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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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Twitter Rolls Back COVID Misinformation Policy

Twitter has rolled back a policy that was aimed at tackling misinformation related to COVID-19 on the social media platform, lending itself to the risk of a potential surge in false claims even as cases rise in China and some parts of the world.

The move also comes amid concerns of Twitter’s ability to fight misinformation after it let go about half of its staff, including those involved in content moderation, under new boss Elon Musk.

“Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy,” according to an update on its blog page. The update was first reported by CNN on Tuesday.

The specific measures that Twitter will drop were not immediately clear, and the company did not immediately respond to a request to share more information.

At the onset of COVID in 2020, Twitter instated a number of measures including labels and warning messages on tweets with disputed information about the health crisis and a framework to have users remove tweets that advanced harmfully false claims related to vaccines.

Meta Platforms Inc-owned META.O Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s GOOGL.O YouTube services employed similar measures, which are currently in place.

Early this year, Twitter said that since March 2021 it had stopped enforcing a “civic integrity policy” related to lies about the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Billionaire Musk took over Twitter on Oct. 27, paying $44 billion for the company, and has moved quickly to initiate a number of changes to product and staff. Musk said on Oct. 29 he would set up a content moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints.

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WHO Renames Monkeypox as Mpox, Citing Racism Concerns

The World Health Organization has renamed monkeypox as mpox, citing concerns the original name of the decades-old animal disease could be construed as discriminatory and racist.

The U.N. health agency said in a statement Monday that mpox was its new preferred name for monkeypox, saying that both monkeypox and mpox would be used for the next year while the old name is phased out.

WHO said it was concerned by the “racist and stigmatizing language” that arose after monkeypox spread to more than 100 countries. It said numerous individuals and countries asked the organization “to propose a way forward to change the name.”

In August, WHO began consulting experts about renaming the disease, shortly after the U.N. agency declared monkeypox’s spread to be a global emergency.

To date, there have been more than 80,000 cases identified in dozens of countries that had not previously reported the smallpox-related disease. Until May, monkeypox, a disease that is thought to originate in animals, was not known to trigger large outbreaks beyond central and west Africa.

The 10 most affected countries globally are: the United States (29,001), Brazil (9,905), Spain (7,405), France (4,107), Colombia (3,803), Britain (3,720), Germany (3,672), Peru (3,444), Mexico (3,292), and Canada (1,449). They account for 86% of the global number of cases, Agence France-Presse reported.

Outside of Africa, nearly all cases have been in gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men. Scientists believe monkeypox triggered outbreaks in Western countries after spreading via sex at two raves in Belgium and Spain. Vaccination efforts in rich countries, along with targeted control interventions, have mostly brought the disease under control after it peaked in the summer.

In Africa, the disease mainly affects people in contact with infected animals such as rodents and squirrels. The majority of monkeypox-related deaths have been in Africa, where there have been almost no vaccines available.

U.S. health officials have warned it may be impossible to eliminate the disease there, warning it could be a continuing threat mainly for gay and bisexual men for years to come.

Mpox was first named monkeypox in 1958 when research monkeys in Denmark were observed to have a “pox-like” disease, although they are not thought to be the disease’s animal reservoir.

Although WHO has named numerous new diseases shortly after they emerged, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS and COVID-19, this appears to be the first time the agency has attempted to rechristen a disease decades after it was first named.

Numerous other diseases, including Japanese encephalitis, German measles, Marburg virus and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome have been named after geographic regions, which could now be considered prejudicial. WHO has not suggested changing any of those names.

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Polio is Back in Indonesia, Sparking Vaccination Campaign

Children in school uniforms and toddlers with their parents lined up Monday for polio vaccinations in the Sigli town square on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, after four children were found infected with the highly contagious disease that was declared eliminated in the country less than a decade ago. 

The virus was first detected in October in a 7-year-old boy suffering from partial paralysis in the province of Aceh near Sigli, and since then three other cases have been detected, prompting the mass immunization and information drive. 

Officials say that polio immunization rates in the conservative province are well behind the rest of the country, with efforts hampered by widespread disinformation the vaccine is incompatible with religious beliefs, among other things. The government has also been prioritizing COVID-19 vaccinations since they became available. 

The campaign that started Monday aims to vaccinate some 1.2 million children in the province, said Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the Health Ministry’s director general for disease control and prevention. 

“There is no cure for polio, the only treatment is prevention and the tool for prevention is vaccination,” Rondonuwu said, adding that the child is still able to walk, albeit with a limp. 

