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Polish abortion opponents march against steps to liberalize strict law  

WARSAW — Thousands of Polish opponents of abortion marched Sunday in Warsaw to protest recent steps by the new government to liberalize the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict laws and allow termination of pregnancy until the 12th week.

Many participants in the downtown march were pushing prams with children, while others were carrying white-and-red national flags or posters representing a fetus in the womb.

Poland’s Catholic Church has called for Sunday to be a day of prayer “in defense of conceived life” and has supported the march, organized by an anti-abortion movement.

“In the face of promotion of abortion in recent months, the march will be a rare occasion to show our support for the protection of human life from conception to natural death,” a federation of anti-abortion movements said in a statement.

They were referring to an ongoing public debate surrounding the steps that the 4-month-old government of Prime Minster Donald Tusk is taking to relax the strict law brought in by its conservative predecessor.

Last week, Poland’s parliament, which is dominated by the liberal and pro-European Union ruling coalition voted to approve further detailed work on four proposals to lift the near ban on abortions.

The procedure, which could take weeks or even months, is expected to be eventually rejected by conservative President Andrzej Duda, whose term runs for another year.

Last month Duda vetoed a draft law that would have made the morning-after pill available over the counter from the age of 15.

A nation of some 38 million, Poland is seeking ways to boost the birth rate, which is currently at 1.2 per woman — among the lowest in the European Union. Poland’s society is aging and shrinking, facts that the previous right-wing government used among its arguments for toughening the abortion law.

Currently, abortions are only allowed in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk. According to the Health Ministry, 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022. However, abortion advocates estimate that some 120,000 women in Poland have abortions each year, mostly by secretly obtaining pills from abroad.

Women attempting to abort themselves are not penalized, but anyone assisting them can face up to three years in prison. Reproductive rights advocates say the result is that doctors turn women away even in permitted cases for fear of legal consequences for themselves.

One of the four proposals being processed in parliament would decriminalize assisting a woman to have an abortion. Another one, put forward by a party whose leaders are openly Catholic, would keep a ban in most cases but would allow abortions in cases of fetal defects — a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling. The two others aim to permit abortion through the 12th week.

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Study: Mexico produces tons of illicit fentanyl, can’t get enough for medical use

MEXICO CITY — A report released by the Mexican government Friday says the country is facing a dire shortage of fentanyl for medical use, even as Mexican cartels pump out tons of the illicit narcotic.

The paradox was reported in a study by Mexico’s National Commission on Mental Health and Addictions. The study did not give a reason for the shortage of the synthetic opioid, which is needed for anesthesia in hospitals, but claimed it was a worldwide problem.

The commission said fentanyl had to be imported, and that imports fell by more than 50% between 2022 and 2023.

Nonetheless, Mexican cartels appear to be having no problem importing tons of precursor chemicals and making their own fentanyl, which they smuggle into the United States. The report says Mexican seizures of illicit fentanyl rose 1.24 tons in 2020 to 1.85 tons in 2023.

Some of that is now spilling back across the border, with an increase in illicit fentanyl addiction reported in some Mexican border regions — a problem Mexico paradoxically blamed on the United States.

“Despite the limitations of availability in pharmaceutical fentanyl in our country, the excessive use of opiates in recent decades in the United States has had important repercussions on consumption and supply in Mexico,” the report states.

The report said that requests for addiction treatment in Mexico increased from 72 cases in 2020, to 430 cases in 2023. That sounds like a tiny number compared to the estimated 70,000 annual overdose deaths in the United States in recent years related to synthetic opioids. But in fact, the Mexican government does very little to offer addiction treatment, so the numbers probably don’t reflect the real scope of the problem.

The shortage of medical anesthetic drugs has caused some real problems in Mexico.

Local problems with the availability of morphine and fentanyl have led anesthesiologists to acquire their own supplies, carry the vials around with them, and administer multiple doses from a single vial to conserve their supply.

In 2022, anesthetics contaminated by those practices caused a meningitis outbreak in the northern state of Durango that killed about three dozen people, many of whom were pregnant women given epidurals. Several Americans died because of a similar outbreak after having surgery at clinics in the Mexican border city of Matamoros in 2023.

The response by the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to those twin problems — not enough legal fentanyl, and too much of the illicit stuff — has been contradictory.

