WHO urges heightened vigilance on potential spread of bird flu in cows

Geneva — In the wake of a recent outbreak of avian influenza detected in dairy cows and goats in the United States, the World Health Organization is calling on governments to increase their surveillance and to “remain vigilant” regarding the possible spread of this deadly disease to their countries.

Dr. Wenqing Zhang, head of the WHO’s global influenza program, said Friday that investigations are underway to determine the extent and severity of the H5N1 bird flu found in 29 herds in eight U.S. states since March.

“While WHO and its partners are closely monitoring, reviewing, assessing and updating the risk associated with H5N1 and other avian influenza viruses, we call on countries to remain vigilant, rapidly report human infections if any, rapidly share sequences and other data, and reinforce biosecurity measures on animal farms,” said Zhang.

Zhang also told journalists in Geneva that on April 1 a laboratory-confirmed case of avian influenza was found in a man who was working at a dairy cattle farm in Texas.

“The case in Texas is the first case of a human infected by avian influenza by a cow,” she said, noting that he most likely got infected “through the direct contact with cows.”

“Now we see multiple herds of cows affected in an increasing number of U.S. states, which shows a further step of the virus spillover to mammals,” she added, warning that “farm workers and others in close contact with cows should take precautions in case the animals are infected.”

Zhang also noted that so far there has been no detected transmission of the virus from cattle to other mammals, though bird-to-cow, cow-to-cow and cow-to-bird transmission have occurred during the current outbreaks.

“Although a lot is still under investigation, this suggests that the virus may have found … routes of transmission other than what we previously understood,” she said. “While this sounds concerning, it is also a testament to strong disease surveillance which allows us to detect the virus.”

Avian influenza A(H5N1) first emerged in 1996. In 2020, the virus spread into Africa, Asia, and Europe and then in 2022, it crossed into North and South America.

“In recent years, we see the virus spillover to mammals,” Zhang said, noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has detected infections in “around 200 mammals.”

Human infections of avian flu are rare and tied to exposure to infected animals and environments. The WHO reports nearly 900 cases have been detected since 2003. About half of those infected with the disease reportedly have died.

In the early years, most cases were found in Asia and Southeast Asia. WHO reports the relatively few U.S. and European cases reported to the agency over the past two years have been mild.

Zhang said the virus in dairy cows currently circulating in the United States also has been detected in milk from infected animals.

“We also received reports that there is very high virus concentration in raw milks. But exactly how long the virus will be able to survive in the milks remains under investigation.

“So, we recommend that people really should consume pasteurized milk and milk products,” she said, adding that this recommendation applies to people “in the whole world.”

Nearly 20 vaccines are currently licensed for pandemic use for influenza. Zhang said two “candidate vaccine viruses” are available that can respond to bird flu outbreaks in dairy cows and other animals in the United States.

“Having candidate vaccine viruses really allows us to be prepared to quickly produce vaccines for humans, if this becomes necessary,” she said, adding that at least four antiviral medications, including oseltamivir, widely marketed as Tamiflu, are available to treat people who may become sick with bird flu.

Zimbabwe mine turns dumpsite into solar station

A gold mine in Zimbabwe has turned its former dumpsite into a solar station, generating all the energy it needs for operations at the mine and releasing excess energy into the national grid. Located in Zimbabwe’s southwestern Bubi district, some 500 kilometers from the capital, the project has drawn praise from environmentalists. Columbus Mavhunga has more.

UK, EU face significant medicine shortages, study says

LONDON — Patients in the U.K. and European Union are facing shortages of vital medicines such as antibiotics and epilepsy medication, research published Thursday found.

The report by Britain’s Nuffield Trust think-tank found the situation had become a “new normal” in the U.K. and was “also having a serious impact in EU countries.”

Mark Dayan, Brexit program lead at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union had not caused U.K. supply problems but had exacerbated them.

“We know many of the problems are global and relate to fragile chains of imports from Asia, squeezed by COVID-19 shutdowns, inflation and global instability,” he said.

“But exiting the EU has left the U.K. with several additional problems -– products no longer flow as smoothly across the borders with the EU, and in the long term our struggles to approve as many medicines might mean we have fewer alternatives available,” he said.

Researchers also warned that being outside the EU might mean Britain is unable to benefit from EU measures taken to tackle shortages, such as bringing drug manufacturing back to Europe.

It said that this included the EU’s Critical Medicines Alliance which it launched in early 2024.

Analysis of freedom of information requests and public data on drug shortages showed the number of notifications from drug companies warning of impending shortages in the UK had more than doubled in three years.

Some 1,634 alerts were issued in 2023, up from 648 in 2020, according to the report, The Future for Health After Brexit.

Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said medicine shortages had become “commonplace,” adding that this was “totally unacceptable” in any modern health system.

“Supply shortages are a real and present danger to those patients who rely on life-saving medicines for their well-being,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the U.K. was not alone in facing medical supply issues.

It said most cases of shortages had been “swiftly managed with minimal disruption to patients.” 

NASA chief warns of Chinese military presence in space

Washington — China is bolstering its space capabilities and is using its civilian program to mask its military objectives, the head of the U.S. space agency said Wednesday, warning that Washington must remain vigilant.

“China has made extraordinary strides especially in the last 10 years, but they are very, very secretive,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We believe that a lot of their so-called civilian space program is a military program. And I think, in effect, we are in a race,” Nelson said.

He said he hoped Beijing would “come to its senses and understand that civilian space is for peaceful uses,” but added: “We have not seen that demonstrated by China.”

