Author: Uponsci

Cameroon Says Conflict Prevents Access to AIDS Treatment

Cameroonian health workers and people with HIV marched for World AIDS Day on December 1, calling for access to treatment for patients in conflict areas.

About half a million Cameroonians have HIV, and at least 1,000 live in troubled western regions and the border with Nigeria. The protesters urged Cameroon’s military, separatists, and militants to allow all HIV patients access to needed treatment.

Marie Chantal Awoulbe, who belongs to the Cameroon Network of Adolescents and Positive Youths, which encourages those with AIDS to get regular treatment, took part in the protest and World AIDS Day activities at Chantal Biya International Research Centre in Yaounde. The center carries out research on AIDS, and supports programs to treat and support vulnerable people with HIV.

Awoulbe said her network is asking both armed groups and government troops to stop deaths among people with AIDS where there are armed conflicts by allowing the patients access to regular treatment.

Cameroon’s public health ministry says similar protests and activities to encourage free screening took place in 70 hospitals, with at least 30 hospital workers and people with AIDS taking part at each of the hospitals.

The Cameroon government accuses separatists in the country’s west of attacking hospitals and abducting health care workers. Activists also accuse government troops of attacking and arresting hospital staff suspected of treating civilians the military believes are either fighters or sympathize with separatists.

In April, medical aid group Doctors Without Borders suspended work in Cameroon’s troubled Southwest region to protest the rearrest of four of its staff members. Authorities accused the staffers of cooperating with regional separatists, but the organization denied it.

Medical staff members say intimidation and abduction of health workers, and ceaseless battles between government troops and separatist fighters make it impossible for medical supplies to reach the troubled English-speaking regions.

Twenty-eight-year-old Betrand Lemfon said he and several dozen people with AIDS moved from Jakiri, an English-speaking northwestern town, to Bafoussam, a French-speaking commercial city. He said he and others with the disease were afraid of dying in Jakiri because they did not have access to regular treatment.

“There are a lot of persons out there who are in need of medications, so if we could have the opportunity and chance for medications to always reach every interior part of the North-West region, South-West region who are hit by the crisis, it will help the adolescents, young persons and children living with HIV to take their ARVs [antiretroviral medicines] and stay healthy,” he said.

Lemfon spoke via the messaging app WhatsApp from Bafoussam.

Cameroon’s military says it will protect all health workers and civilians in the troubled regions.

The government says the number of people with the disease in Cameroon has decreased from about 970,000 in 2010 to 500,000 in 2021.

Health officials say the decline is due to increasing awareness of the disease and its consequences. The government says sexual behavior is changing, with the number of people using condoms or abstaining from sex increasing.

Honorine Tatah, a government official in charge of AIDS control in Cameroon, said unlike in 2020 when there was resistance due to lack of awareness, many more civilians now accept systematic screening for HIV.

“During antenatal care, a woman is screened for a number of diseases including hepatitis B, HIV and if you are tested positive, you are eligible for treatment and that treatment will reduce the chances of a child getting infected with HIV. The treatment is free of charge,” Tatah said.

World AIDS Day was the first international day for global health, starting in 1988. It allows people all over the world to join in the battle against HIV, to support those with HIV, and to remember those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.

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NASA Takes $4B Warmup Lap Around Moon 

NASA’s uber-expensive test dummy moon mission exceeds expectations. Plus, a lunar flashlight’s frosty mission, and a state visit to NASA headquarters. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

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Zimbabwe Scores Another First Against HIV In Africa

In October, Zimbabwe became to first African country to approve the use of the injectable HIV prevention drug known as cabotegravir. As Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, Zimbabwe, many are eager for the drug to become available. Videography by Blessing Chigwenhembe.

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This HIV Prevention Drug Could Change the Game

A new, long-lasting drug could be a game-changer for preventing HIV infections, experts say.

Advocates are hopeful that those who need it most in low- and middle-income countries will not have to wait for it as long as they have for previous HIV drugs. But questions remain about access and price.

The drug is called cabotegravir and is delivered as a shot once every other month. In clinical trials, it did a better job at preventing infection than another option — a pill taken once a day.

