Head of WhatsApp to Leave Company

The head of popular messaging service WhatsApp is planning to leave the company because of a reported disagreement over how parent company Facebook is using customers’ personal data. 

WhatsApp billionaire chief executive Jan Koum wrote in a Facebook post Monday, “It’s been almost a decade since (co-founder) Brian (Acton) and I started WhatsApp, and it’s been an amazing journey with some of the best people. But it is time for me to move on,” he said.

Koum did not give a date for his departure.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Koum is stepping down because of disagreements over Facebook’s attempts to use the personal data of WhatsApp customers, as well as efforts to weaken the app’s encryption. 

Action left the company last fall and since then has become a vocal critic of Facebook, recently endorsing a #DeleteFacebook social media campaign.

The Post, citing people familiar with internal WhatsApp discussions, said Koum was worn down by the differences in approach to privacy and security between WhatsApp and Facebook.

When WhatsApp agreed to the company’s sale to Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, it said WhatsApp would remain an independent service and would not share its data with Facebook. 

However, 18 months later, Facebook pushed WhatsApp to change its terms of service to give the social network access to the personal data of WhatsApp users. 

WhatsApp is the largest messaging service in the world with 1.5 billion monthly users. However, Facebook has been struggling to find ways to make enough money from the app to prove its investment was worth the cost. 

Facebook has faced intense criticism since March when news broke that the personal data of millions of Facebook users had been harvested without their knowledge by Cambridge Analytica, a British voter profiling company that U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign hired to target likely supporters in 2016.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress earlier this month and apologized for inadequately protecting the data of millions of social media platform users. 

Facebook also recently announced it would allow all its users to shut off third-party access to their apps and said it would set up “firewalls” to ensure users’ data was not unwittingly transmitted by others in their social network.

Some members of Congress said Facebook’s actions to rectify the situation did not go far enough and have called for greater regulation of the internet and social media.

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B-I-G Time: Wild Cards Send Spelling Bee Field Above 500

“Gargantuan” might be an appropriate word to kick off this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The competition will be super-sized because of a new wild-card program that provided a path to the bee for kids who didn’t qualify by conventional means and were willing to pay their own way.

Scripps was willing to allow the bee to nearly double in size, and that’s exactly what happened: There will be 519 spellers in this year’s bee, up from 291 last year.

That means some changes to the already packed bee week schedule: Now, there will be an extra day of spelling, with competitors taking the stage for three days instead of two. Previously, after the high-stakes written spelling and vocabulary test that largely determines the top 50 or so spellers who make the finals, competitors had the rest of the day to go sightseeing in Washington and blow off steam. Now, they’ll go straight from the test to the stage, where each speller will get one word the first day and each remaining speller will get another word the second day.

“I think the only drawback might be that jam-packed schedule for three straight days,” said Mira Dedhia, who finished third in last year’s bee. “It’s just a lot of sitting on stage and waiting because it’s a much larger pool of kids.”

The wild-card program was open to anyone who won a school-level spelling bee. Scripps officials weren’t sure how many would apply, in part because of the price tag: Spellers who get wild cards have to pay a $750 entry fee and fund their own travel and lodging at the convention center outside Washington where the bee will be held the week of May 28. Sponsors cover those costs for spellers who win their regional bees.

Nonetheless, 855 kids applied for wild cards, and 241 were accepted. Spellers who’d been to nationals before got top priority, with 39 recipients falling into that category. They were followed by spellers who were running out of eligibility — the bee is open to kids through the 8th grade — and, after that, spellers who got in their applications earliest.

Previously, spellers had to win at the regional level to gain entry. There are roughly 275 regions around the country, including a handful overseas.

The wild-card program, known as “RSVBee,” was meant to provide a lifeline to spellers who happen to live in highly competitive regions. A quarter of the 11 million spellers who participate in the Scripps program are concentrated in just eight regions. The result is that kids who were talented enough to make the national finals were sometimes frozen out of the bee altogether because they were tripped up at regionals by other elite spellers.

“RSVBee has accomplished what we intended by leveling the playing field for national finals qualification, especially for students participating in large regional bees,” said Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director.

