Amazon Deforestation in Brazil Remains Near 15-Year High

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed slightly last year, a year after setting a 15-year high, according to closely watched numbers published Wednesday. The data was released by the National Institute for Space Research.

The agency’s Prodes monitoring system shows the rainforest lost an area roughly the size of Qatar, about 11,600 square kilometers in the 12 months from August 2021 to July 2022.

That is down 11% compared with the previous year, when more than 13,000 square kilometers were destroyed.

For more than a decade deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined dramatically and never rose back above 10,000 square kilometers. Then came the presidency of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, beginning in January 2019.

This will be the last report published under Bolsonaro, who lost his reelection bid and will leave office January 1. But part of the destruction that took place on his watch will not appear until next year, including the key months from August to October 2022. A because it is the dry season.

An analysis of the new yearly data from Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, shows that in the four years of Bolsonaro’s leadership, deforestation rose 60% over the previous four years. That is the largest percentage rise under a presidency since satellite monitoring began in 1998.

In one state, Para, a fierce rate of destruction fell by 21% yet it was still the center of one-third of all Brazil’s Amazon forest loss. Part of the tree cutting and burning happens in areas that are ostensibly protected. One such area is Paru State Forest, where the nonprofit Amazon Institute of People and the Environment registered 2 square kilometers of deforestation in just October.

“In recent years, deforestation has reached protected areas where previously there was almost no destruction,” Jacqueline Pereira, a researcher with the Amazon Institute, told The Associated Press. “In Paru’s region, the destruction is driven by lease of land for soybean crops and cattle.”

Another critical area is the southern part of the state of Amazonas, the only state that increased deforestation in the most recent data, by 13% compared to the year before. It’s largely attributable to Bolsonaro’s push to pave about 400 kilometers of the only road that connects Manaus, home to 2.2 million people, with Brazil’s larger urban centers further south. Most Amazon deforestation occurs alongside roads where access is easier and land value is higher.

Researchers and environmentalists have blamed Bolsonaro’s policies for the surge in deforestation. The administration weakened environmental agencies and backed legislative measures to loosen land protections in the name of economic development, paired with a view of occupying a sparsely populated territory at any cost. This policy has emboldened land robbers and spurred more illegal mining.

Bolsonaro’s successor, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, promised cheering crowds at the recent U.N. climate conference in Egypt to end all deforestation in the country by 2030.

“There will be no climate security if the Amazon isn’t protected,” he said.

The last time da Silva was president, from 2003 to 2010, deforestation fell sharply. On the other hand, he backed initiatives that set in motion destruction in the long run, such as the construction of the mammoth Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and generous loans to the beef industry. Chopping down forest for pasture is the primary driver of deforestation.

The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a buffer against climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. It’s also the most biodiverse forest in the world, and the home of tribes that have lived in the forest for thousands of years, some of them living in isolation.

“If da Silva wants to decrease forest destruction by 2023, he must have zero tolerance for environmental crime from Day One of his administration. That includes holding accountable those who sabotaged environmental governance in the country while in office over the past four years,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory.

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US Central Bank Hints at Less Severe Interest Rate Hikes

The U.S. central bank could scale back the pace of its interest rate hikes “as soon as December,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday, while warning that the fight against inflation was far from over and key questions remain unanswered, including how high rates will ultimately need to rise and for how long.

“It makes sense to moderate the pace of our rate increases as we approach the level of restraint that will be sufficient to bring inflation down. The time for moderating the pace of rate increases may come as soon as the December meeting,” Powell said in a speech to the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

But, in remarks emphasizing the work left to be done in controlling inflation, Powell said that issue was “far less significant than the questions of how much further we will need to raise rates to control inflation, and the length of time it will be necessary to hold policy at a restrictive level.”

While the Fed chief did not indicate his estimated “terminal rate,” Powell said it is likely to be “somewhat higher” than the 4.6% indicated by policymakers in their September projections. He said curing inflation “will require holding policy at a restrictive level for some time,” a comment that appeared to lean against market expectations the U.S. central bank could begin cutting rates next year as the economy slows.

“We will stay the course until the job is done,” Powell said, noting that even though some data points to inflation slowing next year, “we have a long way to go in restoring price stability … Despite the tighter policy and slower growth over the past year, we have not seen clear progress on slowing inflation.”

The Fed’s response to the fastest outbreak of U.S. inflation in 40 years has been a similarly abrupt increase in interest rates. With a half-percentage-point increase expected at its Dec. 13-14 meeting, the central bank will have lifted its overnight policy rate from near zero as of March to the 4.25%-4.50% range, the swiftest change in rates since former Fed Chair Paul Volcker was battling an even worse rise in prices decades ago.

