Science & Health

New Hospital to Serve 50,000 Impoverished Haitians

Fifty thousand Haitians will have access to quality health care for the first time after a modern new hospital opened Monday in the isolated and impoverished Cotes-de-Fer region.

The Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan Center for Health will serve those who, until now, had to travel for hours on rough roads for treatment.

The new hospital is a project of the nonprofit charity Catholic Medical Mission Board. The U.S.- based group Mercy Health contributed $2 million for construction costs.

“With active involvement of the community and an emphasis on training and knowledge sharing, the health center will strengthen the local health system in a long-term and sustainable way,” said CMMB’s director in Haiti, Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois.

Along with an emergency room and pharmacy, the new hospital will give pregnant women a place to deliver their babies, along with postnatal and pediatric care.

The hospital also has plans for expansion for dental and ophthalmology clinics.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Newest Technologies Becoming Weapons in Fight for Land Rights

Cutting-edge technologies — from drones to data collected by taxi drivers — are becoming key weapons in the global battle to improve land rights and fight poverty, experts said Monday.

Advances in earth observation, digital connectivity and computing power provide an array of information, from detailed topographical maps to transportation use, that was previously unimaginable, geospatial experts said at a World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty.

The information collected can be instrumental to helping establish property records and land titling systems in countries where there is no formal ownership or land-use documentation.

Drones help map Africa

Survey-mapping drones may look like toys but are powerful machines having a huge impact on land-use planning in Africa, said Edward Anderson, a senior World Bank disaster management expert.

High-quality, high-resolution images taken by drones in Zanzibar identified nearly 2,000 new buildings in one 12-month period alone, he said.

The mapping exercise, budgeted at $2 million in 2005, was completed at a tenth of the price by local university students operating the small, light, unmanned drones, Anderson said.

“Coastal zones are developing and urbanizing so quickly, waterside areas are being developed into hotels, residential properties,” he said.

“Until now, there was no way of quantifying this change and making comparisons,” Anderson said.

Massive growth exposed

While more than 87 percent of the land mass of Europe is mapped at a local level, such maps exist for only about 3 percent of the entire African continent, he said.

A project using drones in Mauritania, a country twice the size of France but with a population of less than four million, has allowed authorities to document the massive growth of cities such as its capital, Nouakchott, said University of Arizona professor Mamadou Baro.

Originally established in 1959 with fewer than 5,000 residents, Nouakchott is the largest city in the Sahara and home to more than 1.5 million people.

“This is placing huge pressure on social infrastructure and chaos in the development of the city,” Baro said. “Drones are very helpful in attempting to manage and track this kind of enormous growth.”

Private companies that collect data as part of their businesses are being encouraged to share with state planning authorities as well, said Holly Krambeck, a World Bank transport planning expert.

Taxi drivers track roads 

GPS data collected by taxi drivers is helping to design plans for infrastructure and roads in countries such as Brazil and in North Africa, she said.

The shared data comes through agreements with technology companies such as Grab that operates ride-hailing and logistics services apps in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Using technology can also help identify new sources of tax revenue, experts said.

In Tanzania, improved mapping data revealed that up to two-thirds of properties in secondary cities were not on the tax rolls, they said.

Science & Health

Experimental Vaccine Protects Against Two Strains of Malaria

An experimental anti-malaria vaccine has been developed that protects against more than one strain of the malaria parasite that causes the mosquito-borne illness.  

The vaccine, tested by principal investigator Kirsten Lyke and colleagues, is called PfSPZ and uses whole, live weakened early versions of the most common form of malaria Plasmodium falciparum (P. Falciparum), called sporozoites.

This early form of the parasite is what’s first injected into humans by an infected mosquito.  

By using the entire sporozoite in the vaccine, the immune system responds to more of the parasite, according to Lyke.

15 healthy adults tested

A study of the vaccine conducted by Lyke and colleagues, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, enrolled 15 healthy adults who were assigned to receive three doses of the vaccine over several months.  

Nineteen weeks after receiving the final dose, the volunteers were exposed to bites of mosquitoes carrying one strain of parasite from Africa.

A second group of six controls that was not vaccinated also got exposed to the mosquitoes. They showed signs of malaria and were promptly treated.

Nine of 14 vaccinated participants, or 64 percent, showed no signs of infection after exposure.  

