COP28 Begins With Breakthrough Climate Fund Agreement

Nearly all the countries attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28, agreed Thursday to create a fund that would help poor nations deal with the effects of climate change.

The floor was opened for pledges to be made to the new “loss and damage” fund, in which Germany committed to contribute $100 million. The United Arab Emirates, the host of COP28, also promised $100 million. The fund received additional pledges of $51 million from Britain, $17.5 million from the United States and $10 million from Japan.

The European Union later added $245.39 million, which included Germany’s $100 million pledge. More contributions are expected to come in the next few days, although the fund will most likely fail to reach its $100 billion goal, set by developing countries.

COP28 President Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber praised the decision to establish a fund, calling it a “positive signal of momentum to the world and to our work here in Dubai.”

This is the “first time a decision has been adopted on Day One of any COP, and the speed in which we have done so is also unique, phenomenal and historic,” he said. “This is evidence that we can deliver. COP28 can and will deliver.”

Poorer countries have long urged the development of an aid fund in response to the climate crisis, as wealthier nations often are more responsible for accelerating climate change, with developing countries having to bear much of the consequences.

“So, today’s news on loss and damage gives this U.N. climate conference a running start,” said Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. “All governments and their negotiators must use this momentum to deliver truly ambitious outcomes here in Dubai.”

Some countries have questioned the fund’s long-term sustainability, as it is unclear how it will be administered and financed going forward.

A recent report from the U.N. Environment Programme estimated that $387 billion will be needed annually for developing countries to adequately deal with the effects of climate change.

The COP28 summit ends December 12.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse.

UN Weather Agency: 2023 Is Hottest Year on Record, More Climate Extremes Ahead

The U.N. weather agency said Thursday that 2023 is all but certain to be the hottest year on record, and warning of worrying trends that suggest increasing floods, wildfires, glacier melt, and heat waves in the future.

The World Meteorological Organization also warned that the average temperature for the year is up some 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times – a mere one-tenth of a degree under a target limit for the end of the century as laid out by the Paris climate accord in 2015.

The WMO secretary-general said the onset earlier this year of El Nino, the weather phenomenon marked by heating in the Pacific Ocean, could tip the average temperature next year over the 1.5-degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target cap set in Paris.

“It’s practically sure that during the coming four years we will hit this 1.5, at least on temporary basis,” Petteri Taalas said in an interview. “And in the next decade we are more or less going to be there on a permanent basis.”

WMO issued the findings for Thursday’s start of the U.N.’s annual climate conference, this year being held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates city of Dubai.

The U.N. agency said the benchmark of key Paris accord goal will be whether the 1.5-degree increase is sustained over a 30-year span – not just a single year – but others say the world needs more clarity on that.

“Clarity on breaching the Paris agreement guard rails will be crucial,” said Richard Betts of Britain’s Met Office, the lead author of a new paper on the issue with University of Exeter published in the journal Nature.

“Without an agreement on what actually will count as exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, we risk distraction and confusion at precisely the time when action to avoid the worst effects of climate change becomes even more urgent,” he added.

WMO’s Taalas said that whatever the case, the world appears on course to blow well past that figure anyway.

“We are heading towards 2.5 to 3 degrees warming and that would mean that we would see massively more negative impacts of climate change,” Taalas said, pointing to glacier loss and sea level rise over “the coming thousands of years.”

The nine years 2015 to 2023 were the warmest on record, WMO said. Its findings for this year run through October, but it says the last two months are not likely to be enough to keep 2023 from being a record-hot year.

Still, there are “some signs of hope” – including a turn toward renewable energies and more electric cars, which help reduce the amount of carbon that is spewed into the atmosphere, trapping heat inside,” Taalas said.

His message for attendee at the U.N climate conference, known as COP28?

“We have to reduce our consumption of coal, oil and natural gas dramatically to be able to limit the warming to the Paris limits,” he said. “Luckily, things are happening. But still, we in the Western countries, in the rich countries, we are still consuming oil, a little bit less coal than in the past, and still natural gas.”

“Reduction of fossil fuel consumption — that’s the key to success.”

South African Company to Start Making Vaginal Rings That Protect Against HIV

A South African company will make vaginal rings that protect against HIV, which AIDS experts say should eventually make them cheaper and more readily available.

The Population Council announced Thursday that Kiara Health of Johannesburg will start making the silicone rings in the next few years, estimating that 1 million could be produced annually. The devices release a drug that helps prevent HIV infections and are authorized by nearly a dozen countries and the World Health Organization.

The nonprofit council owns the rights to the rings, which are now made by a Swedish company. About 500,00 rings are currently available to women in Africa at no cost, purchased by donors.

Ben Phillips, a spokesperson at the U.N. AIDS agency, said the advantage of the ring is that it gives women the freedom to use it without anyone else’s knowledge or consent.

“For women whose partners won’t use a condom or allow them to take oral (preventive HIV) medicines, this gives them another option,” he said.

HIV remains the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in Africa and 60% of new infections are in women, according to figures from WHO.

The ring releases the drug dapivirine in slow doses over a month. It currently costs $12 to $16, but experts expect the price to drop once it is widely produced in Africa. Developers are also working on a version that will last up to three months, which should also lower the yearly cost.

WHO has recommended the ring be used as an additional tool for women at “substantial risk of HIV” and regulators in more than a dozen African countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe have also given it the green light. WHO cited two advanced studies in its approval, saying the ring reduced women’s chances of getting HIV by about a third, while other research has suggested the risk could be dropped by more than 50%.

Last year, activists charged the stage in a protest during last year’s biggest AIDS meeting, calling on donors to buy the silicone rings for African women.

Vice President Harris to Lead US Delegation to Major Climate Summit

Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the U.S. delegation to the world’s premier climate summit, the White House said Wednesday.

The White House stressed that President Joe Biden considers the climate crisis among his top four priorities, but the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas has consumed much of his time and attention.

“Throughout her engagements, the vice president will underscore the Biden-Harris administration’s success in delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda in history, both at home and abroad,” said Kirsten Allen, the vice president’s press secretary.

Harris will lead dozens of top U.S. officials, including special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry and others from more than 20 agencies and departments, the White House said.

This year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties — known as COP28 because it is the 28th gathering of its kind — will be hosted by United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed. The royal, who took office after the 2022 death of his brother, is also chairman of the Supreme Petroleum Council, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi’s top governing body for oil, gas and related industries.

Nearly 200 countries represented

More than 70,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries are beginning to converge on the city of Dubai, which has seen a meteoric rise from its fishing village roots, thanks to its massive oil wealth.

There, in a city known for its artificial archipelago and hyperluxury shopping offerings inside a mall that covers more than 50 soccer fields and contains an indoor ski slope and a colony of penguins, they will assess the progress toward the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In a statement, Biden said Harris would “showcase U.S. global leadership on climate at home and abroad” and would “help galvanize increased global ambition at this critical event.”

She will attend meetings Friday and Saturday in Dubai.

Earlier this week, when asked why Biden was not attending the summit, John Kirby, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, said Biden was “more than capable” of handling his many responsibilities, but that the Mideast conflict had “obviously” been a recent focus.

‘Race to the top’

VOA on Wednesday asked White House national climate adviser Ali Zaidi whether the United States would push for a deal to commit countries to phase out fossil fuels by a certain date. In September, leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies failed to agree on this issue.

