WHO considers declaring monkeypox a global health emergency

FILE PHOTO: Test tubes labelled “Monkeypox virus positive and negative” are seen in this illustration taken on May 23, 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 June 2022

WHO considers declaring monkeypox a global health emergency

  • Declaring monkeypox to be a global emergency would mean the UN health agency considers the outbreak to be an “extraordinary event”
  • The WHO said it did not expect to announce any decisions made by its emergency committee before Friday

LONDON: The World Health Organization convenes its emergency committee Thursday to consider if the spiraling outbreak of monkeypox warrants being declared a global emergency.
But some experts say the WHO’s decision to act only after the disease spilled into the West could entrench the grotesque inequities that arose between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
Declaring monkeypox to be a global emergency would mean the UN health agency considers the outbreak to be an “extraordinary event” and that the disease is at risk of spreading across even more borders, possibly requiring a global response. It would also give monkeypox the same distinction as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio.
The WHO said it did not expect to announce any decisions made by its emergency committee before Friday.
Many scientists doubt any such declaration would help to curb the epidemic, since the developed countries recording the most recent cases are already moving quickly to shut it down.
Last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the recent monkeypox epidemic identified in more than 40 countries, mostly in Europe, as “unusual and concerning.” Monkeypox has sickened people for decades in central and west Africa, where one version of the disease kills up to 10 percent of people infected. The version of the disease seen in Europe and elsewhere usually has a fatality rate of less than 1 percent and no deaths beyond Africa have so far been reported.
“If WHO was really worried about monkeypox spread, they could have convened their emergency committee years ago when it reemerged in Nigeria in 2017 and no one knew why we suddenly had hundreds of cases,” said Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups. “It is a bit curious that WHO only called their experts when the disease showed up in white countries,” he said.
Until last month, monkeypox had not caused sizeable outbreaks beyond Africa. Scientists haven’t found any mutations in the virus that suggest it’s more transmissible, and a leading adviser to the WHO said last month the surge of cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity among gay and bisexual men at two raves in Spain and Belgium.
To date, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 3,300 cases of monkeypox in 42 countries where the virus hasn’t been typically seen. More than 80 percent of cases are in Europe. Meanwhile, Africa has already seen more than 1,400 cases this year, including 62 deaths.
David Fidler, a senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the WHO’s newfound attention to monkeypox amid its spread beyond Africa could inadvertently worsen the divide between rich and poor countries seen during COVID-19.
“There may be legitimate reasons why WHO only raised the alarm when monkeypox spread to rich countries, but to poor countries, that looks like a double standard,” Fidler said. He said the global community was still struggling to ensure the world’s poor were vaccinated against the coronavirus and that it was unclear if Africans even wanted monkeypox vaccines, given competing priorities like malaria and HIV.
“Unless African governments specifically ask for vaccines, it might be a bit patronizing to send them because it’s in the West’s interest to stop monkeypox from being exported,” Fidler said.
The WHO has also proposed creating a vaccine-sharing mechanism to help affected countries, which could see doses go to rich countries like Britain, which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa — and recently widened its use of vaccines.
To date, the vast majority of cases in Europe have been in men who are gay or bisexual, or other men who have sex with men, but scientists warn anyone in close contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection, regardless of their sexual orientation. People with monkeypox often experience symptoms like fever, body aches and a rash; most recover within weeks without medical care.
Even if the WHO announces monkeypox is a global emergency, it’s unclear what impact that might have.
In January 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 an international emergency. But few countries took notice until March, when the organization described it as a pandemic, weeks after many other authorities did so. The WHO was later slammed for its multiple missteps throughout the pandemic, which some experts said might be prompting a quicker monkeypox response.
“After COVID, WHO does not want to be the last to declare monkeypox an emergency,” said Amanda Glassman, executive vice president at the Center for Global Development. “This may not rise to the level of a COVID-like emergency, but it is still a public health emergency that needs to be addressed.”
Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and vice chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said the WHO and others should be doing more to stop monkeypox in Africa and elsewhere, but wasn’t convinced that a global emergency declaration would help.
“There is this misplaced idea that Africa is this poor, helpless continent, when in fact, we do know how to deal with epidemics,” said Abdool Karim. He said that stopping the outbreak ultimately depends on things like surveillance, isolating patients and public education.
“Maybe they need vaccines in Europe to stop monkeypox, but here, we have been able to control it with very simple measures,” he said.