With some 275 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous, and the largest Muslim-majority nation. 

Aceh is particularly conservative, and is Indonesia’s only province allowed to practice Shariah, which was a concession made by the national government in 2006 to end a war with separatists. 

False rumors that the polio vaccine contains pork or alcohol, prohibited according to Muslim beliefs, have proliferated, especially in rural areas, complicating vaccination efforts, said the head of the Aceh Health Office, Hanif, who only goes by one name like many Indonesians. 

“We cannot work alone, we need support from all parties, including religious leaders, so that people understand the importance of immunization,” said Hanif. 

Azhar, the father of the 7-year-old who contracted polio, said he had opted not to immunize his son after other villagers where he lived told him the vaccines may cause harmful chemicals or non-halal substances. 

“My neighbors said that my son doesn’t need to be immunized and I didn’t want my son get sick because of harmful chemicals that are against Islam,” the 45-year-old said. 

For Dewi Safitri, a mother of three who was getting them vaccinated on Monday, it was simply a matter of not knowing it was necessary. 

She said she was convinced after health workers spelled out the risks of paralysis or death if her children were to go unvaccinated. 

“I didn’t even know about immunization,” she said. 

The World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the global eradication of polio in 1988 and since then, wild poliovirus cases have decreased by more than 99%, according to the World Health Organization. 

It was eliminated in Indonesia in 2014 and is today only still endemic in two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Polio primarily affects children under the age of 5, according to the WHO. Unvaccinated people of any age can contract the disease, however, and sporadic cases continue to crop up. 

In September in New York, for example, the state stepped up its polio-fighting efforts after the disease was detected in the wastewater in the New York City area. 

Officials began checking for signs of the virus there after the first case of polio in the United States was identified in July in Rockland County, which is north of the city. It was confirmed in a young adult who was unvaccinated. 

The statewide polio vaccination rate is 79% but Rockland’s rate was lower, and New York health officials urged all unvaccinated residents, including children by 2 months of age, to get vaccinated immediately. 

Last week, new poliovirus cases were found in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria, according to the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative. 

Of the three other children in Indonesia from the same village as the initially confirmed case none had their basic vaccinations, Rondonuwu said. 

“It has to be reported as an outbreak, because it had been declared eradicated in Indonesia, but it turns out that there is still wild polio virus,” he said. 

Rondonuwu said his ministry is keeping a close watch on the cases by doing door-to-door screening to ensure that there are no additional infections that have not been reported. 

The polio virus is transmitted person-to-person, generally through the “fecal-oral” route, according to the WHO. In Indonesia, authorities have also pointed to unsanitary conditions as a probable cause of the new infections after finding out that some local residents still defecate directly into a river where children are often found playing. 

Across Indonesia, polio vaccination coverage has been slipping since the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the challenges of reaching people in the archipelago nation of five main islands and thousands of smaller ones, 73.4% of Indonesians are now fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and 87.5% have at least one shot. 

For polio, 86.8% of babies were vaccinated in their first year in 2020 nationwide, which fell to 80.7% in 2021 as the country was forced to focus most of its health facilities and workers on addressing the pandemic. 

By comparison, only 50.9% of the infants born in Aceh in 2021 received a polio vaccination. It was the second lowest on a national scale after West Papua, where only 43.4% of babies were vaccinated. 

The nationwide decline was part of a broader drop in basic immunizations, such as for measles and rubella, according to UNICEF. 

Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist from Australia’s Griffith University, said the discovery of polio in Aceh must be responded to seriously because “the threat is real for Indonesia,” noting that basic immunization coverage is still low, putting the country in a high-risk category. 

“This is what the government really has to pursue, because it’s dangerous if we don’t,” Budiman said. 

“We must move immediately by strengthening basic immunization or there will be a potential additional health disaster for Indonesia.” 

 

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UN: Great Barrier Reef Should Be on Heritage ‘Danger’ List

A United Nations-backed mission is recommending that the Great Barrier Reef be added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites, warning that without “ambitious, rapid and sustained” climate action the world’s largest coral reef is in peril.

The warning came in a report published Monday following a 10-day mission to the reef last March by officials from UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The reef, a living place of immense variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia, has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1981.

Australia’s federal government and Queensland’s state authorities should adopt more ambitious emission reduction targets, in line with international efforts to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, according to the report.

Feedback from Australian officials, both at the federal and state level, will also be reviewed before UNESCO, the U.N.’s Paris-based cultural agency, makes any official proposal to the World Heritage committee.