Nelson’s comment came as he testified before the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget for fiscal 2025.

He said the United States should land on the moon again before China does, as both nations pursue lunar missions, but he expressed concern that were Beijing to arrive first, it could say: “‘OK, this is our territory, you stay out.'”

The United States is planning to put astronauts back on the moon in 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission. China says it hopes to send humans to the moon by 2030.

Nelson said he was confident the United States would not lose its “global edge” in space exploration.

“But you got to be realistic,” he said. “China has really thrown a lot of money at it and they’ve got a lot of room in their budget to grow. I think that we just better not let down our guard.”

Hospitals in eastern DRC face vaccine shortages

Goma — In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically in the Beni and Butembo region, parents are finding it hard getting vaccines for their children. Health care providers report that vaccines have been in short supply for several months, leaving thousands of children unvaccinated. Parents worried about their children’s health are calling on authorities to quickly resolve the situation.

In the town of Butembo, vaccination programs have come to a stop. The head nurse of the Makasi health area, Kambale Wangahikya, confirms the absence of vaccines in certain areas of North Kivu province.

He said they’re missing several vaccines, such as the one that fights pneumonia and helps children fight coughs, and also the vaccine that fights meningitis and mumps. He said that all children born and unborn are therefore still at risk.

This situation creates frustrations for breastfeeding women. One mother, Kasoki, is worried because her infant son has not yet received the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis.

She said she has a 4-month-old baby, but he’s having trouble getting BCG and other vaccines. She went to the hospital four times and couldn’t find anything. The doctors gave her several appointments but when she arrived, she could hardly find anything. She’s worried that her baby will catch serious diseases.

Another mother, Stephanie’s, said she made several trips to health facilities to have her child vaccinated. It was only last week, she said, that her son received his first dose of any vaccine. She told us about the fear she felt.

She said she felt very bad because the vaccine she had been looking for a long time was very important for her child, because if he didn’t get it, he would be exposed to disabilities and diseases when he grew up. She said that the health authorities should force themselves to bring in the vaccines, because this shortage could cause problems for the children later on.

Kasoki Defrose, a nurse at Beni’s university clinic, said that not vaccinating children has consequences for the physical health of newborns. She said that local authorities are working hard to respond to this shortage.

She said that if children aren’t vaccinated against polio, for example, they risk becoming weak and their muscles won’t be strengthened. She said the authorities intend to respond to the shortage soon.

According to officials from the Beni health zone, which oversees dozens of hospitals in the region, over 1,000 children are waiting to be vaccinated in several towns in the Beni and Butembo region.

New effort tackles drug overdose epidemic in US

The Biden Administration has launched a new effort to tackle the drug overdose epidemic in the United States, which in 2022 took more than 100,000 lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias reports, some critics say there are some gaps in the government’s strategy to save lives.

Report: Decades of progress in sexual, reproductive health being rolled back

GENEVA — Decades of progress in sexual and reproductive health are being rolled back with the poorest, most vulnerable members of society at greatest risk of losing out on lifesaving services, according to the 2024 State of World Population report.  

The report, issued Wednesday by the U.N. Population Fund, UNFPA, says, “The data are damning.”  

“Women and girls who are poor, belong to ethnic, racial and indigenous minority groups, or are trapped in conflict settings, are more likely to die because they lack access to timely health care.”  

Thirty years ago, 179 governments that attended the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo pledged that they would place sexual and reproductive health at the core of sustainable development, to empower women and girls, and achieve gender equality.  

“There was a moment in Cairo when humanity came together in agreement that women should not die while giving life. And this is a worthy pursuit,” Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA executive director, told journalists in Geneva on Monday, in advance of the report’s publication.  

Unfortunately, she said, the promise of Cairo is not being met. Women are still being left behind. That, she added, is happening after a generation of notable achievement in reducing the rate of unintended pregnancy, in lowering maternal deaths by one-third, and in securing laws against domestic violence in more than 160 countries.  

“In the report, we show that inequalities are widening, human reproduction is being politicized. The rights of women, girls and gender-diverse people are the subject of increasing pushback … progress is slowing and by many measures it has stalled completely,” she said.  

“Annual reductions in maternal deaths have flatlined. Since 2016, the world made zero progress in saving women from preventable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth,” she said, noting that 800 women die every day giving birth.  

Instead of being empowered, she said women continue to be repressed and denied their rights. “One woman in four cannot make her own health care decisions, one woman in four cannot say no to sex, and nearly one in 10 are unable to make their own choices about whether or not to use contraception,” she said.  

The report finds racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are blocking women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health and that those living in poor, developing countries are far more likely to die from a lack of services than are women and girls in richer countries.  

The report says African women are most at risk. It says an African woman who experiences pregnancy and childbirth complications is around 130 times more likely to die from them than a woman in Europe or North America.  

It says nearly 500 deaths a day, more than half of all preventable maternal deaths, occur in countries with humanitarian crises and conflicts.  

The report notes that women of African descent across the Americas are more likely to die in childbirth than white women, noting, “In the United States, the rate is three times higher than the national average.”  

Kanem says the data show that “inequalities are killing women,” adding they are dying because “health systems today are weak, tainted by gender inequality, by racial discrimination, and by misinformation.”  

For example, she notes that midwives are undervalued, underpaid and under-supported in male-dominated health systems “even though increasing midwifery coverage could avert more than 40 percent of maternal deaths.”  

