tuesday.

Millions of migrants seeking a way out of poverty by working in Gulf nations from Qatar to the United Arab Emirates must routinely pay fees that can equal a year’s salary, U.S. researchers said in a report.

“Recruitment is not free,” said report co-author David Segall of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “Somebody does have to bear these costs, but that of course should be the employing company.”

The findings came as conditions for construction workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh in the 2022 FIFA World Cup host, Qatar, have drawn scrutiny from rights groups who say migrants live in squalor and work without proper access to water and shelter.

In five fact-finding missions to the Gulf and South Asia, the researchers found workers are typically made to pay for their airfare from South Asia and their work visa, often at inflated prices.

Selling visas for profit is illegal in the six Gulf countries the researchers investigated — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But violations rarely lead to prosecution and punishment, the report said.

Fees highest for Bangladeshis

Bangladeshi workers paid as much as $5,200 in recruitment fees, according to the study, the highest price among other South Asian construction workers, who number some 10 million people in the Gulf.

In rare cases, construction companies took on expenditures to recruit their workers, the study found. The fees had the effect of pushing already destitute migrants further into poverty by tying them to high-interest loans.

“These are people who are already desperate enough that they feel that they need to undertake this journey, leave their families in order to just achieve the possibility of economic success,” Segall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “For them to be in debt before they even start this journey is really an injustice.”

Reports of abuse of migrant domestic workers have prompted countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Indonesia to ban their citizens in recent years from seeking jobs in the Middle East.

The New York University report expanded on the findings of an investigation conducted in Qatar and released last week, which concluded hundreds of Asian workers had paid recruitment fees.


United CEO Conciliatory in Latest Comment on Passenger Incident

“No one should ever be treated this way,” reads part of a new public statement issued Tuesday by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, following Sunday’s incident when a passenger was bloodied after being dragged off an overbooked United airliner at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight,” the Munoz statement also says.

The incident has gone viral through social media after being captured on other passengers’ cell phones.

Munoz added that the company will conduct a review of how the airline handles overbooking situations and how it interacts with airport authorities and law enforcement. He said the company will release the results of its review April 30.


Munoz released two earlier statements staunchly supporting the crew, saying in a statement late Monday that United attendants “followed established procedures” when the passenger was forcibly removed.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump has seen what Spicer describes as the “troubling” video recorded on the United Airlines flight. Besides the global social media firestorm, the incident also has stirred up threats of a boycott.

Spicer told reporters at a White House briefing Tuesday the incident was “unfortunate” but does “not necessarily need a federal response,” adding there are “plenty” of law enforcement agencies available to conduct an investigation.

Because the Chicago to Louisville flight was overbooked, the crew asked passengers to voluntarily take another flight in exchange for financial compensation. According to media reports, the airline needed to make room for four of its employees.

No one volunteered, so the airline randomly selected four people, one of whom refused to leave – resulting in his forced removal by three men who were identified as Chicago aviation security officers.



Video showing the man, who appeared to be of Chinese descent, being dragged from the plane and later returning with a bloodied face was widely circulated on social media, drawing angry reactions. One passenger, Audra Bridges, who posted video of the incident, said the passenger was very upset when he was chosen and explained he was a physician who needed to get home in order to see patients the next morning. Bridges said the man appeared disoriented when he ran back onto the aircraft moments later.

Crew members eventually ordered everyone off the plane and did not let them return until the injured passenger was removed again on a stretcher.

Bridges said the passengers were “shocked and appalled” at the incident, which prompted threats of a boycott as the busy summer travel season begins.

The online backlash intensified when CEO Munoz used the euphemism “re-accommodate” in a Twitter posting Monday to describe the forcible removal of the passenger. Munoz. However, he also said the airline was reaching out to the passenger “to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

In the letter to employees, Munoz said the passenger “raised his voice and refused to comply” when he was initially asked to leave, and became “more disruptive and belligerent” in response to subsequent requests.

Crew members had “no choice” except to call Chicago Aviation Security officers to help remove the passenger, Munoz wrote.

In a statement late Monday, the Chicago Department of Aviation said the incident was “not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officers are obviously not condoned by the department.”

The statement added one officer involved has been placed on administrative leave, pending a review of the incident.

Munoz admitted to employees that the airline could learn from the incident but reiterated on his support of his employees’ actions. “I emphatically stand behind all of you,” he wrote.

Sunday’s incident follows another controversial occurrence in late March in which two girls, one estimated to be about 10 years old, were prevented from boarding a flight in Denver because they were wearing leggings, a violation of the airline’s dress code under a program for United employees.

The negative publicity may be adversely affecting the value of the airline. United’s stock price dropped nearly 4 percent during late morning trading Tuesday in New York, but by the close of the market it had dropped only about 1.1 percent.

