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Q&A: ‘We can eradicate polio from the world’

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The viral polio disease has over the years crippled hundreds of thousands of children in Africa and other parts of the world.

But on August 25, some four years after Africa’s last case was recorded in northern Nigeria, the continent was declared free of wild polio. Still, vaccine-derived strains of the virus remain in more than a dozen African countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries in the world where the debilitating virus remains endemic.

Polio is transmitted from person to person, mainly through a faecal-oral route or, less frequently, through contaminated water or food. It largely affects children under the age of five, multiplying inside the intestines from where it can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis, according to the World Health Organization.

There is no cure for polio, but the disease can be prevented through the oral administration of a vaccine.

Last month, Dr Tunji Funsho, a cardiologist based in Lagos, Nigeria, was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year for his work in eradicating wild polio in Africa.

Al Jazeera spoke to Funsho, chair of Rotary International’s Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee, about the progress and challenges in tackling the viral disease, as well as the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on immunisation campaigns.

Al Jazeera: Africa was declared wild polio-free earlier this year. What does this certification mean for the continent as a whole and its people?

Tunji Funsho: It’s a major milestone for us. As recently as 1996, when the Kick Polio out of Africa initiative was inaugurated through the prompting of Rotary International by former South African President Nelson Mandela, Africa was having 70,000 cases of wild poliovirus every year.

It was that initiative that galvanised African countries to start regular mass campaigns, going from house to house to make sure that we don’t lose any child with the oral polio vaccine.

Twelve years ago, Africa was responsible for about 50 percent of all polio cases in the world, so we see it as a great milestone. But more importantly, no child will ever again be paralysed by wild poliovirus in the African continent.

The lesson is if we can do it in Africa, we can do it in the world. If we can do it in polio, we can do it for any other kind of intervention.

Al Jazeera: Despite the certification, there are still vaccine-derived cases in about 16 countries which are currently experiencing outbreaks. So what kind of challenges and barriers does the continent continue to face?

Funsho: The wild poliovirus is quite distinct from the cases of vaccine-derived polio, which is what is happening in countries mostly in West Africa, the Horn of Africa and parts of central Africa.

With the appropriate outbreak response, we can put an end to vaccine-derived polio within six months.

The current outbreaks are festered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had restricted, until last month, our ability to mount robust outbreak response campaigns to immunise children.

I’m quite confident, now that we have restarted the outbreak response in some countries, even vaccine-derived [polio] would be a thing of the past.

Al Jazeera: What effect has the coronavirus pandemic had on the progress made in polio eradication in Africa?

Funsho: It has slowed down the ability to respond immediately to outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio.

It has also impacted our routine ability to ensure we continue to increase our routine immunisation because families have not been accessing primary healthcare facilities because of the pandemic. So, there’s been a dip in routine immunisation, which is very important.

The lesson is if we can do it in Africa, we can do it in the world. If we can do it in polio, we can do it for any other kind of intervention.

Tunji Funsho, Rotary International

It has also diverted resources – both human and material – from polio eradication-related activities to COVID-19 containment activities.

But thankfully, at least in most African countries, COVID-19 is now on a marked decline. We’re able now to improve on our routine immunisation and mount our group response campaigns against vaccine-derived polio.

Al Jazeera: Countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to face challenges because of mistrust and a lack of awareness about the vaccine. Polio workers are often targeted or families refuse to immunise their children. Is that something also seen in Nigeria and other African countries?

Funsho: Predominantly in Nigeria we had those kinds of scenarios between 2001 and 2003, as well as from 2008 to 2009, in Kano and Borno state. But, those have been sporadic. Thankfully, we don’t have that kind of challenge any more in Nigeria, which is what helped us get to the milestone.

Al Jazeera: What more needs to be done to ensure that children in Africa and also around the world remain polio-free? What should be the priority?

Funsho: In Africa, in particular, there’s a need to mount robust advocacy governance at every level and invest in resources that will keep all vaccine-preventable diseases at bay, including the wild poliovirus.