The bimonthly injection seems to be an easier treatment regimen to stick to than daily pills, according to Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, an HIV prevention advocacy organization.

“If you can take a pill every day, that’s great. But if you can’t, we see a lot of people who start [taking the pills] who don’t continue,” he said.

Aside from the inconvenience, there can be a stigma attached to taking the pills, Warren said. The drugs for prevention, called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, are the same as the drugs used to treat HIV infection.

“If you’re a young person and your parents find your pill bottle, they say, ‘Why are you taking this pill? Are you HIV infected?’ And the young person may say, ‘No, I’m protecting myself,'” Warren said. “And they say, ‘Well, why are you having sex?'”

Long-lasting drugs like cabotegravir or another new product, a once-a-month vaginal ring, offer patients more choices, he added.

About 1.5 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2021, according to the World Health Organization, about 60% of them in Africa.

Uganda and Zimbabwe approved cabotegravir for PrEP earlier this year. They are the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa to do so.

These approvals come less than a year after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized it.

That’s progress, Warren said. FDA approved PrEP pills in 2012, but “it took three years before any African regulatory agency approved it. So, we’ve already seen a condensing of that timeline.”

Cabotegravir costs $22,000 per year in the United States. ViiV Healthcare, the company that makes the drug, has not officially announced what it will cost in low- and middle-income countries, but it is expected to be much lower. Some aid groups have indicated that ViiV will offer the drug at $250 per year.

“The problem is that actually that won’t be really affordable for countries who need to roll it out and scale up,” said Jessica Burry, a pharmacist with humanitarian group Doctors without Borders.

PrEP pills cost about $54 per year, Warren said.

“The hope is that early in 2023, we can see a price point that is much closer to that 54 [dollars] than to the 250 [dollars],” he said. “Hopefully, in the $100 range per year.”

ViiV said it is working with the U.N.-backed Medicines Patent Pool to allow generic manufacturers to produce cabotegravir at a lower price for low- and middle-income countries.

ViiV said cabotegravir is more complicated to manufacture than most HIV drugs. No generic manufacturers have been selected yet. Once they are, it will take about three to five years before a generic version is on the market.

The company has filed for regulatory approval in 11 countries so far. Burry says there should be more.

“If they’re going to be the only supplier for the next four or five years until generics are available, then they really need to step up to the plate and actually file, register and get that drug available,” she said.

Demand for the drug is unclear. PrEP pills have been slow to catch on.

About 845,000 people in more than 50 countries took them in 2020, but the United Nations was aiming for 3 million by that time.

“We don’t have a ton of PrEP users, so if you’re ViiV, you’re looking at a very small market,” Warren said.

Warren said providers and advocates need to help grow that market. They need to do a better job connecting people at risk with programs that offer PrEP, he added.

“Some of the early PrEP programs began with us thinking that if you just bought the product, people would magically show up,” he said.

Warren hopes to change that as part of a coalition that includes ViiV, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and others.

“There’s a huge effort in this coalition to bring in civil society from day one, and the communities that this product is meant to help and support,” he said.

The slow uptake means PrEP has not yet shown that it can make much of a real-world impact, Warren noted. He hopes to see research programs launch next year to find the best ways to reach the communities most at risk and lower infection rates.

“If we can’t show that in the next three years, then we don’t necessarily need all these generic manufacturers, because there will not be a market for this product,” he said.

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Amazon Deforestation in Brazil Remains Near 15-Year High

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed slightly last year, a year after setting a 15-year high, according to closely watched numbers published Wednesday. The data was released by the National Institute for Space Research.

The agency’s Prodes monitoring system shows the rainforest lost an area roughly the size of Qatar, about 11,600 square kilometers in the 12 months from August 2021 to July 2022.

That is down 11% compared with the previous year, when more than 13,000 square kilometers were destroyed.

For more than a decade deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined dramatically and never rose back above 10,000 square kilometers. Then came the presidency of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, beginning in January 2019.

This will be the last report published under Bolsonaro, who lost his reelection bid and will leave office January 1. But part of the destruction that took place on his watch will not appear until next year, including the key months from August to October 2022. A because it is the dry season.