WHO: Monkeypox cases in Europe have tripled in last 2 weeks

Updated 58 min 44 sec ago

WHO: Monkeypox cases in Europe have tripled in last 2 weeks

  • “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said
  • More than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide

LONDON: The World Health Organization’s Europe chief warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure the previously rare disease does not become entrenched on the continent.
Dr. Hans Kluge said in a statement that increased efforts were needed despite the UN health agency’s decision last week that the escalating outbreak did not yet warrant being declared a global health emergency.
“Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said.
To date, more than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kluge said the number of infections in Europe represents about 90 percent of the global total, noting that 31 countries in the WHO’s European region have now identified cases.
Kluge said data reported to the WHO show that 99 percent of cases have been in men — and that the majority of those have been in men that have sex with men. But he said there were now “small numbers” of cases among household contacts, including children. Most people reported symptoms including a rash, fever, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting and chills.
Scientists warn anyone who is in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection, regardless of their sexual orientation. Vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women are thought to be more likely to suffer severe disease.
About 10 percent of patients were hospitalized for treatment or to be isolated, and one person was admitted to an intensive care unit. No deaths have been reported.
Kluge said the problem of stigmatization in some countries might make some people wary of seeking health care and said the WHO was working with partners including organizers of pride events.
In the UK, which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa, officials have noted the disease is spreading in “defined sexual networks of men who have sex with men.” British health authorities said there were no signs suggesting sustained transmission beyond those populations.
A leading WHO adviser said in May that the spike in cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity by men at two rave parties in Spain and Belgium, speculating that its appearance in the bisexual community was a “random event.” British experts have said most cases in the UK involve men who reported having sex with other men in venues such as saunas and clubs.
Ahead of pride events in the UK this weekend, London’s top public health doctor asked people who have symptoms of monkeypox, like swollen glands or blisters, to stay home.
WHO Europe director Kluge appealed to countries to scale up their surveillance and genetic sequencing capacities for monkeypox so that cases could be quickly identified and measures taken to prevent further transmission. He said the procurement of vaccines “must apply the principles of equity.”
The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox and the European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.
Some countries including the UK and Germany have already begun vaccinating people at high-risk of monkeypox; the UK recently widened its immunization program to offer the shot to mostly men who have multiple sexual partners and are thought to be most vulnerable.
Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.
To date, there have been about 1,800 suspected monkeypox cases including more than 70 deaths in Africa. Vaccines have never been used to stop monkeypox outbreaks in Africa.
The WHO’s Africa office said this week that countries with vaccine supplies “are mainly reserving them for their own populations.”


UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights

Updated 01 July 2022

UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights

  • Women face hunger, domestic violence, unemployment, curbs on movement and dress, and lack of access to education
  • “Their future will be even darker, unless something changes, quickly," said the UN human rights chief

ZURICH: The United Nations human rights chief urged the Taliban authorities on Friday to respect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, which she said were facing the biggest erosion in decades.
Women face hunger, domestic violence, unemployment, curbs on movement and dress, and lack of access to education in a country where secondary schooling for 1.2 million girls has stopped, Michelle Bachelet told a UN Human Rights Council debate in Geneva.
“While some of these concerns pre-date the Taliban take-over in August 2021, reforms at that time were moving in the right direction, there were improvements and hope,” she said.
“However, since the Taliban took power, women and girls are experiencing the most significant and rapid roll-back in enjoyment of their rights across the board in decades. Their future will be even darker, unless something changes, quickly.”
The Taliban seized power for a second time in Afghanistan last August as international forces who had backed a pro-Western government pulled out. Their taking of the capital Kabul marked the end of a 20-year war stemming from a US invasion that toppled a previous Taliban government.
Bachelet said authorities she met during a visit to Kabul in March said they would honor their human rights obligations as far as they were consistent with Islamic sharia law. She decried the progressive exclusion of women and girls from the public sphere.
She urged the Taliban to set a firm date to reopen schools for girls and remove restrictions on women’s movement and attire.
Governors in some regions were applying policies in ways that provide options for women and girls, she said, offering a window to expand women’s role in society and economic life.
Richard Bennett, special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, criticized forced and child marriage and curbs on attire, movement and employment.
“Despite public assurances from the Taliban that they would respect women’s and girls’ rights, they are reinstituting step by step the discrimination against women and girls’ characteristic of their previous term and which is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression,” he told the debate.
When Bennett visited Afghanistan in May, the Taliban deputy spokesman denied human rights concerns.


Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial

Updated 01 July 2022

Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial

  • Daesh attacks on Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium killed 130 people
  • Abdeslam was found guilty Wednesday of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise

PARIS: The lawyer for the only surviving attacker from the November 2015 terrorist massacre in Paris criticized her client's murder conviction and life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, saying Thursday the verdict “raises serious questions.”
Olivia Ronen did not say if Salah Abdeslam would appeal the verdict and sentence. He has 10 days in which to do so.
Abdeslam was found guilty Wednesday of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise, among other charges, over his involvement in the Daesh attacks on the Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium that killed 130 people.
Ronen argued throughout the marathon trial of Abdeslam and 19 other men that her client had not detonated his explosives-packed vest and hadn’t killed anyone the night of the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.
Nevertheless, Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian, was given the most severe sentence possible in France for murder and that “raises serious questions," Ronen said in an interview with public radio station France Inter.
During his trial testimony, Abdeslam told a special terrorist court in Paris that he was a last-minute addition to the nine-member attacking squad that spread out across the French capital on Nov. 13, 2015, to launch the coordinated attacks at multiple sites.
Abdeslam said he walked into a bar with explosives strapped to his body but changed his mind and disabled the detonator. He said he could not kill people “singing and dancing.”
The court found, however, that Abdeslam's explosives vest malfunctioned, dismissing his claim that he decided not to follow through with his part of the attack because of a change of heart.
The other eight attackers, including Abdeslam's brother, either blew themselves up or were killed by police. Abdeslam drove three of them to the locations of the attacks that night.
The worst carnage was in the Bataclan. Three gunmen burst into the venue, firing indiscriminately. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage — some gravely injured — for hours before then-President Francois Hollande ordered the theater stormed.
Abdeslam was nowhere near the Bataclan at any time that night, defense lawyer Ronen said, suggesting he therefore did not deserve France’s most severe murder sentence possible.
“We have condemned a person we know was not at the Bataclan as if he was there,” Ronen said. “That raises serious questions.”
The chief prosecutor at the special terrorism court Jean-Francois Ricard said the trial of the 20 extremists, the court's verdicts and sentences, including the harshest one for Abdeslam, were a “triumph for the rule of law” in France.
“Abdeslam dropped off three human bombs and killed by proxy,” Ricard said on Thursday in an interview with another public broadcaster, France Info. “His punishment is just.”
The sentence of life without parole had only previously been given four times in France, for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
The special terrorism court also convicted 19 other men involved in the attacks. Eighteen were given various terrorism-related convictions, and one was convicted on a lesser fraud charge. Some were given life sentences; others walked free after being sentenced to time served.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his final court appearance Monday, saying that listening to their accounts of “so much suffering” changed him.
Georges Salines, who lost his daughter Lola in the Bataclan, felt Abdeslam’s remorse was insincere. “I don’t think it’s possible to forgive him,” he said.
But for Salines, life without parole is going too far.
“I don’t like the idea of in advance deciding that there is no hope,” he said. “I think it is important to keep hope for any man.”


‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

Updated 01 July 2022

‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

  • Akhundzada was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in Kabul

KABUL: Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called Friday for the world to stop telling them how to run Afghanistan, insisting sharia law was the only model for a successful Islamic state.
Akhundzada, who has not been filmed or photographed in public since the Taliban returned to power in August, was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in the Afghan capital called to rubber-stamp the hard-line Islamist group’s rule.
Over 3,000 clerics have gathered in Kabul since Thursday for the three-day men-only meeting, and Akhundzada’s appearance had been rumored for days — although media are barred from covering the event.
“Why is the world interfering in our affairs?” he asked in an hour-long speech broadcast by state radio.
“They say ‘why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ Why does the world interfere in our work?“
Akhundzada rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland, and apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, has almost no digital footprint.
But analysts say the former Sharia court judge has an iron grip on the movement and he bears the title “Commander of the Faithful.”
His arrival at the meeting hall was greeted with cheers and chants, including “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s name for the country.
Akhundzada’s appearance comes a week after a powerful earthquake struck the east of the country, killing over 1,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
No women are attending the clerics’ meeting, but a Taliban source told AFP this week that thorny issues such as girls’ education — which has divided opinion in the movement — would be discussed.
Akhundzada did not mention the subject in his speech, which was confined largely to telling the faithful to strictly observe Islamic principles in life and governance.
Since the Taliban’s return, secondary school girls have been barred from education and women dismissed from government jobs, forbidden from traveling alone, and ordered to dress in clothing that covers everything but their faces.
They have also outlawed playing non-religious music, banned the portrayal of human figures in advertising, ordered TV channels to stop showing movies and soap operas featuring uncovered women, and told men they should dress in traditional garb and grow their beards.
Akhundzada said the Taliban had won victory for Afghanistan, but it was up to the “ulema” — the religious scholars — to advise the new rulers on how to properly implement sharia law.
“The sharia system comes under two parts — scholars and rulers,” he said.
“If scholars do not advise authorities to do good, or the rulers close the doors against the scholars, then we will have not an Islamic system.”
Believed to be in his 70s, Akhundzada spoke in strong measured tones, occasionally coughing or clearing his throat.
He warned that non-Muslim nations would always be opposed to a pure Islamic state, so the faithful had to endure hardships to get what they wanted.
“You have to compete, you have to endure hardships... the present world will not easily accept you implementing the Islamic system,” he said.
Women’s rights activists have slammed their lack of participation.
“Women should be part of the decisions about their fate,” Razia Barakzai told AFP Thursday.
“Life has been taken away from Afghan women.”
The Taliban have thrown a dense security blanket over the capital for the meeting, but on Thursday two gunmen were shot dead near the venue.


Tear gas fired as Sudan anti-coup protests flare again

Updated 01 July 2022

Tear gas fired as Sudan anti-coup protests flare again

  • Sudan’s police meanwhile accused protesters of wounding 96 police and 129 military officers
  • The “violence needs to end,” demanded UN special representative Volker Perthes

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces fired tear gas Friday at hundreds of protesters who rallied for a second day in a row in the capital against last year’s military coup, witnesses said.
Demonstrators massed again near the presidential palace in Khartoum a day after at least nine people were killed during mass rallies against the military takeover led by army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan last October.
“The people want to bring down Burhan,” activists chanted while others, carrying photos of people killed in protest-related violence, yelled: “We call for retribution!“
The death toll from protest-related violence has reached 113 since the coup, with the latest fatality reported Friday after a protester died from wounds sustained at a June 24 protest, according to pro-democracy medics.
Sudan’s police meanwhile accused protesters of wounding 96 police and 129 military officers, “some critically,” on Thursday, as well as damaging vehicles and setting fires.
Thursday’s crackdown defied calls by the international community urging Sudanese authorities to refrain from violence.
The “violence needs to end,” demanded UN special representative Volker Perthes.
US senior diplomat Lucy Tamlyn said she was “deeply concerned” by the reported protester deaths and the “use of live fire by authorities and aggression against medical professionals.”
Last year’s coup plunged Sudan into deepening turmoil which has seen rising consumer prices and life-threatening food shortages and sparked near-weekly protests as well as ethnic clashes.
The United Nations, African Union and regional bloc IGAD have tried to facilitate talks between the generals and civilians, but they have been boycotted by the main civilian factions.
On Friday, the three bodies jointly condemned the violence and “the use of excessive force by security forces and lack of accountability for such actions, despite repeated commitments by authorities.”
The protests Thursday came on the anniversary of a 1989 coup that toppled Sudan’s last elected civilian government and ushered in three decades of iron-fisted rule by Islamist-backed General Omar Al-Bashir.
It was also the anniversary of 2019 protests demanding that the generals who had ousted Bashir in a palace coup earlier that year cede power to civilians.
Those protests led to the formation of the civilian-military transitional government that was toppled in last year’s coup.