Science & Health

WHO Concerned Over Polio Outbreak in Southeastern Africa

The World Health Organization says authorities in Mozambique have declared an outbreak of wild poliovirus type 1 after confirming that a child in the country’s northeastern Tete province has contracted the disease. It becomes the second case of wild poliovirus confirmed in southern Africa this year, following a case in Malawi in mid-February.

In a statement, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, called the outbreak of poliovirus in Mozambique “greatly concerning.”

She added that efforts were underway to help strengthen disease surveillance in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with plans to reach 23 million children ages five and below with the polio vaccine in the coming weeks.

Dr. Ndoutabe Modjirom, the interim polio program coordinator for the WHO Africa Region, said that the first step is to carry out a quality vaccination campaign. 

“The second measure is to reinforce the surveillance in all our countries so that they will be able to detect very, very quickly all poliovirus circulating in our region,” he said. “We have to extend to all other countries the measure of surveillance. So that measure we have to take very, very quickly to address this situation.”

Dr. Norman Matara, head of the Zimbabwe Association for Doctors for Human Rights, said the outbreaks of diseases may have resulted from the lockdowns that countries around the world instituted while fighting COVID-19. 

“You know with the pandemic, the lockdowns and clinics shutting down, there is a probability some infants and children might have missed their immunizations schedule and thus we now have these emergency outbreaks; measles in Zimbabwe and polio in Mozambique,” he said. “So, we really urge the government that as they fight COVID-19, we should intensify immunization of children especially in those neglected areas so that every child gets immunized. We also urge the government to implement strong surveillance systems.”   

Last week, Zimbabwe declared an outbreak of measles in a province on the border with Mozambique. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government said it was working with the WHO to immunize children in the whole country.

Science & Health

UN Floats Plan to Boost Renewables as Climate Worries Mount

The United Nations chief on Wednesday launched a five-point plan to jump-start broader use of renewable energies, hoping to revive world attention on climate change as the U.N.’s weather agency reported that greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification reached record highs last year.

“We must end fossil fuel pollution and accelerate the renewable energy transition before we incinerate our only home,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “Time is running out.”

His latest stark warning about possible environmental disaster comes after the World Meteorological Organization issued its State of the Climate Report for 2021, which said the last seven years were the seven hottest on record. The impacts of extreme weather have led to deaths and disease, migration, and economic losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars — and the fallout is continuing this year, WMO said.

“Today’s State of the Climate report is a dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle climate disruption,” Guterres said. “The global energy system is broken and bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe.”

In his plan, which leans into the next U.N. climate conference taking place in Egypt in November, Guterres called for fostering technology transfer and lifting of intellectual property protections in renewable technologies, like battery storage.

Such ambitions – as with his call for transfers of technologies aimed to fight COVID-19 – can cause innovators and their financial backers to bristle: They want to reap the benefits of their knowledge, investments and discoveries — not just give them away.

Secondly, Guterres wants to broaden access to supply chains and raw materials that go into renewable technologies, which are now concentrated in a few powerful countries.

The U.N. chief also wants governments to reform in ways that can promote renewable energies, such as by fast-tracking solar and wind projects.

Fourth, he called for a shift away from government subsidies for fossil fuels that now total a half-trillion dollars per year. That’s no easy task: Such subsidies can ease the pinch in many consumers’ pockets – but ultimately help inject cash into corporate coffers too.

“While people suffer from high prices at the pump, the oil and gas industry is raking in billions from a distorted market,” Guterres said. “This scandal must stop.”

Finally, Guterres says private and public investments in renewable energy must triple to at least $4 trillion dollars a year. He noted that government subsidies for fossil fuels are today more than three times higher than those for renewables.

Those U.N. initiatives are built upon a central idea: That human-generated emissions of greenhouse gas in the industrial era have locked in excess heat in the atmosphere, on the Earth’s surface, and in the oceans and seas. The knock-on effect has contributed to more frequent and severe natural disasters like drought, hurricanes, flooding and forest fires.

Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit focused on environmental data science, says a good way to head toward net-zero emissions is “to make clean energy cheap.”

“While rich countries can afford to spend extra on clean energy, poor and middle income countries may be less willing to accept tradeoffs between reducing emissions and lifting millions out of abject poverty,” he said. “If clean energy sources are cheaper than fossil fuels, they become win-win and will be adopted more rapidly.”

The WMO report breaks little new ground in terms of data, but compiles earlier studies into a broader picture of the global climate.

Its secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, pointed to a downward blip in emissions in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic dampened human activity. But he said that doesn’t change the “big picture” because carbon dioxide – a leading greenhouse gas – has a long lifetime and lingers on, and emissions have been growing since then anyway.