That has made home mortgages and other forms of credit more expensive for consumers and businesses.

It has not, however, caused any appreciable impact on the U.S. job market, where the current 3.7% unemployment rate has led some policymakers to argue they are free to tighten rates further without much risk.

But it has also had no convincing impact yet on inflation, a fact that has left open just how much further the Fed may need to raise rates into what it refers to as “restrictive” territory designed to slow the economy.

Powell said Fed estimates of inflation in October showed its preferred measure still rising at about triple the central bank’s 2% target.

‘Long way to go’

Powell’s remarks ignited a robust rally in equity and bond markets, which have taken a pounding this year on the back of the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes.

The benchmark S&P 500 index .SPX shot into positive territory and was last up by about 1.5% on the day, and bond yields, which move in the opposite direction to their prices, all tumbled. The yield on the 2-year Treasury note US2YT=RR, the maturity most sensitive to Fed rate expectations, dropped to about 4.47% from 4.52%. The dollar .DXY weakened against a basket of major trading partners’ currencies.

In rate futures markets, traders added to the prevailing bets that the Fed would slow its pace of rate hikes at its meeting in two weeks.

“You can’t keep raising rates as quickly as they were doing it,” said Rick Meckler at Cherry Lane Investments in New Vernon, New Jersey. “That said, investors always like the comfort of hearing it directly from the (Fed) chair.” 

Powell noted that the cost of housing is likely to continue to rise into next year, while key price measures for services remain high and the labor market is tight.

“Despite some promising developments, we have a long way to go in restoring price stability,” he said.

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African Women and Girls Most at Risk of HIV   

In South Africa, which has the world’s largest HIV-positive population, authorities say girls and young women are now the most at-risk demographic with many having resorted to transactional sex to pay the bills during COVID pandemic lockdowns.  Ahead of World Aids Day on Dec. 1, VOA spoke to a former sex worker and visited a clinic that treats adolescent girls and others with HIV. Kate Bartlett reports from Johannesburg, South Africa, on efforts to halt the spread. Camera: Zaheer Cassim 

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Malawi Launches Africa’s First Children’s Malaria Vaccine

Malawi and the World Health Organization are rolling out a new malaria vaccine for young children that backers say will reduce deaths from the mosquito-borne disease.

The RTSS vaccine was pilot tested on more than one million children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and recommended a year ago by the WHO. Despite a low effectiveness rate of 30%, the vaccine has raised hopes that some of the more than 400,000 people who die annually from malaria can be saved. 

Malaria remains a huge public health problem in Malawi, with about one third of its 20 million people getting infected each year. 

According to the ministry of health, the disease kills five Malawians every day, most of them children under the age of five or pregnant women who were not presented early enough for care.  

The health ministry says the first phase of the vaccination campaign will target 330,000 children, who were not reached during vaccine trials. 

The vaccine, sold by GlaxoSmithKline as Mosquirix, is meant for children under the age of five and requires four doses. 

“Malaria is major problem in children. They are the ones at highest risk of dying,” said Dr. Charles Mwansambo, Malawi’s secretary for health. “That’s why even when we were doing the earlier studies, we found that once we get maximum benefit, we should target this age group. The main reason is that they are the ones that are most likely to die from malaria.” 

Last year, the government launched a nationwide anti-malaria initiative known as Zero Malaria Starts with Me, aimed at eliminating the disease by 2030. 

Mwansambo said the vaccine is a key part of that initiative. 

“It actually prevents about 33 percent of deaths. Meaning that if you add the 33 to those that we can prevent using insecticide treated nets, if will also add on those [we can] prevent by indoor residual spraying, it [can] add up to something significant that will end up eliminating malaria,” he said. 

However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, backers of the vaccine, have raised concerns about whether the vaccine is worth the cost. 

In July, the Associated Press quoted Philip Welkhoff, director of malaria programs for the Gates Foundation, as saying the foundation will no longer offer direct financial support for the vaccine, although it will fund an alliance backing the vaccine. 

He said Mosquirix has much lower efficacy than the foundation would like and that the vaccine is relatively expensive and logistically challenging to deliver. 

Dr. Neema Kimambo, a WHO representative in Malawi, said the malaria vaccine itself is not a silver bullet but part of a combination of all interventions to fight the disease. 

“Where it [vaccination] was done, we have seen how it has reduced under-five deaths and we believe that as we expand now, we are definitely to save more lives of children under five,” she said. 

Maziko Matemba, a health activist and community health ambassador in Malawi, said he hopes the malaria vaccine efficacy will improve as time goes by. 

“I have an example with COVID-19. When we had AstraZeneca, the efficacy when it started — as you know it was also a new vaccine — it was less that certain percentage and people said no it was less than this. But over time, we found that the efficacy has gone up,” Matemba said. “So we are monitoring the launch of this new vaccine with keen interest.

