WHO: Monkeypox is Not a Global Health Emergency

A World Health Organization independent committee of experts says the spread of monkeypox in a number of countries around the world is worrisome but does not constitute what the WHO calls a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

In early May, the World Health Organization was alerted to an outbreak of monkeypox in countries outside Africa, where this deadly disease has been circulating for decades. Since then, more than 3,200 confirmed cases and one death have been reported in more than 50 non-African countries. This has set alarm bells ringing as, until now, only sporadic cases of monkeypox have occurred outside Africa.

WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calls the current outbreak an evolving health threat, noting the rapid spread of the disease into new countries and regions. He says the committee has agreed to reconvene another emergency meeting if appropriate.

WHO spokesman, Christian Lindmeier tells VOA the committee has drawn up a list of factors that could trigger a reassessment of the event.

“Evidence of an increase in the rate of growth of cases reported in the next 21 days, including significant spread to and within additional countries. Also, if we see an increase in endemic countries. So, evidence also of increased severity or a change in the viral genome associated with or leading to an end of transmissibility,” he said.

Monkeypox is a rare disease similar to smallpox. The virus causes rashes and flu-like symptoms. It is spread mainly through human contact with infected rodents but sometimes can be spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.

The disease is mainly found in Central and West Africa. This year, WHO reports there have been nearly 1,500 suspected cases of monkeypox and around 70 deaths primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Cameroon.

Lindmeier says cases of Monkeypox have spread to the European region, to the Americas, as well as the Eastern Mediterranean and West Pacific regions.

“At this point, it is mainly in the newer countries affecting the community of the LGBTQ-Plus community of men having sex with men. But in the endemic countries, we have seen also children and women infected and deaths occurring in the weaker communities and weaker populations,” he said.

While questions regarding the monkeypox outbreak remain unresolved, WHO urges nations to remain vigilant and strengthen their ability to prevent transmission of the disease.

The WHO expert committee advises countries to step-up surveillance, improve diagnostics, and when appropriate to use therapeutics and vaccines. It also recommends affected communities to implement public health measures including contact tracing and isolation.

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NASA Completes Historic Rocket Launch in Outback Australia 

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has successfully completed its first rocket launch from a commercial space facility outside of the United States. A 13-meter rocket blasted off Monday from a site in the Australian outback.

A 13-meter sub-orbital rocket took off from the newly built Arnhem Space Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory Monday. Lift-off was delayed by about two hours because of strong winds and heavy rain.

The launch was the first of its kind in Australia in more than 25 years and the first of three scheduled NASA missions from the site.

Researchers hope the information gathered from the flights will help them understand how light from a star could affect the habitability of nearby planets. They have said that this type of study can only be carried out in the Southern Hemisphere.

The unmanned flight briefly scanned the Milky Way, measuring X-Ray emissions and analyzing the structure of stars.

Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, told Australian television that the launch is part of a project to boost the domestic space industry.

“When you build a satellite you have to go overseas to do it and so the fact that we are now seeing this build-up of launching from Australia this is, kind of, that final piece of the puzzle to having, you know, a really massive industry in this sector of space and then we see that that, kind of, the first group that says, yes, we want to do it, we want to be a part of the story is Nasa, you know, it just, kind of, gives the street cred[ibility] so to speak that you are on the right track from what you are thinking,” he said.

The Arnhem Space Center is the world’s only commercially owned equatorial launch facility.

The center is built on Aboriginal land. Tribal elders hope the project will provide jobs and opportunities for young First Nations people.

Officials said the center combines one of the “oldest cultures in the world with some of the most advanced technology ever.”

The next NASA rocket will be launched in the Northern Territory on July 4, and the third will take off on July 12.

About 75 NASA staff have travelled to northern Australia for all three launches.

Australia is working to increase its capabilities in space. This year, it announced a new defense agency that would work to counter China and Russia’s ambitions in space. Along with the United States, the two countries are reported to have tested weapons that could destroy a satellite.

The Australian Space Agency was created in July 2018 to “support the growth and transformation” of the nation’s space industry.”

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US Abortion Foes, Supporters Map Next Moves After Roe Reversal

A Texas group that helps women pay for abortions halted its efforts Saturday while evaluating its legal risk under a strict state ban. Mississippi’s only abortion clinic continued to see patients while awaiting a 10-day notice that will trigger a ban. Elected officials across the country vowed to take action to protect women’s access to reproductive health care, and abortion foes promised to take the fight to new arenas.

A day after the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade ended the constitutional right to abortion, emotional protests and prayer vigils turned to resolve as several states enacted bans and both supporters and opponents of abortion rights mapped out their next moves.

In Texas, Cathy Torres, organizing manager for Frontera Fund, a group that helps pay for abortions, said there is a lot of fear and confusion in the Rio Grande Valley near the U.S.-Mexico border, where many people are in the country illegally.

