Brain disease kills 97 Indian children, ‘heat curfew’ imposed as severe heat rages in Bihar state

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he Indian state of Bihar grappled Monday with twin crises, with a brain virus potentially linked to lychees killing almost 100 children and extreme heat leaving 78 people dead. (AP)
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Residents of a housing society cool off with a "rain dance" organized to beat the heat on a hot summer day in Greater Noida, outskirts of New Delhi, India, on June 15, 2019. Many parts of India are experiencing extreme heat conditions. (AP Photo/R S Iyer)
Updated 17 June 2019
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Brain disease kills 97 Indian children, ‘heat curfew’ imposed as severe heat rages in Bihar state

  • Officials urged residents to not leave their homes until temperatures fall
  • A heatwave in 2015 left more than 3,500 dead in India and Pakistan

PATNA, India: The Indian state of Bihar grappled Monday with twin crises, with a brain virus potentially linked to lychees killing almost 100 children and extreme heat leaving 78 people dead.

The heatwave — India's second-longest on record — prompted authorities in part of the northern state, one of the country's poorest, to impose curfew-like restrictions.

Daytime temperatures across large parts of India have hovered above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the past 32 days, just one short of a record 33-day period in 1988.

Temperatures touched 50.3 degrees Celsius in the town of Churu in the northern desert state of Rajasthan recently, just below India's record of 51 degrees.

Bihar, home to almost 100 million people, has seen temperatures hovering around 45 degrees for several days.

Severe heat there has killed 78 people -- most of them aged above 50 -- across three districts since Saturday afternoon, local official Sandeep Kumar told AFP.

More than 130 others were undergoing emergency treatment for heatstroke in various hospitals.

Authorities in Gaya district which has borne the brunt of the heatwave invoked an Indian law to prohibit residents from going outdoors for non-essential work.

The district magistrate also banned construction work and any outdoor programme between 11:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Heatstroke is usually caused by prolonged exposure to sun or from physical exertion in high temperatures.

It has left more than 36 people dead in southern India in recent weeks. Large parts of India are also reeling from drought, with annual monsoon rains late in coming.

Last week four passengers on a train travelling from Agra -- the city of the Taj Mahal -- to Coimbatore in the country's south died from heatstroke.Bihar, home to some of India's worst health indicators, has also been struggling with an outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), a viral infection, since the start of this month.

Eighty children have now died in the state's biggest government-run hospital -- the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH), in the city of Muzaffarpur -- and 17 others at a private facility, health official Ashok Kumar Singh said.

Most of the victims had suffered a sudden loss of glucose in their blood, Singh told AFP.

TV channels showed distraught parents sitting next to their children, several of whom were cramped on one bed.

One parent heckled India's Health Minister Harsh Vardhan as he took his entourage around the SKMCH for an inspection.

A doctor told a local TV channel that the SKMCH was ill-equipped to handle the rush of patients, most of whom were wheeled in semi-conscious. The outbreak of the disease has happened annually during summer months in the same districts since 1995, typically coinciding with the lychee season.

Several years ago US researchers had said the brain disease could be linked to a toxic substance found in the fruit.

Known locally as Chamki Bukhar, the disease claimed a record 150 lives in 2014.

They also said more study was needed to uncover the cause of the illness, which leads to seizures, altered mental state and death in more than a third of cases.

Outbreaks of neurological illness have also been observed in lychee-growing regions of Bangladesh and Vietnam.


Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

Updated 22 September 2019
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Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

  • In an exclusive interview with Arab News, the vice president talks about her frosty relationship with Duterte and the need to ensure OFW rights

MANILA: She is one of his most vocal critics, while he never misses an opportunity to mock her in public speeches across the Philippines.

But when it comes to upholding the sanctity of their office, both President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo ensure they bring a finely scripted civility to the table.

“I do not meet him often. I do not get invited to functions in the presidential palace, but I get invited to military events. I try as much as I can to attend ... and I see the president there. Our meetings have always been cordial. The president has been very civil when we see each other,” Robredo said in an exclusive interview with Arab News in Manila.

Robredo was elected separately to Duterte and was not his running mate. Amid rumors that she is the obvious choice to take on the mantle once Duterte finishes his term, Robredo says that she is not ready to rule out the idea just yet.