“I know that other partners are saying the worthiness of investment is not worth it, but looking at the way we are coming from, Malawi in particular, this could be one of the tools to prevent malaria.” 

Besides WHO, other partners supporting Malawi in the fight against malaria include USAID, UNICEF, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and a global health nonprofit organization, PATH. 

 

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Chinese Astronauts Reach Tiangong Space Station

Three Chinese astronauts arrived Wednesday at the country’s space station as part of a six-month mission that includes the station’s first in-orbit crew rotation.

The astronauts are replacing three others who have been at the Tiangong station since early June.

China docked the last of the station’s three modules earlier this month and astronauts are working on the final phases of the construction process.

China plans to launch a powerful space telescope next year.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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Fentanyl’s Scourge Visible on Streets of Los Angeles

In a filthy alley behind a Los Angeles doughnut shop, Ryan Smith convulsed in the grips of a fentanyl high — lurching from moments of slumber to bouts of violent shivering on a warm summer day. 

When Brandice Josey, another homeless addict, bent down and blew a puff of fentanyl smoke his way in an act of charity, Smith sat up and slowly opened his lip to inhale the vapor as if it was the cure to his problems. 

Smith, wearing a grimy yellow T-shirt that said “Good Vibes Only,” reclined on his backpack and dozed the rest of the afternoon on the asphalt, unperturbed by the stench of rotting food and human waste that permeated the air. 

For too many people strung out on the drug, the sleep that follows a fentanyl hit is permanent. The highly addictive and potentially lethal drug has become a scourge across America and is taking a toll on the growing number of people living on the streets of Los Angeles. 

Nearly 2,000 homeless people died in the city from April 2020 to March 2021, a 56% increase from the previous year, according to a report released by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Overdose was the leading cause of death, killing more than 700. 

Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer. Use of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is cheap to produce and is often sold as is or laced in other drugs, has exploded. Because it’s 50 times more potent than heroin, even a small dose can be fatal. 

It has quickly become the deadliest drug in the nation, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Two-thirds of the 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021 were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. 

The drug’s toll spreads far beyond the streets. 

Jennifer Catano, 27, has the names of two children tattooed on her wrists, but she hasn’t seen them for several years. They live with her mother. 

She has overdosed three times and been through rehab seven or eight times. 

“It’s scary to get off of it,” she said. “The withdrawals are really bad.” 

Catano wandered around a subway station near MacArthur Park desperate to sell a bottle of Downy fabric softener and a Coleman camping chair she stole from a nearby store. 

Drug abuse can be a cause or symptom of homelessness. Both can also intersect with mental illness. 

A 2019 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found about a quarter of all homeless adults in Los Angeles County had mental illnesses and 14% had a substance use disorder. That analysis only counted people who had a permanent or long-term severe condition. Taking a broader interpretation of the same data, the Los Angeles Times found about 51% had mental illnesses and 46% had substance use disorders. 

Billions of dollars are being spent to alleviate homelessness in California, but treatment is not always funded. 

A controversial bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom could improve that by forcing people suffering from severe mental illness into treatment. But they need to be diagnosed with a certain disorder such as schizophrenia and addiction alone doesn’t qualify. 

Help is available but it is outpaced by the magnitude of misery on the streets. 

Rita Richardson, a field supervisor with LA Door, a city addiction-prevention program that works with people convicted of misdemeanors, hands out socks, water, condoms, snacks, clean needles and flyers at the same hotspots Monday through Friday. She hopes the consistency of her visits will encourage people to get help. 

“Then hopefully the light bulb comes on. It might not happen this year. It might not happen next year. It might take several years,” said Richardson, a former homeless addict. “My goal is to take them from the dark to the light.” 

 

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US Bat Species Devastated by Fungus Now Listed as Endangered

The Biden administration declared the northern long-eared bat endangered on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to save a species driven to the brink of extinction by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease.

“White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency is “deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces the impacts of disease and protects the survivors to recover northern long-eared bat populations,” she said.

First documented in the U.S. in 2006, the disease has infected 12 types of bats and killed millions. The northern long-eared bat is among the hardest hit, with estimated declines of 97% or higher in affected populations. The bat is found in 37 eastern and north-central states, plus Washington, D.C., and much of Canada.

Named for white, fuzzy spots that appear on infected bats, white-nose syndrome attacks bats’ wings, muzzles and ears when they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines.

It causes them to wake early from hibernation and to sometimes fly outside. They can burn up their winter fat stores and eventually starve.

The disease has spread across nearly 80% of the geographical range where northern long-eared bats live and is expected to cover it all by 2025.