Of the nine, six participants were selected and exposed to a different strain, 33 weeks after the final immunization.

This time, five of the six were protected against this second strain, according to Lyke.

‘Great’ is not good enough

“Which is great, but not good enough,” said Lyke. “I mean, you don’t want to take a vaccine that’s going to give you a two out of three chance of being protected. So we have to improve on that and get it up to as close to 100 percent as we can. But at least we’ve established that we can get very high protection in six months and we’re seeing cross-strain protection.”

The agent would offer broader protection against a disease that kills mostly young children in sub-Saharan Africa.  

According to the World Health Organization, 212 million people were infected with the mosquito-carrying parasite in 2015, and 429,000 died.  

There are four types of malaria parasite that typically infect people. The most common and deadly is Plasmodium falciparum, which goes through a number of life-cycle stages during which the parasite evolves into a different form.  

That is what makes it difficult to develop a vaccine.  

Multiple strains a problem

The problem is further complicated by the fact that P. falciparum can mutate and develop into multiple strains.

Lyke said this is particularly true in Africa, in places where the disease is common.

“The falciparum malaria that is so endemic, there’s a lot of genetic change that occurs because it’s so prevalent in the population. And that contributes to different strains of the falciparum malaria so that you know any vaccine that we’d want to introduce we would want to make sure that it broadly covers multiple different strains of falciparum malaria,” Lyke said.

Clinical trials of the early vaccine, produced by the company Sanaria, also are going on in Africa, including in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Bioko Island off of Africa’s west coast.

Economy & business

African Region to Receive $45 Billion in Development Aid

The World Bank reports Africa will receive the bulk of the $75 billion the International Development Association, or IDA, will spend to finance life-saving and life-changing operations over the next three years mainly in 30 of the world’s poorest, most fragile countries.

The IDA is a part of the World Bank which supports anti-poverty programs in the most poor developing countries through long-term, no interest loans.

The World Bank reports the African region will receive $45 billion of the $75 billion allocated for development purposes. It says other recipients will include small Pacific island states threatened by climate change and fragile countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Haiti.

The fund, which runs from July 1 through June 30, 2020, also will support specific development projects in 82 additional fragile states, including Guinea, Nepal, Niger, and Tajikistan.

Axel van Trotsenburg, vice president for Development Programs at the World Bank, says the aid package will make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. For example, he says it could deliver essential health and nutrition services for up to 400 million people.

“We will or expect to train up to 10 million teachers to benefit 300-plus million children. We intend to immunize between 130 and 180 million children… and would undertake investments that could improve the access to improved water resources for up to 45 million people,” he said.

Long-term and emergency assistance 

While IDA is largely focused on supporting long-term development projects, it does have provisions for helping people in crisis situations. Van Trotsenburg tells VOA that IDA has just announced a $1.6 billion support package for emergencies, with critical support going for famine relief in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northern Nigeria, where an estimated 20 million people are at risk of famine.

“The financial support will be a combination of recently approved operations that we have been in the last six, eight months that were already started to target, for example, the north of Nigeria to the remaining resources that are still available in our crisis response window,” he said.

Van Trotsenburg says IDA still has about $360 million left over from development projects executed over the past three years. He says that money will be used for famine relief.

Arts & Entertainment

Afghan Music Contest Pits First Female Finalist Against Rapper

An 18-year-old female novice singer and a 23-year old barber-turned-rapper are the unlikely finalists of a televised talent contest providing Afghans a welcome distraction from the daily bloodshed in their country.

The two are vying to become the next “Afghan Star.” This year’s season is the most tradition-breaking yet in a deeply conservative country where the Taliban once outlawed music and Western-style popular culture is widely frowned upon.

Originally due to be broadcast live, the final will instead be pre-recorded following a wave of Islamist attacks in Kabul, with the winner announced on Tuesday night.

Finalist Zulala Hashimi, from a militant-plagued province in the east, quit school and overcame resistance from relatives unhappy with her singing publicly. When Hashimi auditioned, she was one of only two women out of three hundred contestants.

“I showed people that a woman can do it. I ask every woman to make an effort to reach this point,” she told Reuters, her mother by her side between rehearsals at a television studio protected behind blast walls and Kalashnikov-wielding guards.

Wowing audiences with bright traditional outfits and jewel-encrusted tiaras, and off-stage sporting brown-rimmed Ray Bans, Hashimi’s songs in Pashto and Dari have won her thousands of fans, who vote by text message and on Facebook.