In 2023, López Obrador briefly proposed banning fentanyl even for medical use but has not mentioned that idea lately after it drew a wave of criticism from doctors.

Meanwhile, the president has steadfastly denied that Mexican cartels produce the drug, despite overwhelming evidence that they import precursor chemicals from Asia and carry out the chemical processes to make fentanyl. López Obrador claims they only press the drug into pill form.

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Poliovirus resurgence sparks concerns in Pakistan

Islamabad — The recent detection of poliovirus in sewage water samples collected across 30 districts in Pakistan has reignited concerns about a potential surge in polio cases.

Among those deeply troubled is Musal Khan, a polio survivor who navigates life in a wheelchair. Having represented Pakistan in wheelchair cricket at the global level, Musal Khan doesn’t want others to endure the same hardships he has faced.

Reflecting on his own experience, Khan, who contracted polio at age 2, told VOA, “My father didn’t permit polio vaccination for me, leading to a lifetime confined to a wheelchair.”

Khan urges all parents to give polio drops to their children and protect them from lifelong disabilities.

His father, Awal Khan, carries a heavy burden of guilt for his son’s condition. He joins Musal in urging parents not to obstruct polio workers and health officials from administering the vaccine to their children.

Polio, a highly contagious viral illness primarily affecting children under 5, spreads through feces, oral transmission or contaminated food and water. While incurable, it can be prevented through vaccination. Health experts warn that the poliovirus is a persistent presence in Pakistan, particularly in urban centers such as Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar.

Plan to eradicate polio

Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Center, has outlined Pakistan’s goal of eradicating imported strains of the poliovirus, particularly those originating from neighboring Afghanistan, by the end of 2024.

To achieve this, he announced the implementation of eight comprehensive polio vaccination campaigns scheduled throughout the year.

Despite concerted efforts, the recent emergence of two polio cases in Chaman and Dera Bugti underscored the challenges facing Pakistan. Moreover, alarming findings from the analysis of more than 83 sewage water samples collected across 30 districts have revealed the presence of the virus.

Baig emphasized the importance of vaccination efforts considering these findings. He noted that even in areas where polio drops are administered, children remain susceptible to the virus due to deficiencies in the drainage infrastructure. Broken sewer lines contribute to the contamination of drinking water sources, facilitating the transmission of polio.

Baig stressed the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address not only vaccination coverage but also the improvement of sanitation infrastructure to prevent the spread of poliovirus.

This story originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.

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Scientists struggle to protect infant corals from hungry fish

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.

Scientists around the world have been working for years to address the decline of coral reef populations. Just last summer, reef rescue groups in South Florida and the Florida Keys were trying to save coral from rising ocean temperatures. Besides working to keep existing coral alive, researchers have also been growing new coral in labs and then placing them in the ocean.

But protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains more than 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn’t become expensive fish food.

Marine researcher Kyle Pisano said one problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. With projects calling for thousands of coral to be planted over the next year and tens of thousands of coral to be planted over the next decade, the losses add up when coral pieces can cost more than $100 each.

Pisano and his partner, Kirk Dotson, have developed the Coral Fort, claiming the small biodegradable cage that’s made in part with drinking straws boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%.

“Parrot fish on the reef really, really enjoy biting a newly transplanted coral,” Pisano said. “They treat it kind of like popcorn.”

Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime. Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those barriers needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed.

Pisano had the idea of creating a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He began conducting offshore experiments with biodegradable coral cages as part of a master’s degree program at Nova Southeastern University. He used a substance called polyhydroxyalkanoate, a biopolymer derived from the fermentation of canola oil. PHA biodegrades in ocean, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. His findings were published last year.

The coral cage consists of a limestone disc surrounded by eight vertical phade brand drinking straws, made by Atlanta-based WinCup Inc. The device doesn’t have a top, Pisano said, because the juvenile coral needs sunlight and the parrot fish don’t generally want to position themselves facing downward to eat.

Dotson, a retired aerospace engineer, met Pisano through his professor at Nova Southeastern, and the two formed Reef Fortify Inc. to further develop and market the patent-pending Coral Fort. The first batch of cages were priced at $12 each, but Pisano and Dotson believe that could change as production scales up.