An analysis of the new yearly data from Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, shows that in the four years of Bolsonaro’s leadership, deforestation rose 60% over the previous four years. That is the largest percentage rise under a presidency since satellite monitoring began in 1998.

In one state, Para, a fierce rate of destruction fell by 21% yet it was still the center of one-third of all Brazil’s Amazon forest loss. Part of the tree cutting and burning happens in areas that are ostensibly protected. One such area is Paru State Forest, where the nonprofit Amazon Institute of People and the Environment registered 2 square kilometers of deforestation in just October.

“In recent years, deforestation has reached protected areas where previously there was almost no destruction,” Jacqueline Pereira, a researcher with the Amazon Institute, told The Associated Press. “In Paru’s region, the destruction is driven by lease of land for soybean crops and cattle.”

Another critical area is the southern part of the state of Amazonas, the only state that increased deforestation in the most recent data, by 13% compared to the year before. It’s largely attributable to Bolsonaro’s push to pave about 400 kilometers of the only road that connects Manaus, home to 2.2 million people, with Brazil’s larger urban centers further south. Most Amazon deforestation occurs alongside roads where access is easier and land value is higher.

Researchers and environmentalists have blamed Bolsonaro’s policies for the surge in deforestation. The administration weakened environmental agencies and backed legislative measures to loosen land protections in the name of economic development, paired with a view of occupying a sparsely populated territory at any cost. This policy has emboldened land robbers and spurred more illegal mining.

Bolsonaro’s successor, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, promised cheering crowds at the recent U.N. climate conference in Egypt to end all deforestation in the country by 2030.

“There will be no climate security if the Amazon isn’t protected,” he said.

The last time da Silva was president, from 2003 to 2010, deforestation fell sharply. On the other hand, he backed initiatives that set in motion destruction in the long run, such as the construction of the mammoth Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and generous loans to the beef industry. Chopping down forest for pasture is the primary driver of deforestation.

The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a buffer against climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. It’s also the most biodiverse forest in the world, and the home of tribes that have lived in the forest for thousands of years, some of them living in isolation.

“If da Silva wants to decrease forest destruction by 2023, he must have zero tolerance for environmental crime from Day One of his administration. That includes holding accountable those who sabotaged environmental governance in the country while in office over the past four years,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory.

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African Women and Girls Most at Risk of HIV   

In South Africa, which has the world’s largest HIV-positive population, authorities say girls and young women are now the most at-risk demographic with many having resorted to transactional sex to pay the bills during COVID pandemic lockdowns.  Ahead of World Aids Day on Dec. 1, VOA spoke to a former sex worker and visited a clinic that treats adolescent girls and others with HIV. Kate Bartlett reports from Johannesburg, South Africa, on efforts to halt the spread. Camera: Zaheer Cassim 

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Malawi Launches Africa’s First Children’s Malaria Vaccine

Malawi and the World Health Organization are rolling out a new malaria vaccine for young children that backers say will reduce deaths from the mosquito-borne disease.

The RTSS vaccine was pilot tested on more than one million children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and recommended a year ago by the WHO. Despite a low effectiveness rate of 30%, the vaccine has raised hopes that some of the more than 400,000 people who die annually from malaria can be saved. 

Malaria remains a huge public health problem in Malawi, with about one third of its 20 million people getting infected each year. 

According to the ministry of health, the disease kills five Malawians every day, most of them children under the age of five or pregnant women who were not presented early enough for care.  

The health ministry says the first phase of the vaccination campaign will target 330,000 children, who were not reached during vaccine trials. 

The vaccine, sold by GlaxoSmithKline as Mosquirix, is meant for children under the age of five and requires four doses. 

“Malaria is major problem in children. They are the ones at highest risk of dying,” said Dr. Charles Mwansambo, Malawi’s secretary for health. “That’s why even when we were doing the earlier studies, we found that once we get maximum benefit, we should target this age group. The main reason is that they are the ones that are most likely to die from malaria.” 

Last year, the government launched a nationwide anti-malaria initiative known as Zero Malaria Starts with Me, aimed at eliminating the disease by 2030. 

Mwansambo said the vaccine is a key part of that initiative. 

