Day: May 16, 2017

Year-round Flu Vaccination May Prevent Hospitalization of Pregnant Women

Pregnant women who come down with the flu are at greater risk of illness requiring hospitalization. A new study found that in resource-poor countries, flu vaccination reduced the risk of illness to mother and baby.  

An estimated 40 percent of the world’s population lives in subtropical and tropical zones, where influenza sometimes circulates year-round. Yet influenza vaccine is rarely used.

Mark Steinhoff is director of the Global Health Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio. He said the influenza virus, which is often mild in healthy people, can result in hospitalization of pregnant women.  

With a growing fetus pressed up against their lungs, Steinhoff says, women with the flu can have trouble breathing.  He also said a pregnant woman is  more susceptible to illness as the growing baby siphons off her natural defenses.

But in a first-of-its-kind study, Steinhoff and colleagues found vaccinating women year-round in a developing country, Nepal near the Indian border, dramatically reduced the incidence of influenza in mothers and benefited their babies.

The study was published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

“It reduced disease in the mothers and in the infants by about 60 percent reduction in the second year. It’s really quite remarkable. But it also reduced the rate of low birth weight — that is, kids born less than 2.5 kilos. It reduced that by 16 percent,” said Steinhoff.

Babies benefited from the shots because they received antibodies against the illness from their mothers while in the womb.

The study

The study ran between April 2011 and September 2013 and involved a total of 3,693 mothers between the ages of 15 and 40.   

There were two phases of the trial, with one group of women being vaccinated in the first year and a different group of pregnant women the following year.  Half of the women received a placebo.

Because influenza in some countries can circulate year-round, there’s no particular flu season as in more temperate climates. The women were therefore vaccinated at various times with a shot that contained three inactivated flu strains. Each group was followed for up to 180 days to see whether they developed fevers and body aches.

Steinhoff said the benefits of influenza vaccination have long been known in the United States and other Western countries.

“The vaccine you know was developed many years ago. It was known to be safe. There were no bad reactions to it,” Steinhoff said.

He said it’s up to individual countries to decide whether they want to launch influenza vaccination campaigns for pregnant women. In the meantime, he said, researchers will be obtaining additional data on year-round immunization programs in developing countries.


David Letterman to Receive Nation’s Top Prize for Comedy

Longtime late-night host David Letterman has been honored with the nation’s top prize for comedy.

The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday that the 70-year-old Letterman is this year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He is the 20th humorist to receive the annual prize, which began in 1998. Last fall, he delivered a warm tribute on stage at the Kennedy Center as his frequent guest, Bill Murray, accepted the award.

Letterman hosted more than 6,000 episodes of late-night television, starting in 1982 with NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman.” He moved to CBS in 1993 and hosted “The Late Show” until his retirement two years ago.

Letterman’s irascible, independent streak inspired fierce loyalty from fans and critics.


Jimmy Kimmel Set to Return as Host for 90th Oscars

Despite his jokes that he’ll never get asked back, Jimmy Kimmel is set to host the Oscars once more. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Tuesday said Kimmel will return for the 90th Oscars with producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd, the team behind this year’s ceremony.


Ratings for the 89th Oscars this past February were the lowest since 2008 with 32.9 million viewers tuning in, even with the drama of the envelope gaffe in which Faye Dunaway, reading an incorrect card, announced “La La Land” as the best picture winner. The snafu was corrected on stage and “Moonlight” was given the award.


The 90th Oscars will be held on March 4, 2018 in Los Angeles and broadcast live on ABC.



Japan’s Princess Mako to Get Married, Report Says

Princess Mako, the granddaughter of Japan’s emperor, is getting married to an ocean lover who can ski, play the violin and cook, according to public broadcaster NHK TV.

The Imperial Household Agency declined to confirm the report Tuesday.

Kei Komuro, the man who won the princess’ heart, was a fellow student at International Christian University in Tokyo, where Mako, 25, also graduated, NHK said.

They met at a restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya about five years ago at a party to talk about studying abroad, and they have been dating several times a month recently, it said.

Komuro has worked as “Prince of the Sea” to promote tourism to the beaches of Shonan in Kanagawa prefecture, the report said.

