Science & Health

Lebanon Struggles to Contain Cholera Outbreak

A few weeks ago, Lebanon detected its first cases of cholera in 30 years. The highly contagious disease has since spread and officials in the cash-strapped country fear there is a high risk of it becoming endemic if they are unable to tackle the root causes of the outbreak. Jacob Russell reports from the town of Bebnine, in northern Lebanon.

Science & Health

Fauci Pleads With Americans to Get COVID Shot in Final White House Briefing

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. health official celebrated and vilified as the face of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic response, used his final White House briefing on Tuesday to denounce division and promote vaccines.

Fauci, who plans to retire soon as President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser and top U.S. infectious disease official, has dealt with the thorny questions around health crises from HIV/AIDS to avian flu and Ebola.

But it was his handling of COVID — and his blunt assessments from the White House podium that Americans needed to change their behavior in light of the pandemic — that made him a hero to public health advocates while serving under President Donald Trump, a villain to some on the right and an unusual celebrity among bureaucratic officials used to toiling in obscurity. Fauci has regularly been subjected to death threats for his efforts.

True to form, Fauci used the final press briefing to strongly encourage Americans to get COVID vaccines and booster shots, and touted the effectiveness of masks, all of which became partisan totems in the United States.

The United States leads the world in recorded COVID-19 deaths with more than 1 million.

After 13 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines given worldwide, Fauci said, there is “clearly an extensive body of information” that indicates that they are safe.

“When I see people in this country because of the divisiveness in our country … not getting vaccinated for reasons that have nothing to do with public health, but have to do because of divisiveness and ideological differences, as a physician, it pains me,” Fauci said.

“I don’t want to see anybody hospitalized, and I don’t want to see anybody die from COVID. Whether you’re a far-right Republican or a far-left Democrat, doesn’t make any difference to me.”

Fauci is stepping down in December after 54 years of public service. The 81-year-old has headed the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, since 1984.

The veteran immunologist has served as an adviser to seven U.S. presidents beginning with Republican Ronald Reagan. He made his first appearance at the White House press briefing in 2001.

Republican lawmakers including fierce critic Senator Rand Paul, with whom Fauci tangled during Senate hearings, have vowed to investigate him when they take control of the House of Representatives following November’s congressional elections.

On Tuesday, Fauci said he “will absolutely cooperate fully” in any congressional oversight hearings launched by Republicans next year.

Science & Health

Botswana Introduces Injectable Antiretrovirals for HIV Treatment

Botswana has approved the use of injectable anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to improve adherence to HIV treatment. Minister of Health Edwin Dikoloti says the injections, given every two months, are more convenient than daily pills, which patients sometimes skip. 

Health Minister Edwin Dikoloti said the use of injectable ARV medication will start next year, after the recent approval of the drug.

“(The) government is working on introducing the injectable anti-retroviral medication soon. Botswana has, through the professional guidance of the clinical guidelines committee, adopted the use of injectable antiretroviral medicines given every two months, for both prevention and treatment,” said Dikoloti.

Minister Dikoloti said the move will help alleviate concerns that patients are skipping their daily oral dose.

“The injectable ARVs, for both prevention and treatment, will no doubt improve adherence to the HIV treatment in our country. The injectable ARV medication formula comprises cabotegravir and rilpivirine. The cabotegravir injection has already been registered by the Botswana Medicines Regulatory Authority while rilpivirine is still undergoing the registration process,” said Dikoloti.

HIV activist Bonosi Bino Segadimo said the introduction of injectable medication will not only help with compliance but could reduce the stigma associated with the virus that causes AIDS.

“I believe the injectable ARVs will help a lot of people in terms of adherence because a lot of defaulting is caused by taking a pill every day. Some say the bottles (for oral pills) cause a lot of attention when they are in public from their appointments (at health facilities). It’s not that everyone on (ARV) treatment has accepted their status. It is a relief for those who find it hard going around a bottle of medication.”