“It actually prevents about 33 percent of deaths. Meaning that if you add the 33 to those that we can prevent using insecticide treated nets, if will also add on those [we can] prevent by indoor residual spraying, it [can] add up to something significant that will end up eliminating malaria,” he said. 

However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, backers of the vaccine, have raised concerns about whether the vaccine is worth the cost. 

In July, the Associated Press quoted Philip Welkhoff, director of malaria programs for the Gates Foundation, as saying the foundation will no longer offer direct financial support for the vaccine, although it will fund an alliance backing the vaccine. 

He said Mosquirix has much lower efficacy than the foundation would like and that the vaccine is relatively expensive and logistically challenging to deliver. 

Dr. Neema Kimambo, a WHO representative in Malawi, said the malaria vaccine itself is not a silver bullet but part of a combination of all interventions to fight the disease. 

“Where it [vaccination] was done, we have seen how it has reduced under-five deaths and we believe that as we expand now, we are definitely to save more lives of children under five,” she said. 

Maziko Matemba, a health activist and community health ambassador in Malawi, said he hopes the malaria vaccine efficacy will improve as time goes by. 

“I have an example with COVID-19. When we had AstraZeneca, the efficacy when it started — as you know it was also a new vaccine — it was less that certain percentage and people said no it was less than this. But over time, we found that the efficacy has gone up,” Matemba said. “So we are monitoring the launch of this new vaccine with keen interest.

“I know that other partners are saying the worthiness of investment is not worth it, but looking at the way we are coming from, Malawi in particular, this could be one of the tools to prevent malaria.” 

Besides WHO, other partners supporting Malawi in the fight against malaria include USAID, UNICEF, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and a global health nonprofit organization, PATH. 

 

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Chinese Astronauts Reach Tiangong Space Station

Three Chinese astronauts arrived Wednesday at the country’s space station as part of a six-month mission that includes the station’s first in-orbit crew rotation.

The astronauts are replacing three others who have been at the Tiangong station since early June.

China docked the last of the station’s three modules earlier this month and astronauts are working on the final phases of the construction process.

China plans to launch a powerful space telescope next year.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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US Bat Species Devastated by Fungus Now Listed as Endangered

The Biden administration declared the northern long-eared bat endangered on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to save a species driven to the brink of extinction by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease.

“White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency is “deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces the impacts of disease and protects the survivors to recover northern long-eared bat populations,” she said.

First documented in the U.S. in 2006, the disease has infected 12 types of bats and killed millions. The northern long-eared bat is among the hardest hit, with estimated declines of 97% or higher in affected populations. The bat is found in 37 eastern and north-central states, plus Washington, D.C., and much of Canada.

Named for white, fuzzy spots that appear on infected bats, white-nose syndrome attacks bats’ wings, muzzles and ears when they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines.

It causes them to wake early from hibernation and to sometimes fly outside. They can burn up their winter fat stores and eventually starve.

The disease has spread across nearly 80% of the geographical range where northern long-eared bats live and is expected to cover it all by 2025.

Little brown bat also suffering

Another species ravaged by the fungus is the tricolored bat, which the government proposed to classify as endangered in September. A third, the little brown bat, is being evaluated for a potential listing.

Bats are believed to give U.S. agriculture an annual boost of $3 billion by gobbling pests and pollinating some plants.

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the northern long-eared bat as threatened in 2015. With its situation increasingly dire, the agency proposed an endangered listing in March and considered public comments before deciding to proceed. The reclassification takes effect January 30, 2023.

“This species is in dire straits, but we never want to give up hope,” said Winifred Frick, chief scientist with Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit group. “We can do amazing things when we work hard and have legal protections in place to protect these small colonies that are left.”

In many cases, the service identifies “critical habitat” areas considered particularly important for the survival of an endangered species. Officials decided against doing so for the northern long-eared bat because habitat loss isn’t the primary reason for its decline, spokeswoman Georgia Parham said. Calling attention to their winter hibernation spots could make things worse, she added.