Women can’t succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan. Mako’s father and her younger brother are in line to succeed Emperor Akihito, but after her uncle Crown Prince Naruhito, who is first in line.

Once she marries, Mako will no longer be a princess and will become a commoner.

But the process building up to the wedding is likely to take some time and be full of ritual, as Japanese nuptials, especially royal ones, tend to be.

First there will be an announcement, the equivalent of an engagement, and then a date for the wedding will be picked and the couple will make a formal report to the emperor and empress. NHK said Mako has already introduced Komuro to her parents, and they approve.

Unlike royalty in Great Britain and other European countries, the emperor and his family tend to be cloistered, although they travel abroad and appear at cultural events.

Akihito, 83, is the son of Hirohito, Japan’s emperor during World War II.

Akihito expressed his desire to abdicate last year, and Japan has been preparing legislation especially for him so he can.

Until Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II, Hirohito was viewed as divine, and no one had even heard his voice. But the times are changing, and the Japanese public harbors a feeling of openness and familiarity toward the emperor and his family. People are likely to see Mako’s marriage as a celebration, although the rituals will continue to be tightly orchestrated.


Cosby Says He Doesn’t Expect to Testify at Sex Assault Trial

Bill Cosby says he doesn’t expect to testify at his Pennsylvania sexual assault trial.


The comedian spoke to Sirius radio host Michael Smerconish in an interview being broadcast Tuesday.


Smerconish says he agreed to air an uncut, 82-minute conversation between Cosby and his daughters in exchange for the interview.


Cosby says his lawyers won’t let him speak about the criminal case. But he says he has “never, never” lost the support of his wife.


Daughter Ensa Cosby says she believes “racism has played a role” in the accusations against her father.


Bill Cosby replies, “It could be.”


Cosby says his health is generally good, but glaucoma has left him legally blind.


Cosby says he isn’t trying to influence jurors, who will be selected next week for the June 5 trial.


Thailand Backs Off Threat to Block Facebook Over Content

Thailand backed off a threat to block Facebook on Tuesday, instead providing the social media site with court orders to remove content that the government deems illegal.

Thailand made the threat last week as it wanted Facebook to block more than 130 posts it considers a threat to national security or in violation of the country’s lese majeste law, which makes insults to the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Thailand’s military government has made prosecuting royal insults a priority since seizing power in a coup three years ago.

Takorn Tantasith, secretary-general of Thailand’s broadcast regulator, said Facebook had requested the court orders before it would take action but he expected the social media giant would comply with the government’s demands.

“Facebook have shown good cooperation with us,” Takorn told reporters.

Emails and calls seeking confirmation from Facebook were not immediately returned.

The regulator last week demanded that Facebook remove more than 130 illegal posts by Tuesday or face legal action that could shut down the site. In a change of tactic, Takorn said that Thailand had forwarded 34 court orders to Facebook so far.

“The websites that need to be taken down are not only for those that are a threat to stability but they also include other illegal websites such as porn and websites that support human-trafficking which take time to legally determine,” Takorn said.

Thai authorities try to take pre-emptive actions against material they consider illegal, having local internet service providers block access or reaching agreements with some online services such as YouTube to bar access to certain material in Thailand.

Much of that is content deemed in violation of the country’s lese majeste law, the harshest in the world. The military government has charged more than 100 people with such offenses since the coup and handed down record sentences. Many of those cases have been based on internet postings or even private messages exchanged on Facebook.

Last month, Thai authorities declared it illegal to exchange information on the internet with three prominent government critics who often write about the country’s monarchy.

Facebook, which is blocked in a number of authoritarian countries such as North Korea, has said it relies on local governments to notify the site of information it deems illegal.

“If, after careful legal review, we find that the content is illegal under local law we restrict it as appropriate and report the restriction in our Government Request Report,” Facebook has said in past statements outlining its policy.


Cholera Outbreak Compounds Hunger Crisis in Southern Somalia

A regional drought has displaced more than half a million people in Somalia and left the country at risk of famine. A cholera outbreak is further complicating relief efforts, in particular in the southern part of the country where some villages remain under al-Shabab control.

Bay Regional Hospital, the biggest in the southwest federal state, is filled with patients suffering from stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Cholera has sickened more than 40,000 people in Somalia since December. More than half of the cases have been in this state. Most of the victims have been malnourished children.