Despite her concerns about the schedule, Mira, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who is now coaching four spellers, is a big proponent of the wild cards. One of Mira’s students — Enya Hubers of Burlington, Ontario, Canada — finished inside the top 50 in last year’s bee but saw her path to return closed off because she is home-schooled and didn’t have a sponsor this year. Enya got a wild card to return.

The program “provides a lot of opportunities to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise, whether they be home-schooled or just from a very competitive or large regional bee,” Mira said.

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Paper Plane Protesters Urge Russia to Unblock Telegram App

Thousands of people marched through Moscow, throwing paper planes and calling for authorities to unblock the popular Telegram instant messaging app on Monday.

Protesters chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin as they launched the planes – a reference to the app’s logo.

“Putin’s regime has declared war on the internet, has declared war on free society… so we have to be here in support of Telegram,” one protester told Reuters.

Russia began blocking Telegram on April 16 after the app refused to comply with a court order to grant state security services access to its users’ encrypted messages.

Russia’s FSB Federal Security service has said it needs access to some of those messages for its work, that includes guarding against militant attacks.

In the process of blocking the app, state watchdog Roskomnadzor also cut off access to a slew of other websites.

Telegram’s founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, called for “digital resistance” in response to the decision and promised to fund anyone developing proxies and VPNs to dodge the block.

More than 12,000 people joined the march on Monday, said White Counter, a volunteer group that counts people at protests.

“Thousands of young and progressive people are currently protesting in Moscow in defense of internet freedom,” Telegram’s Durov wrote on his social media page.

“This is unprecedented. I am proud to have been born in the same country as you. Your energy changes the world,” Durov wrote.

Telegram has more than 200 million global users and is ranked as the world’s ninth most popular mobile messaging service.

Iran’s judiciary has also banned the app to protect national security, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

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State TV: Iran’s Judiciary Bans Using Telegram App

Iran’s judiciary has banned the popular Telegram instant messaging app to protect national security, Iran’s state TV reported Monday.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organizations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” TV reported.

The order was issued days after Iran banned government bodies from using Telegram, which is widely used by Iranian state media, politicians, companies and ordinary Iranians.

A widespread government internet filter prevents Iranians from accessing many sites on the official grounds that they are offensive or criminal.

But many Iranians evade the filter through use of VPN software, which provides encrypted links directly to private networks based abroad, and can allow a computer to behave as if it is based in another country.

“The blocking of Telegram app should be in a way to prevent users from accessing it with VPN or any other software,” Fars said. The app had over 40 million users in Iran.

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Recycling Oyster Shells Improves Water Quality, Oyster Population

It’s another busy day for Tony Price, who has a list of around two dozen restaurants and other seafood businesses to visit, to pick up discarded oyster shells. 

Fast and energetic, he moves barrels of smelly shells from restaurants’ back storage areas to his truck. “We do seven pickups a week, plus events on weekends. I’d say we’re getting somewhere between 500 and even 800 bushels a week,” he says.

That’s the beginning of a recycling process, a journey for the oyster shell to return to the water. 

Price is the operation manager with Shell Recycling Alliance, a program run by the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

Last year, the program collected 33,400 bushels of oyster shells from restaurants all around the Chesapeake Bay area. Every half shell collected becomes a new home for around 10 baby oysters. 

On the menu

Oysters have been a popular item on the menu of Mike’s Crab House since 1958.

The famous seafood restaurant, in Riva, Maryland, is one of more than 330 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. that now recycle their oyster shells.

Tony Piera says he and Mike’s other owners joined the program four years ago.

“It’s a win-win for us. It’s a win-win for the environment,” he explains. “Before we did it, the trash would come and get them. Now, the Oyster Recovery comes two days a week, picks them up.”

Mike’s Crab House is one of the top ten contributors to the program this year, with more 822 bushels of recycled oyster shells in 2017.

“I think I’m getting more customers here because they know we recycle here,” Piera says. “They know it’s good for the environment, the Chesapeake Bay.”

Saving oysters, saving the bay

The Oyster Recovery Partnership began in 2010 with 22 restaurants. Spokeswoman Karis King says the program has been well received and is expanding.

“We continue to grow and expand from us basically knocking on doors, trying to get people involved,” she adds. “It’s turned out into getting requests every single day, ‘How do we become part of this program?’ ‘I’m really excited about the program.’ ‘I want to do my part.’ ‘I want to be sustainable.’”

