Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only two countries where polio still paralyzes children, marked World Polio Day (October 24) Sunday amid excitement and hopes that global eradication of the crippling disease is within reach. 

The neighboring countries constitute a bloc where the disease has been endemic; but each has detected just one case of wild polio so far this year compared to 53 in Afghanistan and 81 in Pakistan in October 2020. The number of cases so far in 2021 is the lowest in history, according to World Health Organization officials.

A polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan has faced challenges in particular over the past two years — due to vaccine hesitancy and the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a five-month pause in polio immunization campaigns starting in March of 2020.

 

“We have reason to be optimistic,” said Aziz Memon of Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program.

 

Memon told VOA the declining trend of reported polio cases and negative environmental samples suggest “a positive outlook” for polio eradication in Pakistan and Afghanistan, stressing the need for capitalizing on what he described as an “unprecedented” opportunity to stop wild polio transmission. 

 

“We are currently in the high season for polio transmission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it’s never been more important to ensure that polio immunization and surveillance remain a top priority, particularly as the pandemic continues to threaten immunization programs around the world,” he said. 

 

Memon said restrictions on public movement to prevent COVID-19 from spreading was one of the key contributing factors leading to the recent decline in polio cases in Pakistan. 

 

“Inter-city and intra-city public transportation remained suspended across the country during the pandemic lockdowns, which restricted many nomadic families from traveling to other cities in search of job opportunities,” he said.

 

Memon said the resumption of mass polio vaccination campaigns and the natural immunity induced by the wild polio outbreaks of previous years have also contributed to the current reduction in cases. 

 

The Pakistani government reported earlier this month that its third vaccination campaign of the year in mid-September succeeded in the administering of polio drops to more than 40 million children across the country. 

 

Afghan house-to-house drive 

 

The United Nations last week announced that a house-to-house polio vaccination drive for all children under 5 in Afghanistan will restart on November 8 for the first time in more than three years, now that the conflict-torn country’s new Taliban government has granted approval. 

“Given that Pakistan and Afghanistan are a single epidemiological bloc, this represents a great opportunity for both countries to reach even more children with lifesaving polio vaccines,” said Memon, while welcoming the Taliban’s decision to lift the ban on house-to-house polio vaccination. 

Rotary’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative was founded in 1988. The program has since reduced infections by more than 99.9 percent worldwide and immunized nearly 3 billion children against polio, preventing more than 19.4 million cases of paralysis. But Rotary officials predict “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eradicated within 10 years. 

International eradicators warn outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs) also pose a major barrier to achieving a polio-free world, calling for increased vigilance in swiftly addressing it.

 

The outbreak occurs if not enough children in any given community are vaccinated and the weakened live poliovirus contained in the oral polio vaccine starts to circulate, mutating to a form that can cause paralysis. 

 

“Multiple countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, are facing outbreaks of cVDPV type 2, and to address them, a new polio vaccine that carries less risk of changing to a harmful form that could cause paralysis in low-immunity settings has been developed,” Memon said.

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A Financial Times report says COVAX, the global collaboration established to ensure that poor countries have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, has “largely failed.” 

“Wealthy countries have received over 16 times more COVID-19 vaccines per person than poorer nations that rely on the COVAX program backed by the World Health Organization,” the newspaper reported.

Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries have not yet received their first shots of the vaccine, while people in the wealthiest countries have access to booster shots, following their initial inoculations.

The disparity, The Financial Times warned, “could lead to a rise in cases and the emergence of more virulent strains, and hold back the global economic recovery.” 

The World Health Organization’s director-general said Friday 82 countries are at risk of not meeting WHO’s goal of having 40% of every country’s population vaccinated against COVID by the end of the year. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “For most of those countries, it’s simply a problem of insufficient and unpredictable supply.” 

Earlier this month, Britain reported its highest daily number of COVID-19 related deaths since March 9. A government advisor told a BBC television show Saturday that people should not wait for government mandates to begin initiating measures to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.

Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, told BBC Breakfast, “I think hospitals in many parts of the country are barely coping actually” under the weight of COVID cases.

“The sooner we all act,” Openshaw said, “the sooner we can get this transmission rate down and the greater the prospect of having a Christmas with our families.”

British Prime Minister Boris continues to dismiss calls for renewed COVID-19 restrictions, saying there is nothing to indicate those moves will be necessary in the coming months, despite the fact Britain is experiencing a dramatic surge in COVID-19 infections. 