Five-year-old Fatuma was admitted to the cholera treatment ward last night. Her mother Bisharo Mohammed says she can not lose another child.

She says her eldest daughter was suffering from diarrhea, and she died two months ago in Busley village on the outskirts of Baidoa. She says the girl was seven years old.

Cholera treatment

Cholera is treatable. The World Health Organization recommends “prompt administration of oral rehydration salts.” Mohamed says Fatuma is already feeling better with treatment. They hope to be released soon.

But they will not be going home.

Aid agencies say the areas worst hit by cholera and hunger are villages like Busley which are under al-Shabab control. Accessing them is a challenge. Fatuma and her family are among the tens of thousands of people who have walked to government-controlled areas like Baidoa to seek help and are now living in makeshift camps.

World Health Organization cholera expert Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar says the outbreak is getting worse due to security challenges.

“If you look at Bay, Bakool, Middle Juba, Gedo some of those areas where none of us is able to access, the deaths and cases due to cholera is very high, and we expect the situation will get worse,” says Abubakar.

Rains this month in southern and central Somalia have contributed to a surge in cholera cases, according to Bay Regional Hospital cholera treatment ward deputy supervisor Salima Sheikh Shuaib.

She says “the cholera cases were going down, but the past three days we have seen an increase in cholera cases. This morning, we have received 16 cases and most of them are children under the age of five.”

Life in camps

More than 150,000 displaced people are living in the makeshift camps around Baidoa and more continue to arrive.

At the camps, many families do not have plastic tarps or covered places to sleep. Stagnant puddles and mud dot the walkways. There is no regular food provided. Clean water is available, but it is not enough.

Medics supported by UNICEF and the WHO are going to IDP camps around Baidoa to provide oral cholera vaccination to children.

But Abubakar of the WHO says it is hard to contain the spread of cholera so long as the general humanitarian situation is not improving.

“We cannot only solve cholera. We cannot only deal with cholera unless we deal with food insecurity, unless we deal with water issues, malnutrition and I think collectedly both the wash, the health, the nutrition, and the food security partners we are working closely and we are coordinating but again in Somalia one of the challenges. We are facing a shortage of resources to support all these interventions,” says Abubakar.

Somalia continues to report between 200 and 300 cases of cholera nationwide each day.


Instagram Launches Snapchat-like Filters

Get ready for more rabbit ears, dog noses and funny hats to show up in your Facebook feed.

Facebook’s Instagram service is launching face filters in an effort to keep up with rival, Snap Inc.’s Snapchat.

“From math equations swirling around your head to furry koala ears that move and twitch, you can transform into a variety of characters that make you smile or laugh,” the company wrote on its blog.

The new features will also include the ability to manipulate video, allowing users to play them in reverse.

“Capture a fountain in motion and share a rewind of the water floating back up,” according to the blog post. “Experiment with some magic tricks of your own and defy the laws of physics wherever you are.”

Facebook, the largest social media platform, has been accused of copying features from Snapchat such as “Stories” which allows users to post pictures and videos that are erased after 24 hours.

According to Instagram, 200 million people use Stories daily.

Facebook’s stock price has been hovering around $150 this month, which is near the stock’s all-time high of $153.60.

Last week, Snap stocks cratered by 23 percent after the company posted poorer than expected quarterly results. The company says it has 166 million daily active users as of March 31.

Snap was trading at $20.42 Tuesday, down from an all-time high of $29.44.


Greek Seamen Extend Strike; No Ferries for 4 Days

Greek seamen and journalists walked off the job Tuesday, a day before a nationwide general strike to protest new austerity measures the government is legislating for in return for more bailout funds.

The seamen’s union announced Tuesday afternoon they would extend their strike, originally planned to last 48 hours, for a further two days, leaving ferries servicing Greece’s islands tied up in port until midnight Friday night.


The Panhellenic Seamen’s Federation said it was asking “for the understanding and full support of both the traveling public and all Greek workers,” adding that the new measures would lead seamen “to poverty and destitution.”


Journalists were holding a 24-hour strike Tuesday, pulling news broadcasts off the air from 6 a.m. (0300 GMT). News websites were not being updated, and no Wednesday newspapers would be printed. Public bus company employees were also holding work stoppages during the day.