For United Airlines, a global carrier that launched nonstop service to China in 1986, and bills itself as offering “more nonstop U.S.-China flights” to more cities in China “than any other airline,” comments on China’s lively social media were just one more problem Tuesday.

One commentator said: “Reading the news of the United Airlines’ violent removal of a passenger reminds me of three nightmarish trips with United Airlines. [It] provides the world’s worst service ever, not just one of the worst.”

Another commented: “I would like to give the passenger thumbs up. Although lots of American Chinese are discriminated against, they are afraid of speaking out due to [losing] face.”

Tourists’ remarks

VOA’s Mandarin service interviewed some Chinese tourists visiting Washington.

“I feel very angry. I feel this shouldn’t have happened in the U.S.,” said Xiaotian Liu. “It happened to be an Asian-American. I do not think they had a target.”

“I hope [United Airlines] can improve its service after this incident,” said Liu. “We will probably choose different airlines next time.”

“We happened to fly [United Airlines] on this trip,” said Xuhai Lu. “We flew a Chinese airline last time. Chinese airlines provide better service than American ones.”

VOA’s Mandarin service contributed to this report.


China Southern Airlines Launches First Flight to Mexico

China Southern Airlines has flown its inaugural Guangzhou to Mexico City flight, via Vancouver, the first route operated by a domestic Chinese carrier to the Latin American nation, the Mexican government said on Tuesday.

China’s interest in Mexico, including tourism and investment, has been on the rise in recent years. In 2016, 74,300 Chinese tourists visited Mexico, up 33.5 percent from a year earlier.

Mexican authorities expect over 100,000 Chinese tourists to visit this year.

China and Mexico recently pledged to deepen ties at a meeting between their top diplomats following the U.S. presidential election victory of Donald Trump, who has tested Washington’s relationship with both countries.



Second ‘Great Spot’ Found at Jupiter, Cold and High Up

Another “Great Spot” has been found at Jupiter, this one cold and high up.

Scientists reported Tuesday that the dark expanse is 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) across and 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometers) wide. It’s in the upper atmosphere and much cooler than the hot surroundings, thus the name Great Cold Spot. And unlike the giant planet’s familiar Great Red Spot, this newly discovered weather system is continually changing in shape and size. It’s formed by the energy from Jupiter’s polar auroras.

A British-led team used a telescope in Chile to chart the temperature and density of Jupiter’s atmosphere. When the researchers compared the data with thousands of images taken in years past by a telescope in Hawaii, the Great Cold Spot stood out. It could be thousands of years old.

“The Great Cold Spot is much more volatile than the slowly changing Great Red Spot … but it has reappeared for as long as we have data to search for it, for over 15 years,” the University of Leicester’s Tom Stallard, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Stallard said Jupiter’s upper atmosphere may hold other features. Scientists will be on the lookout for them while also studying the Great Cold Spot in greater detail, using ground telescopes as well as NASA’s Juno spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, he said.

The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.


Canadian Judge in Yahoo Hack Case to Reach Decision on Bail

A Canadian man accused in a massive hack of Yahoo emails has alleged ties to Russian agents and access to significant amounts of cash, making him a serious flight risk if freed on bail, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Karim Baratov, 22, was arrested last month and faces extradition to the U.S. He was indicted in the United States for computer hacking along with three other people, including two alleged Russian intelligence agents.

Officials have said Baratov has the money to leave Canada and the ability to destroy evidence while on the run.

“The evidence of Mr. Baratov’s connections to Russian officials exponentially elevate the flight risk in this case,’’ Prosecutor Heather Graham said.

Graham noted Baratov owned a number of luxury cars and flaunted his lifestyle on social media. She also said he has webmail and PayPal accounts with “large unknown sums of money” accessible anywhere. Graham said police seized about $22,000 ($30,000 Canadian) cash from his home and another $670 ($900 Canadian) from his wallet when he was arrested.

She also said there is evidence Baratov may have been trafficking in identity information. And there are allegations he continued hacking while on vacation in Jamaica.

Graham also noted Baratov faces up to 20 years in a U.S. prison.

Baratov’s parents have agreed to act as their son’s sureties. The young man’s attorney Deepak Paradkar said Tuesday that Baratov will never be alone because his father, Akhmet Tokbergenov, works at home. The father has agreed to turn off the internet in the family home if the court requests.

The breach at Yahoo affected at least a half billion user accounts, but Paradkar said Baratov is only accused of hacking 80 accounts.

In a scheme that prosecutors say blended intelligence gathering with old-fashioned financial greed, the four men targeted the email accounts of Russian and U.S. government officials, Russian journalists and employees of financial services and other private businesses, American officials said.