“We have seen this steady growth of carbon dioxide concentration, which is related to the fact that we are still using too much fossil fuel,” Taalas said in an interview. “Deforestation in regions like Amazon, Africa and southern Asia still continue.”

Last year’s U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, failed to muster carbon-cutting pledges from the “BRICS” countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — which threaten a key goal of the 2015 Paris accord to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, he said.

“We are rather heading towards 2.5- to 3-degree warming instead of 1.5,” Taalas said.

Climate experts lauded the U.N. ambitions and lamented the WMO findings, and said some countries are headed in the wrong direction.

“If climate change is death by one thousand cuts, in 2021 we took our thousandth,” said Rob Jackson, professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University, who also chairs the Global Carbon Project that tracks carbon emissions.

“Dirty coal use roared back through economic stimulation incentives for COVID in China and India. We built more new coal plant capacity worldwide than we took offline,” he added. “How is this possible in 2021?”

Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of environmental education at the University of Michigan, noted that fossil fuels have a role in the Russian government’s war in Ukraine. Russia is a key global producer of oil and gas, including through a pipeline that transits Ukraine to supply homes and businesses in Europe.

“The secretary-general has it right in pointing the blame at fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are creating an ever-worsening climate crisis and all that comes with it,” Overpeck said. “The solution for climate change, the deadly air pollution and true national security is to leave fossil fuels behind in favor of clean renewable energy.”

“It’s getting scary,” he added. “The climate crisis and the European war are a call to action, and to rid the planet of fossil fuels as fast as we can.”

Science & Health

US Congress Looks at UFOs Through Security Lens  

 The U.S. government has often ignored the possibility of unidentified flying objects, even after decades of unexplained sightings, including by U.S. military pilots who sometimes filmed the UFOs, some of which moved with lightning speed and incredible agility. 

On Tuesday, a congressional hearing focused on UFOs for the first time in 50 years, this time looking at their threat to national security — not from people from other worlds, but from potential international adversaries on Earth.  

The hearing came nearly a year after a government report documented more than 140 cases of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP, that U.S. military pilots had observed since 2004. 

“They are real. They need to be investigated. And any threats they pose need to be mitigated,” said Representative André Carson, chair of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation.

During his testimony, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Ronald Moultrie said, “We’re open to all hypotheses. We’re open to any conclusions that we may encounter.”  

“The stigma associated with UAPs has gotten in the way of good intelligence analysis. Pilots avoided reporting or were laughed at when they did,” Carson said. “Today we know better.” 

Moultrie, who oversees the Pentagon-based UAP investigation team, added that “because UAP pose potential flight safety and general security risks, we are committed to a focused effort to determine their origins.”    

The hearing focused on possible foreign adversaries of the U.S. developing secret technologies that could be construed as UFOs and prove detrimental to the United States. 

“The intelligence community has a serious duty to our taxpayers to prevent potential adversaries, such as China and Russia, from surprising us with unforeseen new technologies,” said Republican Representative Rick Crawford.  

While testifying, Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray showed UAP video clips. One showed flashing triangular objects in the sky, later determined to be visual artifacts of light passing through night-vision goggles. In another, a shiny spherical object zipped past a military aircraft’s cockpit window — an observation Bray said remained unexplained. 

Although Bray did not rule out extraterrestrial origins, he said there hasn’t been anything to suggest the sightings are “nonterrestrial in origin.” 

The number of UAPs in the military database has grown to about 400, Bray said.  

They are increasing, he noted, likely because of technological advances, such as better sensors, and expanded drone usage.  

Bray cautioned the committee about the need to balance transparency with the protection of sensitive intelligence information. 

“Given the nature of our business, national defense, we’ve had to sometimes be less forthcoming with information in open forums than many would hope,” he said. “We do not want potential adversaries to know exactly what we’re able to see or understand or how we come to the conclusions we make,” he said. 


Science & Health

Ghanaian Entrepreneur Recycles Textile Wastes into Shoes

Working to achieve sustainability in textile production is one of the projects of the U.N. Environment Programme for this year as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. In Ghana, an entrepreneur is supporting this agenda by recycling waste textiles and rubber into shoes. Senanu Tord has details from Takoradi, Ghana.
Videographer: Senanu Tord Produced by: Rob Raffaele

Science & Health

Americans Return to the Office With Willingness and Trepidation 

As cases of coronavirus continue to decline in the United States, many businesses have told their employees it’s time to return to the office.  

Some people are already doing the daily grind, while others are splitting their time between home and the office as part of a hybrid plan.  

The office routine was normal for millions of Americans before the pandemic. Now, some two years later, it is regarded as a new normal, after those employees worked full-time from their residences. 

Morning Consult, a global business intelligence company, has been polling U.S. consumers about returning to the workplace.  