“We also see that women of African descent experience higher rates of mistreatment and neglect by health providers. Indigenous women are routinely denied culturally appropriate maternal health care.  

“As a result, these groups are much more likely and, in some places, six times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth,” she said.  

Nowhere in the 168-page report does the word “abortion” appear in the text. Kanem explains that as a U.N. entity, UNFPA does not take a position on member state policies and complies with whatever national governments determine “about that procedure.”  

However, she noted that UNFPA believes that, “Where legal in countries it should be safe and accessible and where not legal, it should be clear that post-abortion services, typically presenting as hemorrhage and bleeding, must be available, no matter the legal status. 

“In my mind, it is clear that unsafe abortion, the result of not having contraception … is a leading cause of this stubborn maternal death globally,” indicating that deaths from unsafe abortions are likely to be higher than the data suggest.  

“Often the physician is not going to put ‘unsafe abortion’ on the death certificate. You will see hemorrhage or some other concomitant cause,” she said.  

The report shows that investing in sexual and reproductive health benefits everyone and would contribute trillions of dollars to the global economy.  

Authors of the report say that spending an additional $79 billion in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 “would avert 400 million unplanned pregnancies, save one million lives and generate $660 billion in economic benefits.”

Polish abortion opponents march against steps to liberalize strict law  

WARSAW — Thousands of Polish opponents of abortion marched Sunday in Warsaw to protest recent steps by the new government to liberalize the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict laws and allow termination of pregnancy until the 12th week.

Many participants in the downtown march were pushing prams with children, while others were carrying white-and-red national flags or posters representing a fetus in the womb.

Poland’s Catholic Church has called for Sunday to be a day of prayer “in defense of conceived life” and has supported the march, organized by an anti-abortion movement.

“In the face of promotion of abortion in recent months, the march will be a rare occasion to show our support for the protection of human life from conception to natural death,” a federation of anti-abortion movements said in a statement.

They were referring to an ongoing public debate surrounding the steps that the 4-month-old government of Prime Minster Donald Tusk is taking to relax the strict law brought in by its conservative predecessor.

Last week, Poland’s parliament, which is dominated by the liberal and pro-European Union ruling coalition voted to approve further detailed work on four proposals to lift the near ban on abortions.

The procedure, which could take weeks or even months, is expected to be eventually rejected by conservative President Andrzej Duda, whose term runs for another year.

Last month Duda vetoed a draft law that would have made the morning-after pill available over the counter from the age of 15.

A nation of some 38 million, Poland is seeking ways to boost the birth rate, which is currently at 1.2 per woman — among the lowest in the European Union. Poland’s society is aging and shrinking, facts that the previous right-wing government used among its arguments for toughening the abortion law.

Currently, abortions are only allowed in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk. According to the Health Ministry, 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022. However, abortion advocates estimate that some 120,000 women in Poland have abortions each year, mostly by secretly obtaining pills from abroad.

Women attempting to abort themselves are not penalized, but anyone assisting them can face up to three years in prison. Reproductive rights advocates say the result is that doctors turn women away even in permitted cases for fear of legal consequences for themselves.

One of the four proposals being processed in parliament would decriminalize assisting a woman to have an abortion. Another one, put forward by a party whose leaders are openly Catholic, would keep a ban in most cases but would allow abortions in cases of fetal defects — a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling. The two others aim to permit abortion through the 12th week.

Study: Mexico produces tons of illicit fentanyl, can’t get enough for medical use

MEXICO CITY — A report released by the Mexican government Friday says the country is facing a dire shortage of fentanyl for medical use, even as Mexican cartels pump out tons of the illicit narcotic.

The paradox was reported in a study by Mexico’s National Commission on Mental Health and Addictions. The study did not give a reason for the shortage of the synthetic opioid, which is needed for anesthesia in hospitals, but claimed it was a worldwide problem.

The commission said fentanyl had to be imported, and that imports fell by more than 50% between 2022 and 2023.

Nonetheless, Mexican cartels appear to be having no problem importing tons of precursor chemicals and making their own fentanyl, which they smuggle into the United States. The report says Mexican seizures of illicit fentanyl rose 1.24 tons in 2020 to 1.85 tons in 2023.

Some of that is now spilling back across the border, with an increase in illicit fentanyl addiction reported in some Mexican border regions — a problem Mexico paradoxically blamed on the United States.

“Despite the limitations of availability in pharmaceutical fentanyl in our country, the excessive use of opiates in recent decades in the United States has had important repercussions on consumption and supply in Mexico,” the report states.

The report said that requests for addiction treatment in Mexico increased from 72 cases in 2020, to 430 cases in 2023. That sounds like a tiny number compared to the estimated 70,000 annual overdose deaths in the United States in recent years related to synthetic opioids. But in fact, the Mexican government does very little to offer addiction treatment, so the numbers probably don’t reflect the real scope of the problem.

The shortage of medical anesthetic drugs has caused some real problems in Mexico.

Local problems with the availability of morphine and fentanyl have led anesthesiologists to acquire their own supplies, carry the vials around with them, and administer multiple doses from a single vial to conserve their supply.

In 2022, anesthetics contaminated by those practices caused a meningitis outbreak in the northern state of Durango that killed about three dozen people, many of whom were pregnant women given epidurals. Several Americans died because of a similar outbreak after having surgery at clinics in the Mexican border city of Matamoros in 2023.

The response by the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to those twin problems — not enough legal fentanyl, and too much of the illicit stuff — has been contradictory.