Russia is preparing for or a weeklong workplace shutdown and the reimposition of a partial lockdown because of a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Daily coronavirus deaths in Russia have been rising for weeks because of sluggish vaccination rates, casual attitudes toward precautionary measures and the government’s hesitance toward tightening restrictions. The country’s national task force on COVID-19 said only about one-third of Russia’s 146 million people have been vaccinated, straining the country’s health system. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that employees would observe “non-working days” from October 30 to November 7, during which they would still receive salaries. He said the period, in which four of the seven days are state holidays, could start earlier or be extended in certain regions. 

The rollout of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in Namibia was postponed Saturday by the country’s health ministry after the vaccine’s regulator in neighboring South Africa raised concerns about its safety for people at risk of HIV. 

The regulator said it would not approve an emergency-use application for the vaccine at this time because some studies suggest that the delivery system, known as a vector, used to inoculate people with the Sputnik V vaccine can cause men to be more susceptible to HIV. 

 

The vaccine’s manufacturer, Gamaleya Research Institute, said Namibia’s postponement was not based on scientific evidence. 

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Sunday a global count of 243.3 million COVID cases and almost 5 million COVID deaths. The center said 6.7 billion vaccines have been administered.

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There will be cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday but no drivers in sight as racing teams mark a milestone in autonomous vehicle development.

Nine single-seaters will take part in the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC), a competition with a $1 million prize that aims to prove “autonomous technology can work at extreme conditions,” said Paul Mitchell, CEO of co-organizer Energy Systems Network (ESN).

Cars will not race on the “Brickyard” track at the same time but will start one after the other — with the winner being the fastest over two full-speed laps.

Teams are made up of students from around the world. Each group was given the same Dallara IL-15 car, which looks like a small Formula One vehicle, and the same equipment, which includes sensors, cameras, GPS and radars.

On race day, it is not drivers that will make the difference — but about 40,000 lines of code programmed by each team. 

The software kickstarts the engine and a powerful computer wedged in the bucket where the driver usually sits.

The MIT-PITT-RW team, the only one made up entirely of students without supervision, got their car only six weeks ago.

Engineering student Nayana Suvarna, 22, does not yet have a driving license but was nonetheless reluctantly designated as team manager. 

“I didn’t know anything about car racing,” she said with a smile, “but I’m becoming a fan.”

The MIT-PITT-RW’s car hit 130 km/h in testing, but Suvarna believes it capable of overtaking 160 on Saturday. 

‘Generation of talent’

 

Other teams have gone much faster. 

The car belonging to the PoliMOVE team, a partnership between the universities of Alabama and Politecnico in Milan, drove past the pits at around 250 km/h on Thursday.

But the car skidded at the next turn, spinning 360 degrees before coming to a stop on the inside lawn. 

“It was a miracle we didn’t crash,” said Sergio Matteo Savaresi, professor at Politecnico.

There was no glitch to blame: only cold tires and a slight oversteer. 

“We actually reached the very limit of the car,” said Savaresi, who oversees the PoliMOVE team. 

“A professional driver at that speed with tires like these would have done exactly the same.”

The Robocar, made by manufacturer Roborace, has held the speed record for an autonomous car since 2019, clocking in at 282 km/h — but on a straight course, not a circuit.

The concept of self-driving cars has captured imaginations since the 1950s, but the tech needed to make them a reality has been boosted over the past five years.

Most big car manufacturers are working on autonomous driving projects, often in collaboration with tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft or Cisco.

IAC participants do not see speed as the primary goal. 

“If people get used to seeing cars like these going 300 kilometers per hour… and they don’t crash,” said Savaresi, they may eventually think that such cars are safe “at 50 kilometers per hour.”

According to a Morning Consult survey published in September, 47 percent of Americans considered autonomous vehicles less safe than those driven by humans.

The race’s other goal is to enable tech sharing. 

Mitchell said several teams plan to make their code publicly available and open source after the competition.

“So, you’re going to take some of the most advanced AI algorithms ever developed for autonomous vehicles, and put it out there for industry, for startups, for other universities to build on.”

The project also aims to “develop a generation of talent,” Savaresi said.

“The people who are competing in this challenge are going to go and start companies, they’re going to go work for companies. And so I think the innovations from this competition will live on for many years.”

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One of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia, announced Saturday it aims to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, joining more than 100 countries in a global effort to try and curb man-made climate change.

The announcement, made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in brief scripted remarks at the start of the kingdom’s first-ever Saudi Green Initiative Forum, was timed to make a splash a little more than a week before the start of the global COP26 climate conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland.