Wednesday’s general strike is expected to affect services across the country, from schools and hospitals to public transport. Air traffic controllers have declared participation with a four-hour work stoppage, leading to the rescheduling of 99 flights and the cancellation of a further nine by Greece’s Aegean and Olympic Air. Another airline, Sky Express, announced the rescheduling of 41 domestic flights between Athens and the Greek islands.


Protest marches have been scheduled for central Athens in the morning.


Workers are protesting a new deal with Greece’s international creditors that impose a raft of new tax hikes and spending cuts beyond the end of the country’s third bailout in 2018. The measures, which are to be voted on in parliament at midnight Thursday, will include additional pension cuts in 2019 and higher income tax in 2020.


Without the agreement with its creditors, Greece faced the prospect of running out of cash to service its debts this summer, which could have seen it have another brush with bankruptcy.


Greece is currently in its third international bailout, which is due to end in mid-2018. It has been dependent on rescue loans from its creditors — mainly other European countries that use the euro, and the International Monetary Fund — since its first bailout in 2010.


In return for the funds, successive governments have had to impose repeated waves of reforms, which have included tax hikes and salary and pension cuts. While the country’s finances have improved under the bailouts and the strict supervision they imposed, the belt-tightening has led to spiraling poverty and unemployment rates.


Although the jobless rate has been falling from a high of above 27 percent, it still hovers at around 23 percent.


Uninhabited Island has ‘World’s Worst’ Plastic Pollution

The beaches on a remote, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean have the highest amount of plastic debris in the world.

Researchers from the University of Tasmania say Henderson Island, which is more than 5,000 kilometer from any major population center, is strewn with roughly 37.7 million pieces of plastic waste.

Put another way, the beaches on Henderson Island are covered with about 671 pieces of plastic litter per square meter, which researchers say is the highest density ever recorded.

“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” said Jennifer Lavers of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and lead author of a paper about the pollution in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Henderson Island, which is part of the UK’s Pitcairn Islands territory, sits right in the middle of the Pacific Gyre current, which makes it a “focal point” for garbage from South America as well as from fishing boats.

Researchers say their sampling of the debris at five sites on the island leads them to believe there is more than 17 tons of plastic on the island and around 3,570 new pieces of litter being deposited every day.

Lavers noted, “It’s likely that our data actually underestimates the true amount of debris on Henderson Island as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimeters down to a depth of 10 centimeters, and we were unable to sample along cliffs and rocky coastline.”

Every year, the world produces some 300 million tons of plastic, much of which is not recycled. Plastic disintegrates very slowly, and when it ends up floating in the ocean, it can lead to “entanglement and ingestion” by animals, birds and fish.

“Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55 percent of the world’s seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk from marine debris,” Lavers said.


US Industrial Production Posts Biggest Gain Since 2014

American industry expanded production last month at the fastest pace in more than three years as manufacturers and mines recovered from a March downturn.


The Federal Reserve said Tuesday that industrial production at U.S. factories, mines and utilities shot up 1 percent in April from March, biggest gain since February 2014 and the third straight monthly gain. The increase was more than twice what economists had expected.


Factory production rose 1 percent after declining 0.4 percent in March. Mine production increased 1.2 percent after falling 0.4 percent in March. And utility output rose 0.7 percent after surging 8.2 percent in March.


Factory production has risen three of four months this year. Manufacturing has recovered from a rough patch in late 2015 and early 2016 caused by cutbacks in the energy industry and a strong dollar, which makes U.S. goods costlier in foreign markets.


The overall U.S. economy grew at a lackluster 0.7 percent annual pace from January through March. But economists expect growth to pick up the rest of the year as consumers ramp up spending.


A healthy job market bolsters consumer confidence. Employers last month added 211,000 jobs and unemployment fell to 4.4 percent, lowest in a decade.




US-China Trade Deal Brings Mixed Reaction

The new U.S.-China trade deal, which includes 10 initial agreements on agricultural trade, financial services, investment and energy, is drawing mixed reviews.

The agreement is being panned by some as a poor deal for the United States that does not address fundamental issues concerning the Chinese market. But others say the agreement represents incremental progress.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, argued the deal has failed to address issues facing advanced industries that are critical to the U.S. economic future.


