The installation of a solar-powered medical oxygen system at a hospital in central Somalia is proving effective in saving lives, Somali and World Health Organization doctors said. 

The innovative solar oxygen system, the first of its kind in Somalia, was installed at Hanaano hospital, in the central town of Dhusamareb a year ago. Doctors say the system is having an impact and helping save the lives of very young patients.    

“This innovation is giving us promise and hopes,” says Dr. Mamunur Rahman Malik, WHO Somalia Representative.  

Malik says 171 patients received oxygen at the hospital from the solar-powered system from February to October last year. Of these 163 patients (95.3%) fully recovered and were discharged from the hospital. Only three patients died, and five other patients were referred to other hospitals.  

Malik said every year some 15,000 to 20,000 deaths occur in Somalia among children under five years of age due to pneumonia. He says pneumonia is the deadliest disease among children under the age of five in the country. Until now, health authorities had not had access to an intervention that could reduce deaths from childhood pneumonia.  

Dr. Mohamed Abdi, the director of Hanaano hospital, said the innovation is making a difference.    

“It has helped a lot, it has saved more than a hundred people who received the service,” he told VOA Somali.    

“It was a problem for the children under one year and the children who are born six months to get enough oxygen. Now we are not worried about oxygen availability if the electricity goes out because there are the oxygen concentrators.”

Abdi said it was difficult for doctors to save the lives of children born prematurely at the hospital before the installation of the system. The new system helps maintain high oxygen saturation levels of patients.  

Abdiaziz Omar Abdi was a child admitted to the hospital on January 16 with severe pneumonia and was struggling to breathe normally. The oxygen rate in his body had dropped to 60%, Abdi said.    

Doctors immediately put him on oxygen along with ampicillin and dexamethasone medications. When discharged three days later, he was breathing normally. His oxygen was up to 90%.  

“I came because my child was unwell, he was not breathing properly, he was not breastfeeding,” says relieved mother Fadumo Ahmed Ali.    

“Now he is breastfeeding. He is feeling well.”  

Abdiaziz received the treatment at no cost to his family.    

Malik said the oxygen is being used to treat a wide range of medical conditions — asphyxia, pneumonia, injuries, trauma, and road traffic accidents.

“We have seen in other countries that use of solar-powered medical oxygen (if applied in a timely manner) can save up to 35% of deaths from childhood pneumonia,” he said.    

Malik said if this innovation is used widely in Somalia, it can save the lives of at least 7,000 children who die “needlessly” due to pneumonia.    

The initiative to install bio-medical equipment that uses solar energy at Hanaano hospital emerged during the height of COVID-19 in 2020, at a time when people were dying due to respiratory problems. Hospitals were unable to keep up with the amount of patients and the cost of a cylinder of oxygen rose to between $400 to $600. 

“At the beginning of this pandemic we have seen that only 20% of hospitals or health facilities in Somalia had access to limited, very limited supply of oxygen,” Malik said.    

“If you look at the current situation, as of today Somalia needs close to 3,000 or 4000 cubic meters of oxygen per day. So, oxygen was the biggest need in all the hospitals.”  

Doctors said the solar system can also provide electricity to hospitals that need it. Solar power can also help provide energy for refrigeration needed to store vaccines or drugs at a low temperature, doctors said.  

This report originated in VOA Somali Service’s “Investigative Dossier” program. 

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Scientists and health officials around the world are keeping their eyes on a descendant of the omicron variant that has been found in at least 40 countries, including the United States. 

This version of the coronavirus, which scientists call BA.2, is widely considered stealthier than the original version of omicron because certain genetic traits make it somewhat harder to detect. Some scientists worry it could also be more contagious.

But they say there’s a lot they still don’t know about it, including whether it evades vaccines better or causes more severe disease. 

Where has it spread? 

Since mid-November, more than three dozen countries have uploaded nearly 15,000 genetic sequences of BA.2 to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data. As of Tuesday morning, 96 of those sequenced cases came from the U.S. 

“Thus far, we haven’t seen it start to gain ground” in the U.S., said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, which has identified three cases of BA.2.

The mutant appears much more common in Asia and Europe. In Denmark, it made up 45% of all COVID-19 cases in mid-January, up from 20% two weeks earlier, according to Statens Serum Institut, which falls under the Danish Ministry of Health. 

What’s known about this version of the virus? 

BA.2 has lots of mutations. About 20 of them in the spike protein that studs the outside of the virus are shared with the original omicron. But it also has additional genetic changes not seen in the initial version.

It’s unclear how significant those mutations are, especially in a population that has encountered the original omicron, said Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

For now, the original version, known as BA.1, and BA.2 are considered subsets of omicron. But global health leaders could give it its own Greek letter name if it is deemed a globally significant “variant of concern.” 

The quick spread of BA.2 in some places raises concerns it could take off. 

“We have some indications that it just may be as contagious or perhaps slightly more contagious than (original) omicron since it’s able to compete with it in some areas,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily know why that is.” 