Charlotte Principato, a financial services analyst for the organization, said the latest poll showed 73% of remote workers felt comfortable returning to the office. The remaining 27% wanted to remain at home where, they said, they work more efficiently.  

“The return to the office is experienced differently depending on each person’s situation,” and introverts may have a harder time getting used to it than extroverts, said Debra Kaplan, a therapist in Tucson, Arizona.  

She told VOA many people will experience stress adjusting to an office environment after working from home. 

Mark Gerald, a psychoanalyst in New York, likens it to a child going to school for the first time.  

There’s almost childlike anxiety that’s related to change and fears of going into the world, he said. 

The fears include contracting the coronavirus, as well as being away from family during the workday. 

That’s true for Imani Harris, a federal government employee in Washington who has two young children. 

“I wear a mask at work because I don’t feel safe being at the office,” she said. “I’d rather be at home because I accomplish more, and get to spend quality time with the kids — plus it’s harder financially since I have to spend money on child care.” 

Another drawback is exhaustion.  

“At first, returning to the office can be really draining because you haven’t seen the people you work with in person for a long time,” said Karestan Koenen, a psychiatric epidemiology professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. 

“Psychologically and emotionally, the transition is not comfortable but should eventually become more comfortable as time goes on,” she added.  

Still, many workers favor a hybrid approach in which they work more at home than in the office.  

“We tend to see that younger folks are more likely to want a hybrid environment where they feel they’re more productive and have more flexibility and control,” Principato said.  

They also don’t think their jobs need to be done in the office and want to work in a way that feels better for them, Kaplan said.  

For Ethan Carson, who is in his 20s and works for a technology firm in Falls Church, Virginia, going to his office “is more of a bother” than working from home. “I don’t need to be in my building to do my job,” he said, “and the commute is difficult with the horrible traffic.” 

Other employees, however, think it’s easier for them to get their job done around their peers than at home, where there may be more distractions.  

For some, the office makes them feel they are part of a community again.  

“There is a hunger for human connection and sometimes the human touch,” Gerald said.  

“People have realized that socializing is helpful for their mental health,” Kaplan said. “They often feel positive about seeing their colleagues,” talking to them face-to-face, and not just on Zoom, she explained.  

Angela Morgensen, a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland, is relieved to be back at the office. 

“I’m enjoying talking to the people I work with and feel more like I’m part of the company again,” she said. “I used to hate meetings, but I’m finding it stimulating to share ideas.” 

Gerald points out that the pandemic has made people think more about a better work-life balance, including how many hours they want to spend in the office. 

“They are not returning as the same person they were before the pandemic happened. Some wonder, ‘Is this job fulfilling and the workplace a good environment for me?'”  

And that’s reflected in seeing hybrid work becoming more of the norm, he said. 

Science & Health

US Abortion Rights Activists Start ‘Summer of Rage’ With Saturday Protests

Abortion rights supporters will protest in cities across the United States on Saturday, kicking off what organizers said would be “a summer of rage” if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide.

Planned Parenthood, Women’s March and other abortion rights groups organized more than 300 “Bans Off Our Bodies” marches for Saturday, with the largest turnouts expected in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago.

The demonstrations are in response to the May 2 leak of a draft opinion showing the court’s conservative majority ready to reverse the 1973 landmark decision that established a federal constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

The court’s final ruling, which could give states the power to ban abortion, is expected in June. About half of U.S. states could ban or severely restrict abortion soon after a ruling vacating Roe.  

Organizers said they anticipated hundreds of thousands of people to participate in Saturday’s events, which they said would be the first of many coordinated protests around the Supreme Court’s decision.

“For the women of this country, this will be a summer of rage,” said Rachel Carmona, president of Women’s March. “We will be ungovernable until this government starts working for us, until the attacks on our bodies let up, until the right to an abortion is codified into law.”

Democrats, who currently hold the White House and both chambers of Congress, hope that backlash to the Supreme Court decision will carry their party’s candidates to victory in the November midterm elections.  

But voters will be weighing abortion rights against other issues such as the soaring prices of food and gas, and they may be skeptical of Democrats’ ability to protect abortion access after efforts to pass legislation that would enshrine abortion rights in federal law failed. 

On Saturday, demonstrators in New York City plan to march across the Brooklyn Bridge, while protesters in Washington will meet at the Washington Monument and then head to the Supreme Court. Los Angeles protesters planned to meet at City Hall, and a group in Austin was to convene at Texas’ state capitol.

In the past week, protesters have gathered outside the homes of Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, who have voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to the leaked opinion.

Students for Life of America, an anti-abortion advocacy group with campus chapters across the country, said it was holding counter protests on Saturday in nine U.S. cities, including in Washington.

Science & Health

New Zealand Prime Minister Tests Positive for COVID-19   

New Zealand’s prime minister has tested positive for COVID.