Early prototypes of the cage made from phade’s standard drinking straws were able to protect the coral for about two months before dissolving in the ocean, but that wasn’t quite long enough to outlast the interest of parrot fish. When Pisano and Dotson reached out to phade for help, the company assured them that it could make virtually any custom shape from its biodegradable PHA material.

“But it’s turning out that the boba straws, straight out of the box, work just fine,” Dotson said.

Boba straws are wider and thicker than normal drinking straws. They’re used for a tea-based drink that includes tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. For Pisano and Dotson, that extra thickness means the straws last just long enough to protect the growing coral before harmlessly disappearing.

Reef Fortify is hoping to work with reef restoration projects all over the world. The Coral Forts already already being used by researchers at Nova Southeastern and the University of Miami, as well as Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

Rich Karp, a coral researcher at the University of Miami, said they’ve been using the Coral Forts for about a month. He pointed out that doing any work underwater takes a great deal of time and effort, so having a protective cage that dissolves when it’s no longer needed basically cuts their work in half.

“Simply caging corals and then removing the cages later, that’s two times the amount of work, two times the amount of bottom time,” Karp said. “And it’s not really scalable.”

Experts say coral reefs are a significant part of the oceanic ecosystem. They occupy less than 1% of the ocean worldwide but provide food and shelter to nearly 25 percent of sea life. Coral reefs also help to protect humans and their homes along the coastline from storm surges during hurricanes.

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Peter Higgs, physicist who proposed the existence of the ‘God particle,’ dies at 94

LONDON — Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of the so-called “God particle” that helped explain how matter formed after the Big Bang, has died at age 94, the University of Edinburgh said Tuesday.

The university, where Higgs was emeritus professor, said he died Monday following a short illness.

Higgs predicted the existence of a new particle, which came to be known as the Higgs boson, in 1964. He theorized there must be a subatomic particle of certain dimension that would explain how other particles — and therefore all the stars and planets in the universe — acquired mass. Without something like this particle, the set of equations physicists use to describe the world, known as the standard model, would not hold together.

Higgs’ work helps scientists understand one of the most fundamental riddles of the universe: how the Big Bang created something out of nothing 13.8 billion years ago. Without mass from the Higgs, particles could not clump together into the matter we interact with every day.

But it would be almost 50 years before the particle’s existence could be confirmed. In 2012, in one of the biggest breakthroughs in physics in decades, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had finally found a Higgs boson using the Large Hardron Collider, the $10 billion atom smasher in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel under the Swiss-French border.

The collider was designed in large part to find Higgs’ particle. It produces collisions with extraordinarily high energies in order to mimic some of the conditions that were present in the trillionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

Higgs won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, alongside Francois Englert of Belgium, who independently came up with the same theory.

Edinburgh University Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson said Higgs, who was born in Newcastle, was “a remarkable individual – a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination have enriched our knowledge of the world that surrounds us.”

“His pioneering work has motivated thousands of scientists, and his legacy will continue to inspire many more for generations to come.”

Born in Newcastle, northeast England, on May 29, 1929, Higgs studied at King’s College, University of London, and was awarded a doctorate in 1954. He spent much of his career at Edinburgh, becoming the Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Scottish university in 1980. He retired in 1996.

One highlight of Higgs’ career came in the 2013 presentation at CERN in Geneva where scientists presented in complex terms — based on statistical analysis unfathomable to most laypeople — that the boson had been confirmed. He broke into tears, wiping down his glasses in the stands of a CERN lecture hall.

“There was an emotion — a kind of vibration — going around in the auditorium,” Fabiola Gianotti, the CERN director-general told The Associated Press. “That was just a unique moment, a unique experience in a professional life.”

“Peter was a very touching person. He was so sweet, so warm at the same time. And so always interested in what other people had to say,” she said. “Able to listen to other people … open, and interesting, and interested.”

Joel Goldstein, of the School of Physics at the University of Bristol, said: “Peter Higgs was a quiet and modest man, who never seemed comfortable with the fame he achieved even though this work underpins the entire modern theoretical framework of particle physics.”

Gianotti recalled how Higgs often bristled at the term “God particle” for his discovery: “I don’t think he liked this kind of definition,” she said. “It was not in his style.”

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