Sunday, 31 January 2016


The World Health Organization (WHO) today called an emergency meeting for Monday on the “dramatic” rise in Zika virus infection – strongly suspected of causing birth malformations – warning that its “explosive” spread could eventually infect up to four million people before it is brought under control.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. Photo: World Bank/Steven Shapiro
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told her Executive Board in Geneva, noting that for decades the disease, transmitted by the Aedes genus of mosquito, “slumbered,” affecting mainly monkeys and occasionally causing a mild disease of low concern in humans.
“The situation today is dramatically different. Last year, the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively. As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region,” she added in convening an Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations on the epidemic.
The virus, first reported by Brazil in May, is expected to spread to other parts of the world where dengue, spread by the same mosquito, is also present, said Marcos Espinal, Director of the Department of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO's regional branch.
He told the Board he expects the outbreak, already linked to some 4,000 births of babies with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, to grow from current estimates of one million cases to possibly three million to four million before it can be brought under control.
“We should not panic,” he stressed. “We should not be afraid, but we need to try and have aggressive vector control in the affected countries,” he stressed.
Dr. Chan noted that there is a high level of uncertainty. “Questions abound,” she said. “We need to get some answers quickly. I am asking the Committee for advice on the appropriate level of international concern and for recommended measures that should be undertaken in affected countries and elsewhere. I will also ask the Committee to prioritize areas where research is most urgently needed.”
In some places the virus has been associated with a steep increase in microcephaly and with the sometimes fatal Guillain-Barre syndrome, but a causal relationship with Zika has not yet been established although it is strongly suspected, she added.
“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions. The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families and communities. WHO is deeply concerned about this rapidly evolving situation.”
She also warned of the potential for Zika to spread even further internationally given the wide geographical distribution of the mosquito vector, and cited the lack of population immunity in newly affected areas and the absence of vaccines, specific treatments, and rapid diagnostic tests.
Moreover, conditions associated with this year's El NiƱo weather pattern, which causes droughts in parts of the world and floods in others, are expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas.


Friday, 29 January 2016


Chinese authorities should immediately release Zhang Yongsheng, a reporter for the state-owned Lanzhou Morning Herald, who has been imprisoned since January 7, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. On Monday, authorities accused Zhang of extortion.  

The announcement, published on the website of the Liangzhou district government of Wuwei Municipality, said Zhang "used his position as a journalist and in the name of public opinion supervision, to repeatedly extort money and goods from others." According to Zhang's newspaper, which is based in Lanzhou, Gansu province, police initially said the journalist had been arrested for prostitution but later changed the charge to extortion.

The day after Zhang's arrest, Luo Huansu, a reporter from the Lanzhou Evening Herald, (a separate outlet to Zhang's), and Zhang Zhenguo, a reporter from theWestern Business Herald, were detained by Wuwei police and accused of being his accomplices, according to news reports. Luo was charged with extortion and Zhang Zhenguo is still under investigation, authorities said. Both journalists were released on bail on Monday. Neither of those two journalists nor their newspapers have commented on the case publicly.

"The allegations of extortion against Zhang Yongsheng appear to be a punishment for his critical reporting, and the legal process seems to be highly irregular," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "We call on Chinese authorities to immediately release Zhang on bail while they complete their investigation."

Zhang's lawyers toldreporters they filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office onJanuary 20 after police repeatedly denied them access to the jailed journalist. When the lawyers were finally allowed to meet with Zhang on January 22, he denied the charges, the lawyers told the Chinese media. One of the lawyers told Caixin, a Beijing-based business magazine, that he was ordered by authorities not to speak to the media.

The police allowed Zhang's wife to visit him in prison, which is in violation of Chinese law, according to the Lanzhou Morning Herald. During the meeting, Zhang asked his wife to replace the current lawyers with a new one. Zhang's wife told the paper she believes Zhang said this under pressure. 

In an open letter published by the Lanzhou Morning Herald on Monday, the newspaper denied Zhang was involved in extortion. It said he had been repeatedly threatened for his critical reporting and that people mentioned in Zhang's articles had tried to influence his reporting by offering him cash and other goods. Zhang had told his employer that an official from the Liangzhou Public Security Bureau had called him to demand that an article on the corruption trial of the deputy head of the district be deleted. According to the open letter, Zhang told the official he could not delete it. In another instance, after Zhang refused to stop an article being published about a suicide, Liangzhou police threatened him and said, "Young man, you are from Wuwei. You do this [to us], you wait [and see.]" Before his arrest, Zhang had frequently told one of his colleagues "the Wuwei police are after me," the open letter said.

Corrupt practices among journalists are pervasive in China, according to experts on Chinese media. Dozens of journalists, from both the commercial media and state media, have been charged with bribery or extortion-related crimes in the past couple of years. Given the lack of transparent due process and the scarcity of independent investigative reporting in China, it is difficult to determine whether there is any validity to the authorities' claims. 

With at least 49 journalists in jail, China is the leading jailer of journalists in the world, according to CPJ's annual prison census.


Thursday, 28 January 2016


With fears of Zika virus reaching new heights — women in some countries, for example, are being advised not to get pregnant for years — all eyes are turning toward prevention.

And experts say that developing a vaccine will be one of the best ways to fight this virus.
"If a vaccine is feasible, it would be one of the best ways to combat [Zika virus]," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Health Security. 
Zika causes an infection that is usually mild, but officials are concerned that infections in pregnant women may lead to microencephaly in their children, a condition that affects the brain and severely affects a child's cognitive development. The virus was originally seen in Africa and Asia, but has spread in the last decade to Central and South America, and some Caribbean and Pacific islands. In recent weeks, health officials in El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica have suggested to women that they avoid getting pregnant until more is known about the risk of microencephaly.
Because Zika virus hadn't previously been considered a public health threat, there hasn't been much research done on the virus, Adalja told Live Science.
However, that doesn't mean that a vaccine is unattainable.
Although Zika virus is relatively new to the Americas, it's part of a family of viruses called flaviviruses, which includes more well-known viruses such as dengue, yellow fever and the West Nile virus.
And there's a lot of existing research on other flaviviruses, Adalja said. For example, scientists have found ways to replicate human infections with these other flaviviruses in animal models, so that researchers can study how the infection progresses and test out possible drugs, he said.
Not only that, but scientists have a track record of success in making vaccines for such flaviviruses, which indicates that this family of viruses isn't completely impervious to vaccination, he said. There are currently vaccines against the flaviviruses that cause yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis, and these have paved the way for future vaccines against other flaviviruses, he said.
Still, as with any new vaccine, the first step for researchers is to devise a vaccine that triggers a response from the human immune system that can protect people from future infections, Adalja said. Then developers can move on to questions of side effects, cost and how long immunity lasts, he said.
And although the mutations that can occur in viruses over time can pose a problem, the goal of vaccine developers is to try and target a part of the virus that tends to not change, he said.
"All viruses mutate … so it's not a question of whether it mutates" but how stable Zika virus is in Brazil, for example, Adalja said. In other words, does it look like the virus is mutating quickly? Some clues to this might be found by sequencing the genetic material of a virus strain in Central America, and comparing it to the sequences of strains in other outbreaks in Asia and Africa, he said.
Adalja said that, for the time being, research on a vaccine would likely take priority over looking for drugs that can treat people infected with the virus. 

Once a woman is infected with Zika virus, and the virus is in the blood, it can cross the placenta and affect the fetus, he said. It would be very hard to make an antiviral drug that could be administered fast enough to prevent the virus's effects, he said.