“I do not rule it out completely only because of what happened during the last two elections where I ruled out running for Congress and I ruled out running for the vice-presidency, and I had to eat my words after that,” she said, adding that as far as the Philippines is concerned, it’s all about “destiny.”

“Our history has shown that a lot of people have aspired for the presidency, but have not been successful. And we have had a lot of presidents who won the elections where they had not prepared as much as the other candidates. It is something that will be given to you if it is really meant for you. So there is no point in preparing for it at this point,” she said.

 

In recent years, Robredo and Duterte have had a frosty relationship over issues ranging from the government’s controversial war on drugs to the Philippines ties with China.

 

Recently, Robredo called out Duterte for his “shoot, but don’t kill” orders.

The president made his comments on Thursday during the inauguration of the Bataan government center and business hub dubbed “The Bunker,” urging Filipinos to “shoot but not kill” public officials who were demanding money in exchange for their services and vowing to defend any person who attacked a corrupt official.

The statement drew flak from several rights organizations and, most significantly, from the vice president herself.

“I do not agree with killings per se, whether they are against drug addicts or corrupt officials. We have laws; we have the judicial system, and we should make sure that we have a strong judicial system, safe from political intrusion and corruption,” she said.

Robredo also explained why she has been at loggerheads with Duterte over his stance on the South China Sea.

Last week, she described as “reckless” his suggestion that he would consider bypassing an arbitration ruling — in favor of the Philippines — over a territorial dispute with China in order to finalize an energy pact with Beijing.

“I have always been vocal about statements by the president, which may be interpreted in a manner that would be against the constitution. It has been the reason of some friction between us. There has been a lot of confusion as far as the seriousness of the president’s remarks is concerned. Whenever he makes controversial statements, some officials around him try to correct those statements,” she said, adding that her retorts have “been a source of criticism from many of the president’s supporters.”

Adding to their constant tug-of-war is the issue of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and sending manpower to countries in the Middle East.

The issue intensified with the murder of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait last year. A Syrian woman, one of Demafelis’ employers, was found guilty of her murder this month.

Following the incident, the Philippines placed a ban on sending workers to Kuwait.

Duterte lifted the ban after Demafelis’ killer was tried, and there have been efforts to negotiate the terms and conditions of labor contracts by both the countries.

“The issues in Kuwait became a little too unbearable and we entered into a memorandum of agreement last year ... it was a reaction to many of the complaints that overseas Filipinos in Kuwait have. Some say that their passports are being confiscated by employers as soon as they reach Kuwait, and there are complaints about the working conditions, hours, etc,” Robredo said.

However, the agreement was a “short-term” initiative and a more formal bilateral agreement would have been “better in the sense that both countries will be made accountable,” she said.

“This is our desire not just in Kuwait, but also in many other parts of the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia for example, where most of our Filipino workers are. There has been a UN convention on the protection of the rights of overseas workers — migrant workers — but, unfortunately, most of the countries hosting our migrant workers are not signatories to that convention yet,” she said.

Robredo described the agreement a “work in progress,” saying “it is something that we have been working on for several years.”

The Philippines signed two agreements with Saudi Arabia — the first in 2015, and another two years later —  on labor contracts and recruitment.

According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the Kingdom continued to be the top destination for OFWs until May this year, with an estimated 2.3 million Filipinos working there.

Remittances from the period totalled P235.9 billion ($4.5 billion), up from P205.2 billion a year earlier.

“It is our desire that the countries hosting our migrant workers will be signatories to the UN convention because at the very least, the basic rights of our workers will be protected. It is something that not just our Foreign Affairs Department is working on, but our Labor Department as well,” she said, adding that this and a few other issues are subjects on which she and the president agree.

In June this year, when both Robredo and Duterte entered the final stretch of their six-year terms, the vice president said that she wanted a “better working relationship” with the president.

It is a sentiment that she voiced strongly while talking to Arab News as well.

“I think if our meetings are to be the gauge of our relationship, we are OK. It is just that there have been a lot of side remarks, issues and criticisms outside of our meetings that I think complicates the relationship,” she said.