Washington, Zaidi replied, seeks to “phase down the emissions that come from the unabated burning of fossil fuels.”

That word — unabated — may be a sticking point in this year’s declaration, as it would permit the opening of new fossil fuel plants if they have thus far unproven technology meant to capture and store carbon emissions.

Already, an intergovernmental group of 117 countries has questioned that language and has indicated opposition to its inclusion.

“The emission abatement technologies which currently only exist at limited scale have a minor role to play to reduce emissions mainly from hard to abate sectors,” the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People said in a statement signed by ministers from 16 countries, including Austria, Ethiopia and France. “However, they should not be used to delay climate action in sectors such as electricity generation where feasible, effective and cost-efficient mitigation alternatives are available, particularly in this critical decade when emissions need to be reduced urgently and dramatically.”

Zaidi also pointed out Biden’s role in passing a significant climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which commits at least $370 billion to clean energy over the next 10 years — something Harris will also emphasize at the gathering, administration officials told reporters in a briefing on the matter on Wednesday.

“This is a race to the top, hopefully, for clean energy,” Zaidi told VOA. “We want to lead that race, and the good news is the more countries that join that race, the better off we’ll be in tackling these emissions. We need countries like China and other major economies to be the ones that reduce emissions in a major way. We’re doing that here at home.”

US Life Expectancy Climbs, but Remains Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

Life expectancy in the United States is on the rise but remains lower than it was in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, as a host of other factors contributing to mortality, including chronic disease, gun violence and a persistent epidemic of overdose deaths, continue to plague the country.

According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, an American born in 2022 could expect to live 77.5 years on average, up 1.1 years from 2021, with most of the improvement accounted for by the reduction in COVID-19 deaths.

However, as recently as 2019, the year before the pandemic began in earnest, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.8 years. While some other countries with advanced economies and modern health care infrastructure have seen their life expectancy rates return to pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. still lags behind.

There are also wide gaps in life expectancy across demographic groups in the U.S. Women, for example, had a life expectancy of 80.2 years in 2022, compared to just 74.8 years for men.

Asian Americans born in 2022 could expect to live 84.5 years, and Hispanic Americans of any race had a life expectancy of 80 years. White Americans matched the overall average at 77.5 years, while Black Americans could expect to live 72.8 years. The lowest life expectancy reported by the CDC was for American Indian and Alaska Native Americans, at 67.9 years.

Behind peer countries

“There’s both good and bad news here,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor of public health at The George Washington University, told VOA.

“It’s disappointing that life expectancy has not rebounded more following the worst of COVID,” Wen said. “But that said, life expectancy in 2022 did rise by more than a full year. And it’s thought that more than 80% of this positive increase was attributed to a drop in COVID-19 deaths.

“Even before COVID, the U.S. was already behind our peer countries when it came to life expectancy,” she added. “Even without COVID, improvements in life expectancy have been stagnating in the U.S. over the last decade. So it’s not surprising, then, that we would not have as robust of a rebound as other countries. We need to improve our health care infrastructure in this country, especially when it comes to preventing illnesses and addressing chronic diseases.”

In much of Europe, as well as in developed economies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea, life expectancy is significantly above 80 years for the average person.

Coronavirus still matters

While coronavirus deaths are down to just a fraction of what they were in 2020 and 2021, the disease still presents a serious threat to the lives of many Americans, especially because the widespread existence of chronic diseases common to U.S. adults make dying from an infection more likely.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told VOA that the country could still be doing more to limit deaths from coronavirus infections, including by encouraging more Americans to get vaccinated against the disease.

However, he said the threat from the pandemic represents only part of the troubles facing U.S. public health officials.

“There are many challenges to American health beyond COVID,” Sharfstein said. “So, we have a ways to go, and many of those challenges got worse during the pandemic.”

In addition to improving preventive care for respiratory illnesses, Sharfstein’s organization has called for concerted action by the government to address overdose deaths, suicides, gun violence, motor vehicle crashes, heat-related deaths, as well as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Change by demographic group

While all of the demographic groups tracked by the CDC saw their life expectancies rise between 2021 and 2022, the increase varied significantly.

The American Indian and Alaskan Native cohort experienced the largest year-over-year boost in life expectancy of 2.4 years for men and 2.1 years for women. However, that same group experienced the most severe decline in life expectancy during the pandemic, a loss of 6.2 years between 2019 and 2021.

Hispanic Americans had the next largest gain in 2022, with life expectancy for men rising by 2.4 years and for women by 1.7 years. The group as a whole saw life expectancy drop by 4.1 years between 2019 and 2021.

For Black men and Black women, the average life expectancy increased by 1.5 years in 2022. As a group, Black Americans experienced an overall decline in life expectancy of 3.6 years during the pandemic.

Male Asian Americans saw their life expectancy increase by 1.2 years in 2022, with Asian American women seeing an increase of 0.7 years. Asian Americans as a group saw life expectancy decline by 2.1 years from 2019 to 2022.

As a group, White Americans had the smallest rebound in life expectancy last year, with men charting a gain of 1.1 years and women 0.6 years. As a group, White Americans lost 2.1 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2022.

As COP28 Gets Underway, Scientists Warn of Irreversible, Catastrophic Climate Change

The COP28 climate summit gets underway Thursday in Dubai, as scientists warn the world is heading for irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.

2023 is on course to be the hottest year on record, according to data from the European Union, which says that climate change combined with this year’s El Nino weather pattern have fueled recent record-breaking temperatures. Fearsome heat, forest fires and flash storms have characterized a year of extreme weather around the world, with no continent left untouched.

The COP28 summit comes at a crucial moment, according to Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former strategist at the UNFCCC and now with the Global Optimism climate think tank.

“This is the launch of what’s called the ‘global stocktake.’ So, this is the first time since the Paris Agreement [in 2014] the world has taken stock of how we are doing on the objectives we set ourselves back then.

“And it’s challenging to see what that report says. We should be reducing our emissions by 43%. By the end of this decade, that latest trajectory suggests they’re actually going to rise by 9%, with catastrophic impacts for people all over the world,” Rivett-Carnac told VOA.

Climate costs

The annual summit, officially known as the 28th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, runs for two weeks until December 12. Some 70,000 delegates from 197 countries are expected to attend, including many heads of state – though the leaders of the U.S. and China, two of the leading emitters of carbon emissions, are not expected to attend.

The COP summits involve complex negotiations. The 198 parties to the UNFCCC – comprising nearly every country in the world – largely agree on the goal of reducing global emissions to curb climate change. However, there is often disagreement over who should bear the costs of reducing those emissions and on how to mitigate the impact of climate change that is already happening.

Less developed nations say richer nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions and therefore they should compensate poorer nations for reducing their use of fossil fuels. Poorer nations argue they also need help to adapt to the changing climate.

“Different countries have different priorities. Those who are most vulnerable are concerned about the financial flows to help them deal with the crisis. Those who are less vulnerable, and more wealthy are concerned about collective attempts to reduce emissions. So, any outcome needs to be balanced,” Rivett-Carnac said.

Loss and damage

“Last year, one of the big breakthroughs was the creation of what’s called a loss and damage fund to help countries deal with the impacts that we can’t avoid. This year, we need to see a big step forward towards the operationalization of that fund,” Rivett-Carnac said.

The 2014 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by 2050.

However, according to data published earlier this month by NASA and Columbia University, climate change is currently accelerating, and the world will cross the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold this decade.