In 2023, López Obrador briefly proposed banning fentanyl even for medical use but has not mentioned that idea lately after it drew a wave of criticism from doctors.

Meanwhile, the president has steadfastly denied that Mexican cartels produce the drug, despite overwhelming evidence that they import precursor chemicals from Asia and carry out the chemical processes to make fentanyl. López Obrador claims they only press the drug into pill form.

Poliovirus resurgence sparks concerns in Pakistan

Islamabad — The recent detection of poliovirus in sewage water samples collected across 30 districts in Pakistan has reignited concerns about a potential surge in polio cases.

Among those deeply troubled is Musal Khan, a polio survivor who navigates life in a wheelchair. Having represented Pakistan in wheelchair cricket at the global level, Musal Khan doesn’t want others to endure the same hardships he has faced.

Reflecting on his own experience, Khan, who contracted polio at age 2, told VOA, “My father didn’t permit polio vaccination for me, leading to a lifetime confined to a wheelchair.”

Khan urges all parents to give polio drops to their children and protect them from lifelong disabilities.

His father, Awal Khan, carries a heavy burden of guilt for his son’s condition. He joins Musal in urging parents not to obstruct polio workers and health officials from administering the vaccine to their children.

Polio, a highly contagious viral illness primarily affecting children under 5, spreads through feces, oral transmission or contaminated food and water. While incurable, it can be prevented through vaccination. Health experts warn that the poliovirus is a persistent presence in Pakistan, particularly in urban centers such as Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar.

Plan to eradicate polio

Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Center, has outlined Pakistan’s goal of eradicating imported strains of the poliovirus, particularly those originating from neighboring Afghanistan, by the end of 2024.

To achieve this, he announced the implementation of eight comprehensive polio vaccination campaigns scheduled throughout the year.

Despite concerted efforts, the recent emergence of two polio cases in Chaman and Dera Bugti underscored the challenges facing Pakistan. Moreover, alarming findings from the analysis of more than 83 sewage water samples collected across 30 districts have revealed the presence of the virus.

Baig emphasized the importance of vaccination efforts considering these findings. He noted that even in areas where polio drops are administered, children remain susceptible to the virus due to deficiencies in the drainage infrastructure. Broken sewer lines contribute to the contamination of drinking water sources, facilitating the transmission of polio.

Baig stressed the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address not only vaccination coverage but also the improvement of sanitation infrastructure to prevent the spread of poliovirus.

This story originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.

Trump says Arizona abortion ban goes too far

Reproductive rights are again at the forefront of the U.S. presidential campaign, as Republican candidate Donald Trump distances himself from an Arizona Supreme Court decision to ban most abortions in the state. VOA’s Scott Stearns has the story.

Scientists struggle to protect infant corals from hungry fish

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.

Scientists around the world have been working for years to address the decline of coral reef populations. Just last summer, reef rescue groups in South Florida and the Florida Keys were trying to save coral from rising ocean temperatures. Besides working to keep existing coral alive, researchers have also been growing new coral in labs and then placing them in the ocean.

But protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains more than 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn’t become expensive fish food.

Marine researcher Kyle Pisano said one problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. With projects calling for thousands of coral to be planted over the next year and tens of thousands of coral to be planted over the next decade, the losses add up when coral pieces can cost more than $100 each.

Pisano and his partner, Kirk Dotson, have developed the Coral Fort, claiming the small biodegradable cage that’s made in part with drinking straws boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%.

“Parrot fish on the reef really, really enjoy biting a newly transplanted coral,” Pisano said. “They treat it kind of like popcorn.”

Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime. Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those barriers needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed.

Pisano had the idea of creating a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He began conducting offshore experiments with biodegradable coral cages as part of a master’s degree program at Nova Southeastern University. He used a substance called polyhydroxyalkanoate, a biopolymer derived from the fermentation of canola oil. PHA biodegrades in ocean, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. His findings were published last year.

The coral cage consists of a limestone disc surrounded by eight vertical phade brand drinking straws, made by Atlanta-based WinCup Inc. The device doesn’t have a top, Pisano said, because the juvenile coral needs sunlight and the parrot fish don’t generally want to position themselves facing downward to eat.

Dotson, a retired aerospace engineer, met Pisano through his professor at Nova Southeastern, and the two formed Reef Fortify Inc. to further develop and market the patent-pending Coral Fort. The first batch of cages were priced at $12 each, but Pisano and Dotson believe that could change as production scales up.

Early prototypes of the cage made from phade’s standard drinking straws were able to protect the coral for about two months before dissolving in the ocean, but that wasn’t quite long enough to outlast the interest of parrot fish. When Pisano and Dotson reached out to phade for help, the company assured them that it could make virtually any custom shape from its biodegradable PHA material.

“But it’s turning out that the boba straws, straight out of the box, work just fine,” Dotson said.

Boba straws are wider and thicker than normal drinking straws. They’re used for a tea-based drink that includes tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. For Pisano and Dotson, that extra thickness means the straws last just long enough to protect the growing coral before harmlessly disappearing.

Reef Fortify is hoping to work with reef restoration projects all over the world. The Coral Forts already already being used by researchers at Nova Southeastern and the University of Miami, as well as Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

Rich Karp, a coral researcher at the University of Miami, said they’ve been using the Coral Forts for about a month. He pointed out that doing any work underwater takes a great deal of time and effort, so having a protective cage that dissolves when it’s no longer needed basically cuts their work in half.