In a statement, he said the plan, which opens up Chinese markets for mostly commodity-based and finance industries, has in return given, “China free rein to use its massive foreign reserves to buy up American companies in advanced industries.”

Atkinson urged the Trump administration’s simple focus on the trade deficit be shifted to two-way trade and demand real changes in Chinese policies related to America’s advanced, knowledge and technology-based industries.

Deal means nothing


Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the deal, by itself, means almost nothing since the increase in market access that China now promises has been promised before.


“Even if they are fully implemented, [the increase in market access] can be easily undone,” Scissors wrote in an emailed reply to VOA, adding that he doesn’t foresee the U.S. trade deficit with China being reduced this year.

Scissors urged the United States to prioritize its negotiations with China on reduction of subsidies to Chinese state-owned enterprise, which he believes will improve foreign firms’ market access in China.


“It should also prioritize reducing Chinese complicity in theft of intellectual property [IP]. The IP goal should be accompanied by the threat of sanctions,” Scissors said, adding both steps would allow the emergence of the American competitive edge.

Incremental progress

Agreeing that it isn’t a major deal, Christopher Balding, a professor at Peking University HSBC Business School, however, said the agreement is a step forward for the Trump administration.

“If the agreement is actually implemented, it would represent, I think, a solid step forward for U.S. market access to China. And it needs to be viewed in that context, though, that it is one step further from where we were before,” Balding told VOA, disagreeing that President Trump got played or out-maneuvered.

Balding agreed China has employed what others called a “delay-and-diversion’ strategy and waited for years to honor its commitments, some of which dated back to China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2000.


Yet, the diplomatic reality is that, as an advanced economy, the United States doesn’t have a lot of leverage over China to open its market, the professor added.


However, China now appears to respond to embarrassment, triggered by Trump’s earlier angry tweets, which the professor said may provide some unconventional leverage in pushing China.


“If the Trump administration keeps public pressure on China, I do think it would be very likely that you could see additional incremental progress in various specific markets or industries,” Balding added.


While it’s urgent for the United States to demand full market access in China, C.Y. Huang, a partner of FCC Partners, warned U.S. companies are losing their edge in competing with their fast-growing Chinese rivals.


“China is no longer afraid of opening up its market and competition from the United States. Many U.S. companies can hardly compete with their Chinese counterparts in China,” Huang told VOA.

Gigantic steps

Washington heralded last week’s deal as “a Herculean accomplishment.”


According to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, China will open its market to U.S. beef by mid-July while, in return the United States will issue a proposed rule to allow Chinese cooked poultry to enter U.S. markets by the same deadline.


Beijing will also allow U.S.-owned firms in China to provide credit rating and electronic payment services, the latter of which is already dominated by China’s UnionPay.

Ross said the deal, part of the 100-day plan after the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, aims to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China, which reached $347 billion last year.

“This is more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade,” Ross told a news briefing at the White House, adding the deal takes three “gigantic” step to chip away at the country’s crippling trade deficit.


US Military Taps into Innovations in Startup Tech World

Recently, one of the largest computer hacks of its kind hit companies and governments around the world. It is an example of the challenges in digital security and keeping ahead of technology. The U.S. military has developed a way to tap into the innovation and speed unique to Silicon Valley and tech startups. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has more details on this initiative.


Solar Power Gains Popularity in Africa

It looks like the time has finally come for residents across Africa to start using their most abundant natural power source. While building power plants and transmission lines takes years and costs much more, installing solar panels is quicker and more affordable for individual home owners, businesses and farmers. VOA’s George Putic reports.


High-tech Gloves Give Doctors Better Data on Muscle Stiffness

One of the effects of progressive muscle diseases like cerebral palsy is muscle stiffness. There are drugs and therapies that are supposed to help but gauging their effectiveness is challenging. Now there’s a high-tech way that may help provide relief for patients. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


Computers in Africa, Asia Seen as Vulnerable Following Global Virus Attack

Cybersecurity experts warn that hundreds of thousands of computer users across the globe remain vulnerable following a large-scale virus attack in recent days. The so-called ‘ransomware’ virus struck governments and companies around the world, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.