On the day that UNAIDS comes out with new - and depressing - figures on the number of people living with HIV around the world, it's either good news or, again, depressing, to hear that the Vatican has just concluded an internal study on the use of condoms to fight AIDS. The results of the study aren't available yet - they still have to go through the pope - but those involved say the report looks at both the "scientific and moral points" of using condoms. Last year, Benedict XVI, speaking to African bishops, went on the record saying he rejects the use of condoms to fight AIDS, asserting that they lead to a moral breakdown in society. So, I'm not holding my breath imagining that anything imaginative might emerge from Vatican City when it comes to fighting HIV. But I do hope that the authors of the Vatican report take a moment today to consider the update from UNAIDS about how AIDS continues to devastate every region of the world. Infections are up everywhere this year.
If you've been fortunate enough to do a bit of traveling around the world, chances are you've found yourself in a situation that didn't afford you, shall we say, "access to sanitation." And perhaps you returned home and were more than a little grateful every time the water tap turned on and the toilet flushed, but the access soon returned to being routine. If such luxuries are surely taken for granted by most in the developed world, a new report from the U.N. drives home the effects of 2.6 billion people around the world lacking access to a decent bathroom. More than two million children die each year of illnesses caused by contaminated water.
In Kibera, the sprawling slum in Nairobi, Kenya, people defecate in plastic bags that they dump in ditches or toss into the street — a practice known as "the flying toilet." In Dharavi, the vast slum in Mumbai, India, there is only one toilet per 1,440 people — and during the monsoon rains, flooded lanes run with human excrement.
The problem, according to the author of the report, is that bureaucrats and politicians often don't want to talk about toilets. Such topics are often just taboo. He told the NYT that "issues dealing with human excrement tend not to figure prominently...[on] the agendas of governments." So, despite U.N. estimates that it would cost $10 billion a year (think about that in terms of most countries' military expenditures) to cut in half the percentage of people needing clean water and a latrine, little at the government level is ever accomplished.
Still, at least one water NGO had criticisms today not for developing country governments, but for the United Nations. A spokesperson for WaterAid told VOA News that, with nearly two dozen U.N. agencies dealing with water issues, not one U.N. department actually monitors and evaluates whether recommendations are being put in place. "[T]here is no United Nations body there standing up and naming and shaming governments, donors and recipients who are not performing on water and sanitation," he said. With so many lives at stake, it's time to get past the taboo.
A Chinese bird flu expert may soon head the World Health Organization (WHO). If Margaret Chan's nomination goes through, she'll be the first Chinese to head a major U.N. agency She managed to avoid being tarred in the China SARS scandal and won accolades during her time as health director in Hong Kong.
Chan was Hong Kong's health director during the SARS outbreak in 2003. She joined WHO later that year and took over as the agency's influenza pandemic chief in 2005. As an assistant director-general, she has led WHO's efforts to fight communicable diseases and most immediately to prepare for a possible pandemic should the bird flu virus mutate into a strain easily transmitted among humans.
It's a milestone for China, which has become increasingly active in U.N. affairs. Let's not forget that China now contributes more U.N. peacekeeping troops than any other permanent member of the Security Council. The days when China saw the U.N. as little more than a cabal of Western powers may be ending.
In an effort to tackle its country's spiraling HIV/AIDS epidemic, a South African company this week launched Pronto condoms, a product its designers hope will encourage South Africans to more frequently practice safe sex. The condom apparently takes just one second to put on, and it targets those who find regular condoms to be time-guzzling mood killers. Pronto condoms will be available in South Africa this week, with plans to go global in the future. Those curious can even view a demo of the 'prontoness' of the Pronto condom on its website. With its slogan 'the best way to get it on,' let's hope that Pronto condoms will be the best way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in a country with 5.5 million already infected.
British American Tobacco is spearheading a 52-company corporate drive in Uganda to counter the country’s anti-malaria campaign. BAT, which produces Kent, Dunhill and Lucky Strike cigarettes, argues that without proper controls, the Ugandan government's plan to use a weak DDT-based solution to spray houses could also damage agricultural crops (including, of course, tobacco), costing up to $400 million in exports and 600,000 jobs. Anti-malaria groups are up in arms, arguing that DDT spraying programs have not hurt exports in other countries, including South Africa, Zambia, and Madagascar.
Malaria kills more than 1 million people a year, according to the WHO, which supports the use of DDT to fight the disease. Tobacco related products kill nearly 5 million. The makers of a lethal product fighting malaria prevention measures in Africa? Le Carré couldn’t have written it any better.
