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N. Korea reports 6 deaths after admitting COVID-19 outbreak

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N. Korea reports 6 deaths after admitting COVID-19 outbreak

Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea, state media said Friday, a day after the country acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time in the pandemic.

North Korea likely doesn’t have sufficient COVID-19 tests and said it didn’t know the cause of the mass fevers. But a big coronavirus outbreak could be devastating in a country with a broken health care system and an unvaccinated, malnourished population.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency said of the 350,000 people who developed fevers since late April, 162,200 have recovered. It said 18,000 people were newly found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone, and 187,800 are being isolated for treatment.

One of the six people who died was infected with the omicron variant, KCNA said. But it wasn’t immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.

North Korea imposed a lockdown Thursday after acknowledging its first COVID-19 cases. Those reports said tests from an unspecified number of people came back positive for the omicron variant.

It’s unusual for isolated North Korea to admit to the outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone one as menacing as COVID-19, as it’s intensely proud and sensitive to outside perception about its self-described “socialist utopia.”

While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had occasionally been candid about his worsening economy and other problems, he had repeatedly expressed confidence about pandemic response and wasn’t seen wearing a mask in public until Thursday.

State TV showed Kim wearing a mask as he entered what the broadcast described as the country’s headquarters of its pandemic response, which appeared to be Pyongyang’s landmark Koryo Hotel. He took off the mask and smoked a cigarette while talking with officials.

KCNA said Kim criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” He said the outbreak was centered around the capital, Pyongyang, and stressed all work and residential units should be isolated from one another while residents should be provided every convenience during the lockdown.

“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and wellbeing of our people,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

The spread of the virus may have been accelerated by a massive military parade on April 25, where Kim gave a speech and showcased his army and weaponry in front of tens of thousands of people.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the pace of the fever’s spread suggests the crisis could last months and possibly into 2023, causing major disruption in the poorly equipped country.

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, North Korea reported to the U.N. agency that it tested 64,207 people for COVID-19 in 2020 through March 22 this year, a small number that may indicate insufficient tests for a population of 26 million.

North Korea also lacks vaccines, COVID-19 antiviral pills and has likely very few intensive care units to treat serious cases, which may cause higher death rates than other nations, experts say.

The North last year shunned millions of shots offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, including doses of AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac vaccines, possibly because of questions about their effectiveness and unwillingness to accept monitoring requirements. The country lacks the extreme-cold storage systems that are required for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna, which have shown higher rates of preventing infection, serious illness and death even against newer variants like omicron.

The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office Tuesday, said his government is willing to provide medical supplies and hopes to talk to the North about specific plans. It said the North hasn’t yet asked for its help.

Cha Deok-cheol, a spokesperson in South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said Seoul doesn’t immediately have an estimate on the number of vaccine doses it could offer to North Korea.

Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated over the past three years as larger nuclear negotiations remain stalled since they broke down over disagreements about U.S.-led sanctions and the North’s disarmament steps.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing was ready to offer North Korea help but said he had no information about any such request being made. Asked whether China would be evacuating its nationals from North Korea, Zhao said Beijing will closely monitor the situation and maintain communication with the North to ensure the health and safety of Chinese citizens there.

North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for 2 1/2 years was widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.

Hours after confirming the outbreak, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea in an apparent display of strength. It was the North’s 16th round of missile launches this year as it aims to pressure the United States to accept the idea of the country as a nuclear power. It’s also eager to negotiate sanctions relief and other concessions from a position of strength.

There are also indications that North Korea is restoring tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017 in possible preparations to resume nuclear tests, which U.S. and South Korean officials say could happen as early as this month.

Citing North Korea’s shunning of the COVAX vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supported international aid efforts but doesn’t plan to share its vaccine supplies with the North.

“We do continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a broader part of the DPRK continuing to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid,” Psaki said Thursday in Washington, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“It’s not just vaccines. It’s also a range of humanitarian assistance that could very much help the people and the country and instead they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.”

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Covid Vaccines Saved 20 Million Lives In First Year – Study

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Covid Vaccines Saved 20 Million Lives In First Year – Study

Covid vaccines prevented nearly 20 million deaths in the first year after they were introduced, according to the first large modelling study on the topic released Friday.