Although the kingdom will aim to reduce its emissions, Prince Mohammed said the kingdom would do so through a so-called “Carbon Circular Economy” approach. That approach focuses on still unreliable carbon capture and storage technologies over efforts to actually reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. The announcement only pertains to Saudi Arabia’s efforts within its national borders and does not impact its continued aggressive investment in oil and exporting its fossil fuels to Asia and other regions.

“The transition to net zero carbon emissions will be delivered in a manner that preserves the kingdom’s leading role in enhancing the security and stability of global energy markets, particularly considering the maturity and availability of technologies necessary to manage and reduce emissions,” a statement by the Saudi Green Initiative forum said.

The kingdom’s oil and gas exports form the backbone of its economy, despite efforts to diversify away from reliance on fossil fuels for revenue.

The global summit COP26 starting Oct. 31 will draw heads of state from across the world to try and tackle global warming and its challenges. It is being described as “the world’s last best chance “to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels. The summit is expected to see a flurry of new commitments from governments and businesses to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Leaked documents first reported by the BBC emerged Thursday showing how Saudi Arabia and other countries, including Australia, Brazil and Japan, are apparently trying to water down an upcoming U.N. science panel report on global warming. The documents are purportedly evidence of the way in which some governments’ public support for climate action is undermined by their efforts behind closed doors.

Saudi Arabia has pushed back against the recommendation that fossil fuels be urgently phased out of the energy sector. Instead, the kingdom is touting, thus enabling nations to continue burning fossil fuels by sucking the resulting emissions out of the atmosphere, according to Greenpeace, which obtained the documents.

The kingdom repeatedly seeks to have the report’s authors delete references to the need to phase out fossil fuels, as well as the panel’s conclusion that there is a “need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales,” according to the leaked documents

Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates – another major Gulf Arab energy producer – announced it too would join the “net zero” club of nations with a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The UAE did not announce specifics on how it will reach this target but said its Ministry of Climate Change and Environment would work with the energy, economy, industry, infrastructure, transport, waste, agriculture and other sectors on the government’s strategies and policies to achieve net zero by 2050.

The UAE says it is home to three of the largest solar facilities in the world and is the first country in the Middle East to deploy nuclear power.

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U.N. agencies are preparing to launch a polio vaccination campaign for all children under 5 in Afghanistan, a country where the potentially crippling disease persists despite a more than three-decade-long campaign that has nearly eradicated it worldwide.

Vaccine doses will begin to be administered in Afghanistan on November 8 for the first time in three years, now that the country’s new Taliban government has granted approval.

“This is a huge development that now we can go all across Afghanistan and deliver the vaccine house to house,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told VOA.

Jafari described the upcoming campaign as “a real combination of excitement and extreme fear — excitement because it looks like a real opportunity to eradicate wild polio virus finally.”

Warning that the virus might still be “lurking in some hard-to-reach populations,” he said it’s critical that the WHO “maintain this momentum to vaccinate our children so that the virus has nowhere to go.”

“Both Afghanistan and Pakistan really actually need to switch gears,” Jafari declared.

Polio’s presence in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, where a U.N. polio vaccination effort begins in December, means the disease can still spread globally. Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program, predicts “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eliminated within 10 years.

The WHO announced the vaccination campaign on Tuesday, five days before the observance of World Polio Day, part of Rotary International’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

Since the GPEI began in 1988, when there were 350,000 cases in 125 countries every year, polio cases have been cut by 99.9%, according to Rotary International.

The Taliban prohibited teams organized by the U.N. from conducting door-to-door vaccinations in parts of Afghanistan under their control over the past three years.

The ban and the recently ended war in Afghanistan prevented vaccines from being administered to 3.3 million of the country’s 10 million children over that period.

Taliban support

The Taliban did not comment on the agreement, but Jafari said, “The Taliban have always been supportive of polio eradication. … In fact, the polio education program started in Afghanistan when they were in government” previously from 1996 to 2001.

Jafari said the Taliban vaccination restriction “was imposed purely for considerations of security and the nature of conflict at the time, and that has now obviously changed drastically. So their commitment to support polio education remains, and this is an expression of that.”

He said the WHO has always “maintained dialogue” with the Taliban, in keeping with its “very neutral and impartial program” that enables children to be vaccinated “wherever they are.”

Carol Pandak, head of the PolioPlus program at Rotary International, said in an interview with VOA that GPEI continues to be successful, noting only two cases of polio have been detected in the recent past, one in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan.