In 2019, the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute conducted clinical trials to determine the efficacy of the injectable drug.

The study proved the drug is safe and highly effective for HIV prevention.

Kennedy Mupeli is a programs officer at Center of Youth for Hope, a non-governmental organization that targets young people living with HIV in Botswana.    

“We are so excited as activists that HIV medication has actually evolved to this level. Who knows, in the near future this will be taken twice a year. This could also encourage people to test because people have this phobia for daily pills,” said Mupeli.

With the world’s fourth largest prevalence of HIV infections, Botswana becomes the second country in Africa, after South Africa, to adopt the use of the injectable ARV drug.   



Science & Health

Thailand’s Pot Boosters Battle Bid to Delegalize Cannabis

Five months after Thailand became the first country in Asia to legalize cannabis, boosters of the hot-button herb are fighting to keep it that way amid mounting calls to re-list the plant as a narcotic.

Cannabis sellers, growers and smokers rallied outside the national government’s headquarters in the capital, Bangkok, Tuesday to discourage authorities from placing the plant back on the country’s controlled narcotics list, with stiff penalties for possession and distribution.

“There is a very high chance that cannabis may end up being illegal again, so it’s quite a very high stake right now,” said Chokwan Chopaka of the People’s Network for Cannabis Legislation in Thailand, which organized the event.

The government’s Narcotics Control Board was meeting Tuesday to discuss concerns about the reported spike in the recreational use of cannabis among adolescents since the plant was legalized in June.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters Monday that the board would not, and actually could not, re-list cannabis, as some feared.

But threats to the plant’s legal status remain.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who championed and approved the delisting, has stood by the move. On November 10, however, a group of physicians and lawmakers petitioned the Administrative Court, which can rule on government decrees, to reverse Anutin’s original order and in effect recriminalize cannabis.

Anutin pushed for legalization by touting the plant’s health benefits and promising to pull struggling farmers out of poverty by turning it into Thailand’s next big cash crop. Cannabis-laced products from cosmetics to ice cream from local producers now line supermarket shelves, and dozens of new dispensaries in Bangkok alone sell pot by the gram from farmers across the country.

Chokwan, who owns a Bangkok dispensary herself and showed up to Tuesday’s rally with free samples for the crowd, said recriminalizing cannabis now would reverse the gains the budding industry has made.

“So many people have come out of poverty because of it, and it’s not because they got a new job or anything like that; it’s because they had ownership [of] the things that they do,” she said.

“Cannabis is one of those things … where you can actually help minimize disparity,” she added. “It gives people like me that extra leg up because I know a bit more than someone who has a lot of money. So, going back illegal again, all this money that has been made legally — I’ve been paying my taxes, everything is all on point — all of that money is going to disappear.”

Natasha Schmahl, an ethnic Thai and cannabis advocate who showed up at the rally with her own sign, said she and her German husband were building what will be the country’s first house made almost entirely of hemp in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. She said recriminalizing the plant would once again rob much of the country of the plant’s health and environmental bounty.

‘Gift from Mother Nature’

“This plant needs to stop being criminalized because it’s a plant and it’s a gift from Mother Nature,” she said. “Of course there need to be rules and regulations around legalization, but to keep it criminalized … and not being able to use the benefits of nature giving us all these medicines is just not helping humanity, and that’s not the way we should move forward.”

It’s the current lack of strict rules and regulations that has critics worried.

The Health Ministry took cannabis off Thailand’s narcotics list before parliament could pass comprehensive legislation clearly defining its legal use, production, sale and import-export. The House of Representatives voted in September to withdraw a bill proposed by Anutin’s Bhumjaithai party so that an ad-hoc committee could keep working on the fine print. Critics of the draft complained that it failed to emphasize medical over recreational use and lacked guardrails to keep cannabis out of the hands of children and adolescents.