The recycling program offers incentives to encourage more restaurants to join. “In Maryland, tax credits that restaurants can claim based on how many bushels they recycle. We also provide them with support, restaurant training to talk to the servers about what the program is and why it’s important.” 

Multi-step recycling process

Done with his day’s rounds, Tony Price heads to a facility where the first phase of the process – cleaning the shells – begins.

“The shell is taken down here, it’s aged, it sits for about a year. It dries out, sun, wind, rain,” he explains. “(It) kind of decomposes a little all the tissue that’s left. Behind me is the shell washer. There are jets of a high pressure water from a pressure water system tumbles the shells, just give it a nice cleaning. So, it comes out brilliant white as opposed to the stuff on the other side is the raw shell. It’s a little bit grayer.” 

Then, the shells go to the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Oyster Hatchery for further processing. 

Hatchery manager, Stephanie Alexander, says her team gets tiny baby oysters, called spat, ready to be attached to the clean oyster shells. “We get the adult oysters, we spawn them and create the babies. Then, we grow those baby oysters for two to three weeks. Then they mature and we attach them to the shell to become spat on shell.”

Now firmly attached to the recycled natural shells, the spat are put back in the Chesapeake Bay. Here, they will grow and flourish, increasing the oyster population.

Alexander says new generations of oysters are crucially important for the health of the bay. They filter the water.

“That kind of makes them the bay’s kidneys,” she explains. “The cleaner water you have, the more sunlight can penetrate, the more grasses you end up having, which results in nursery area for fish and crabs when they are small and juvenile so they don’t get eaten. They also are spawning and reproducing, adding to the population. They (oyster shells) create habitat for many, many creatures. They are kind of the coral reefs of the bay.”

The success of the Recycling Shell Alliance program encourages more restaurants to join. That’s good for the bay and for people who love to eat oysters.

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Ugandan Government Eyes Tax on Mobile Data Use

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was criticized this month when he asked the Finance Ministry to find a way to tax social media use, in order to control what he called “gossip” online. Officials have since walked back that characterization, though they say they are pushing ahead with efforts to add a daily tax on mobile data use beginning this July. For VOA, Halima Athumani reports from Kampala.

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US Wireless Carriers T-Mobile, Sprint Announce Merger

The third and fourth biggest U.S. wireless carriers, T-Mobile and Sprint, said Sunday they plan to merge, the third attempt they’ve made to join forces against the country’s two biggest mobile device firms, Verizon and AT&T.

The deal, if it happens this time, calls for T-Mobile to buy Sprint for $26 billion in an all-stock deal.

The combined carrier would have 126 million customers, still third in the pecking order of U.S. wireless carriers, but closer to the top two. Verizon has more than 150 million customers, and AT&T more than 142 million.

The latest agreement caps four years of on-and-off talks between T-Mobile and Sprint. Sprint dropped its bid for T-Mobile more than three years ago after U.S. regulators objected and another proposed merger fell through last November.

The new deal could help the combined companies slash costs to make the new business more competitive with industry leaders. But customers could also pay more for wireless coverage because the combined company may not have to offer as many deals to attract new customers.

U.S. regulators at the Federal Communications Commission are expected to take a close look at the merger’s effects on customers and whether the deal violates antitrust laws.

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A Unique Window on Being Queer in Nigeria

“Whenever I was with her, I was open. I could talk … my sexuality does not define who I am.” 

These words are from a new book, “She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak.”

The new book, released this week, is a collection of interviews with two dozen women. It offers an unprecedented window into what it means to be a queer woman in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal.

Intimate interviews

The book recounts a series of intimate interviews with 25 lesbian Nigerian women of various religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I’m really nervous and I’m also nervous about the reception of Nigerians to the book,” Woman A, as she asked to be referred to, told VOA.

Woman A, one of the women featured in the book, said most queer Nigerian women are like her, living in the closet.

In 2014, Nigeria banned same-sex marriage. The law is far-reaching. It also bans any cohabitation or public displays of affection, like kissing or hand holding, between same-sex partners. Anyone who breaks the law could face up to 14 years in prison. 

There is also a 10-year prison sentence for anyone who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs or organizations.