Little brown bat also suffering

Another species ravaged by the fungus is the tricolored bat, which the government proposed to classify as endangered in September. A third, the little brown bat, is being evaluated for a potential listing.

Bats are believed to give U.S. agriculture an annual boost of $3 billion by gobbling pests and pollinating some plants.

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the northern long-eared bat as threatened in 2015. With its situation increasingly dire, the agency proposed an endangered listing in March and considered public comments before deciding to proceed. The reclassification takes effect January 30, 2023.

“This species is in dire straits, but we never want to give up hope,” said Winifred Frick, chief scientist with Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit group. “We can do amazing things when we work hard and have legal protections in place to protect these small colonies that are left.”

In many cases, the service identifies “critical habitat” areas considered particularly important for the survival of an endangered species. Officials decided against doing so for the northern long-eared bat because habitat loss isn’t the primary reason for its decline, spokeswoman Georgia Parham said. Calling attention to their winter hibernation spots could make things worse, she added.

Recovery efforts will focus on wooded areas where the bats roost in summer — usually alone or in small groups, nestling beneath bark or in tree cavities and crevices. Emerging at dusk, they feed on moths, beetles and other insects.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to be sure projects that they fund or authorize — such as timber harvests, prescribed fires and highway construction — will not jeopardize a listed species’ existence.

For nonfederal landowners, actions that could result in unintentional kills could be allowed but will require permits.

Turbines also a threat

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will also work with wind energy companies to reduce the likelihood that bats will strike turbines. These collisions are currently a threat in roughly half of the northern long-eared bat’s range, an area likely to grow as wind energy development expands.

The service has approved nearly two dozen plans allowing wind energy and forestry projects to proceed after steps were taken to make them more bat-friendly, said Karen Herrington, Midwest regional coordinator for threatened and endangered species.

Operators can limit the danger by curtailing blade rotation during bats’ migration season and when winds are low.

Research continues for methods to fight white-nose syndrome, including development of a vaccine. The service has distributed more than $46 million for the campaign, which involves around 150 agencies, private organizations and Native American tribes.

“We have to find a cure for white-nose syndrome that is killing our bats and we have to protect the forests where they live,” said Ryan Shannon, senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “This endangered listing will help on both counts.”

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Twitter Rolls Back COVID Misinformation Policy

Twitter has rolled back a policy that was aimed at tackling misinformation related to COVID-19 on the social media platform, lending itself to the risk of a potential surge in false claims even as cases rise in China and some parts of the world.

The move also comes amid concerns of Twitter’s ability to fight misinformation after it let go about half of its staff, including those involved in content moderation, under new boss Elon Musk.

“Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy,” according to an update on its blog page. The update was first reported by CNN on Tuesday.

The specific measures that Twitter will drop were not immediately clear, and the company did not immediately respond to a request to share more information.

At the onset of COVID in 2020, Twitter instated a number of measures including labels and warning messages on tweets with disputed information about the health crisis and a framework to have users remove tweets that advanced harmfully false claims related to vaccines.

Meta Platforms Inc-owned META.O Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s GOOGL.O YouTube services employed similar measures, which are currently in place.

Early this year, Twitter said that since March 2021 it had stopped enforcing a “civic integrity policy” related to lies about the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Billionaire Musk took over Twitter on Oct. 27, paying $44 billion for the company, and has moved quickly to initiate a number of changes to product and staff. Musk said on Oct. 29 he would set up a content moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints.

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WHO Renames Monkeypox as Mpox, Citing Racism Concerns

The World Health Organization has renamed monkeypox as mpox, citing concerns the original name of the decades-old animal disease could be construed as discriminatory and racist.

The U.N. health agency said in a statement Monday that mpox was its new preferred name for monkeypox, saying that both monkeypox and mpox would be used for the next year while the old name is phased out.

WHO said it was concerned by the “racist and stigmatizing language” that arose after monkeypox spread to more than 100 countries. It said numerous individuals and countries asked the organization “to propose a way forward to change the name.”

In August, WHO began consulting experts about renaming the disease, shortly after the U.N. agency declared monkeypox’s spread to be a global emergency.

To date, there have been more than 80,000 cases identified in dozens of countries that had not previously reported the smallpox-related disease. Until May, monkeypox, a disease that is thought to originate in animals, was not known to trigger large outbreaks beyond central and west Africa.

The 10 most affected countries globally are: the United States (29,001), Brazil (9,905), Spain (7,405), France (4,107), Colombia (3,803), Britain (3,720), Germany (3,672), Peru (3,444), Mexico (3,292), and Canada (1,449). They account for 86% of the global number of cases, Agence France-Presse reported.