In other words, to ensure that every child gets the routine immunisation, as and when due because that is the kind of guarantee that will prevent the resurgence of polio even if it gets imported from another country.

We need to put a lot of efforts to continue to advocate for governments not to assume that, because Africa has been certified polio-free, resources should be diverted and taken somewhere else.

As a matter of fact, a lot of resources need to be poured into primary healthcare so that the routine immunisation can continue and every child born will get the due numbers of the various antigen needs.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

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World

Palm oil peril: Is your peanut butter putting primates at risk?

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It is tricky to know what we as individuals can do to best help in beleaguered environmental times. We might switch off the lights more often or consider our fashion sources, but it can feel like a meagre and perhaps pointless contribution, wrong though that may be.

Food brings it home. If you sit at the dining table and think of the direct link between that bit of toast slathered in peanut butter, and an endangered species pushed to the brink by deforestation, all becomes a little clearer. This is no anti-spread diatribe but a call to arms to carefully consider what we eat.

The connection is palm oil and it ain’t a pretty picture. Palm oil is in a whole load of products from Oreos to shampoo, lipstick to ice cream, cookies to – yes – peanut butter.

We cook in it, bathe in it, and even brush our teeth in it. Experts say it is found in 50 percent of products on our grocery shelves.

The lone ape

But palm oil production has destroyed huge swaths of virgin rainforest, especially in Indonesia. Meanwhile, species, like the orangutan, are pushed to the brink of extinction.

There was a sobering sequence in the latest film by the British naturalist David Attenborough where a lone orangutan is seen clinging to a single branchless trunk amid an endless battlefield of fallen trees. The trees were felled for palm oil production.

In this 2017 photo, an orangutan sits on the branch of a tree before being rescued and relocated from a swath of destructed forest near a palm oil plantation at Tripa peat swamp in Aceh province, Indonesia. As demand for palm oil soars, plantations expand and companies drain the swamp, clear the forest of its native trees, and often set illegal fires which in turn robs orangutans and other endangered species of their natural habitats [AP/Binsar Bakkara]

Acrobats of the jungle

Of course, it is not just flagship species like the orangutan under threat. Here is a shout out for the singing, swinging ape, the brilliant acrobat of the trees, the animal we think of when we picture primates swinging gracefully through the canopy – the good old gibbon.

When gibbons walk, either on branches or on the ground, they often do so on two feet. Being the most bipedal of all non-human primates, they are regularly studied for clues about the process of evolution that led to us walking.

And yes, they sing with extraordinary vocal tones apparently ranging, as one anthropologist put it, from haunting Japanese flute to blaring police siren.

But gibbons are in deep trouble. They are among the most threatened primates on Earth. And like the orangutan and myriad other rainforest species in Southeast Asia, this is primarily because of palm oil.

Next to humans, gibbons are the most bipedal of all primates [File: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger]

According to the Gibbon Conservation Alliance, the endangered Silvery gibbon, which is only found on the island of Java in Indonesia, has lost 98 percent of its habitat.

In Borneo, habitat loss has been dramatic too: Huge swaths of trees burned to the ground to make way for palm oil plantations.

“The fires which ravaged Borneo in 2015 resulted in significant loss of forest,” said Dr Susan Cheyne of the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF). “We estimate around 15 percent was lost and bear in mind only 50 percent of the whole island of Borneo remains forested.”

BNF works to reforest degraded areas damaged by fire to help restore habitats for gibbons and other animals. It is also an advocate of deforestation-free palm oil – sustainable palm oil which is grown without causing more deforestation.

Dr Cheyne said the market for palm oil is vast. “Consumers need to be more aware about what they are buying but food companies need to work to provide clear information to consumers about what is in their products.”

A worker harvests palm fruit at a plantation in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest palm oil producer [File: Reuters]

‘There’s a Rang-Tan in my bedroom’

This video below, that went viral in 2018, puts it better than any words can. It is an emotive advertisement from a Greenpeace campaign featuring a homeless orangutan.

Watch and consider the peanut butter options.