The text is damning about recent efforts to stop mass bleaching and prevent pollution from contaminating the reef’s natural waters, saying they have not been fast nor effective enough. Uncurbed emissions lead to increased water acidity, which can be toxic.

More money should be found to increase the water quality and stop the site’s decline, the report concludes.

In an email to AP, the U.N. cultural agency said: “In recent months, we have had a constructive dialogue (with) Australian authorities. But there is still work to be done.”

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China Eases Some Anti-COVID Restrictions as Protests Mount

China eased some of its pandemic rules on Monday but affirmed its “zero COVID” strategy even as protests erupted throughout the country against the restrictions, and some demanded the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

The government made no mention of the demonstrations, the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades, but the slight relaxation of the rules appeared aimed at quelling the demonstrations.

Over the weekend, protesters shouted, “Lift the lockdown!” in a city in China’s western region, while across the country in Shanghai, the financial center, protesters held up blank sheets of white paper as a quiet show of dissent.

A Shanghai resident told VOA he no longer fears the spread of the epidemic because it has become normalized.

He said, “I just eat whatever I want to eat, and do whatever I want to do. What is there to worry about? It’s a cold. It’s normal.”

Others in Shanghai chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” in referring to the Communist Party. Police detained dozens of protesters, driving them away in police vans and buses, although the exact number was not clear.

Xi’s “zero COVID” policy has sharply limited infections through stringent lockdowns that have disrupted everyday life in the country of 1.4 billion people. Protests erupting at locations around the country appears to indicate that many Chinese have grown weary of the lengthy quarantines and widespread testing.

The Beijing city government said Monday it would no longer set up gates to block people from entering apartment compounds where infections have been found. It, however, made no mention of a deadly fire last week in the western Xinjiang region that spawned protests over whether firefighters and victims trying to escape a building were blocked by locked doors and other anti-infection controls.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” the China News Service quoted a city epidemic control official as saying.

The government blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire to the strict COVID measures.

In addition to easing the rules in Beijing, officials in Guangzhou, the southern manufacturing and trade metropolis that is the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, said some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.

 Urumqi, where the deadly fire occurred, and another city in the Xinjiang region in the northwest, said that markets and other businesses in areas deemed at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.

The “zero COVID” policy aims to isolate every infected person and has helped China to keep its case numbers, as a percentage of its overall population, lower than those in the United States. As a result, millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes for up to four months.

On Monday, China recorded 40,437 new cases, while the U.S. figure on Sunday was 41,997.

Despite the protests and relaxation of some rules, the ruling party newspaper People’s Daily called for its anti-coronavirus strategy to be carried out effectively, indicating Xi’s government has no plans to change course.

 “Facts have fully proved that each version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice,” a People’s Daily commentator wrote.

US Reaction to China Lockdowns

The U.S. Mission in China said it has regularly raised concerns with the Chinese government about the COVID restrictions and their effect on Americans living in or visiting the country.

“We encourage all U.S. citizens to keep a 14-day supply of medications, bottled water, and food for yourself and any members of your household,” U.S. officials said.

In Washington, the U.S. National Security Council said it supports the right of Chinese people to peacefully protest the COVID restrictions.

“We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC (People’s Republic of China),” a spokesperson said, adding, “We think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero COVID strategy.”

(VOA’s Mandarin service also contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.)

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Pakistan Launches Polio Drive 

Pakistan authorities said they are launching a five-day polio drive to eradicate the crippling disease from the country.

Officials said 100,000 healthcare workers begin working Monday to vaccinate 13.5 million children under the age of five across 36 high risk districts, including Islamabad, the capital.

“Our aim is to ensure timely and repeated vaccination of eligible children,” said Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the national emergency operations center.

“High-risk districts are our top priority and we are keen to eliminate the polio virus from the challenging areas, while protecting the rest of the region, as well,” said Baig.

Twenty cases of the wild polio virus were reported this year in Pakistan, including 17 in the country’s volatile North Waziristan district, located on the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has come close, several times, to eradicating polio, but militants have convinced some parents that the vaccines cause sterility, but there is no scientific basis to back such statements.

Baig is urging all Pakistani parents and caregivers to make sure that their children are vaccinated “instead of hiding them or refusing to take the necessary drops during all vaccination drives.” He said, “it is important to realize that the polio virus still exists in our surroundings, and no child is safe until all children are truly vaccinated.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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