“Simply caging corals and then removing the cages later, that’s two times the amount of work, two times the amount of bottom time,” Karp said. “And it’s not really scalable.”

Experts say coral reefs are a significant part of the oceanic ecosystem. They occupy less than 1% of the ocean worldwide but provide food and shelter to nearly 25 percent of sea life. Coral reefs also help to protect humans and their homes along the coastline from storm surges during hurricanes.

Peter Higgs, physicist who proposed the existence of the ‘God particle,’ dies at 94

LONDON — Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of the so-called “God particle” that helped explain how matter formed after the Big Bang, has died at age 94, the University of Edinburgh said Tuesday.

The university, where Higgs was emeritus professor, said he died Monday following a short illness.

Higgs predicted the existence of a new particle, which came to be known as the Higgs boson, in 1964. He theorized there must be a subatomic particle of certain dimension that would explain how other particles — and therefore all the stars and planets in the universe — acquired mass. Without something like this particle, the set of equations physicists use to describe the world, known as the standard model, would not hold together.

Higgs’ work helps scientists understand one of the most fundamental riddles of the universe: how the Big Bang created something out of nothing 13.8 billion years ago. Without mass from the Higgs, particles could not clump together into the matter we interact with every day.

But it would be almost 50 years before the particle’s existence could be confirmed. In 2012, in one of the biggest breakthroughs in physics in decades, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had finally found a Higgs boson using the Large Hardron Collider, the $10 billion atom smasher in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel under the Swiss-French border.

The collider was designed in large part to find Higgs’ particle. It produces collisions with extraordinarily high energies in order to mimic some of the conditions that were present in the trillionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

Higgs won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, alongside Francois Englert of Belgium, who independently came up with the same theory.

Edinburgh University Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson said Higgs, who was born in Newcastle, was “a remarkable individual – a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination have enriched our knowledge of the world that surrounds us.”

“His pioneering work has motivated thousands of scientists, and his legacy will continue to inspire many more for generations to come.”

Born in Newcastle, northeast England, on May 29, 1929, Higgs studied at King’s College, University of London, and was awarded a doctorate in 1954. He spent much of his career at Edinburgh, becoming the Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Scottish university in 1980. He retired in 1996.

One highlight of Higgs’ career came in the 2013 presentation at CERN in Geneva where scientists presented in complex terms — based on statistical analysis unfathomable to most laypeople — that the boson had been confirmed. He broke into tears, wiping down his glasses in the stands of a CERN lecture hall.

“There was an emotion — a kind of vibration — going around in the auditorium,” Fabiola Gianotti, the CERN director-general told The Associated Press. “That was just a unique moment, a unique experience in a professional life.”

“Peter was a very touching person. He was so sweet, so warm at the same time. And so always interested in what other people had to say,” she said. “Able to listen to other people … open, and interesting, and interested.”

Joel Goldstein, of the School of Physics at the University of Bristol, said: “Peter Higgs was a quiet and modest man, who never seemed comfortable with the fame he achieved even though this work underpins the entire modern theoretical framework of particle physics.”

Gianotti recalled how Higgs often bristled at the term “God particle” for his discovery: “I don’t think he liked this kind of definition,” she said. “It was not in his style.”

Cameroonian School Teaches Manufacture of Plant-based Meat

A government-run school in Cameroon’s capital is teaching students how to manufacture plant-based meat, an innovation which the school’s director hopes will contribute to the fight against climate change. Anne Nzouankeu has more from Yaoundé in this report narrated by Moki Edwin Kindzeka.

Kim Wall grantee to report on climate change, marginalized groups

WASHINGTON — Audrey Gray was at a national task force in New Orleans when a colorful zine caught the climate journalist’s eye.

Produced by Imagine Water Works, the zine — A Queer/Trans Guide to Storms — took the form of “love notes” to the southeast Louisiana LGBTQ+ community, alongside practical storm preparation tips.

As a climate change journalist from Los Angeles, Gray had been reporting on similar content, with an emphasis on how communities adapt to change and protect themselves from extreme weather.

The magazine, she said, had useful practical information.

“Say you’re going through a transition right there: how to deal with your medication, what to take in your evacuation bag, how to plug into resources that will help you,” Gray told VOA.

Gray studied at Columbia Journalism School with the intention of being a climate journalist. Since graduating in 2019, her focus has been writing stories that would make people “feel something” about the issue.

“I had been freaked out by climate change really early,” Gray said. Her first stories focused on carbon emissions, but slowly she shifted to covering solutions rather than just the problems.

“I really wanted to try to advance the narrative in a way that focused on courage and acts of protection,” said Gray.

As a freelancer, Gray’s work has appeared in media outlets including Mother Jones and Wired. Now, as one of the three 2024 grantees for the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, Gray plans to expand her coverage.

Established by the International Women’s Media Foundation, or IWMF, the fund commemorates Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist killed off the coast of Denmark in 2017 by a man she was interviewing.

Each year, the IWMF awards grants to female or nonbinary journalists who focus on lesser-known stories that reflect Wall’s ideals.

Alongside Gray, this year’s grantees are the Netherlands-based documentary filmmaker Zhaoyin Feng and the U.K.-based freelancer Isobel Thompson.

Taylor Moore, an associate program manager at the IWMF, is part of the selection panel. She described Gray as “curious” and “excitable,” much like Wall had been.

“She’s able to distill the science in a way that’s understandable for the lay person and really shows the human impacts of climate change,” Moore said.

Noting that Gray is one of the few American journalists awarded a grant, Moore told VOA, “We thought this was a story that deserved equal prominence among the international stories we fund.”