That includes how the state’s abortion law will be enforced. Under the law, people who help patients get abortions can be fined and doctors who perform them could face life in prison.

“We are a fund led by people of color, who will be criminalized first,” Torres said, adding that abortion funds like hers that have paused operations hope to find a way to safely restart. “We just really need to keep that in mind and understand the risk.”

Tyler Harden, Mississippi director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, said she spent Friday and Saturday making sure people with impending appointments at the state’s only abortion clinic — which featured in the Supreme Court case but is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood — know they don’t have to cancel them right away. Abortions can take place until 10 days after the state attorney general publishes a required administrative notice.

Mississippi will ban the procedure except for pregnancies that endanger the woman’s life or those caused by rape reported to law enforcement. The Republican speaker of the Mississippi House, Philip Gunn, said during a news conference Friday that he would oppose adding an exception for incest.

“I believe that life begins at conception,” Gunn said.

Harden said she has been providing information about funds that help people travel out of state to have abortions. Many in Mississippi were doing so even before the ruling, but that will become more difficult now that abortions have ended in neighboring states. Florida is the nearest “safe haven” state, but Harden said, “we know that that may not be the case for too much longer.”

At the National Right to Life convention in Atlanta, a leader within the anti-abortion group warned attendees Saturday that the Supreme Court’s decision ushers in “a time of great possibility and a time of great danger.”

Randall O’Bannon, the organization’s director of education and research, encouraged activists to celebrate their victories but stay focused and continue working on the issue. Specifically, he called out medication taken to induce abortion.

“With Roe headed for the dustbin of history, and states gaining the power to limit abortions, this is where the battle is going to be played out over the next several years,” O’Bannon said. “The new modern menace is a chemical or medical abortion with pills ordered online and mailed directly to a woman’s home.”

Protests broke out for a second day in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City to Jackson, Mississippi.

In the LA demonstration, one of several in California, hundreds of people marched through downtown carrying signs with slogans like “my body, my choice” and “abort the court.”

Turnout was smaller in Oklahoma City, where about 15 protesters rallied outside the Capitol. Oklahoma is one of 11 states where there are no providers offering abortions, and it passed the nation’s strictest abortion law in May.

“I have gone through a wave of emotions in the last 24 hours. … It’s upsetting, it’s angry, it’s hard to put together everything I’m feeling right now,” said Marie Adams, 45, who has had two abortions for ectopic pregnancies, where a fertilized egg is unable to survive. She called the issue “very personal to me.”

“Half the population of the United States just lost a fundamental right,” Adams said. “We need to speak up and speak loud.”

Callie Pruett, who volunteered to escort patients into West Virginia’s only abortion clinic before it stopped offering the procedure after Friday’s ruling, said she plans to work in voter registration in the hope of electing officials who support abortion rights. The executive director of Appalachians for Appalachia added that her organization also will apply for grants to help patients get access to abortion care, including out of state.

“We have to create networks of people who are willing to drive people to Maryland or to D.C.,” Pruett said. “That kind of local action requires organization at a level that we have not seen in nearly 50 years.”

Fellow West Virginian Sarah MacKenzie, 25, said she’s motivated to fight for abortion access by the memory of her mother, Denise Clegg, a passionate reproductive health advocate who worked for years at the state’s clinic as a nurse practitioner and died unexpectedly in May. MacKenzie plans to attend protests in the capital, Charleston, and donate to a local abortion fund.

“She would be absolutely devastated. She was so afraid of this happening — she wanted to stop it,” Mackenzie said, adding, “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that this gets reversed.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling is likely to lead to abortion bans in roughly half the states.

Since the decision, clinics have stopped performing abortions in Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Women considering abortions already had been dealing with the near-complete ban in Oklahoma and a prohibition after roughly six weeks in Texas.

In Ohio, a ban on most abortions from the first detectable fetal heartbeat became law when a federal judge dissolved an injunction that had kept the measure on hold for nearly three years.

Another law with narrow exceptions was triggered in Utah by Friday’s ruling. Planned Parenthood Association of Utah filed a lawsuit against it in state court and said it would request a temporary restraining order, arguing it violates the state constitution.

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, where abortion remains legal, signed an executive order shielding people seeking or providing abortions in his state from facing legal consequences in other states. Walz also has vowed to reject requests to extradite anyone accused of committing acts related to reproductive health care that are not criminal offenses in Minnesota.

“My office has been and will continue to be a firewall against legislation that would reverse reproductive freedom,” he said.

In Fargo, North Dakota, the state’s sole abortion provider faces a 30-day window before it would have to shut down and plans to move across the river to Minnesota. Red River Women’s Clinic owner Tammi Kromenaker said Saturday that she has secured a location in Moorhead and an online fundraiser to support the move has brought in more than half a million dollars in less than three days.