Outside of Africa, nearly all cases have been in gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men. Scientists believe monkeypox triggered outbreaks in Western countries after spreading via sex at two raves in Belgium and Spain. Vaccination efforts in rich countries, along with targeted control interventions, have mostly brought the disease under control after it peaked in the summer.

In Africa, the disease mainly affects people in contact with infected animals such as rodents and squirrels. The majority of monkeypox-related deaths have been in Africa, where there have been almost no vaccines available.

U.S. health officials have warned it may be impossible to eliminate the disease there, warning it could be a continuing threat mainly for gay and bisexual men for years to come.

Mpox was first named monkeypox in 1958 when research monkeys in Denmark were observed to have a “pox-like” disease, although they are not thought to be the disease’s animal reservoir.

Although WHO has named numerous new diseases shortly after they emerged, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS and COVID-19, this appears to be the first time the agency has attempted to rechristen a disease decades after it was first named.

Numerous other diseases, including Japanese encephalitis, German measles, Marburg virus and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome have been named after geographic regions, which could now be considered prejudicial. WHO has not suggested changing any of those names.

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Polio is Back in Indonesia, Sparking Vaccination Campaign

Children in school uniforms and toddlers with their parents lined up Monday for polio vaccinations in the Sigli town square on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, after four children were found infected with the highly contagious disease that was declared eliminated in the country less than a decade ago. 

The virus was first detected in October in a 7-year-old boy suffering from partial paralysis in the province of Aceh near Sigli, and since then three other cases have been detected, prompting the mass immunization and information drive. 

Officials say that polio immunization rates in the conservative province are well behind the rest of the country, with efforts hampered by widespread disinformation the vaccine is incompatible with religious beliefs, among other things. The government has also been prioritizing COVID-19 vaccinations since they became available. 

The campaign that started Monday aims to vaccinate some 1.2 million children in the province, said Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the Health Ministry’s director general for disease control and prevention. 

“There is no cure for polio, the only treatment is prevention and the tool for prevention is vaccination,” Rondonuwu said, adding that the child is still able to walk, albeit with a limp. 

With some 275 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous, and the largest Muslim-majority nation. 

Aceh is particularly conservative, and is Indonesia’s only province allowed to practice Shariah, which was a concession made by the national government in 2006 to end a war with separatists. 

False rumors that the polio vaccine contains pork or alcohol, prohibited according to Muslim beliefs, have proliferated, especially in rural areas, complicating vaccination efforts, said the head of the Aceh Health Office, Hanif, who only goes by one name like many Indonesians. 

“We cannot work alone, we need support from all parties, including religious leaders, so that people understand the importance of immunization,” said Hanif. 

Azhar, the father of the 7-year-old who contracted polio, said he had opted not to immunize his son after other villagers where he lived told him the vaccines may cause harmful chemicals or non-halal substances. 

“My neighbors said that my son doesn’t need to be immunized and I didn’t want my son get sick because of harmful chemicals that are against Islam,” the 45-year-old said. 

For Dewi Safitri, a mother of three who was getting them vaccinated on Monday, it was simply a matter of not knowing it was necessary. 

She said she was convinced after health workers spelled out the risks of paralysis or death if her children were to go unvaccinated. 

“I didn’t even know about immunization,” she said. 

The World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the global eradication of polio in 1988 and since then, wild poliovirus cases have decreased by more than 99%, according to the World Health Organization. 

It was eliminated in Indonesia in 2014 and is today only still endemic in two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Polio primarily affects children under the age of 5, according to the WHO. Unvaccinated people of any age can contract the disease, however, and sporadic cases continue to crop up. 

In September in New York, for example, the state stepped up its polio-fighting efforts after the disease was detected in the wastewater in the New York City area. 

Officials began checking for signs of the virus there after the first case of polio in the United States was identified in July in Rockland County, which is north of the city. It was confirmed in a young adult who was unvaccinated. 

The statewide polio vaccination rate is 79% but Rockland’s rate was lower, and New York health officials urged all unvaccinated residents, including children by 2 months of age, to get vaccinated immediately. 

Last week, new poliovirus cases were found in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria, according to the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative. 

Of the three other children in Indonesia from the same village as the initially confirmed case none had their basic vaccinations, Rondonuwu said. 

“It has to be reported as an outbreak, because it had been declared eradicated in Indonesia, but it turns out that there is still wild polio virus,” he said. 

Rondonuwu said his ministry is keeping a close watch on the cases by doing door-to-door screening to ensure that there are no additional infections that have not been reported. 

The polio virus is transmitted person-to-person, generally through the “fecal-oral” route, according to the WHO. In Indonesia, authorities have also pointed to unsanitary conditions as a probable cause of the new infections after finding out that some local residents still defecate directly into a river where children are often found playing. 