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, is based on data from 185 countries and territories collected from December 8, 2020 to December 8, 2021.

It is the first attempt to estimate the number of deaths prevented directly and indirectly as a result of Covid-19 vaccinations.

It found that 19.8 million deaths were prevented out of a potential 31.4 million deaths that would have occurred if no vaccines were available.

It was a 63 percent reduction, the study found.

The study used official figures — or estimates when official data was not available — for deaths from Covid, as well as total excess deaths from each country.

Excess mortality is the difference between the total number of people who died from all causes and the number of deaths expected based on past data.

These analyses were compared with a hypothetical alternative scenario in which no vaccine was administered.

The model accounted for variation in vaccination rates across countries, as well as differences in vaccine effectiveness based on the types of vaccines known to have been primarily used in each country.

China was not included in the study because of its large population and strict containment measures, which would have skewed the results, it said.

The study found that high- and middle-income countries accounted for the largest number of deaths averted, 12.2 million out of 19.8 million, reflecting inequalities in access to vaccines worldwide.

Nearly 600,000 additional deaths could have been prevented if the World Health Organization’s (WHO) goal of vaccinating 40 percent of each country’s population by the end of 2021 had been met, it concluded.

“Millions of lives have probably been saved by making vaccines available to people around the world,” said lead study author Oliver Watson of Imperial College London.

“We could have done more,” he said.

Covid has officially killed more than 6.3 million people globally, according to the WHO.

But the organisation said last month the real number could be as high as 15 million when all direct and indirect causes are accounted for.

The figures are extremely sensitive due to how they reflect on the handling of the crisis by authorities around the world.

The virus is on the rise again in some places, including in Europe, which is seeing a warm-weather resurgence blamed in part on Omicron subvariants.

AFP

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WHO considers declaring monkeypox a global health emergency

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WHO considers declaring monkeypox a global health emergency

As the World Health Organization convenes its emergency committee Thursday to consider if the spiraling outbreak of monkeypox warrants being declared a global emergency, some experts say WHO’s decision to act only after the disease spilled into the West could entrench the grotesque inequities that arose between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.

Declaring monkeypox to be a global emergency would mean the U.N. health agency considers the outbreak to be an “extraordinary event” and that the disease is at risk of spreading across even more borders. It would also give monkeypox the same distinction as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio.

Many scientists doubt any such declaration would help to curb the epidemic, since the developed countries recording the most recent cases are already moving quickly to shut it down.

Last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the recent monkeypox epidemic identified in more than 40 countries, mostly in Europe, as “unusual and concerning.” Monkeypox has sickened people for decades in central and west Africa, where one version of the disease kills up to 10% of people. In the epidemic beyond Africa so far, no deaths have been reported.

“If WHO was really worried about monkeypox spread, they could have convened their emergency committee years ago when it reemerged in Nigeria in 2017 and no one knew why we suddenly had hundreds of cases,” said Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups. “It is a bit curious that WHO only called their experts when the disease showed up in white countries,” he said.

Until last month, monkeypox had not caused sizeable outbreaks beyond Africa. Scientists haven’t found any major genetic changes in the virus and a leading adviser to WHO said last month the surge of cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity among gay and bisexual men at two raves in Spain and Belgium.

To date, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 3,300 cases of monkeypox in 42 countries where the virus hasn’t been typically seen. More than 80% of cases are in Europe. Meanwhile, Africa has already seen more than 1,400 cases this year, including 62 deaths.

David Fidler, a senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said WHO’s newfound attention to monkeypox amid its spread beyond Africa could inadvertently worsen the divide between rich and poor countries seen during COVID-19.

“There may be legitimate reasons why WHO only raised the alarm when monkeypox spread to rich countries, but to poor countries, that looks like a double standard,” Fidler said. He said the global community was still struggling to ensure the world’s poor were vaccinated against the coronavirus and that it was unclear if Africans even wanted monkeypox vaccines, given competing priorities like malaria and HIV.

“Unless African governments specifically ask for vaccines, it might be a bit patronizing to send them because it’s in the West’s interest to stop monkeypox from being exported,” Fidler said.

WHO has also proposed creating a vaccine-sharing mechanism to help affected countries, which could see doses go to rich countries like Britain, which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa — and recently widened its use of vaccines.