Republicans sought to downplay their excitement about winning their decades-long fight to overturn Roe, aware that the ruling could energize the Democratic base, particularly suburban women. Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said she expects abortion opponents to turn out in huge numbers this fall.

But Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said Saturday he believes the issue will energize independents and he hopes to translate anger over Roe’s demise into votes.

“Any time you take half the people in Wisconsin and make them second-class citizens,” Evers said, “I have to believe there’s going to be a reaction to that.” 

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WHO Says Monkeypox Not a Global Health Emergency

The World Health Organization’s chief said Saturday that the monkeypox outbreak was a deeply concerning evolving threat but did not currently constitute a global health emergency.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus convened a committee of experts Thursday to advise him whether to sound the U.N. health agency’s strongest alarm over the outbreak.

A surge of monkeypox cases has been detected since early May outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic. Most of the new cases have been in Western Europe.

More than 3,200 confirmed cases and one death have now been reported to the WHO from more than 50 countries this year.

“The emergency committee shared serious concerns about the scale and speed of the current outbreak,” noting many unknowns about the spread and gaps in the data, Tedros said. 

“They advised me that at this moment the event does not constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which is the highest level of alert WHO can issue but recognized that the convening of the committee itself reflects the increasing concern about the international spread of monkeypox.”

Tedros said the outbreak was “clearly an evolving health threat” that needed immediate action to stop further spread, using surveillance, contact-tracing, isolation and care of patients, and ensuring vaccines and treatments are available to at-risk populations.

‘Intense response’ needed

“The vast majority of cases is observed among men who have sex with men, of young age,” chiefly appearing in urban areas, in “clustered social and sexual networks,” according to the WHO report of the meeting.

While a few members expressed differing views, the committee resolved by consensus to advise Tedros that at this stage, the outbreak was not a PHEIC.

“However, the committee unanimously acknowledged the emergency nature of the event and that controlling the further spread of outbreak requires intense response efforts.”

They are on standby to reconvene in the coming days and weeks depending on how the outbreak evolves.

The committee recommended that countries improve diagnostics and risk communication.

It noted that many aspects of the outbreak were unusual, while some members suggested there was a risk of sustained transmission due to the low level of population immunity against the pox virus infection.

Knowledge gaps

The committee that considered the matter is made up of 16 scientists and public health experts and is chaired by Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, a former director of the WHO’s Vaccines and Immunization Department.

Thursday’s five-hour private meeting was held in person at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters and via video conference.

The committee discussed current observations of plateauing or potential downward trends in case numbers in some countries; difficulties in contact tracing due to anonymous contacts, and “potential links to international gatherings and LGBTQ+ Pride events conducive for increased opportunities for exposure through intimate sexual encounters.”

They were also concerned that the potential stigmatization of affected groups could impede response efforts.

There are knowledge gaps on transmission modes, the infectious period, as well as over access to vaccines and antivirals and their efficacy, they said.

Blistery rash

The normal initial symptoms of monkeypox include a high fever, swollen lymph nodes and a blistery chickenpox-like rash.

Initial outbreak cases had no epidemiological links to areas that have historically reported monkeypox, suggesting that undetected transmission might have been going on for some time.

Few people have been hospitalized to date, while 10 cases have been reported among health care workers.

The WHO’s current plan to contain the spread focuses on raising awareness among affected population groups and encouraging safe behaviors and protective measures.

There have been six PHEIC declarations since 2009, the last being for COVID-19 in 2020 — though the sluggish global response to the alarm bell still rankles at the WHO HQ.

A PHEIC was declared after a third emergency committee meeting Jan. 30. But it was only after March 11, when Tedros described the rapidly worsening situation as a pandemic, that many countries seemed to wake up to the danger.

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US Supreme Court Ruling Could Trigger Anti-Abortion Laws in at Least 13 States

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which has guaranteed a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion for almost 50 years, is set to activate anti-abortion laws in at least 13 states.

While some of the so-called “trigger laws” have been in place for years, others have been enacted more recently. Some states could activate their anti-abortion laws immediately, with others following shortly thereafter.

The 13 states that have laws that would ban or halt abortions with the Supreme Court’s overturn Friday of Roe are Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

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US Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the decades-old Roe v. Wade decision, which said women have a constitutional right to have an abortion. States will now decide whether to permit the procedure; it’s expected that roughly half could do so. VOA’s Laurel Bowman reports.

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NASA’s Artemis Program Gases Up

NASA’s next moon mission scores a win despite another setback. Plus, South Korea launches one of its own rockets to space, and the UK readies what it hopes will be its first domestically launched satellites. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space

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US Health Officials Ban Juul E-Cigarettes Tied to Teen Vaping Surge

Federal health officials on Thursday ordered Juul to pull its electronic cigarettes from the U.S. market, the latest blow to the embattled company widely blamed for sparking a national surge in teen vaping. 