Up against Hashimi is Sayed Jamal Mubarez, a barber from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif who spent several years in Iran, one of thousands from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority that sought refuge across the country’s western border.

Having ditched his shalwar kameez in early auditions for jeans, a zipped black jacket and a “Street Swagg” baseball cap, Mubarez said he discovered rap in Iran and has been writing his own lyrics ever since.

“My parents are illiterate, but when I was singing they were encouraging me, so I believed that I could win people’s support,” he said backstage. “But I never thought of being a finalist.”

Inside a compound

Afghan Star, now in its twelfth season, is produced by the private television channel Tolo. Tolo’s reporting has earned it the wrath of the Taliban, who last year killed seven Tolo employees in a suicide attack on a staff minibus.

The contest was moved to inside a compound in Kabul’s city center.

Obaid Juenda, a judge on the show who now lives in London, said the percentage of women auditioning had fallen sharply to five percent amid the deteriorating security.

Juenda hoped the show gave contestants a springboard for a career, but in a country where opportunities for public performances are limited, past winners have faded into obscurity.

“There isn’t an industry here. We have too many people here who love female singers but we can’t sell our music legally. They can’t perform in public,” he told Reuters.

Hashimi said she had received nothing but support so far.

“Right now I don’t have any problem,” she said, her eyes darting nervously to her mother.  “If in the future there are some challenges I’ll try to cope with them to fulfil my dreams.”


Science & Health

Tanzania Doctors to Help Kenya Recover from Health Sector Strike

Tanzania has announced a plan to send 500 doctors to Kenya after a doctors’ strike paralyzed health services in the neighboring country for months. Kenyan doctors, however, say the government should not hire any foreign doctors but instead employ the more than 1,000 trained physicians who are unemployed.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli announced the plan to dispatch the doctors after a recent meeting in Dar es Salaam with a visiting Kenyan delegation that included Kenya’s health cabinet secretary, Cleopa Mailu.

Mailu said this was a deal that would benefit both countries.


“We have so many government health centers that need doctors,” said Mailu. “Yes, we have doctors in our country; we recently had a doctors’ strike and one of their reasons for their strike was that there were not enough doctors to attend to patients. The doctors were spending a lot of hours attending to the patients.”

Doctors from public hospitals in Kenya went on strike last December to demand a pay raise and improved working conditions for physicians and patients.

A deal struck by the doctors’ union and the government opened the way to negotiations that ended the 100-day-old strike.


According to Mailu, it is because of the doctors’ demands that the push to recruit foreign physicians was realized.


“There is so much work and we will continue looking for more doctors; we will continue negotiations with the government to see if they will provide us with more doctors so that we can strengthen our health services here in Kenya,” said Mailu.

Dr. Elly Nyaim of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board says the move may not have been clearly thought out.


“As per the World Health Organization recommendation, we still have a shortage even with the ones we produce from our universities, that state actually cuts across the entire East Africa… so Tanzania is actually even worse off than we are in terms of the doctor-patient ratio,” said Nyaim.

The physician’s union says Kenya currently has 1,400 doctors who have not been absorbed into the workforce.


Low doctor-to-patient ratio

According to the World Health organization, the Tanzanian doctor-to-patient ratio stands at 1 doctor for every 20,000 patients. In Kenya, it’s 1 doctor for every 16,000. The recommended doctor-patient ratio is one to 300.


“It would be very unfortunate that you are actually exporting when you do not have enough yourself; it should not be done at the expense of denying qualified Kenyans positions because you are bringing foreigners,” said Nyaim.

In a press briefing held after the meeting with the Kenyan delegation, Tanzania’s president welcomed the new deal with the Kenyan government.


“By good luck our friends have said they will pay good salaries and the payment will be in dollars. They will be given accommodation and security,” said Magufuli.


Health Secretary Mailu says the Tanzanian doctors will start working in Kenya in April and will be given two to three-year contracts.

And he says there are plan underway to also hire doctors from Cuba.





Arts & Entertainment

$60 Million ‘Pink Star’ Diamond Goes Back on Sale Next Month

A 59.60-carat diamond known as “The Pink Star” is returning to auction next month and could fetch a record $60 million, three years since it was sold for even more – only for the buyer to pull out of the deal.