Gray credits much inspiration to Wall, a journalist who she says was “ahead of her time.”

Wall was 30 when she was killed. But she had already made strides in media, traveling the world and writing about marginalized communities. Her work, Gray said, is what she admires about the young reporter.

“[Wall] would write stories about people, and climate change wasn’t necessarily the headline, but it’s all there,” said Gray. “She was really skillful at getting herself to a place and then pitching all kinds of stories from that place to different publications.”

Gray plans to use her grant to expand reporting on her most recent project: a feature on an emergency management network set up in Maricopa County in the southwestern state of Arizona. Around 500 people died of extreme heat in that region during the summer of 2022.

Set up in a historically Black Methodist church, the center helped the community cope with the deadly temperatures outside.

“It was only open six hours a day on the weekdays, but all the regulars would go in, and they would get a short break from the worst heat of the day,” said Gray.

With a growth in emergency centers following the pandemic and natural disasters, Gray is interested in expanding her coverage of aid efforts in the LGBTQ community.

She plans to look at what resources are available to marginalized groups.

One focus is emergency shelters in Arizona, a state that has extreme weather and where authorities are proposing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

“Usually, the first shelters that are set up are placed often in churches,” said Gray. But, she said, many of her sources describe having negative experiences in religious establishments, including rejection or abuse.

Other people she has interviewed described experiencing violence at emergency shelters and encountering people there who are uncomfortable with them.

Gray plans to feature organizations such as QReady, a group focused on emergency management and “amplifying” a sense of agency for the queer community.

“I’m not reporting on victims here at all,” she said. “I’m reporting on a community that is taking action to protect itself, and there’s this real spirit of ‘We can protect each other, we can create safety.’”

The IWMF selected Gray from 141 submissions sent in from more than 50 countries. It was the largest number of applications the foundation has received.

As the only journalist based in the U.S. to be selected, Gray says the grant is “so much more meaningful.”

The journalist says she has a “deep sense of resonance with [Wall] and a hope that more people will learn from her and put some of her good practices to work.”

For Gray, that will include continuing to highlight the stories of people persisting against climate change and protecting their community. “I feel like that’s why I’m here,” she said.

Massive crowds watch total solar eclipse over US

Millions of people in the United States from Texas to Maine looked to the sky to witness a rare total solar eclipse. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh attended a viewing event hosted by NASA and Purdue University at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has more.

Broken record: March is 10th straight month to be hottest on record, scientists say

WASHINGTON — For the 10th consecutive month, Earth in March set a new monthly record for global heat — with both air temperatures and the world’s oceans hitting an all-time high for the month, the European Union climate agency Copernicus said.

March 2024 averaged 14.14 degrees Celsius (57.9 degrees Fahrenheit), exceeding the previous record from 2016 by a tenth of a degree, according to Copernicus data. And it was 1.68 degrees C (3 degrees F) warmer than in the late 1800s, the base used for temperatures before the burning of fossil fuels began growing rapidly.

Since last June, the globe has broken heat records each month, with marine heat waves across large areas of the globe’s oceans contributing.

Scientists say the record-breaking heat during this time wasn’t entirely surprising due to a strong El Nino, a climatic condition that warms the central Pacific and changes global weather patterns.

“But its combination with the non-natural marine heat waves made these records so breathtaking,” said Woodwell Climate Research Center scientist Jennifer Francis.

With El Nino waning, the margins by which global average temperatures are surpassed each month should go down, Francis said.

Climate scientists attribute most of the record heat to human-caused climate change from carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

“The trajectory will not change until concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop rising,” Francis said, “which means we must stop burning fossil fuels, stop deforestation, and grow our food more sustainably as quickly as possible.”

Until then, expect more broken records, she said.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world set a goal to keep warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Copernicus’ temperature data is monthly and uses a slightly different measurement system than the Paris threshold, which is averaged over two or three decades.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, said March’s record-breaking temperature wasn’t as exceptional as some other months in the past year that broke records by wider margins.

“We’ve had record-breaking months that have been even more unusual,” Burgess said, pointing to February 2024 and September 2023. But the “trajectory is not in the right direction,” she added.

The globe has now experienced 12 months with average monthly temperatures 1.58 degrees Celsius (2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the Paris threshold, according to Copernicus data.

In March, global sea surface temperature averaged 21.07 degrees Celsius (69.93 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest monthly value on record and slightly higher than what was recorded in February.

“We need more ambitious global action to ensure that we can get to net zero as soon as possible,” Burgess said.

Anti-polio gains threatened by returning migrants, 200,000 unvaccinated children in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD — The World Health Organization said Monday that the recent return of about 600,000 undocumented migrants from Pakistan to Afghanistan and an estimated 200,000 unvaccinated children in southern Afghan regions are a threat to regional gains against polio.   

In its latest assessment of the disease’s international spread, WHO said that both neighboring countries had made significant progress in interrupting the transmission of the two surviving genetic clusters of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) in the region.  

Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two nations where the crippling virus is still found, have reported two and zero cases of polio infections, respectively, this year.  

However, the WHO assessment said that the recent large-scale displacement of undocumented Afghans from Pakistan had “increased the risk of cross-border poliovirus spread, as well as [the] spread within both countries.” It cautioned that “any setback in Afghanistan poses a risk to the [polio] program in Pakistan due to high population movement.” 

The report stated that coordinated efforts were being made to “manage and mitigate” the risk through vaccination at border crossing points between the two countries.  