Human Rights Watch said with the law, Nigeria effectively criminalized being LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

That’s what makes this book so groundbreaking.

One woman reveals she lives with her partner in Abuja, which is illegal. She says it’s nice to wake up in the morning and have a cup of tea ready for her. Another woman speaks with anguish about the religious dilemma she faces being queer and Christian in Nigeria. 

Azeenarh Mohammed, one of the book’s editors, helped capture the one-on-one interviews. She said discussions of homosexuality in Africa focus on men. Lesbians have been excluded.

“There was an erasure of them. We said they really need to be heard and the reason why they hadn’t been heard is because the mic had not been passed to them. So we tried to do that with the book to let them be heard in their own voice with their own words,” Mohammed told VOA.

Bracing for a backlash

The book has garnered buzz on social media. Many people say they’re worried that homosexual lifestyles may become normalized in Nigerian society. Others say they have already pre-ordered the book in anticipation.

The book was published and released in the U.K., but the book’s editors say it will soon be available in Nigeria. They are bracing for backlash. In the past, the Nigerian government has banned controversial art, including books.

“Personally I’m curious, and I’m definitely going to read this book. To hear that there’s women talking about the fact that they’re queer and what they want to do is get with other women I think, to even be talking about it, I’m excited that we’re talking about it. I think this book is needed,” said Rosemary Ajuka, a feminist and media professional based in the Nigeria’s business hub of Lagos.

The book’s release comes as authorities in Kenya ban the new film by celebrated Kenyan director Waniru Kahiu. The film, called “Rafiki,” is a coming-of-age story about two girls falling in love. It will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the first feature-length Kenyan film ever to do so.

“Inxeba,” another controversial film won six South African Film and Television Awards in March, despite campaigns to ban it by community groups and political leaders. The film portrays two boys developing a sexual attraction for each other while participating in a cultural rite of passage ceremony for young men from the Xhosa ethnic group. The film was removed from some cinemas in the South Africa.

Optimistic but cautious

An oft-repeated sentiment is that homosexuality is un-African.

“Which is ridiculous, before just look at Nigeria for instance,” Mohammed said. “Homosexuality and queer identity is portrayed in the cultures of many ethnic groups and even across Africa, there is evidence that pre-dates colonialism that people were involved in same-sex romantic relationships.”

She said she’s hopeful that attitudes will change.

Asked what impact their book may have in Nigeria, Woman A is cautious.

“I wish someday I will be able to live openly, but until then…”

Until then, she said, she will keep living “in the closet.” 

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Parenting of the Future? Pick an Embryo

The future of parenting may see a big change as scientists and ethicists have a startling prediction about how children will be conceived in the future. Thanks to biomedical advances, parents may be able to choose a child from hundreds of embryos based on their DNA profile. Faith Lapidus reports.

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America’s Best Crafts Spotlighted at Smithsonian Show

The Smithsonian Craft Show is wrapping up this weekend, highlighting works from artists across the United States. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

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Comedian Draws Laughs, Gasps at Correspondents’ Dinner

If President Donald Trump isn’t comfortable being the target of jokes, comedian Michelle Wolf gave him and others plenty of reasons to squirm Saturday night.

“It’s 2018 and I’m a woman, so you cannot shut me up,” Wolf cracked, “unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.”

No, Trump’s personal attorney wasn’t there. And, for the second year, Trump himself skipped the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association, preferring to criticize journalists and others during a campaign-style rally near Detroit.

Wolf, the after-dinner entertainment for the White House press corps and their guests, was surprisingly racy for the venue and seemed more at home on HBO than C-SPAN. After one crass joke drew groans in the Washington Hilton ballroom, she laughed and said, “Yeah, shoulda done more research before you got me to do this.”

​Trump in Michigan

As he did last year, Trump flew to a Republican-friendly district to rally supporters on the same night as the dinner. In Washington Township, Michigan, the president assured his audience he’d rather be there than in that other city by that name.

“Is this better than that phony Washington White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Is this more fun?” Trump asked, sparking cheers.

“I could be up there tonight, smiling, like I love where they’re hitting you, shot after shot. These people, they hate your guts … and you’ve got to smile. If you don’t smile, they say, ‘He was terrible, he couldn’t take it.’ And if you do smile, they’ll say, “What was he smiling about?’”