Melting ice caps

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Antarctica last week ahead of the COP summit, in a bid to highlight the urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“To rescue Antarctica, to rescue Greenland, to rescue the glaciers that I’ve seen in the past, it is absolutely crucial to end the addiction to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are the first source of climate change, and I hope that the next COP will be able to decide the phase out of fossil fuels with a clear time frame that is compatible to guarantee that the temperature will not rise more than 1.5 degrees [Celsius],” Guterres told the Associated Press.

Antarctica alarm

Scientists have long warned of rapidly declining sea ice in the Arctic – and they say the region could be ice-free in the summer within a generation.

Until 2015, there was little evidence of ice melt in Antarctica. Now scientists say the rate of ice retreat is accelerating rapidly.

“The big struggle that we have right now in the climate and polar sciences is, why is Antarctica all of a sudden so fast? Will this trend continue? Will we really lose sea ice at that pace? And how can we stop that?” said Antje Boetius, president of the German Alfred Wegener Institute.

“These things all together mean it’s time to talk about losses and damages. It’s time to talk about socioeconomic solutions because it cannot be that the ones that are transforming, the ones that have little CO2 emissions, that they are punished the most.

And it must be that those who have the highest emissions and who have a wealth from that help others who have had all those losses,” Boetius told Reuters.

Biden, Xi absent

The COP28 summit looks set to be without the leaders of the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, which together account for 42 percent of global CO2 emissions.

A U.S. official said this week that President Joe Biden would not be attending the talks, without giving a reason. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also not expected to attend the Dubai meeting.

Biden has frequently warned of the urgent need to tackle global warming, recently announcing a $6 billion investment to address climate change under the Inflation Reduction Act.

At their meeting in California in November, Biden and Xi agreed to deepen cooperation on tackling climate change. “What you see is that if the U.S. and China are in lockstep and have a clear sense of what they want to achieve together, it’s much easier for the world to come together around those commitments,” said former UNFCC strategist Rivett-Carnac.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will be leading day-to-day negotiations for the United States.

Dubai Hosts COP28 Summit Amid Intensifying Climate Emergency

The COP28 climate summit gets under way in Dubai Thursday. As Henry Ridgwell reports, the meeting comes at what scientists say is a crucial moment in the fight against global warming, with warnings the world is on the brink of irreversible and catastrophic climate change

US Wolverines Threatened With Extinction as Climate Change Melts Refuges

The North American wolverine will receive long-delayed federal protections under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday in response to scientists warning that climate change will likely melt away the rare species’ snowy mountain refuges.

Across most of the United States, wolverines were wiped out by the early 1900s from unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. About 300 surviving animals in the contiguous U.S. live in fragmented, isolated groups at high elevations.

In the coming decades, warming temperatures are expected to shrink the mountain snowpack wolverines rely on to dig dens where they birth and raise their young.

The decision Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of disputes over the risks of climate change and threats to the long-term survival of the elusive species.

The animals resemble a small bear and are the world’s largest species of terrestrial weasel. They are sometimes called “mountain devils” for their ability to thrive in harsh alpine environments.

Protections were rejected under former President Donald Trump. A federal judge in 2022 ordered the administration of President Joe Biden to make a final decision this week on whether to seek protections.

In Montana, Republican lawmakers urged the Biden administration to delay its decision, claiming the scientists’ estimates were inaccurate to make a fair call about the dangers faced by wolverines. The lawmakers, led by hard-right conservative Representative Matt Rosendale, warned that protections could lead to future restrictions on activities allowed in wolverine habitats, including snowmobiling and skiing.

In September, government scientists conceded some uncertainty about how quickly mountain snowpacks could melt in areas with wolverines. But they said habitat loss due to climate change — combined with other problems such as increased development such as houses and roads — will likely harm wolverine populations in decades to come.

“The best available information suggests that habitat loss as a result of climate change and other stressors are likely to impact the viability of wolverines in the contiguous U.S. through the remainder of this century,” they concluded.

The scientists added that some of those losses could be offset if wolverines are able to recolonize areas such as California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain.

Environmentalists argued in a 2020 lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service that wolverines face localized extinction from climate change, habitat fragmentation and low genetic diversity.

Wolverine populations that are still breeding live in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington state. In recent years, individual animals have been documented in California, Utah, Colorado and Oregon.

The wildlife service received a petition to protect wolverines in 2000 and the agency recommended protections in 2010. The Obama administration proposed protections and later sought to withdraw them but was blocked by a federal judge who said in 2016 that the snow-dependent animals were “squarely in the path of climate change.”

Protections were rejected in 2020 under Trump, based on research suggesting the animals’ prevalence was expanding, not contracting. Federal wildlife officials at the time predicted that despite warming temperatures, enough snow would persist at high elevations for wolverines to den in mountain snowfields each spring.

They reversed course in a revised analysis published in September that said wolverines were “less secure than we described.”

The animals need immense expanses of wildland to survive, with home ranges for adult male wolverines covering as much as 1,580 square kilometers (610 square miles), according to a study in central Idaho.

They also need protection from trapping, according to scientists. Wolverine populations in southwestern Canada plummeted by more than 40% over the past two decades due to overharvesting by trappers, which could have effects across the U.S. border, scientists said.

Wolverine trapping was once legal in states that include Montana. They are still sometimes caught inadvertently by trappers targeting other fur-bearing animals.

At least 10 wolverines have been accidentally captured in Montana since trapping was restricted in 2012. Three were killed and the others released unharmed. In Idaho, trappers have accidentally captured 11 wolverines since 1995, including three that were killed.

US Life Expectancy Rose Last Year, But it Remains Below its Pre-Pandemic Level 

U.S. life expectancy rose last year — by more than a year — but still isn’t close to what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2022 rise was mainly due to the waning pandemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers said Wednesday. But even with the large increase, U.S. life expectancy is only back to 77 years, 6 months — about what it was two decades ago.

Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live, assuming the death rates at that time hold constant. The snapshot statistic is considered one of the most important measures of the health of the U.S. population. The 2022 calculations released Wednesday are provisional, and could change a little as the math is finalized.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy rose a little nearly every year. But about a decade ago, the trend flattened and even declined some years — a stall blamed largely on overdose deaths and suicides.

Then came the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.1 million people in the U.S. since early 2020. The measure of American longevity plunged, dropping from 78 years, 10 months in 2019 to 77 years in 2020, and then to 76 years, 5 months in 2021.

“We basically have lost 20 years of gains,” said the CDC’s Elizabeth Arias.

A decline in COVID-19 deaths drove 2022’s improvement.

In 2021, COVID was the nation’s third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer). Last year, it fell to the fourth leading cause. With more than a month left in the current year, preliminary data suggests COVID-19 could end up being the ninth or 10th leading cause of death in 2023.

But the U.S. is battling other issues, including drug overdose deaths and suicides.

The number of U.S. suicides reached an all-time high last year, and the national suicide rate was the highest seen since 1941, according to a second CDC report released Wednesday.

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. went up slightly last year after two big leaps at the beginning of the pandemic. And through the first six months of this year, the estimated overdose death toll continued to inch up.

U.S. life expectancy also continues to be lower than that of dozens of other countries. It also didn’t rebound as quickly as it did in other places, including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

Steven Woolf, a mortality researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he expects the U.S. to eventually get back to the pre-pandemic life expectancy.

But “what I’m trying to say is: That is not a great place to be,” he added.