“We have gone the longest time ever since detecting a case of the wild poliovirus. We’ve reached almost nine months, but now is not the time to be complacent,” she cautioned. “We need to build on this progress. We need to continue immunizing children against polio, and we need to intensify our disease detection systems so that with so few cases we’ll be able to tell and prove that there is no polio circulating.”

Pandak said that while Rotary International was “cautiously optimistic” about the progress made this year, “we need to also focus on other diseases, especially for children, because some of their immunization campaigns have been canceled due to COVID. So we really need to be able to protect children from diseases such as polio, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Earlier this month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus celebrated Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, by acknowledging her “contribution to revolutionary advancements in medical science.”

The “HeLa cells” from Lacks, an African American, are the oldest and most used human cell line in existence. They were taken from her without permission at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 before her death, and their use has resulted in many other medical breakthroughs and research involving maladies such as AIDS and cancer.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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За словами президента, знижка стосується обсягів газу поза 40 мільярдами кубометрів на день, які Україна вже транспортує до Європи, і може сягати 50%

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday the country will end its strict COVID-19 lockdown once 90% of its citizens are fully vaccinated. 

The nation of 5 million people has been among the best in the world at containing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, largely because New Zealand closed its borders for most of the last 18 months to non-residents. 

The strategy to eliminate COVID-19 worked for the most part, with the nation reporting only 28 deaths over the course of the pandemic. Earlier this year, much of the country had all but returned to normal. 

But in August, the Delta variant of the virus prompted an outbreak in the nation’s largest city, Auckland. The city of 2 million has been locked down for much of the past nine weeks. 

At a news conference in the capital, Wellington, Ardern said, while the nation should be proud of all it achieved during the early months of the pandemic, the delta variant has made it very hard to maintain its elimination strategy. She said rather than remain locked down, the way to move forward is through vaccinations. 

Ardern said, based on consultations with experts and examination of data, officials established the 90% vaccination criteria for each of the nation’s 20 district health regions. She said, once that target is reached in a given district, people will be free to do what they want, as long as they provide proof of vaccination. 

The prime minister said, “Basically, if you want to be guaranteed that no matter the setting that we are in that you can go to bars, restaurants and close-proximity businesses like a hairdresser, you’ll need to be vaccinated.” 

The New Zealand Health Ministry says 58 percent of the total population has been fully vaccinated as of Friday. 

 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

 

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Uganda has kickstarted a trial for the injectable HIV drugs cabotegravir and rilpivirine. Researchers and those living with HIV say the trial will likely end pill fatigue, fight stigma, improve adherence and ensure patients get the right dosage.

The two drugs have been in use as tablets. The World Health Organization last year licensed their use as injectables.

While the two injectables already went through trials in Europe and North America, this will be the first time they are tested in an African population for efficacy and safety in an African health care system.

Uganda is one of three African countries, along with Kenya and South Africa, which got approval from the WHO to carry out the trials. However, Kenya and South Africa have yet to acquire approvals to start their trials, expected by the end of the year.

Uganda and Kenya will both have three trial sites and there will be two in South Africa, with a total of 512 participants — 202 from Uganda, 160 from Kenya and 150 from South Africa.

Dr. Ivan Mambule, the lead project researcher at the Joint Clinical Research Center, says participants will need one injection every two months.

“We are going to choose participants who are already on ART [anti-retroviral treatment] and are stable on ART. And we will randomize them to either continue on their normal treatment, which is the pill that they’ve been taking, or to switch them to this injectable. The injection is on the buttock,” he expressed.

Uganda has 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Barbara Kemigisa who is living with HIV and founded the Pill Power Foundation working with rural women, says the injectable drugs will increase adherence to treatment and ensure people get the right dosage.

“One of the things that affects adherence is the fact that people have to hide medicine. In the village, people are hiding medicine in the kitchen roof, in trees, in bushes, in a baby’s shoe…If someone is wrapping the medicine in like five plastic bags and digs a hole in the garden and keeps the medicine there, by the time someone is taking that medicine, it’s no longer medicine, it’s poison,” Kemigisa points out.

Nicholas Niwagaba, who has worked with young people living with HIV welcomes the trial, saying it will reduce the pill burden and fight stigma.

“Young people feel like, this is a lot of pills to take. Those who are on the first line, they will have to take one tablet a day. There are those who are on second line and they have to take more than one pill and they have to take it in the morning and in the evening. And of course, this requires you to have actually a balanced diet which is really a challenge for most of young people especially those from vulnerable communities,” he says.

According to the WHO, there are 25.7 million people living with HIV in Africa. With only the pill currently available to manage the scourge, this injectable may come as a relief for people living with HIV/AIDS. 

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