Wolf’s act had some in the audience laughing and left others in stony silence. A blistering critique of press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was seated just feet away, mocked everything from her truthfulness to her appearance and Southern roots.

Among Wolf’s less offensive one-liners:

“Just a reminder to everyone, I’m here to make jokes, I have no agenda, I’m not trying to get anything accomplished, so everyone that’s here from Congress you should feel right at home.”
“It is kinda crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan.”
“He wants to give teachers guns, and I support that because then they can sell them for things they need like supplies.”

Dimmed star power

The dinner once attracted Oscar winners and other notable performers in film and television as well as celebrities in sports and other high-profile professions. The star power dimmed appreciably last year when the famously thin-skinned Trump, who routinely slammed reporters as dishonest and their work as “fake news,” announced he wasn’t attending. He was the first president to skip the event since Ronald Reagan bowed out in 1981 as he recovered from an assassination attempt.

Unlike last year, when Trump aides also declined to attend, the Trump White House had its contingent, including counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Former administration officials were on hand, such as onetime press secretary Sean Spicer, ex-chief of staff Reince Priebus, former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and political aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman.

At least one Trump antagonist attended — porn star Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti, who tweeted that he and Conway had a “spirited discussion.” And there was comedian Kathy Griffin, who last year posted controversial video of herself holding what appeared to be Trump’s bloody head; she later apologized.

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Drugmakers Push Back Against Lawmakers’ Calls to Tax Opioids

Facing a rising death toll from drug overdoses, state lawmakers across the United States are testing a strategy to boost treatment for opioid addicts: Force drug manufacturers and their distributors to pay for it.

Bills introduced in at least 15 states would impose taxes or fees on prescription painkillers. Several of the measures have bipartisan support and would funnel millions of dollars toward treatment and prevention programs.

In Montana, state Senator Roger Webb, a Republican, sees the approach as a way to hold drugmakers accountable for an overdose epidemic that in 2016 claimed 42,000 lives in the U.S., a record.

“You’re creating the problem,” he said of drugmakers. “You’re going to fix it.”

Opioids include prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin as well as illegal drugs such as heroin and illicit versions of fentanyl. Public health experts say the crisis started because of overprescribing and aggressive marketing of the drugs that began in the 1990s. The death toll has continued to rise even as prescribing has started to drop.

Pennsylvania bill

A Pennsylvania opioid tax bill was introduced in 2015 and a federal version was introduced a year later, but most of the proposals arose during the past year. The majority of them have yet to get very far, with lawmakers facing intense pressure from the pharmaceutical industry to scuttle or soften the legislation.

Drugmakers and distributors argue that it would be wrong to tax prescription drugs, that the cost increases would eventually be absorbed by patients or taxpayers, and that there are other ways to pay for addiction treatment and prevention.

“We have been engaged with states to help move forward comprehensive solutions to this complex public health crisis and in many cases have seen successes,” Priscilla VanderVeer, a spokeswoman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a statement. “However, we do not believe levying a tax on prescribed medicines that meet legitimate medical needs is an appropriate funding mechanism for a state’s budget.”

Two drug companies that deployed lobbyists — Purdue Pharma and Pfizer — responded to questions with similar statements.

A spokesman for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents drug distributors, said a tax would mean that cancer patients and those in end-of-life care might not be able to get the prescriptions they need.

The pharmaceutical industry has emphasized that the name-brand drug companies that make up its members already give rebates to states for drugs funded by Medicaid. Those rebates amount to billions of dollars nationwide that states could use to address opioid addiction, the trade group says.

State legislation to tax opioids comes as manufacturers and distributors are defending themselves in hundreds of lawsuits filed by state and local governments seeking damages for the toll the overdose epidemic has taken on communities.

​Delaware effort

David Humes, whose son died from a heroin overdose in 2012, has been pushing for an opioid tax in Delaware, which did not increase funding for addiction treatment last year as it struggles to balance its budget.

“When you think about the fact that each year more people are dying, if you leave the money the same, you’re not keeping up with this public health crisis,” he said.

Humes, a board member of the advocacy group atTAcK Addiction, supports legislation that would dedicate opioid tax revenue for addiction services.