An initial analysis by scientists in Denmark shows no differences in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared with the original omicron. Scientists there are still looking into this version’s infectiousness and how well current vaccines work against it. It’s also unclear how well treatments will work against it. 

Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2. But they’re hopeful, especially that a prior omicron infection might lessen the severity of disease if someone later contracts BA.2.

The two versions of omicron have enough in common that it’s possible that infection with the original mutant “will give you cross-protection against BA.2,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, an infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Scientists will be conducting tests to see if antibodies from an infection with the original omicron “are able to neutralize BA.2 in the laboratory and then extrapolate from there,” he said. 

How concerned are health agencies? 

The World Health Organization classifies omicron overall as a variant of concern, its most serious designation of a coronavirus mutant, but it doesn’t single out BA.2 with a designation of its own. Given its rise in some countries, however, the agency says investigations of BA.2 “should be prioritized.” 

The U.K. Health Security Agency, meanwhile, has designated BA.2 a “variant under investigation,” citing the rising numbers found in the U.K. and internationally. Still, the original version of omicron remains dominant in the U.K.

Why is it harder to detect? 

The original version of omicron had specific genetic features that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from delta using a certain PCR test because of what’s known as “S gene target failure.” 

BA.2 doesn’t have this same genetic quirk. So on the test, Long said, BA.2 looks like delta. 

“It’s not that the test doesn’t detect it; it’s just that it doesn’t look like omicron,” he said. “Don’t get the impression that ‘stealth omicron’ means we can’t detect it. All of our PCR tests can still detect it.” 

What should you do to protect yourself? 

Doctors advise the same precautions they have all along: Get vaccinated and follow public health guidance about wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home when you’re sick. 

“The vaccines are still providing good defense against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Long said. “Even if you’ve had COVID-19 before — you’ve had a natural infection — the protection from the vaccine is still stronger, longer lasting and actually … does well for people who’ve been previously infected.” 

The latest version is another reminder that the pandemic hasn’t ended. 

“We all wish that it was over,” Long said, “but until we get the world vaccinated, we’re going to be at risk of having new variants emerge.” 

 

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A devil-horned newt, drought-resilient bamboo and a monkey named after a volcano were among 224 new species discovered in the Greater Mekong region in 2020, a conservation group said on Wednesday, despite the “intense threat” of habitat loss. 

The discoveries listed in a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) include a new rock gecko found in Thailand, a mulberry tree species in Vietnam, and a big-headed frog in Vietnam and Cambodia that is already threatened by deforestation. 

The 224 discoveries underlined the rich biodiversity of the Mekong region, which encompasses Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and was testament to the resilience of nature in surviving in fragmented and degraded natural habitats, WWF said. 

“These species are extraordinary, beautiful products of millions of years of evolution, but are under intense threat, with many species going extinct even before they are described,” said K. Yoganand, WWF-Greater Mekong’s regional lead for wildlife and wildlife crime. 

The area is home to some of the world’s most endangered species, at risk of habitat destruction, diseases from human activities and the illegal wildlife trade. 

A United Nations report last year said wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia was creeping back after a temporary disruption from coronavirus restrictions, which saw countries shut borders and tighten surveillance. 

 

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Uganda on Monday lifted its two-year COVID-19 curfew, allowing bars and nightspots to re-open. Excited revelers celebrated the end of one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

A reveler who only identified herself as Peace said she has been drinking every night of the lockdown. 

Uganda imposed the nighttime curfew in March 2020 in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has led to about 3,500 deaths in the country. 

Every night, businesses had to shut down at 7, and no cars were allowed on the streets. 

Peace tells VOA that during the lockdown, she ventured into bars owned by government employees that continued to operate in secret but charged high prices for beer. 

Excited, she said she is happy she can now drink at her favorite local bar. 

“But I’m glad that they opened,” Peace said. “I can manage to go out. I can freely move with a boda. Or I can drive. Like here, three beers at ten thousand. So, if I move out with fifty thousand, I can spend the whole night.” 

The government lifted the curfew on Monday, but some restrictions remain.Anyone wandering into a bar or restaurant must wear a mask and show their COVID vaccination card.

Fred Enanga, the Uganda Police spokesperson, cautioned the public to adhere to the health and safety protocols if they do not want to return to curfew. 

“Therefore, it is important that all proprietors and managers in night life and the night economy carefully manage the reopening of their business in the safest possible way,” Enanga said. “Where possible they can have ventilation systems in all venues, Sanitation stations throughout the venues.” 

Chris, a manager at the High Five bar in Kampala, is hoping to recover the losses he has incurred in the last two years. Monday’s business was disappointing, he said – he didn’t get as many customers as he wished.

The real challenge, he said, could be implementing the safety measures. 

“It has been two long years without operating. It is difficult to really tell everybody, show me your vaccination card or certificate,” Chris said. “Nonetheless, we have sanitizer, all the waitresses are vaccinated and we believe we are ready.” 

As Uganda attempts to return to normalcy, including the night life, statistics from the Ministry of Health show that as of Sunday, the country had recorded about 160,000 cases of COVID-19.

About 12,5 million people have been vaccinated, well short of the government’s target of 20 million.

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