Some other highlights from the new report:

Life expectancy increased for both men and women, and for every racial and ethnic group.
The decline in COVID-19 deaths drove 84% of the increase in life expectancy. The next largest contributor was a decline in heart disease deaths, credited with about 4% of the increase. But experts note that heart disease deaths increased during COVID-19, and both factored into many pandemic-era deaths.
Changes in life expectancy varied by race and ethnicity. Hispanic Americans and American Indians and Alaska Natives saw life expectancy rise more than two years in 2022. Black life expectancy rose more than 1 1/2 years. Asian American life expectancy rose one year and white life expectancy rose about 10 months. But the changes are relative, because Hispanic Americans and Native Americans were hit harder at the beginning of COVID-19. Hispanic life expectancy dropped more than four years between 2019 and 2021, and Native American life expectancy fell more than six years.

“A lot of the large increases in life expectancy are coming from the groups that suffered the most from COVID,” said Mark Hayward, a University of Texas sociology professor who researches how different factors affect adult deaths. “They had more to rebound from.”

Climate Crises Drastically Increase Child Hunger, UK-Based Charity Says

Children made up nearly half of the people driven into hunger and malnutrition by extreme weather events in countries heavily impacted by the climate crisis in 2022, according to a UK-based charity.

Citing data by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC hunger monitoring system, Britain’s Save the Children said Tuesday that children made up 27 million of the 57 million “people pushed into crisis levels of acute food insecurity or worse across 12 countries because of extreme weather events in 2022.”

“As climate-related weather events become more frequent and severe, we will see more drastic consequences on children’s lives,” said Gwen Hines, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children UK. “In 2022, 135% more children were pushed into hunger due to extreme weather events than the year before.”

Half of the 27 million affected children came from the most affected countries of Ethiopia and Somalia.

Save the Children highlighted Somalia as particularly vulnerable to climate crises, pointing to the country’s five consecutive failed rainy seasons and the recent impact of flooding that displaced 650,000 people, about half of which are children.

Save the Children also identified Pakistan, which last year saw floods affect some 33 million people, with half being children. A year after the flood, “2 million flood-affected children are acutely malnourished, with almost 600,000 children suffering from the deadliest form of malnutrition,” the charity said.

Save the Children also called on world leaders from high income nations ahead of the COP28, the United Nations climate summit, to address the climate crisis, by “providing funding for losses and damages and climate adaptation.”

“To truly protect children now and in the future, robust support for the new Loss and Damage Fund is non-negotiable,” Hines said. “At COP28, world leaders must listen to the demands of children and invite them to be part of proposing solutions.”

Save the Children also called on action from leaders to address the “acute food and nutrition insecurity such as conflict, inequality, and a lack of resilient health, nutrition and social protection systems.”

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.

World Health Organization Warns of Disease Threat in Gaza

Disease could pose a bigger threat to human life than bombings in Gaza, the World Health Organization said. 

Overcrowding and a lack of access to clean drinking water or sanitation systems has led to a breeding ground for infectious disease, particularly diarrhea in children, which has reached nearly 100 times its normal level, according to the WHO.

“Eventually we will see more people dying from disease than we are even seeing from the bombardment if we are not able to put back (together) this health system,” said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris at a U.N. briefing Tuesday in Geneva.  

The WHO says food shortages have added to the disease risk, as people are getting weak from hunger, causing them to be more prone to illness. 

People in Gaza also face difficulty in getting treatment, as there is limited medical staff and a shortage of access to medicines and vaccinations.  

Disruptions in collection of garbage from crowded shelters has furthered concern over risk of disease.

The WHO, in response to the conditions in Gaza, has called for a cease-fire, “sustained access for aid into Gaza,” “protection of civilians and health care,” and “respect for international humanitarian law,” on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Israel declared war on U.S.-designated terror group Hamas after its shock October 7 attack on southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people and led to the Hamas capture of about 240 hostages. Israel’s campaign against Hamas militants has killed more than 14,000 people, according to Gaza health officials.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

COP28 Has Big Agenda but Won’t Have Biden, Xi

When world leaders gather in Dubai beginning Thursday for COP28, this year’s U.N. climate summit, the heads of the world’s two largest economies will be notably absent.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have no plans to attend the two-week event, which is aimed at marshaling governments around the world behind the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Both countries will send high-level representatives. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special envoy for climate change, will attend. China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, is also expected.

Among the main issues addressed at the conference will be the structure of a “loss and damage” fund meant to compensate low-income countries that are suffering disproportionately from climate change despite having contributed little to its causes.

Another important topic of discussion will be the adoption of an agreement to phase out the use of fossil fuels, the single largest contributor to carbon emissions.

The fossil fuel discussion may be complicated by the fact that the host country, the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas.

UAE oil deals

In a development that may further snarl the talks in Dubai, the news organization Centre for Climate Reporting, in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corp., on Monday revealed leaked documents suggesting that the COP28 organizing authority in the UAE has scheduled talks about oil and gas development projects during the conference.

The decision to allow the UAE to host the conference was already controversial, especially after Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., was named president of COP28.

The reports published Monday contained internal talking points apparently prepared for Al-Jaber ahead of meetings with representatives from various countries, including China, Colombia and Egypt. They appear to declare the UAE’s willingness to develop new fossil fuel projects.

According to the BBC, conference organizers did not deny the accusation and refused to comment further than saying that ”private meetings are private.”

Activists optimistic

While some activists remain troubled by the decision to allow the UAE to host the event, others say the revelations about the oil and gas development talks could actually boost the chances of fossil fuel phase-out language being adopted.

“We’re all very clear on where the battle lines are drawn, and with this new article that came out, we’re clear on what’s really going on behind the scenes, which we all suspected but no one would say outright,” Cherelle Blazer, director of international climate and policy at the Sierra Club, told VOA. “Given all of those factors, if there’s more clarity going into this than usual, I’m going to say there’s a good chance.”

Blazer also said she was not concerned about the absence of Biden and Xi.

“The Senate delegation is going to be there. The full U.S. negotiating team will be there. Kerry will be there. So, everyone that needs to be in place for something actionable to happen will be there,” she said.

Global Stocktake

This year’s conference will mark the completion of the most recent Global Stocktake, a two-year process that is conducted every five years to assess progress toward emissions reductions and other goals related to the effort to halt global warming.

While the final results of the process are yet to be announced, an interim report released earlier this year found that progress on various climate initiatives has been “significant yet inadequate” over recent years.

The meeting takes place at a time when the manufacture and installation of green energy development sources is on the rise globally, with costs falling rapidly for many key elements, including the photovoltaic panels used to capture solar energy.

However, experts told VOA that while some regions, like Europe, have greatly accelerated their transition to green energy in recent years, progress has been slower elsewhere. To some degree, that difference was expected, because the emission-reductions goals set following the Paris Agreement were “nationally determined” — meaning that individual countries set their own goals.

Trade complications

Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told VOA that the interactions between countries further along in the transition to green energy and those in the early stages of the process are getting increasingly complicated, particularly around trade.

Mehling said the attitude of some countries that have accelerated their energy transition is, “Well, if we cannot force, say, Turkey, or we cannot force China to decarbonize through the UNFCCC-Paris Agreement, because it’s nationally driven, we can at least make sure that anything we import from them will have to live up to the same high standards.”

He said some countries find having manufacturing emissions reduction standards imposed on them by restrictive trade requirements understandably frustrating.