Recovery efforts will focus on wooded areas where the bats roost in summer — usually alone or in small groups, nestling beneath bark or in tree cavities and crevices. Emerging at dusk, they feed on moths, beetles and other insects.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to be sure projects that they fund or authorize — such as timber harvests, prescribed fires and highway construction — will not jeopardize a listed species’ existence.

For nonfederal landowners, actions that could result in unintentional kills could be allowed but will require permits.

Turbines also a threat

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will also work with wind energy companies to reduce the likelihood that bats will strike turbines. These collisions are currently a threat in roughly half of the northern long-eared bat’s range, an area likely to grow as wind energy development expands.

The service has approved nearly two dozen plans allowing wind energy and forestry projects to proceed after steps were taken to make them more bat-friendly, said Karen Herrington, Midwest regional coordinator for threatened and endangered species.

Operators can limit the danger by curtailing blade rotation during bats’ migration season and when winds are low.

Research continues for methods to fight white-nose syndrome, including development of a vaccine. The service has distributed more than $46 million for the campaign, which involves around 150 agencies, private organizations and Native American tribes.

“We have to find a cure for white-nose syndrome that is killing our bats and we have to protect the forests where they live,” said Ryan Shannon, senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “This endangered listing will help on both counts.”

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Fentanyl’s Scourge Visible on Streets of Los Angeles

In a filthy alley behind a Los Angeles doughnut shop, Ryan Smith convulsed in the grips of a fentanyl high — lurching from moments of slumber to bouts of violent shivering on a warm summer day. 

When Brandice Josey, another homeless addict, bent down and blew a puff of fentanyl smoke his way in an act of charity, Smith sat up and slowly opened his lip to inhale the vapor as if it was the cure to his problems. 

Smith, wearing a grimy yellow T-shirt that said “Good Vibes Only,” reclined on his backpack and dozed the rest of the afternoon on the asphalt, unperturbed by the stench of rotting food and human waste that permeated the air. 

For too many people strung out on the drug, the sleep that follows a fentanyl hit is permanent. The highly addictive and potentially lethal drug has become a scourge across America and is taking a toll on the growing number of people living on the streets of Los Angeles. 

Nearly 2,000 homeless people died in the city from April 2020 to March 2021, a 56% increase from the previous year, according to a report released by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Overdose was the leading cause of death, killing more than 700. 

Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer. Use of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is cheap to produce and is often sold as is or laced in other drugs, has exploded. Because it’s 50 times more potent than heroin, even a small dose can be fatal. 

It has quickly become the deadliest drug in the nation, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Two-thirds of the 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021 were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. 

The drug’s toll spreads far beyond the streets. 

Jennifer Catano, 27, has the names of two children tattooed on her wrists, but she hasn’t seen them for several years. They live with her mother. 

She has overdosed three times and been through rehab seven or eight times. 

“It’s scary to get off of it,” she said. “The withdrawals are really bad.” 

Catano wandered around a subway station near MacArthur Park desperate to sell a bottle of Downy fabric softener and a Coleman camping chair she stole from a nearby store. 

Drug abuse can be a cause or symptom of homelessness. Both can also intersect with mental illness. 

A 2019 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found about a quarter of all homeless adults in Los Angeles County had mental illnesses and 14% had a substance use disorder. That analysis only counted people who had a permanent or long-term severe condition. Taking a broader interpretation of the same data, the Los Angeles Times found about 51% had mental illnesses and 46% had substance use disorders. 

Billions of dollars are being spent to alleviate homelessness in California, but treatment is not always funded. 

A controversial bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom could improve that by forcing people suffering from severe mental illness into treatment. But they need to be diagnosed with a certain disorder such as schizophrenia and addiction alone doesn’t qualify. 

Help is available but it is outpaced by the magnitude of misery on the streets. 

Rita Richardson, a field supervisor with LA Door, a city addiction-prevention program that works with people convicted of misdemeanors, hands out socks, water, condoms, snacks, clean needles and flyers at the same hotspots Monday through Friday. She hopes the consistency of her visits will encourage people to get help. 

“Then hopefully the light bulb comes on. It might not happen this year. It might not happen next year. It might take several years,” said Richardson, a former homeless addict. “My goal is to take them from the dark to the light.” 

 

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