Jacinda Ardern’s office said in a statement Saturday that she has mild symptoms and has been in isolation since Sunday, when her partner, Clarke Gayford, tested positive.

Ardern is required to be in isolation until May 21, preventing her from being in Parliament for the release of the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan on Monday and the country’s budget on Thursday.

“This is a milestone week for the government, and I’m gutted I can’t be there for it,” Ardern said.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press report says that four U.S. Air Force Academy cadets may not graduate or receive a military commission because they have refused COVID-19 vaccinations.

AP reports that Air Force officials say the cadets may also have to “pay back thousands of dollars in tuition costs.”

The Asian Football Confederation announced Saturday that the Chinese Football Association will not be able to host the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

The confederation said in a statement that it “acknowledges the exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the relinquishment by China PR of its hosting rights.”

China maintains a zero-COVID policy that has forced thousands of people to go into quarantine for long periods of time.

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported more than 520 million COVID-19 cases early Saturday and over 6 million deaths.

Science & Health

Storm Chasers Face Host of Dangers Beyond Severe Weather

The deaths of four storm chasers in car crashes over the last two weeks have underscored the dangers of pursuing severe weather events as more people clog back roads and highways searching for a glimpse of a lightning bolt or tornado, meteorologists and chasers say.

Martha Llanos Rodriguez of Mexico City died Wednesday when a semitrailer plowed into her vehicle from behind on Interstate 90 in southwestern Minnesota. The car’s driver, Diego Campos, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he and Rodriguez and two other weather experts had been chasing violent weather and were hit after he stopped for downed power lines on the road.

More people are hopping into their cars and racing off after storms, jamming up roads, running stop signs and paying more attention to the sky than traffic, said Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.

“There is such a volume of chasers out there on some storms sometimes that it creates potential traffic and other hazards,” Shepherd said. “Seeing storms within their natural context has scientific and broader value so I am not anti-chasing, however, there are elements that have become a little wild, wild West-ish.”

Popularized in the 1996 movie “Twister,” storm chasing involves pursuing severe weather events such as electrical storms and tornadoes, often in cars or on foot.

Some are researchers looking to gather data, such as verifying computer models predicting storm behavior. Some are looking to get in touch with nature. Others are photographers. And still others are just looking for a rush, said Greg Tripoli, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who taught a class on storm chasing.

“Seeing a tornado is a life-changing experience,” Tripoli said. “You want to see one instead of just talking about them. It’s really just one of the excitements of life. You’ve got to take chances and go out there and go after your passions. It’s no different from rock-climbing or deep-sea diving.”

The storms themselves present dangers to inexperienced chasers who get too close. They can get hit by debris, struck by lightning or worse. Tripoli said he decided to stop teaching his storm chaser class and taking students into the field in the early 1990s after university officials stopped insuring the trips.

Nature isn’t the only threat. Storm chasers spend long hours on the road traveling from state to state like long-haul truckers, inviting fatigue. When they catch up to the storms, they can often keep their eyes on the skies instead of the road, sometimes with deadly consequences. Tripoli said he would warn students in his storm chaser class that the most likely way they would get hurt is in a car crash.

Three University of Oklahoma students were killed on April 30 after traveling to Kansas to chase a tornado. According to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the students’ car hydroplaned on the interstate in Tonkawa, about 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Oklahoma City. They slid off and back onto the interstate before a semitrailer hit them.

The University of Oklahoma has a policy stating that anyone who chases storms does so at their own risk and that storm chasing isn’t part of the school’s meteorology curriculum.

The mother of one of the students, 19-year-old Gavin Short of Grayslake, Illinois, told WMAQ-TV that her son loved to chase storms.

“He loved it, and we were so happy for him,” Beth Short said. “And it just, this is just the worst nightmare for us and two other sets of parents.”

Chaser traffic jams are becoming more common, said Kelton Halbert, a University of Wisconsin atmospheric and oceanic sciences doctoral student. He said he’s been chasing storms since he was 16 because he wants to feel closer to nature’s beauty and verify his forecast modeling, mostly by taking video of storms’ behavior.

“Unless you’re with one of these research institutions, storm chasers don’t have the ability to collect a lot of hard data,” he said. “For most … it’s the beauty, it’s the photography and then obviously the thrill seekers and adrenaline seekers. You can have people tailgating you, people in the middle of the road. If you’re in Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas on a high-risk day, yeah, you can see hundreds of them. Given the recent couple weeks, I’ve definitely felt more apprehensive. It brings back to the forefront that every time you do this you’re taking a risk.”

Wednesday’s storm in the Upper Midwest left tens of thousands of homes and businesses without power into Thursday. More potentially severe weather was forecast into Thursday evening that could bring hail, high winds and tornadoes from the Dakotas and Minnesota into other parts of the Midwest, the Storm Prediction Center said.