Across Indonesia, polio vaccination coverage has been slipping since the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the challenges of reaching people in the archipelago nation of five main islands and thousands of smaller ones, 73.4% of Indonesians are now fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and 87.5% have at least one shot. 

For polio, 86.8% of babies were vaccinated in their first year in 2020 nationwide, which fell to 80.7% in 2021 as the country was forced to focus most of its health facilities and workers on addressing the pandemic. 

By comparison, only 50.9% of the infants born in Aceh in 2021 received a polio vaccination. It was the second lowest on a national scale after West Papua, where only 43.4% of babies were vaccinated. 

The nationwide decline was part of a broader drop in basic immunizations, such as for measles and rubella, according to UNICEF. 

Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist from Australia’s Griffith University, said the discovery of polio in Aceh must be responded to seriously because “the threat is real for Indonesia,” noting that basic immunization coverage is still low, putting the country in a high-risk category. 

“This is what the government really has to pursue, because it’s dangerous if we don’t,” Budiman said. 

“We must move immediately by strengthening basic immunization or there will be a potential additional health disaster for Indonesia.” 

 

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Cyber Monday Deals Lure In US Consumers amid High Inflation 

Days after flocking to stores on Black Friday, consumers are turning online for Cyber Monday to score more discounts on gifts and other items that have ballooned in price because of high inflation.

Cyber Monday is expected to remain the year’s biggest online shopping day and rake in up to $11.6 billion in sales, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks transactions at over 85 of the top 100 U.S. online stores. That forecast represents a jump from the $10.7 billion consumers spent last year.

Adobe’s numbers are not adjusted for inflation, but the company says demand is growing even when inflation is factored in. Some analysts have said top line numbers will be boosted by higher prices and the amount of items consumers purchase could remain unchanged — or even fall — compared to prior years. Profit margins are also expected to be tight for retailers offering deeper discounts to attract budget-conscious consumers and clear out their bloated inventories. 

Shoppers spent a record $9.12 billion online on Black Friday, up 2.3% from last year, according to Adobe. E-commerce activity continued to be strong over the weekend, with $9.55 billion in online sales.

Salesforce, which also tracks spending, said their estimates showed online sales in the U.S. hit $15 billion on Friday and $17.2 billion over the weekend, with an average discount rate of 30% on products. Electronics, active wear, toys and health and beauty items were among those that provided a big boost, the two groups said.

Meanwhile, consumers who feared leaving their homes and embraced e-commerce during the pandemic are heading back to physical stores in greater numbers this year as normalcy returns. The National Retail Federation said its recent survey showed a 3% uptick in the number of Black Friday shoppers planning to go to stores. It expects 63.9 million consumers to shop online during Cyber Monday, compared to 77 million last year.

Consumers are spending cautiously

Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks spending across all types of payments including cash and credit card, said that overall sales on Black Friday rose 12% from the year-ago. Sales at physical stores rose 12%, while online sales were up 14%.

RetailNext, which captures sales and traffic via sensors, reported that store traffic rose 7% on Black Friday, while sales at physical stores improved 0.1% from a year ago. However, spending per customer dropped nearly 7% as cautious shoppers did more browsing than buying. Another company that tracks store traffic — Sensormatic Solutions — said store traffic was up 2.9% on Black Friday compared to a year ago.

“Shoppers are being more thoughtful, but they are going to more than a few retailers to be able to make a determination of what they are going to buy this year,” said Brian Field, Sensormatic’s global leader of retail consulting and analytics.

Overall, online spending has remained resilient in the past few weeks as eager shoppers buy more items on credit and embrace “buy now, pay later” services that lack interest charges but carry late fees.

In the first three weeks of November, online sales were essentially flat compared with last year, according to Adobe. It said the modest uptick shows consumers have a strong appetite for holiday shopping amid uncertainty about the economy.

Still, some major retailers are feeling a shift. Target, Macy’s and Kohl’s said this month they’ve seen a slowdown in consumer spending in the past few weeks. The exception was Walmart, which reported higher sales in its third quarter and raised its earnings outlook.

“We’re seeing that inflation is starting to really hit the wallet and that consumers are starting to amass more debt at this point,” said Guru Hariharan, founder and CEO of retail e-commerce management firm CommerceIQ, adding there’s more pressure on consumers to purchase cheaper alternatives.

Shifting demand

This year’s Cyber Monday also comes amid a wider e-commerce slowdown affecting online retailers that saw a boom in sales during most of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon, for example, raked in record revenue but much of the demand has waned as the worst of the pandemic eased and consumers felt more comfortable shopping in stores.