Smith Srisont is president of the Forensic Physicians Association of Thailand, which helped spearhead the petition urging the courts to recriminalizing cannabis. He said Thai social media include many videos of students lighting up, and that cases of youngsters being hospitalized for consuming too much have been rising since June.

“Because in Thailand it’s freely to use, the children can use it very easy; this is the problem,” he told VOA by phone. “It can cause psychiatric problems, it can cause depression problem in children, and it can change the brain of children, and it can cause lower IQ in the children … if they use early.”

Srisont also accused the Health Ministry of being disingenuous in its claims to be promoting cannabis for its health benefits alone, a charge the ministry has denied.

“They promote to mix with food, mix with everything. This is recreational, but they lie, they lie that this is medical,” he said. “This is another problem.”

Chokwan, of the People’s Network, believes the reports of adolescents abusing cannabis are being blown out of proportion, especially in the context of underage smoking or drinking rates. As her group’s full name declares, she supports legislation but says recriminalizing cannabis would only drive most users and sellers underground, making the industry harder to control.

Rather than hitting reverse, Chokwan said the government should be doing more to educate the public — adults and adolescents alike — about cannabis, as she does with her own children.

“Cannabis is my business, cannabis is all around my house. My kids does not access it,” she said. “We discuss it, we talk about it, we have conversation around it, and I explain how it’s used, why it’s used, and they don’t want to go anywhere near it because it’s not something that they care for.”

Another vote on the cannabis bill is set for December 7.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Saudi Arabia Shocks Argentina at World Cup

Saudi Arabia scored a major upset win Tuesday with a 2-1 victory over Argentina in their opening match at the men’s World Cup in Qatar.

Argentina entered the tournament as the third-ranked team in the world, with Saudi Arabia ranked number 51.

Lionel Messi put Argentina ahead in the tenth minute with a goal on a penalty kick, and Argentina looked to be in control of the game despite having multiple goals negated by offsides calls.

But Saudi Arabia mounted a quick comeback in the second half, evening the score with a 48th-minute goal by Saleh Alshehri.

A Salem Aldawsari goal five minutes later put Saudi Arabia ahead for good.

Saudi Arabia’s goalkeeper, Mohammed Alowais, helped secure the victory by stopping several solid chances in the closing minutes as Argentina tried to equalize.

Argentina will try to bounce back Saturday when it faces Mexico in another Group C matchup.  Saudi Arabia will play Poland.

Science & Health

Bacterial Infections ‘Second Leading Cause of Death Worldwide’

Bacterial infections are the second leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for one in eight of all deaths in 2019, the first global study of their lethality revealed on Tuesday.

The massive new study, published in The Lancet journal, looked at deaths from 33 common bacterial pathogens and 11 types of infection across 204 countries and territories.

The pathogens were associated with 7.7 million deaths — 13.6% of the global total — in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic took off.

That made them the second-leading cause of death after ischemic heart disease, which includes heart attacks, the study said.

Just five of the 33 bacteria were responsible for half of those deaths: Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

S. aureus is a bacterium common in human skin and nostrils but behind a range of illnesses, while E. coli commonly causes food poisoning. 

The study was conducted under the framework of the Global Burden of Disease, a vast research program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation involving thousands of researchers across the world. 

“These new data for the first time reveal the full extent of the global public health challenge posed by bacterial infections,” said study co-author Christopher Murray, the director of the U.S.-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“It is of utmost importance to put these results on the radar of global health initiatives so that a deeper dive into these deadly pathogens can be conducted and proper investments are made to slash the number of deaths and infections.”

The research points to stark differences between poor and wealthy regions. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there were 230 deaths per 100,000 population from the bacterial infections.

That number fell to 52 per 100,000 in what the study called the “high-income super-region” which included countries in Western Europe, North America and Australasia.

The authors called for increased funding, including for new vaccines, to lessen the number of deaths, also warning against “unwarranted antibiotic use.”

Hand washing is among the measures advised to prevent infection.