To date, the vast majority of cases in Europe have been in men who are gay or bisexual, or other men who have sex with men, but scientists warn anyone in close contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection, regardless of their sexual orientation. People with monkeypox often experience symptoms like fever, body aches and a rash; most recover within weeks without needing medical care.

Even if WHO announces monkeypox is a global emergency, it’s unclear what impact that might have.

In January 2020, WHO declared that COVID-19 was an international emergency. But few countries took notice until March, when the organization described it as a pandemic, weeks after many other authorities did so. WHO was later slammed for its multiple missteps throughout the pandemic, which some experts said might be prompting a quicker monkeypox response.

“After COVID, WHO does not want to be the last to declare monkeypox an emergency,” said Amanda Glassman, executive vice president at the Center for Global Development. “This may not rise to the level of a COVID-like emergency, but it is still a public health emergency that needs to be addressed.”

Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and vice chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said WHO and others should be doing more to stop monkeypox in Africa and elsewhere, but wasn’t convinced that a global emergency declaration would help.

“There is this misplaced idea that Africa is this poor, helpless continent, when in fact, we do know how to deal with epidemics,” said Abdool Karim. He said that stopping the outbreak ultimately depends on things like surveillance, isolating patients and public education.

“Maybe they need vaccines in Europe to stop monkeypox, but here, we have been able to control it with very simple measures,” he said.

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NMA urges NCDC to step up fight against Monkeypox

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NMA urges NCDC to step up fight against Monkeypox

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) has urged the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to step-up its efforts in educating and protecting Nigerians from the increasing cases of the ravaging Monkeypox disease.

It stressed that the Agency, which is saddled with the responsibility of disease prevention and control, must not lose sight of other infectious diseases like monkeypox, even as it focuses on COVID-19.

The doctors’ association, while urging Nigerians to adhere strictly to the preventive measures of personal hygiene, especially hand hygiene because like monkeypox, COVID-19 is still very much in the country, and the situation can become worse if not handled properly, implored religious institutions – churches and mosques – to take up the responsibility of sensitising their followers about the disease.

Recall that yesterday the NCDC announced that the country has recorded 21 confirmed cases of the Monkeypox disease in the last five (5) months, with one death. Also, in the month of May, a total six (6) new confirmed positive cases were reported from four (4) states – Bayelsa (2), Adamawa (2), Lagos (1), and Rivers (1).

Globally, according to reports from the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 26 May, there have been a cumulative total of 257 laboratory confirmed cases, with around 120 suspected cases reported, from 23 non-endemic countries. However, no deaths have been reported.

Speaking with The Nation, the newly elected President of the NMA, Dr Uche Ojinmah, said: “We have the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) that has the responsibility of not just monitoring and controlling COVID-19, but every infectious disease. Therefore, they should step up to the plate. It is the business of the NCDC; they can link up with the Ministry of Information and get people aware.

“They need to start giving us data on this Monkeypox as it happens across the country. With the current awareness coming from a reputable government institution like that, people will sit up. We need to start directing our calls to the appropriate institution, which is the NCDC. We don’t expect President Muhammadu Buhari to give us information on this. Let the NCDC step up to the plate and do their job.

“The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control needs to understand that it is not only COVID-19; it is important. It is however necessary to be combined in the sensitisation of the people. The media also have a role to play in sensitisation. The government needs to bring the will, but we all in our little ways can contribute.

“We have a bit of a problem in this country; we initiate measures, achieve a positive response, and we drop our guards. In 2015 when Ebola came, we took it on as a nation, and we got rid of it, and everybody went back to their normal lives. COVID-19 has come and with us, if you check even in flights now, you force people to wear their masks. Nigerians, therefore, need to be serious and the government needs to play a role.

“Monkeypox is here now and everybody pretends they don’t know – until it becomes a problem. I also expected that the government, civil society, and non- governmental organisations should have started spreading the message by now. Our churches and mosques should take up this course now that it has not become a disaster.

“Doctors should also start to educate patients they see that do not have it. We need to start now to prepare the minds of our people; it may not be as bad as Ebola or COVID-19, but it is still a problem. So, the earlier we start preventive measures, the better we will be.”

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