The action is part of a sweeping effort by the Food and Drug Administration to bring scientific scrutiny to the multibillion-dollar vaping industry after years of regulatory delays. 

The FDA said Juul must stop selling its vaping device and its tobacco- and menthol-flavored cartridges. Those already on the market must be removed. Consumers aren’t restricted from having or using Juul’s products, the agency said. 

To stay on the market, companies must show that their e-cigarettes benefit public health. In practice, that means proving that adult smokers who use them are likely to quit or reduce their smoking, while teens are unlikely to get hooked on them. 

The FDA noted that some of the biggest sellers like Juul may have played a “disproportionate” role in the rise in teen vaping. The agency said Thursday that Juul’s application didn’t have enough evidence to show that marketing its products “would be appropriate for the protection of the public health.” 

Juul said it disagrees with the FDA’s findings and will seek to put the ban on hold while the company considers its options, including a possible appeal and talking with regulators. 

In a statement, the FDA said Juul’s application left regulators with significant questions and didn’t include enough information to evaluate any potential risks. The agency said the company’s research included “insufficient and conflicting data” about things like potentially harmful chemicals leaching from Juul’s cartridges. 

“Without the data needed to determine relevant health risks, the FDA is issuing these marketing denial orders,” Michele Mital, acting director of the FDA’s tobacco center, said in the statement. 

The agency has granted some e-cigarette applications. Since last fall, the agency has given its OK to tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes from R.J. Reynolds, Logic and other companies. 

But industry players and anti-tobacco advocates have complained that those products account for just a tiny percentage of the $6 billion vaping market in the United States. 

Regulators repeatedly delayed making decisions on devices from market leaders, including Juul, which remains the best-selling vaping brand although sales have dipped. 

Last year, the agency rejected applications for more than a million other e-cigarettes and related products, mainly due to their potential appeal to underage teens. 

The American Lung Association called Thursday’s decision “long overdue and most welcome,” and cited Juul for stoking youth vaping. 

E-cigarettes first appeared in the U.S. more than a decade ago with the promise of providing smokers a less harmful alternative. The devices heat a nicotine solution into a vapor that’s inhaled, bypassing many of the toxic chemicals produced by burning tobacco. 

But studies have reached conflicting results about whether they truly help smokers quit. And efforts by the FDA to rule on vaping products and their claims were repeatedly slowed by industry lobbying and competing political interests. 

The vaping market grew to include hundreds of companies selling an array of devices and nicotine solutions in various flavors and strengths. 

The vaping issue took on new urgency in 2018 when Juul’s high-nicotine, fruity-flavored cartridges quickly became a nationwide craze among middle and high school students. The company faces a slew of federal and state investigations into its early marketing practices, which included distributing free Juul products at concerts and parties hosted by young influencers. 

In 2019, the company was pressured into halting all advertising and eliminating its fruit and dessert flavors. The next year, the FDA limited flavors in small vaping devices to just tobacco and menthol. Separately, Congress raised the purchase age for all tobacco and vaping products to 21. 

But the question of whether e-cigarettes should remain on the market at all remained. 

The FDA has been working under a court order to render its decisions; anti-tobacco groups successfully sued the agency to speed up its review. 

FDA regulators warned companies for years they would have to submit rigorous, long-term data showing a clear benefit for smokers who switch to vaping. But all but the largest e-cigarette manufacturers have resisted conducting that kind of expensive, time-consuming research. 

While Juul remains a top seller, a recent federal survey shows that teens have been shifting away from the company. Last year’s survey showed Juul was the fourth-most popular e-cigarette among high schoolers who regularly vape. The most popular brand was a disposable e-cigarette called Puff Bar that comes in flavors including pink lemonade, strawberry and mango. That company’s disposable e-cigarettes had been able to skirt regulation because they use synthetic nicotine, which until recently was outside the FDA’s jurisdiction. Congress recently closed that loophole. 

Overall, the survey showed a drop of nearly 40% in the teen vaping rate as many kids were forced to learn from home during the pandemic. Still, federal officials cautioned about interpreting the results given they were collected online for the first time, instead of in classrooms. 

The brainchild of two Stanford University students, Juul launched in 2015 and within two years rocketed to the top of the vaping market. Juul, which is partially owned by tobacco giant Altria, still accounts for nearly 50% of the U.S. e-cigarette market. It once controlled more than 75%. 

On Tuesday, the FDA also laid out plans to establish a maximum nicotine level for certain tobacco products to reduce their addictiveness. In that announcement, the agency also noted that it has invested in a multimedia public education campaign aimed at warning young people about the potential risks of e-cigarette use. 

 

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