“Some of these countries say, ‘Well, wait. We thought we understood the Paris Agreement to say that we can decide how fast we decarbonize our manufacturing. It’s not for you to force that on us,’” he said.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that many of the countries that have been decarbonizing at a slower pace are in the Global South and contributed very little to the crisis of global warming but feel they are now being asked to forgo economic development opportunities with little compensation from wealthy countries like the U.S. and China that contributed most to climate change.

Spain to Invest 1.4 Billion Euros to Protect Threatened Donana Wetland

National and regional authorities in Spain signed an agreement Monday to invest 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in areas around the treasured national park of Donana in a bid to stop the park from drying up.

Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said the plan was aimed at encouraging farmers to stop cultivating crops that rely heavily on water from underground aquifers that have been overexploited in recent years, damaging one of Europe’s largest wetlands.

“This is an agreement with which we put an end to pressure on a natural treasure the likes of which there are few in the world,” Ribera said.

Andalusia regional President Juan Moreno said farmers will receive financial incentives to stop cultivating and to reforest land in and around some 14 towns close to Donana. He said farmers who wish to continue cultivating will receive less money but must switch to farming dry crops ecologically.

As part of the agreement, Andalusia will cancel previously announced plans to expand irrigation near Donana, a decision that UNESCO, the central government and ecologists criticized for putting more pressure on the aquifer.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, Donana is a wintering site for half a million waterfowl and a stopover spot for millions more birds that migrate from Africa to northern Europe.

Ecologists working in and near the park have long warned that its ecosystem of marshes and lagoons is under severe strain because of agriculture and tourism. The situation has been made worse by climate change and a long drought, along with record high temperatures.

Andalusia recently announced a plan to allow the Donana park to annex some 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) by purchasing land from a private owner for 70 million euros.

Donana currently covers 74,000 hectares (182,000 acres) on an estuary where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean on Spain’s southern coast. 

Pakistan: Nationwide Polio Campaign Targets Over 4 Million Children

Pakistan launched a week-long nationwide polio vaccination campaign Monday, as the country remains one of only two around the world where the paralyzing virus still exists.

This year, so far, Pakistan has reported five cases of the highly infectious disease. The latest polio eradication campaign will target more than 4.4 million children across much of the country, as well as in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.  

The South Asian nation came close to eradicating polio in 2021 when it reported only one case of paralysis from the virus. However, last year the country saw a spike with 20 cases on the record. The virus generally spreads through the fecal matter of a carrier that has contaminated the water supply. 

Two of this year’s five cases were detected in the country’s most populous city Karachi in the southern province of Sindh. This came after the city recorded zero cases in the last two years.  

A spokesperson of the provincial Emergency Operation Center, Syed Nofil Naqvi, told VOA both cases are children from Afghan families settled in Pakistan for years.  

Naqvi blamed cross-border movement between Pakistan and Afghanistan for the disease. Afghanistan, the only other country fighting to eliminate the virus has reported six cases so far in 2023.  

“The environmental samples found across Pakistan are genetically linked to Afghanistan,” Naqvi said.  

To counter the spread of the virus through travelers, Naqvi said, polio teams vaccinate children at bus stops and other transit points.   

All of Pakistan’s remaining polio cases this year came from Bannu, a town in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Muhammad Zeeshan Khan, deputy coordinator for the provincial Emergency Operation Center, told VOA all three families had refused to vaccinate their children.   

“We tried a lot to convince them. One child’s family agreed to giving polio drops but the child had not received an [initial] injection [to build immunity]. This [refusal] is the reason that all three children succumbed to paralysis.” Khan said the families worried the vaccine might harm their children.  

Parents’ refusal to give the oral polio vaccine to their children is one of the primary reasons polio virus still exists in Pakistan.   

Polio workers and the security personnel protecting them frequently come under lethal attacks from parents and militants who see the vaccination drive as part of a foreign conspiracy to render Pakistani children impotent or to give them ingredients not permissible for Muslims to consume.

Provincial officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded more than 16,000 refusals in October. According to Khan, Peshawar, the provincial capital, recorded nearly 8000 refusals followed by Bannu, and North Waziristan where most of Pakistan’s polio cases were recorded last year.  

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded 14 incidents of violence against polio teams this year.   

To counter such misconceptions, authorities have been engaging local clerics and influencers, and running expensive TV and radio campaigns to convince parents to vaccinate their children.   

Still, other parents refuse and bargain for unmet civic needs. The National Emergency Operation Center’s plans for the latest campaign show several communities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have refused to vaccinate their children until gas, roads or teachers are provided.  

“For us, the biggest concern is the child whose family has refused [to vaccinate],” said Khan.  

In any campaign cycle thousands of children are also “missed” because they are not home, or the family is unwilling to allow the vaccination team inside if a male member of the household is not present.  

Data shows over 13 percent of children in Quetta, Baluchistan’s provincial capital, missed getting the vaccine last time. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nearly 1.2 percent of children or more than 90,000 were missed as well.  

However, Khan said many of the missed children get vaccinated as guests in whichever community they are temporarily present.   

In Quetta too, nearly half the children who were missed at one point were eventually covered, according to data.  

Still, in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that border Afghanistan the vaccination campaign will either be conducted later or postponed indefinitely, primarily due to security reasons.

As hundreds of thousands of polio workers and security personnel go door to door this week in areas facing a high risk of polio, Naqvi is hopeful Pakistan will get closer to eliminating the crippling disease.   

“We are using a positive way of giving the message,” Naqvi said. From posting signs that said “Caution! Your area has polio,” he said, we now say, “we can eliminate polio.”

China Says Surge in Respiratory Illnesses Caused by Flu, Other Known Pathogens

A surge in respiratory illnesses across China that has drawn the attention of the World Health Organization is caused by the flu and other known pathogens and not by a novel virus, the country’s health ministry said Sunday.

Recent clusters of respiratory infections are caused by an overlap of common viruses such as the influenza virus, rhinoviruses, the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, the adenovirus as well as bacteria such as mycoplasma pneumoniae, which is a common culprit for respiratory tract infections, a National Health Commission spokesperson said.

The ministry called on local authorities to open more fever clinics and promote vaccinations among children and the elderly as the country grapples with a wave of respiratory illnesses in its first full winter since the removal of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Efforts should be made to increase the opening of relevant clinics and treatment areas, extend service hours and increase the supply of medicines,” said ministry spokesman Mi Feng.

He advised people to wear masks and called on local authorities to focus on preventing the spread of illnesses in crowded places such as schools and nursing homes.

The WHO earlier this week formally requested that China provide information about a potentially worrying spike in respiratory illnesses and clusters of pneumonia in children, as mentioned by several media reports and a global infectious disease monitoring service.

The emergence of new flu strains or other viruses capable of triggering pandemics typically starts with undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illness. Both SARS and COVID-19 were first reported as unusual types of pneumonia.

Chinese authorities earlier this month blamed the increase in respiratory diseases on the lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Other countries also saw a jump in respiratory diseases such as RSV when pandemic restrictions ended.

The WHO said Chinese health officials on Thursday provided the data it requested during a teleconference. Those showed an increase in hospital admissions of children due to diseases including bacterial infection, RSV, influenza and common cold viruses since October.

Chinese officials maintained the spike in patients had not overloaded the country’s hospitals, according to the WHO.

It is rare for the U.N. health agency to publicly ask for more detailed information from countries, as such requests are typically made internally. WHO said it requested further data from China via an international legal mechanism.