 

WHO said vaccination coverage in southern Afghan provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Nimruz has improved “but remains suboptimal, with an estimated 200,000 children who remain unreached.” The large pool of unvaccinated children “constitutes a major risk,” it said. 

The report stressed that house-to-house immunizations of children are comparatively effective, but some parts of Afghanistan “still only allow site-to-site or mosque-to-mosque vaccinations.” 

It appreciated the Taliban government’s commitment to the global goal of eradicating polio in Afghanistan. WHO noted and praised the increased use of Afghan female health care workers in campaigns and strongly encouraged the implementation of house-to-house campaigns where feasible. 

The fundamentalist Taliban have banned women from many public and private sector workplaces, but the health sector is mostly exempted from the restrictions.

Huge crowds await a total solar eclipse in North America

MESQUITE, Texas — Millions of spectators along a narrow corridor stretching from Mexico to the U.S. to Canada eagerly awaited Monday’s celestial sensation — a total eclipse of the sun — even as forecasters called for clouds.

The best weather was expected at the tail end of the eclipse in Vermont and Maine, as well as New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

It promised to be North America’s biggest eclipse crowd ever, thanks to the densely populated path and the lure of more than four minutes of midday darkness in Texas and other choice spots. Almost everyone in North America was guaranteed at least a partial eclipse, weather permitting.

“Cloud cover is one of the trickier things to forecast,” National Weather Service meteorologist Alexa Maines explained at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center on Sunday. “At the very least, it won’t snow.”

The cliff-hanging uncertainty added to the drama. Rain or shine, “it’s just about sharing the experience with other people,” said Chris Lomas from Gotham, England, who was staying at a sold-out trailer resort outside Dallas, the biggest city in totality’s path.

For Monday’s full eclipse, the moon was due to slip right in front of the sun, entirely blocking it. The resulting twilight, with only the sun’s outer atmosphere or corona visible, would be long enough for birds and other animals to fall silent, and for planets, stars and maybe even a comet to pop out.

The out-of-sync darkness lasts up to 4 minutes, 28 seconds. That’s almost twice as long as it was during the U.S. coast-to-coast eclipse seven years ago because the moon is closer to Earth. It will be another 21 years before the U.S. sees another total solar eclipse on this scale.

Extending five hours from the first bite out of the sun to the last, Monday’s eclipse begins in the Pacific and makes landfall at Mazatlan, Mexico, before moving into Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and 12 other U.S. states in the Midwest, Middle Atlantic and New England, and then Canada. Last stop: Newfoundland, with the eclipse ending in the North Atlantic.

It will take just 1 hour, 40 minutes for the moon’s shadow to race more than 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) across the continent.

Eye protection is needed with proper eclipse glasses and filters to look at the sun, except when it ducks completely out of sight during an eclipse.

The path of totality — approximately 115 miles (185 kilometers) wide — encompasses several major cities this time, including Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York and Montreal. An estimated 44 million people live within the track, with a couple hundred million more within 200 miles (320 kilometers). Add in all the eclipse chasers, amateur astronomers, scientists and just plain curious, and it’s no wonder the hotels and flights are sold out and the roads jammed.

Experts from NASA and scores of universities are posted along the route, poised to launch research rockets and weather balloons, and conduct experiments. The International Space Station’s seven astronauts also will be on the lookout, 270 miles (435 kilometers) up.

 

Mass bleaching detected on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

SYDNEY — Vast areas of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s biggest coral system, have been affected by mass coral bleaching caused by a marine heatwave.

Surveys have shown major bleaching is occurring along the 2,300-kilometer ecosystem.

Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef was detected weeks ago, but recent aerial surveillance carried out by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science revealed that 75 percent of 1,001 reefs inspected contain bleached corals. This means the organisms residing on them are struggling to survive. 

A quarter of individual reefs surveyed recorded low to no levels of bleaching, while half had high or very high levels. 

The authority that manages the reef confirmed “widespread bleaching across all three regions of the marine park” — its north, south and central sectors.  

It said, “Sea surface temperatures remain 0.5-1.5 degrees above average for this time of year.”

Scientists say that corals bleach, or turn white, when they are stressed by changes in water temperature, light, or nutrients. In response, the coral expels the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, exposing their white skeleton.  

Not all bleaching incidents are due to warm water, but experts say the mass bleaching reported on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is caused by a marine heatwave.

“The coral will expel their micro algae and so when you see a bleached coral it is not dead, but it is starving,” said Lissa Schindler, Great Barrier Reef campaign manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society. She told VOA that bleaching makes corals fragile and weak.

“If they do recover, they will be more prone to disease and have a lower reproductive output. What happens, though, if temperatures are too hot for too long then the coral cannot survive and then that is when it dies, she said.

Schindler says that reefs around the world are becoming more vulnerable to bleaching due to the impact of climate change.

“We do not know how long our oceans can continue to absorb the amount of heat that they are, and I think these mass bleaching events that are occurring around the world are showing that this heat absorption is having a real impact on coral reefs and will continue to do so,” she said. “So, with climate change there will be more severe and more frequent mass bleaching events to come to the point where coral reefs will not be able to recover in between these events.”

The Great Barrier Reef runs 2,300 kilometers down Australia’s northeastern coast and covers an area about the size of Japan.

Conservationists say it faces a range of threats, including warmer ocean temperatures, overfishing, pollution and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

The Australian government has a target to cut national emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.  

 

Despite Google Earth, people still buy globes. What’s the appeal?