[embedded content]

Your environment round-up

1. Delayed Arctic freezing: Scientists are concerned that for the first time in recorded history, the Laptev Sea has yet to start freezing by this stage in late October. The delay – partly caused by unusually warm temperatures this year – could have knock-on effects for the region.

2. Cooling paint: A new kind of white paint that reflects 95.5 percent of sunlight could help cool buildings, decreasing the reliance on air conditioning which adds to global CO2 emissions.

3. Watch: Climate concerned?: From extreme winds to floods, drought and fire, the US has witnessed extreme weather events this year. Now, public opinion towards the climate crisis may finally be changing.

4. Listen: Acoustic ecology: Scientists have found signs of climate change in nature’s symphonies, and they are racing to record the soundscapes before they disappear.

The final word

A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.

Franklin D Roosevelt, 32nd US president

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PrettyLittleThing features its first model to wear a hijab

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Written by Alaa Elassar, CNN

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A Black, Muslim plus-size model is breaking barriers in the fashion industry after being chosen by PrettyLittleThing to model its new line of modest clothing.

Billy Marsal, 21, is a London-based influencer who regularly posts photos of herself wearing trendy and modest outfits on Instagram. The online retail giant scouted her on social media shortly after entering the Middle East market.

Marsal’s work with PrettyLittleThing marks the first time the brand has featured a model wearing a hijab or headscarf, the UK-based company confirmed.

“I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until I started getting replies and messages from people who were so excited about it, then I realized, wow, this is amazing,” Marsal told CNN.

“It’s an insane feeling, Yes, I am Black, I am Muslim, I am plus size, but I never thought it would be me to make people feel like this.”

Marsal is new to the world of professional modeling, but is excited to represent young Muslim women and help them find fashionable clothes that uphold their religious values.

“As girls who wear the hijab, we grew up buying clothes and having to alter things to make them modest so for them now to tell Muslim girls, ‘Guys, we’re catering to you, too’ is a very big deal,” she said.

Marsal announced her work with PrettyLittleThing in a tweet on Monday that has since garnered more than 500,000 likes and 60,000 retweets. “Soooo… that’s me. THE FIRST HIJABI ON PLT!!! Still so wild to me,” she said.

PrettyLittleThing, which has collaborated with celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Hailey Baldwin, sells fashion “inspired from the catwalk and the coolest muses of the moment” at affordable prices.

The retailer aims to “inspire confidence” in customers with a message of equality and body positivity, according to its website.

“Following our successful launch into the Middle East we are delighted to be launching our ‘Modest clothing’ collection on site,” PrettyLittleThing said in a news release. “Our ethos of ‘EveryBODYinPLT is extremely important to us, so it’s been amazing seeing such positive customer feedback and working with models who represent all of our customer base.”

In recent years, models wearing a hijab have been featured in New York Fashion Week and Sports Illustrated magazine. But it’s still not common.

Marsal said she’s happy to see the industry change to include more Muslim women, and looks forward to the day when it’s no longer surprising to see a model wearing a hijab.

“I think what’s going to happen is this will one day be so normal it’s not surprising anymore, because competitors are noticing what brands like PrettyLittleThing are doing and it’s going to become the norm,” she said.

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At least 22 killed in Ghana church collapse

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Officials say 11 women, 10 men and a baby died after an under-construction three-storey building collapsed.

At least 22 people, including a baby, were killed when an unfinished three-storey building collapsed in eastern Ghana, emergency officials said on Friday.

The accident happened on Tuesday while a church community held a service in the building, which was still under construction, in the town of Akyem Batabi in the Eastern Region, National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) official Richard Amo-Yartey said.

Among the dead are 11 women, a baby and 10 men, Amo-Yartey said.

A rescue team comprising emergency workers, police, soldiers and firefighters were searching for survivors trapped inside the building.

The number of those missing remained unclear on Friday, while eight injured people had been taken to hospital, according to Amo-Yartey.

Local media reported that more than 60 people were present at the site when the accident took place.

Work on the building had started in 1994.

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