According to internal accounts in China, the outbreaks have swamped some hospitals in northern China, including in Beijing, and health authorities have asked the public to take children with less severe symptoms to clinics and other facilities.

WHO said that there was too little information at the moment to properly assess the risk of these reported cases of respiratory illness in children.

Both Chinese authorities and WHO have been accused of a lack of transparency in their initial reports on the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

Heat, Disease, Air Pollution: How Climate Change Impacts Health 

Growing calls for the world to come to grips with the many ways that global warming affects human health have prompted the first day dedicated to the issue at crunch UN climate talks starting next week.

Extreme heat, air pollution and the increasing spread of deadly infectious diseases are just some of the reasons why the World Health Organization has called climate change the single biggest health threat facing humanity.

Global warming must be limited to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius “to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths,” according to the WHO.

However, under current national carbon-cutting plans, the world is on track to warm up to 2.9C this century, the U.N. said this week.

While no one will be completely safe from the effects of climate change, experts expect that most at risk will be children, women, the elderly, migrants and people in less developed countries which have emitted the least planet-warming greenhouse gases.

On December 3, the COP28 negotiations in Dubai will host the first “health day” ever held at the climate negotiations.

Extreme heat

This year is widely expected to be the hottest on record. And as the world continues to warm, even more frequent and intense heatwaves are expected to follow.

Heat is believed to have caused more than 70,000 deaths in Europe during summer last year, researchers said this week, revising the previous number up from 62,000.

Worldwide, people were exposed to an average of 86 days of life-threatening temperatures last year, according to the Lancet Countdown report earlier this week.

The number of people over 65 who died from heat rose by 85 percent from 1991-2000 to 2013-2022, it added.

And by 2050, more than five times more people will die from the heat each year under a 2C warming scenario, the Lancet Countdown projected.

More droughts will also drive rising hunger. Under the scenario of 2C warming by the end of the century, 520 million more people will experience moderate or severe food insecurity by 2050.

Meanwhile, other extreme weather events such as storms, floods and fires will continue to threaten the health of people across the world.

Air pollution

Almost 99% of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds the WHO’s guidelines for air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution driven by fossil fuel emissions kills more than four million people every year, according to the WHO.

It increases the risk of respiratory diseases, strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and other health problems, posing a threat that has been compared to tobacco.

The damage is caused partly by PM2.5 microparticles, which are mostly from fossil fuels. People breathe these tiny particles into their lungs, where they can then enter the bloodstream.

While spikes in air pollution, such as extremes seen in India’s capital New Delhi earlier this month, trigger respiratory problems and allergies, long-term exposure is believed to be even more harmful.

However it is not all bad news.

The Lancet Countdown report found that deaths from air pollution due to fossil fuels have fallen 16% since 2005, mostly due to efforts to reduce the impact of coal burning.

Infectious diseases

The changing climate means that mosquitoes, birds and mammals will roam beyond their previous habitats, raising the threat that they could spread infectious diseases with them.

Mosquito-borne diseases that pose a greater risk of spreading due to climate change include dengue, chikungunya, Zika, West Nile virus and malaria.

The transmission potential for dengue alone will increase by 36 percent with 2C warming, the Lancet Countdown report warned.

Storms and floods create stagnant water that are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and also increase the risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhea.

Scientists also fear that mammals straying into new areas could share diseases with each other, potentially creating new viruses that could then jump over to humans.

Mental health

Worrying about the present and future of our warming planet has also provoked rising anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress — particularly for people already struggling with these disorders, psychologists have warned.

In the first 10 months of the year, people searched online for the term “climate anxiety” 27 times more than during the same period in 2017, according to data from Google Trends cited by the BBC this week.

Oregon Experiments with Decriminalizing Small Amounts of Hard Drugs

In the Pacific Northwest, one U.S. state is trying a novel approach to combatting opioid abuse — decriminalizing small amounts of hard drugs. From Oregon, Deborah Bloom has our story.

UN Chief Visits Rapidly Melting Antarctica Ahead of COP28 Climate Talks

On the cusp of the COP28 climate talks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited frozen but rapidly melting Antarctica and said that intense action must be taken at the conference where countries will address their commitments to lowering emissions of planet-warming gases.

“We are witnessing an acceleration that is absolutely devastating,” Guterres said Thursday about the rate of ice melt in Antarctica, which is considered to be a “sleeping giant.”

“The Antarctic is waking up, and the world must wake up,” he added.

Guterres was on a three-day official visit to Antarctica. Chilean President Gabriel Boric joined him for an official visit to Chile’s Eduardo Frei Air Force Base on King George Island.

Guterres also was scheduled to visit the Collins and Nelson glaciers by boat.

He described the U.N. climate change conference that begins in Dubai next week as an opportunity for nations to “decide the phase-out of fossil fuels in an adequate time frame” to prevent the world from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures.

Guterres said the COP28 conference also gives nations the chance to commit to more renewable energy projects and to improve energy efficiency of existing grids and technologies.

The U.N. chief also said he thinks that Sultan al-Jaber, the president of the upcoming climate talks and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, has a “bigger responsibility” to encourage the fossil fuel industry to make more clean energy investments because of his ties to the sector.

“He needs to be able to explain to all those that are responsible in the fossil fuel industry, and especially to the oil and gas industry that is making obscene profits all over the world, that this is the moment to use those profits instead of doubling down on fossil fuels,” Guterres said.

Warming air and ocean temperatures are causing Antarctic ice to melt. The frozen continent plays a significant role in regulating Earth’s climate because it reflects sunlight away and drives major ocean currents.

For years, scientists and environmentalists have kept an eye on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as an important indicator of global warming. A study published in Nature Climate Change last month said warming has increased to the point that the ice sheet will now experience “unavoidable” melting regardless of how much the world reduces emissions of planet-warming gases like carbon dioxide.

The study’s lead author, Kaitlin Naughten, estimated that melting ice in Antarctica’s most at-risk areas could raise global sea levels by about 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) over the next few centuries.

Another study published in Science Advances, also last month, reported that nearly 50 Antarctic ice shelves have shrunk by at least 30% since 1997 and 28 of those have lost more than half their ice in that short period of time.

Japan Detects Season’s First Bird Flu Case, Will Cull 40,000 Birds, Report Says

Japan detected the first case of highly pathogenic H5-type bird flu this season at a poultry farm in the south of the country, public broadcaster NHK reported Saturday.

The local government in Saga prefecture will cull about 40,000 birds on the farm, NHK said, citing agriculture ministry officials it did not name.

Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment outside of business hours.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will convene relevant Cabinet ministers to discuss measures to prevent spreading of the virus, NHK said.

The virus was detected as a result of genetic testing conducted after some poultry birds were found dead at the farm on Friday, the report said.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has spread around the globe in recent years, leading to the culling of hundreds of millions of birds.

In Japan a record 17.7 million poultry birds were culled last season, prompting the authorities to stay on high alert.

UN Chief Speaks From Antarctica Ahead of Global Climate Summit 

On the eve of international climate talks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited globally important Antarctica, where ice that’s been frozen for millions of years is melting because of human-caused climate change, to send the message that “we absolutely need to act immediately.” 

“What happens in Antarctica doesn’t stay in Antarctica,” Guterres said. In addition to reflecting lots of sunlight away from the Earth, Antarctica regulates the planet’s climate because its ice and cold waters drive major ocean currents. When massive amounts of ice melt, it raises sea levels and changes things like salinity and the habitats of ocean animals. 