There's an interesting story in today's New York Times about Google's philanthropy arm, Google.org, and the executive director it hired earlier this year, Larry Brilliant. Unlike most charities and foundations, Google.org won't actually be non-profit. It will be structured as a for-profit organization, which means that Google will have to pay taxes on whatever it earns. Dr. Brilliant, who played a big part in eradicating smallpox in India in the 1970s, says he had hesitations about this kind of structure at first, but he now believes that it will enable Google to donate more creatively by funding health care and environmental innovations that can be used to help cure the world's ills. "Why would we put Wi-Fi in a place where what they need is food and clean water?" he says. Seems like Brilliant has a wider scope and more practical way of thinking than a lot of the folks insulated out in Silicon Valley.
Regular readers will know that FP and Passport have been following closely the evidence that China is less than fully transparent on public health issues. Karl Taro Greenfeld gave a gripping account of China's effort to downplay SARS in our March/April issue. More recently, Passport linked here and here to hints of official dissembling on bird flu. Today, the Times of London is running a story that has the Chinese government fessing up to a coverup.
China revealed today that its first human death from bird flu was a soldier who died of the H5N1 strain in 2003, two years before the country first publicly acknowledged a human infection. The confirmation showed that the virus was present in China before the outbreak of the virus was disclosed elsewhere in Asia and raised questions about Beijing’s ability to detect emerging diseases, as well as its transparency.
We'll keep an eye out for future twists to what may be a complicated story.
At this very moment, Japanese health inspectors may be poring over the first shipment of U.S. beef to Japan in seven months. The Japanese cracked down on U.S. meat shipments after the first U.S. case of BSE in December 2003, but after months of wrangling the governments recently helped broker a deal to end the ban. Whether Japanese consumers will bite is another matter:
We don't know when we get the next shipment," the official said, adding that they would like to see reaction from Japanese consumers before making additional buy orders. Japanese retailers are generally cautious about restarting sales of U.S. beef, as media polls have shown that many Japanese consumers remain concerned about its safety.
In fact, one poll reports that more than 70 percent of Japanese won't be sampling the new shipments. Australian and South American exporters have benefited from these doubts, but some Japanese appear to have soured on beef altogether—it's declining as a source of protein in the country.
When the SARS virus hit China three years ago, Beijing responded with a massive coverup. In our March/April 2006 issue, Karl Taro Greenfeld explained how two brave journalists and one courageous doctor broke the silence before the virus had a chance to kill thousands more.
You would think that experience would have taught China a thing or two. Apparently not. A Chinese court has just jailed a goose farmer from the eastern province of Jiangsu who blew the whistle on China's bird flu cases. Here we go again.
Government officials and financial leaders got together this morning in Washington, D.C. to discuss the economic impact of an avian flu pandemic. The not-so-exciting consensus? Uncertainty.
The two most popular words at the conference, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, were "it depends". It seems there are simply too many factors - the nature of the virus itself, the flexibility of supply chains, the capacity of critical information networks - to give any kind of accurate portrait of what an epidemic would mean for markets.
So what is the critical determing factor on which everyone agrees? How people - and governments - respond to a crisis when it emerges.
Global drug use is down this year, according to the new 2006 UN World Drug Report. While the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported a stabilization and overal decline in the market for cocaine and other illicit drugs, its executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, warns that increased marijuana use combined with new, highly potent strains of the drug are rendering it as dangerous as heroin and cocaine. Costa criticized governments, especially the UK's, for relaxing their marijuana policies in recent years, saying that they have the "drug problem that they deserve."
This good news about the war on drugs does come with some oddities. It seems that the drug market might be the only one which flourishes both in war and peace: unrest in Afghanistan, where 89 percent of the world's opium originates, has the potential to contribute to increased production, while peace along the India-Pakistan border facilitates easier drug trafficking between the two nations.
There are some odd goings on in the Chinese medical community. A group of scientists submitted a research letter to the New England Journal of Medicine arguing that a 2003 case of SARS was actually bird flu. On Wednesday, after the Journal had already decided to publish the letter, at least one of the scientists sought to retract it for reasons that are unclear. The World Health Organization is following the case closely and wants a meeting with the Chinese authorities. Readers of FP will recall that in our March/April issue, Karl Taro Greenfeld chronicled the experience of a Chinese doctor who braved official censure to tell the world about SARS in China. It's too early to know for sure, but we may have more medical whistleblowers at work.
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