The diamond was presented by Sotheby’s in London ahead of the auction in Hong Kong on April 4.

In November 2013, a Geneva auction of the stone fetched a world record $83 million but the buyer, New York-based diamond cutter Isaac Wolf, could not pay up and defaulted.

However, after some more successful auctions of colored diamonds in recent years, the auction house said that now was a good time to try again.

“The last few years we’ve had colored diamonds perform extremely well, many new records been created at auction for the colored diamonds, pinks and blues mainly, so we thought it was a good time to bring it to the market,” David Bennett, worldwide Chairman of Sotheby’s Jewelry Division, told Reuters.

In 2015 the “Blue Moon of Josephine” sold for $48.5 million in Geneva. At 12.03 carats, it set a price-per-carat record.

“The Pink Star” is the largest Internally Flawless Fancy Vivid Pink diamond ever graded by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the auction house said, yet the sparkling stone is still small enough to fit onto a ring.

Sotheby’s said that the mixed-cut diamond was initially mined by De Beers in 1999 in Botswana as a 132.5 carat rough diamond before being cut and polished.

Its refined form is now set to be the most valuable polished diamond ever offered at auction.

“The extraordinary size of this 59.60-carat diamond, paired with its richness of color, surpasses any known pink diamond record in history,” Bennett said.

Bennett said the current record for a pink diamond was held by the “Graff Pink”. At 24.78 carats it is half the size of The Pink Star and was sold in Geneva for $46.2 million in 2010.


Arts & Entertainment

Palestinian Women Try to Bring Baseball to Gaza

The young Palestinian women don baseball caps on top of their Islamic headscarves and field tennis balls with fabric gloves, giving a decidedly local feel to the great American pastime.

They are trying to bring baseball to the Gaza Strip, an effort that is still in its early innings.

The players, who work out on a small soccer pitch in a southern Gaza town, admit they are still trying to understand the rules of the complicated sport. With pitches lobbed underhand, the game they play is closer to softball.

“I only know it through TV,” said Valentina Shaer, a 23-year-old English literature student.

Mahmoud Tafesh, the team’s coach, said he has dreamed of bringing baseball to Gaza since he was introduced to the game last year.

Although baseball is a fringe sport throughout the soccer-crazy Middle East, the game has grown in popularity. Iraq has a national team, and one of the country’s coaches introduced Tafesh to baseball last year while both were in Egypt, which now boasts a baseball and softball federation.

Tafesh admits he still has much to learn. He is unfamiliar with any of the teams or players in Major League Baseball and gets most of his knowledge from YouTube videos.

When he returned to Gaza, he was concerned about the lack of equipment and whether the conservative society, which is governed by the Islamic militant group Hamas, would accept the idea of girls playing the sport.

He first approached girls at the only sports education college in Gaza. To his surprise, he found interest in baseball was stronger among girls than boys.

“We targeted this group because they had permission from their families to play sport as sports students. Through them, we started to spread, attracting girls from other fields such as journalism and accountants,” he said after finishing a two-hour training session for the girls.

The women say their families had no objection, and some parents even encouraged them. But the society overall has not been as receptive.

Shaer said people “on social media had a bad idea about us,” noting abusive comments when their pictures first appeared.

On Sunday, the team, which includes 20 to 30 members, had its weekly practice on a soccer pitch in the female section of Al-Aqsa University, built on lands that were part of Jewish settlements before Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

There were no males except for the coach, and some other students gathered to watch the women playing catch and taking batting practice. The batters took wild swings, often missing but occasionally making solid contact.

The players wore headscarves as well as long-sleeve running tops and loose pants, in keeping with local norms.

“While we face difficulties, we would like a specialized softball field to learn it correctly and train freely without any obstacles,” said Iman Shahin, an athlete who studies sports education.

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power in 2007, heavily restricting travel and trade, and making it difficult to acquire specialized sports equipment.

Tafesh said he found just one baseball glove in all of Gaza, at the Sports Ministry building, and took it to local tailors who used it to make replicas out of black fabric.

With no proper bats in the territory, the team took a piece of wood and shaped it to look like one.

While seeking funding and real equipment, the women dream of eventually competing abroad.

“All of us share the same goal: participate and represent the name of Palestine outside and show that there are sports for the girls in Gaza,” said 24-year-old Iman Mughaier.