In some cases using a technique known as “spear-phishing” to dupe Yahoo users into thinking they were receiving legitimate emails, the hackers broke into at least 500 million accounts in search of personal information and financial data such as gift card and credit card numbers, prosecutors said.

The case, announced amid continued U.S. intelligence agency skepticism of their Russian counterparts, comes as American authorities investigate Russian interference through hacking in the 2016 presidential election. Officials said those investigations are separate.

Justice Alan Whitten has said he’ll reach a bail decision Tuesday.


Cherry Blossoms Lure Admirers Around North Asia

China, Japan and South Korea may have their differences, but they mostly see eye-to-eye on cherry blossoms.

In all three north Asian countries, people flock to parks, gardens and temples to enjoy the beauty of the pinkish-white petals, often in the lingering chill of early spring.

The shared natural heritage has been a minor source of conflict: Japan is the most well-known for cherry blossoms, but researchers in South Korea and China have argued that their country is the birthplace of the cherry tree.

The horticultural disagreement seems far removed from the “oohs” and “ahs” of the admiring crowds, busy taking selfies and photographs.

In a series of triptychs, Associated Press photographers in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo capture the ways people in each country interact with the blossoms. Each set of images focuses on a theme: architecture, children, couples, picnics and others. The combined photos are notable as much for their similarities as their differences.

PHOTOS: Cherry Blossoms from North Asia


Dems: Trump’s Tax Secrecy Complicates Legislative Overhaul

The Senate’s top Democrat said Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is going to make this year’s promised overhaul of the tax code “much harder.”


Sen. Chuck Schumer says Trump is opening himself to second guessing about his motives for supporting different policies and that the average American will think he’s making changes because “it’s good for him.”


Schumer, D-N.Y., said voters are “going to say, ‘Oh, he’s not doing that because it’s good for me, he’s doing it because it’s good for him.’ So for his own good, he ought to make them public. And the big mystery is why he hasn’t.”


Trump, a billionaire real estate magnate, is the first presidential candidate in decades who has refused to release his tax returns. Critics say Trump’s lack of transparency means the public doesn’t have enough information to determine whether his moves as president could represent a conflict of interest.


“I think he just has an obligation to come clean. When you clean up the swamp, it’s not keeping things secret and it applies to yourself,” Schumer said.


White House Press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that Trump’s financial disclosures are more revealing than his tax returns and that middle class people are more concerned with their own tax bills than with seeing Trump’s taxes.


Trump has promised to cut taxes for middle income workers. His administration is grappling with how to handle the tax issue in the wake of last month’s failure to deliver on promises to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law.


Google Refutes Charges, Says No Gender Pay Gap

Google said it’s “taken aback” by the government’s claim that it doesn’t compensate women fairly.

The company said it conducts “rigorous analyses” that its pay practices are gender-blind and found “no gender pay gap” in 52 major job categories it analyzed last year. Google added that analysts who calculate suggested pay don’t have access to employees’ gender data.

Google also said that beyond gender pay equity, the company recently expanded the analysis to cover race in the U.S., as well.

The U.S. Department of Labor had accused Google of shortchanging women doing similar work to men, saying it found “systemic compensation disparities” across the company’s workforce.

Google responded in a blog post Tuesday that the department’s assertion “came without any supporting data or methodology.” The company said it had already produced hundreds of thousands of documents in response to 18 separate requests, and the government is seeking thousands more, including contact details of employees.

The department had no comment, saying the case is ongoing.

The difference between Google’s and the Labor Department’s claims might come down to how each side defines pay discrimination, Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, wrote in a recent post for Forbes.

“Google is using a strict definition of ‘same job’ to find no gender pay gap. The Department of Labor is using a looser definition of ‘similar job’ to find that there is one,” he wrote. “Who you think is right here is entirely up to you, but that’s where the disagreement is.”


Climate Change Could Cause More Turbulent Flights

Climate change could cause stronger turbulence for airline passengers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Reading in England say “turbulence strong enough to catapult unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin” could become two or three times more common.

“For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels, but for nervous fliers even light turbulence can be distressing,” said Paul Williams, who conducted the research. “However, even the most seasoned frequent fliers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149 percent increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalizes air travelers and flight attendants around the world.”

Specifically, researchers used supercomputer models to look at how wintertime transatlantic clear-air turbulence at an altitude of 12 kilometers will change when there is twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which could happen by the end of this century.

The models show light turbulence could increase by 59 percent, light-to-moderate turbulence could jump by 75 percent, moderate-to-severe turbulence could rise by 127 percent and severe turbulence could bounce a whopping 149 percent.

The reason, according to the researchers is that climate change “is generating stronger wind shears in the jet stream.”

“Our new study paints the most detailed picture yet of how aircraft turbulence will respond to climate change,” said Williams.

The study is published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.