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How Zika caught the Americas by surprise

May 09, 2016 Comments
Zika a year later: How a new virus caught the Americas by surprise
Brazil has confirmed 1,198 cases of Zika-related microcephaly, and the disease has continued to spread through the Americas.
[PHOTO: Conifer/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Geneva: On 7th May 2015, tests conducted at Brazil’s national reference laboratory conclusively identified Zika in several samples. A new mosquito-borne disease had indeed arrived in the Americas, though no one knew what that might mean.

In early February last year, doctors in the impoverished northeastern part of Brazil noticed a surge in the number of people complaining about a mild illness, with and without fever, characterized by rash, fatigue, joint pains, and red eyes. 

The illness was brief and recovery was spontaneous. A mild form of dengue, a mosquito-borne disease hyperendemic throughout the country, was initially suspected, but tests were negative in the vast majority of samples. 

Chikungunya, another mosquito-borne disease first detected in Africa in 1952, had hopped to Brazil in September 2014 and was likewise suspected. Again, tests results were negative.

At the end of March 2015, Brazil informed WHO that nearly 7,000 cases of an illness characterized by skin rash had been reported in six north-eastern states. 

In late April, on a long shot, a laboratory in Bahia State researchers began to suspect that the disease might be spread by the area’s ubiquitous and dense mosquito population. 

They tested for Zika, an exotic and poorly understood virus, carried by mosquitoes, that had never been seen in the Americas. 

At the end of October 2015, Brazil informed WHO that 54 cases of microcephaly among newborns had been detected since August. 

The possibility that a mosquito bite during pregnancy could be linked to severe brain abnormalities in newborns alarmed the public and astonished scientists. 

Though evidence was scant, paediatric neurologists in Brazil were convinced that the brain abnormalities were linked to Zika. Subsequent findings would prove them right.

Since then, Brazil has confirmed 1,198 cases of Zika-related microcephaly, and the disease has continued to spread through the Americas. -UNifeed

LPSC 2016 to feature Ceres, Mars, Pluto science results

March 17, 2016 Comments
Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2016 to feature Ceres, Mars, Pluto science results
Artist concept of Curiosity rover - a part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL).
[Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech] 
Washington, DC: Researchers from NASA and other institutions will present science results from the agency’s Mars missions, New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and Dawn mission observations of the dwarf planet Ceres during the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which runs from March 21 to 25 near Houston.

In July 2015, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto, observing a wide range of surface expressions and geology that raise fundamental questions about how small planets can have active processes billions of years after they formed.

Results from the first year of Dawn’s exploration of Ceres mission will be presented, including new insights about the dwarf planet’s surface and composition.  

The science presentations at the conference will also include what researchers have learned from recent investigation by Curiosity rover of an active Martian sand dune and diverse findings from other NASA missions to Mars.

Angelina Jolie visits Syrian refugee shelters in Lebanon

March 17, 2016 Comments
Angelina Jolie visits Syrian refugee shelters in Lebanon, calls for leadership to address crisis
UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie meets Syrian refugees in Lebanon, calls for leadership to address crisis.
[PHOTO: © L. Knott/UNHCR] 
Beirut, Lebanon: UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie visited Lebanon and met with refugee families on the 5th anniversary of the war in Syria.

The special envoy visited Kholoud, a 38-year-old Syrian refugee and mother of four who lives in a tented settlement in the Bekaa. Khouloud was left paralysed three years ago by a sniper.

“The number of refugees is now higher than the last time we had a World War. We are at an exceptionally difficult moment internationally, when the consequences of the refugee crisis seem to be outstripping our will and capacity and even our courage to respond to it,” Jolie said.

While there are recent glimmers of hope with increased humanitarian access in Syria, the cessation of hostilities, renewed peace talks and promises of better funding, the 5th anniversary of Syria's war comes amid a backdrop of increasingly managed borders by neighbouring countries, creaking under the strain of hosting so many refugees.

“We should never forget that for all the focus on the refugee situation in Europe at this time, the greatest pressure is still being felt in the Middle East and North Africa, as it has for each of the last five years,” Jolie asserted.

The special envoy also visited Beirut where she met a group of women living in poor conditions; a damp collective shelter, that left them and their families exposed to sickness. 

She urged, “My plea today is that we need governments around the world to show leadership: to analyse the situation and understand exactly what their country can do, how many refugees they can assist and how, in which particular communities and to what timeframe; to explain this to their citizens and address fears - based not on emotion but on a measured assessment of what can and must be done to share the responsibility and get on top of this situation”

European states which once welcomed Syrians are now bringing down the shutters in the wake of increasing numbers of refugees seeking safety there. Several countries have imposed entry and border restrictions, leading to a build-up of tens of thousands of refugees in Greece, while the European Union is in discussions with Turkey on an agreement that could potentially see asylum-seekers sent back to Turkey.

“Every Syrian refugee I have spoken to on this visit, without exception, talked of their desire to return home when the war is over and it is safe for them to do so – not with resignation, but with the light in their eyes of people dreaming of being reunited with the country that they love,” the special envoy added.

Five years on, Syria's conflict has spawned 4.8 million refugees in neighbouring countries, hundreds of thousands in Europe, and 6.6 million people displaced inside Syria against a pre-war population of over 20 million. -UNifeed