At the annual Conference of the Parties known as COP, nations are supposed to gather to make and strengthen commitments to addressing climate change, but so far these have not been nearly enough to slow the emissions causing the warming. 

Guterres is on a three-day official visit to the southern continent. Chilean President Gabriel Boric joined him for an official visit to Chile’s Eduardo Frei Air Force Base on King George Island. Scientists and members of the Chilean military gathered with Guterres aboard a ship where they viewed glaciers and sea birds, including penguins. 

Guterres described COP28, which begins next week in Dubai, as an opportunity for nations to “decide the phase-out of fossil fuels in an adequate time frame” to prevent the world from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. Scientists have considered that an important demarcation that could have avoided devastating climate change for millions of people. But such a phase-out has not found its way into the agreements that emerge from these conferences so far, and the influence of fossil fuel companies and countries has been strong. 

Guterres said the COP28 conference also gives nations the chance to commit to more renewable energy projects and improve the energy efficiency of existing electrical grids and technologies. 

Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., is president of this year’s talks, and the U.N. chief said his ties to the sector give him a “bigger responsibility” to encourage the fossil fuel industry to make more clean energy investments. 

“He needs to be able to explain to all those that are responsible in the fossil fuel industry, and especially to the oil and gas industry that is making obscene profits all over the world, that this is the moment to use those profits instead of doubling down on fossil fuels,” Guterres said. 

Pope Francis will also be the first pontiff to attend the U.N. climate conference, and Guterres said he was “very hopeful” that the pope’s presence would convey to political leaders that “it is a moral imperative to put climate action as an absolute priority and to do everything that is necessary to move from the suicidal trajectory that we are having today.”

WHO Confirms First Sexual Spread of Mpox in Congo Amid Record Outbreak

The World Health Organization said it has confirmed sexual transmission of mpox in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the first time as the country experiences its biggest outbreak, a worrying development that African scientists warn could make it more difficult to stop the disease.

In a statement issued late Thursday, the U.N. health agency said a resident of Belgium traveled to Congo in March and tested positive for mpox, or monkeypox, shortly afterward. The WHO said the individual “identified himself as a man who has sexual relations with other men” and that he had gone to several underground clubs for gay and bisexual men.

Among his sexual contacts, five later tested positive for mpox, the WHO said.

“This is the first definitive proof of sexual transmission of monkeypox in Africa,” said Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups. “The idea that this kind of transmission could not be happening here has now been debunked.”

Mpox has been endemic in parts of central and west Africa for decades, where it mostly jumped into humans from infected rodents and caused limited outbreaks. Last year, epidemics triggered mainly by sex among gay and bisexual men in Europe hit more than 100 countries. The WHO declared the outbreak as a global emergency, and it has caused about 91,000 cases to date.

The WHO noted there were dozens of discrete clubs in Congo where men have sex with other men, including members who travel to other parts of Africa and Europe. The agency described the recent mpox outbreak as unusual and said it highlighted the risk the disease could spread widely among sexual networks.

The WHO added that the mpox outbreak this year in Congo, which has infected more than 12,500 people and killed about 580, also marked the first time the disease has been identified in the capital, Kinshasa, and in the conflict-ridden province of South Kivu. Those figures are roughly double the mpox toll in 2020, making it Congo’s biggest outbreak, the WHO said.

Virologist Tomori said that even those figures were likely an underestimate and had implications for the rest of Africa, given the continent’s often patchy disease surveillance.

“What’s happening in Congo is probably happening in other parts of Africa,” he said. “Sexual transmission of monkeypox is likely established here, but [gay] communities are hiding it because of the draconian [anti-LGBTQ+] laws in several countries.”

He warned that driving people at risk for the virus underground would make the disease harder to curb.

The mpox virus causes fever, chills, rash and lesions on the face or genitals. Most people recover within several weeks without requiring hospitalization.

The WHO said the risk of mpox spreading to other countries in Africa and globally “appears to be significant,” adding that there could be “potentially more severe consequences” than the worldwide epidemic last year.

Tomori lamented that while the mpox outbreaks in Europe and North America prompted mass immunization campaigns among affected populations, no such plans were being proposed for Africa.

“Despite the thousands of cases in Congo, no vaccines have arrived,” he said. Even after mpox epidemics subsided in the West, few shots or treatments were made available for Africa.

“We have been saying for years in Africa that monkeypox is a problem,” he said. “Now that sexual transmission has been confirmed here, this should be a signal to everyone to take it much more seriously.”

South Africa, Colombia Fighting Drugmakers Over Access to TB, HIV Drugs

South Africa, Colombia and other countries that lost out in the global race for coronavirus vaccines are taking a more combative approach toward drugmakers and pushing back on policies that deny cheap treatment to millions of people with tuberculosis and HIV.

Experts see it as a shift in how such countries deal with pharmaceutical behemoths and say it could trigger more efforts to make lifesaving medicines more widely available.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, rich countries bought most of the world’s vaccines early, leaving few shots for poor countries and creating a disparity the World Health Organization called “a catastrophic moral failure.”

Now, poorer countries are trying to become more self-reliant “because they’ve realized after COVID they can’t count on anyone else,” said Brook Baker, who studies treatment-access issues at Northeastern University.

One of the targets is a drug, bedaquiline, that is used for treating people with drug-resistant versions of tuberculosis. The pills are especially important for South Africa, where TB killed more than 50,000 people in 2021, making it the country’s leading cause of death.

In recent months, activists have protested efforts by Johnson & Johnson to protect its patent on the drug. In March, TB patients petitioned the Indian government, calling for cheaper generics; the government ultimately agreed Johnson & Johnson’s patent could be broken. Belarus and Ukraine then wrote to the company, also asking it to drop its patents, but with little response.

In July, Johnson & Johnson’s patent on the drug expired in South Africa, but the company had it extended until 2027, enraging activists who accused it of profiteering.

The South African government then began investigating the company’s pricing policies.

It had been paying about 5,400 rand ($282) per treatment course, more than twice as much as poor countries that got the drug via a global effort called the Stop TB partnership.

In September, about a week after South Africa’s probe began, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would drop its patent in more than 130 countries, allowing generic-makers to copy the drug.

“This addresses any misconception that access to our medicines is limited,” the company said.

Christophe Perrin, a tuberculosis expert at Doctors Without Borders, called Johnson & Johnson’s reversal “a big surprise” because aggressive patent protection was typically a “cornerstone” of pharmaceutical companies’ strategy.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, the government declared last month that it would issue a compulsory license for the HIV drug dolutegravir without permission from the drug’s patent-holder, Viiv Health care. The decision came after more than 120 groups asked the Colombian government to expand access to the World Health Organization-recommended drug.

“This is Colombia taking the reins after the extreme inequity of COVID and challenging a major pharmaceutical to ensure affordable AIDS treatment for its people,” said Peter Maybarduk of the Washington advocacy group Public Citizen. He noted that Brazilian activists are pushing their government to make a similar move.

Still, some experts said much more needs to change before poorer countries can produce their own medicines and vaccines.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Africa produced fewer than 1% of all vaccines made globally but used more than half of the world’s supply, according to Petro Terblanche, managing director of Afrigen Biologics. The company is part of a WHO-backed effort to produce a COVID vaccine using the same mRNA technology as those made by Pfizer and Moderna.