London — Find a globe in your local library or classroom and try this: Close the eyes, spin it and drop a finger randomly on its curved, glossy surface.

You’re likely to pinpoint a spot in the water, which covers 71% of the planet. Maybe you’ll alight on a place you’ve never heard of — or a spot that no longer exists after a war or because of climate change. Perhaps you’ll feel inspired to find out who lives there and what it’s like. Trace the path of totality ahead of Monday’s solar eclipse. Look carefully, and you’ll find the cartouche — the globemaker’s signature — and the antipode (point diametrically opposed) of where you’re standing right now.

In the age of Google Earth, watches that triangulate and cars with built-in GPS, there’s something about a globe — a spherical representation of the world in miniature — that somehow endures.

London globemaker Peter Bellerby thinks the human yearning to “find our place in the cosmos” has helped globes survive their original purpose — navigation — and the internet. He says it’s part of the reason he went into debt making a globe for his father’s 80th birthday in 2008. The experience helped inspire his company, and 16 years later — is keeping his team of about two dozen artists, cartographers and woodworkers employed.

“You don’t go onto Google Earth to get inspired,” Bellerby says in his airy studio, surrounded by dozens of globes in various languages and states of completion. “A globe is very much something that connects you to the planet that we live on.”

Building a globe amid breakneck change?

Beyond the existential and historical appeal, earthly matters such as cost and geopolitics hover over globemaking. Bellerby says his company has experience with customs officials in regions with disputed borders such as India, China, North Africa and the Middle East.

And there is a real question about whether globes — especially handmade orbs — remain relevant as more than works of art and history for those who can afford them.

They are, after all, snapshots of the past — of the way their patrons and makers saw the world at a certain point in time. So, they’re inherently inaccurate representations of a planet in constant flux.

“Do globes play a relevant role in our time? If so, then in my opinion, this is due to their appearance as a three-dimensional body, the hard-to-control desire to turn them, and the attractiveness of their map image,” says Jan Mokre, vice president of the International Coronelli Society for the Study of Globes in Vienna.

Joshua Nall, Director of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, says a globe remains a display of “the learning, the erudition, the political interests of its owner.”

How, and how much?

Bellerby’s globes aren’t cheap. They run from about 1,290 British pounds (about $1,900) for the smallest to six figures for the 50-inch Churchill model. He makes about 600 orbs a year of varying size, framing and ornamentation.

The imagery painted on the globes runs the gamut, from constellations to mountains and sea creatures. And here, The Associated Press can confirm, be dragons.

Who buys a globe these days?

 

Bellerby doesn’t name clients, but he says they come from more socioeconomic levels than you’d think — from families to businesses and heads of state. Private art collectors come calling. So do moviemakers.

Bellerby says in his book that the company made four globes for the 2011 movie, “Hugo.” One globe can be seen in the 2023 movie “Tetris,” including one, a freestanding straight-leg Galileo model, which features prominently in a scene.

‘A political minefield’

 

There is no international standard for a correctly drawn earth. Countries, like people, view the world differently, and some are highly sensitive about how their territory is depicted. To offend them with “incorrectly” drawn borders on a globe is to risk impoundment of the orbs at customs.

“Globemaking,” Bellerby writes, “is a political minefield.”

China doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country. Morocco doesn’t recognize Western Sahara. India’s northern border is disputed. Many Arab countries, such as Lebanon, don’t acknowledge Israel.

Bellerby says the company marks disputed borders as disputed: “We cannot change or rewrite history.”

Speaking of history, here’s the ‘earth apple’

Scientists since antiquity, famously Plato and Aristotle, posited that the earth is not flat but closer to a sphere. (More precisely, it’s a spheroid — bulging at the equator, squashed at the poles).

No one knows when the first terrestrial globe was created. But the oldest known surviving one dates to 1492. No one in Europe knew of the existence of North or South America at the time.

It’s called the “Erdapfel,” which translates to “earth apple” or “potato.” The orb was made by German navigator and geographer Martin Behaim, who was working for the king of Portugal, according to the Whipple Museum in Cambridge. It contained more than just the cartographical information then known, but also details such as commodities overseas, marketplaces and local trading protocols.

It’s also a record of a troubled time.

“The Behaim Globe is today a central document of the European world conquest and the Atlantic slave trade,” according to the German National Museum’s web page on the globe, exhibited there. In the 15th century, the museum notes, “Africa was not only to be circumnavigated in search of India, but also to be developed economically.

“The globe makes it clear how much the creation of our modern world was based on the violent appropriation of raw materials, the slave trade and plantation farming,” the museum notes, or “the first stage of European subjugation and division of the world.”

Twin globes for Churchill and Roosevelt during WWII

If you’ve got a globe of any sort, you’re in good company. During World War II, two in particular were commissioned for leaders on opposite sides of the Atlantic as symbols of power and partnership.

For Christmas in 1942, the United States delivered gigantic twin globes to American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They were 50 inches in diameter and hundreds of pounds each, believed to be the largest and most accurate globes of the time.

It took more than 50 government geographers, cartographers, and draftsmen to compile the information to make the globe, constructed by the Weber Costello Company of Chicago Heights, Illinois.

The Roosevelt globe now sits at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., and Churchill’s globe is at Chartwell House, the Churchill family home in Kent, England, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

In theory, the leaders could use the globes simultaneously to formulate war strategy. “In reality, however,” Bellerby writes, “the gift of the globes was a simple PR exercise, an important weapon in modern warfare.”