The lead sponsor of an opioids tax bill, state Senator Stephanie Hansen, said drug companies told her they already were contributing $500,000 to anti-addiction measures in Delaware, where there were 282 fatal overdoses from all drugs in 2016, a 40 percent increase from the year before.

“My response is, ‘That’s wonderful, but we’re not stopping there,’ ” said Hansen, a Democrat.

She said if her tax measure had been in place last year, it would have raised more than $9 million.

The drug industry’s current spending on anti-addiction programs has been a point of contention in the Minnesota Legislature. There, the overdose rate is lower than it is in most other states, but opioids still claimed 395 lives in 2016, an increase of 18 percent over the year before.

State Representative Dave Baker, a Republican whose son died of a heroin overdose after getting started on prescription painkillers, said opioid manufacturers and distributors should pay for drug programs separately. He said the rebate — about $250 million in 2016 in Minnesota — is intended to make up for overcharging for drugs in the first place.

Drugmakers not ‘part of the solution’

Another Republican lawmaker, state Senator Julie Rosen, said she walked out of a meeting this month with drug industry representatives, saying they were wasting her time.

“They know that they’re spending way too much money on defending their position instead of being part of the solution,” she said.

Representatives of the pharmaceutical industry say they have met with Rosen multiple times and are “committed to continue working with her.”

Drug companies have a history of digging in to defeat measures that are intended to combat the opioid crisis. A 2016 investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found makers of opioids and their allies spent $880 million on politics and lobbying from 2006 through 2015.

The industry so far has succeeded in stalling the Minnesota legislation, which would charge opioid manufacturers by the dosage. With the bill facing resistance, Rosen and a Democratic co-sponsor, state Senator Chris Eaton, said they were considering changing tactics and amending it.

That could include raising the $235 annual licensing fee on opioid manufacturers or requiring drugmakers and distributors to pay $20 million a year based on the proportion of opioids they sell in the state. That approach is based on one adopted earlier this spring as part of the budget in New York — the only state to implement an opioid tax so far.

Eaton, whose daughter died from a heroin overdose in 2007, said her goal is to find a way to create and fund a structure that will ensure addiction treatment is “as routine as treating diabetes or cardiac arrest.”

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Remembering Fats Domino: Funeral, Concert on Jazz Fest Day 2

Fats Domino was a New Orleans musical legend when he died last year so it’s only fitting that his death – and his music – receive a special send-off this year during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Organizers Saturday will mark the occasion with a jazz funeral as well as a special tribute performance in his honor.

Festival producer Quint Davis says there are two New Orleans musicians who “changed the music of the whole world.” One was Louis Armstrong and the other was Fats Domino.

The tribute concert Saturday will feature various members of Domino’s band who played with him. Special musical guests include Bonnie Raitt and Jon Batiste.

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Autism Poses Special Challenges in Africa

The 4-year-old Cote d’Ivoire boy couldn’t walk, speak or feed himself. He was so unlike most other kids that his grandparents hesitated to accept him. The slightly older Kenyan boy was so restless that his primary-school teachers beat him, until they discovered he was a star pupil.

The two children reveal different faces of autism — and how society sometimes reacts to the condition.

Videos of the boys appear in “Autism: Breaking the Silence,” a special edition of VOA’s weekly Straight Talk Africa TV program. It was recorded Wednesday before a small studio audience of people who live with the condition or deal with it professionally.

About 45 minutes into the program, Benie Blandine Yao of Cote d’Ivoire holds her 4-year-old son, who has autism.

The program’s goal: to help demystify and deepen understanding of autism spectrum disorder. It affects the brain’s normal development, often compromising an individual’s ability to communicate, interact socially or control behavior. The condition can range from mild to severe.

New CDC findings

New findings released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate an increase in autism’s prevalence in the United States.

The agency estimates it affects 1 in 59 children, up from 1 in 68 several years ago and 1 in 150 almost two decades ago. The research is based on studies of more than 300,000 8-year-olds in 11 U.S. states.

Globally, one out of every 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder, the World Health Organization reports. Rates of autism are harder to determine in low- and middle-income countries, including those in sub-Saharan Africa with limited access to clinicians.

Everywhere, “poor people get diagnosed later,” Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society of America, said in a video overview that set the stage for discussion. “… There’s more services today than ever before but there’s nowhere near the services needed for all who need help.”