Terblanche estimated about 14 million people died of AIDS in Africa from the late 1990s into the 2000s, when countries couldn’t get the necessary medicines.

Back then, President Nelson Mandela’s government in South Africa eventually suspended patents to allow wider access to AIDS drugs. That prompted more than 30 drugmakers to take it to court in 1998, in a case dubbed “Mandela vs. Big Pharma.”

Doctors Without Borders described the episode as “a public relations disaster” for the drug companies, which dropped the lawsuit in 2001.

Terblanche said that Africa’s experience during the HIV epidemic has proven instructive.

“It’s not acceptable for a listed company to hold intellectual property that stands in the way of saving lives and, so, we will see more countries fighting back,” she said.

Challenging pharmaceutical companies is just one piece to ensuring Africa has equal access to treatments and vaccines, Terblanche said. More-robust health systems are critical.

“If we can’t get [vaccines and medicines] to the people who need them, they aren’t useful,” she said.

Yet some experts pointed out that South Africa’s own intellectual property laws still haven’t been changed sufficiently and make it too easy for pharmaceutical companies to acquire patents and extend their monopolies.

While many other developing countries allow legal challenges to a patent or a patent extension, South Africa has no clear law that allows it to do that, said Lynette Keneilwe Mabote-Eyde, a health care activist who consults for the nonprofit Treatment Action Group.

The South African department of health didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding drug procurement and patents.

In its annual report on tuberculosis released earlier this month, the World Health Organization said there were more than 10 million people sickened by the disease last year and 1.3 million deaths. After COVID-19, tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest infectious disease, and it is now the top killer of people with HIV.

WHO Asks China for More Information About Illnesses, Pneumonia Clusters 

Chinese officials say they did not detect any “unusual or novel diseases” in the country, the World Health Organization said Thursday, following an official request by the U.N. health agency for information about a potentially worrying spike in respiratory illnesses and clusters of pneumonia in children. 

WHO cited unspecified media reports and a global infectious-disease monitoring service as reporting clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China and formally requested more details from China earlier this week. 

Outside scientists said the situation warranted close monitoring, but they were not convinced that the recent spike in respiratory illnesses in China signaled the start of a new global outbreak. 

The emergence of new flu strains or other viruses capable of triggering pandemics typically starts with undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illness. Both SARS and COVID-19 were first reported as unusual types of pneumonia. 

WHO noted that authorities at China’s National Health Commission on November 13 reported an increase in respiratory diseases, which they said was the result of the lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Other countries also saw a jump in respiratory diseases such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, when pandemic restrictions ended. 

WHO said that about a week later, media reported clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China. 

The U.N. agency said it held a teleconference with Chinese health officials on Thursday, during which the data it requested were provided. Those showed an increase in hospital admissions of children due to diseases including bacterial infection, RSV, influenza and common cold viruses since October. 

“No changes in the disease presentation were reported by the Chinese health authorities,” WHO said. It added that Chinese officials said the spike in patients had not overloaded the country’s hospitals. 

New disease doubted

Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, doubted the wave of infections was sparked by a new disease. 

“If it was [a new disease], I would expect to see many more infections in adults,” he said in a statement. “The few infections reported in adults suggest existing immunity from a prior exposure.” 

Francois Balloux of University College London said China was probably experiencing a significant wave of childhood infections since this was the first winter since lockdown restrictions were lifted, which likely reduced children’s immunity to common bugs. 

WHO said that northern China has reported a jump in influenzalike illnesses since mid-October compared with the previous three years. It is rare for the U.N. health agency to publicly ask for more detailed information from countries, as such requests are typically made internally. WHO said it requested further data from China via an international legal mechanism. 

According to internal accounts in China, the outbreaks have swamped some hospitals in northern China, including in Beijing, and health authorities have asked the public to take children with less severe symptoms to clinics and other facilities. 

The average number of patients in the internal medicine department at Beijing Children’s Hospital topped 7,000 per day, exceeding the hospital’s capacity, state-owned China National Radio said in an online article earlier this week. 

China’s National Health Commission, in a written Q&A posted online by the official Xinhua News Agency, suggested Thursday that children with mild symptoms “first visit primary health care institutions or pediatrics departments of general hospitals” because large hospitals are crowded and have long waiting times. 

WHO said that there was too little information at the moment to properly assess the risk of these reported cases of respiratory illness in children. The agency has previously been stymied by a lack of cooperation from countries when new viruses have emerged, particularly in China. 

After SARS broke out in southern China in 2002, Beijing officials told doctors to hide patients, with some being driven around in ambulances while WHO scientists were visiting the country. That prompted WHO to threaten to close its office in China. 

Nearly two decades later, China stalled on sharing critical details about the coronavirus with the U.N. health agency after the new virus emerged in late 2019. WHO publicly applauded China’s commitment to stopping the virus — weeks before it started causing explosive epidemics worldwide. 

“While WHO seeks this additional information, we recommend that people in China follow measures to reduce the risk of respiratory illness,” the agency said, advising people to get vaccinated, isolate if they are feeling ill, wear masks if necessary and get medical care as needed. 

West Africa Responds to Huge Diphtheria Outbreaks by Targeting Unvaccinated Populations

Authorities in several West African countries are trying to manage their huge diphtheria outbreaks, including in Nigeria where a top health official said Thursday that millions are being vaccinated to cover wide gaps in immunity against the disease.

At least 573 people out of the 11,640 diagnosed with the disease in Nigeria have died since the current outbreak started in December 2022, though officials estimate the toll — now on the decline because of treatment efforts — could be much higher across states unable to detect many cases.

In Niger, 37 people had died out of the 865 cases as of October, while Guinea has reported 58 deaths out of 497 since its outbreak started in June.

“As far as the history that I am aware of, this is the largest outbreak that we have had,” Ifedayo Adetifa, head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, told The Associated Press.

The highly contagious bacterial infection has been reported in 20 of Nigeria’s 36 states so far.

A major driver of the high rate of infection in the region has been a historically wide vaccination gap, the French medical organization Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said in a statement on Tuesday.

In Nigeria, only 42% of children under 15 years old are fully protected from diphtheria, according to a government survey, while Guinea has a 47% immunization rate — both far below the 80-85% rate recommended by the World Health Organization to maintain community protection.

The fate of the affected countries is worsened by the global shortages of the diphtheria vaccine as demand has increased to respond to outbreaks, MSF said.

“We’re not seeing vaccination happen, not at the scale that is needed,” said Dr. Dagemlidet Tesfaye Worku, emergency medical program manager for MSF in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “What is needed is a truly massive scale-up of vaccination, as soon as possible.”

The Nigerian government is ramping up vaccination for targeted populations while assisting states to boost their capacity to detect and manage cases, said Adetifa, the Nigeria CDC head.

But several states continue to struggle, including Kano, which accounts for more than 75% of cases in Nigeria but has only two diphtheria treatment centers, according to Abubakar Labaran Yusuf, the state’s top health official.

“Once people have to travel or move significant distances to access treatment, that becomes a challenge,” Adetifa said.

Ethiopian American Top Young Scientist Challenge Winner Hopes to Change Lives

A 14-year-old Ethiopian-born American in the U.S. state of Virginia has won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, an annual science competition for U.S. students in grades five through eight. VOA’s Eden Geremew recently spoke with the winner in Fairfax County, Virginia, in this report narrated by Salem Solomon. Camera: Karina Choudhury