To deal with the change, the company has been scaling back its warehouse expansion plans and is cutting costs by axing some of its projects. It’s also following in the steps of other tech companies and implementing mass layoffs in its corporate ranks. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said the company will continue to cut jobs until early next year.

Shopify, a company which helps businesses set up e-commerce websites and also offers offline software, laid off 10% of its staff this summer.

The company said Monday that its merchants have surpassed $5.1 billion in global sales since the start of Black Friday in New Zealand. And spending per U.S. customer went up $5 compared to last year, said Shopify President Harley Finkelstein.

Despite the bump, Finkelstein said shoppers were more intentional about their spending this year and waiting for discounts before making a purchase.

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UN: Great Barrier Reef Should Be on Heritage ‘Danger’ List

A United Nations-backed mission is recommending that the Great Barrier Reef be added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites, warning that without “ambitious, rapid and sustained” climate action the world’s largest coral reef is in peril.

The warning came in a report published Monday following a 10-day mission to the reef last March by officials from UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The reef, a living place of immense variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia, has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1981.

Australia’s federal government and Queensland’s state authorities should adopt more ambitious emission reduction targets, in line with international efforts to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, according to the report.

Feedback from Australian officials, both at the federal and state level, will also be reviewed before UNESCO, the U.N.’s Paris-based cultural agency, makes any official proposal to the World Heritage committee.

The text is damning about recent efforts to stop mass bleaching and prevent pollution from contaminating the reef’s natural waters, saying they have not been fast nor effective enough. Uncurbed emissions lead to increased water acidity, which can be toxic.

More money should be found to increase the water quality and stop the site’s decline, the report concludes.

In an email to AP, the U.N. cultural agency said: “In recent months, we have had a constructive dialogue (with) Australian authorities. But there is still work to be done.”

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China Eases Some Anti-COVID Restrictions as Protests Mount

China eased some of its pandemic rules on Monday but affirmed its “zero COVID” strategy even as protests erupted throughout the country against the restrictions, and some demanded the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

The government made no mention of the demonstrations, the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades, but the slight relaxation of the rules appeared aimed at quelling the demonstrations.

Over the weekend, protesters shouted, “Lift the lockdown!” in a city in China’s western region, while across the country in Shanghai, the financial center, protesters held up blank sheets of white paper as a quiet show of dissent.

A Shanghai resident told VOA he no longer fears the spread of the epidemic because it has become normalized.

He said, “I just eat whatever I want to eat, and do whatever I want to do. What is there to worry about? It’s a cold. It’s normal.”

Others in Shanghai chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” in referring to the Communist Party. Police detained dozens of protesters, driving them away in police vans and buses, although the exact number was not clear.

Xi’s “zero COVID” policy has sharply limited infections through stringent lockdowns that have disrupted everyday life in the country of 1.4 billion people. Protests erupting at locations around the country appears to indicate that many Chinese have grown weary of the lengthy quarantines and widespread testing.

The Beijing city government said Monday it would no longer set up gates to block people from entering apartment compounds where infections have been found. It, however, made no mention of a deadly fire last week in the western Xinjiang region that spawned protests over whether firefighters and victims trying to escape a building were blocked by locked doors and other anti-infection controls.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” the China News Service quoted a city epidemic control official as saying.

The government blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire to the strict COVID measures.

In addition to easing the rules in Beijing, officials in Guangzhou, the southern manufacturing and trade metropolis that is the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, said some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.

 Urumqi, where the deadly fire occurred, and another city in the Xinjiang region in the northwest, said that markets and other businesses in areas deemed at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.

The “zero COVID” policy aims to isolate every infected person and has helped China to keep its case numbers, as a percentage of its overall population, lower than those in the United States. As a result, millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes for up to four months.

On Monday, China recorded 40,437 new cases, while the U.S. figure on Sunday was 41,997.

Despite the protests and relaxation of some rules, the ruling party newspaper People’s Daily called for its anti-coronavirus strategy to be carried out effectively, indicating Xi’s government has no plans to change course.

 “Facts have fully proved that each version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice,” a People’s Daily commentator wrote.

US Reaction to China Lockdowns

The U.S. Mission in China said it has regularly raised concerns with the Chinese government about the COVID restrictions and their effect on Americans living in or visiting the country.

“We encourage all U.S. citizens to keep a 14-day supply of medications, bottled water, and food for yourself and any members of your household,” U.S. officials said.

In Washington, the U.S. National Security Council said it supports the right of Chinese people to peacefully protest the COVID restrictions.

“We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC (People’s Republic of China),” a spokesperson said, adding, “We think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero COVID strategy.”

(VOA’s Mandarin service also contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.)

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Pakistan Launches Polio Drive 

Pakistan authorities said they are launching a five-day polio drive to eradicate the crippling disease from the country.