A complex condition

Stigma and superstition can heighten the challenges.

In parts of Africa, youngsters with autism “are labeled as devils and they’re not diagnosed and they are not given treatment,” Bernadette Kamara, a native of Sierra Leone who runs BK Behavioral Health Center in a Washington suburb, commented from the audience.

Some people believe the disorder is punishment for a parent’s bad behavior or an affliction that can be prayed away, said Mary Amoah, featured with 15-year-old daughter Renata in a related VOA video. 

 

“They don’t understand this is purely a medical condition. It can happen to anyone regardless of your background,” said Amoah, coordinator at a treatment center in Accra, Ghana, for children with disabilities. “A lot needs to be done in our part of the world in terms of education, acceptance and understanding.”

Causes

Researchers haven’t determined the exact cause of autism, though they cite genetic and environmental factors. 

Panelist Susan Daniels, who directs the office of autism research coordination for the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, stressed that research supported by the NIH and CDC shows no link to childhood vaccines.

Though the condition has no cure, early intervention can improve the quality of life for people with autism and their families.

Parents need to observe their children closely from infancy, advised Dr. Usifo Edward Asikhia, clinical director of the International Training Center for Applied Behavior Analysis in Lagos, Nigeria.

“When you have a baby at the age of 12 [months] that cannot babble, that’s a signal,” he said. Another is an inability to grasp objects, a sign of low muscle tone common in autism.

Other hallmarks include lack of eye contact or sensitivity to sounds, Daniels said. She added that a definitive diagnosis “can’t really be done accurately until age 2. But most kids aren’t diagnosed by then.”

“Children with autism in Africa tend to be diagnosed around age 8, about four years later, on average, than their American counterparts,” the Spectrum Autism Research News site reported in December.

​Call for cultural sensitivity

Some of those indicators could mislead when assessing African children, said panelist Morenike Giwa Onaiwu, a Texas-based member of the Autism Women’s Network.

“In a lot of African cultures, it’s customary not to make direct eye contact. That’s not a red flag,” said Onaiwu, whose parents came from Nigeria and who learned she was autistic only when two of her own six kids were positively identified with autism. “In terms of not babbling? We speak when we have something to say. … Certain things culturally may be missed because of the way diagnostic criteria are viewed through Western standards.”

While autism generally is associated with low IQ, the condition also affects people with high mental abilities. 

If they can “express themselves in some way, they’re actually geniuses,” said panelist Tracy Freeman, a Washington-area physician who has an autistic child. “Their challenge is neurodiversity and getting people to recognize their intelligence.”

At one point in the discussion, moderator Linord Moudou noticed Onaiwu twisting a metal coil in her hands. Onaiwu explained that the repurposed Christmas ornament is a “stimming” device for repetitive motion that provides relaxing sensory stimulation.

“It helps to calm me,” Onaiwu said. She has other strategies: “Sometimes you might see me rocking. … This kind of helps me to navigate in the neurotypical world.”

Growing role for governments?

Asikhia said families dealing with autism had few public supports in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa. Most schools lack training in developmental delays that should be flagged for physicians, he said. 

“Those teachers just don’t know what to do,” he added.

Many African countries lack laws ensuring public education or health interventions for youngsters with autism or other developmental disorders.

But Chiara Servili, a child neuropsychiatrist and WHO technical adviser on mental health, sees rising interest. Representatives of more than 60 countries supported a 2014 WHO resolution urging member nations to develop policies and laws to ease “the global burden of mental disorders” and to devote “sufficient human, financial and technical resources.”

Many governments once focused just on improving child mortality rates, she said in a phone interview. Now, there’s “much more awareness not only that they survive but thrive. There is a new focus on early childhood development.”

The WHO is trying to improve supports for family caregivers as well as for teachers, social workers and other professionals in positions to encourage clinical evaluation, Servili said.

With international partners, the organization has developed a guide for caregivers, usually parents, to nurture children with developmental issues. For instance, “we teach them strategies so they can better engage children in play. Sit down at the level of the child. Provide some toys or some object from the house, observe what the child is doing and try to follow the lead,” Servili said. “… Reinforce any attempt to communicate.”

For a copy of the WHO Caregiver Skills Training program, contact Servili at servilic@who.org.

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