Officials said 100,000 healthcare workers begin working Monday to vaccinate 13.5 million children under the age of five across 36 high risk districts, including Islamabad, the capital.

“Our aim is to ensure timely and repeated vaccination of eligible children,” said Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the national emergency operations center.

“High-risk districts are our top priority and we are keen to eliminate the polio virus from the challenging areas, while protecting the rest of the region, as well,” said Baig.

Twenty cases of the wild polio virus were reported this year in Pakistan, including 17 in the country’s volatile North Waziristan district, located on the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has come close, several times, to eradicating polio, but militants have convinced some parents that the vaccines cause sterility, but there is no scientific basis to back such statements.

Baig is urging all Pakistani parents and caregivers to make sure that their children are vaccinated “instead of hiding them or refusing to take the necessary drops during all vaccination drives.” He said, “it is important to realize that the polio virus still exists in our surroundings, and no child is safe until all children are truly vaccinated.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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China Prepares to Send New 3-Person Crew to Space Station

Final preparations were being made Monday to send a new three-person crew to China’s space station as it nears completion amid intensifying competition with the United States.

The China Manned Space Agency said the Shenzhou-15 mission will take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert at 11:08 p.m. Tuesday night.

The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last “in the construction phase of China’s space station,” agency official Ji Qiming told reporters Monday.

Fei, 57, is a veteran of the 2005 four-day Shenzhou-6 mission which was the second in which China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang are flying in space for the first time.

The station’s third and final module docked with the station earlier this month, one of the last steps in a more than decade-long effort to maintain a constant crewed presence in orbit.

The astronauts will overlap briefly onboard the station, named Tiangong, with the previous crew, who arrived in early June for a six-month stay.

Tiangong has room to accommodate six astronauts at a time. Previous missions to the space station have taken about 13 hours from liftoff to docking.

Next year, China plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit in sequence with the station and can dock occasionally with it for maintenance.

No other future additions to the space station have been publicly announced.

The permanent Chinese station will weigh about 66 tons – a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day find itself the only space station still running if the International Space Station adheres to its 30-year operating plan.

China’s crewed space program is officially three decades old this year, but it truly got underway in 2003, when China became only the third country after the U.S. and Russia to put a human into space using its own resources.

The program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded methodically and almost entirely without outside support. The U.S. excluded China from the International Space Station because of its program’s military ties.

China has also chalked up successes with uncrewed missions, and its lunar exploration program generated media buzz last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back pictures of what was described by some as a “mystery hut” but was most likely only a rock. The rover is the first to be placed on the little-explored far side of the moon.

China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s in December 2000 and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars. Officials are also considering a crewed mission to the moon.

No timeline has been offered for a crewed lunar mission, even as NASA presses ahead with its Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025.

China’s space program has also drawn controversy. Beijing brushed off complaints that it has allowed rocket stages to fall to Earth uncontrolled after NASA accused it of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” when parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

China’s increasing space capabilities also feature in the latest Pentagon defense strategy.

“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and informational warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare,” the strategy said.

The U.S. and China are at odds on a range of issues, especially self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing threatens to annex with force. China responded to a September visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island, holding wargames in surrounding waters and staging a simulated blockade, something that could trigger an American military response.

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Bird Flu in Nebraska Prompts Slaughter of Additional 1.8M Chickens

Just like on other farms where bird flu has been found this year, all the chickens on the Nebraska farm will be killed to limit the spread of the disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says more than 52.3 million birds in 46 states — mostly chickens and turkeys on commercial farms — have been slaughtered as part of this year’s outbreak.

Nebraska is second only to Iowa’s 15.5 million birds killed with 6.8 million birds now affected at 13 farms.

In most past bird flu outbreaks the virus largely died off during the summer, but this year’s version found a way to linger and started to make a resurgence this fall with more than 6 million birds killed in September.

The virus is primarily spread by wild birds as they migrate across the country. Wild birds can often carry the disease without showing symptoms. The virus spreads through droppings or the nasal discharge of an infected bird, which can contaminate dust and soil.

Commercial farms have taken steps to prevent the virus from infecting their flocks, including requiring workers to change clothes before entering barns and sanitizing trucks as they enter the farm, but the disease can be difficult to control. Zoos have also taken precautions and closed some exhibits to protect their birds.

Officials say there is little risk to human health from the virus because human cases are extremely rare, and the infected birds aren’t allowed to enter the nation’s food supply. Plus, any viruses will be killed by properly cooking poultry to 74 degrees Celsius (165 degrees Fahrenheit).

But the bird flu outbreak has contributed to the rising prices of chicken and turkey along with the soaring cost of feed and fuel.

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