U.S. Secretary of Defense, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, emerging variants of the virus have become the latest global concern and one of the newest areas of research for biomedical scientists. With the commencement of vaccination delivery across the world, the question is whether vaccines currently being developed will remain effective for different types of Covid-19 variants. New coronavirus variants emerging in global hotspots are likely to influence vaccine efficacy. Two-thirds of epidemiologists who took part in a recent global survey have predicted it will be less than a year before SARS-CoV-2 mutates to such an extent that the majority of first generation SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are rendered ineffective. Further, 88% of the epidemiologists surveyed believe that because of the low-vaccine administration in many countries, the likelihood of vaccine-resistant mutations will increase.
At present, notable examples of variants have been detected in South Africa, the US, the UK, India and Brazil. The reality that millions of people across the world are still being infected by Covid-19, adds to the fact that new mutations will continue to emerge as the pandemic progresses. At present, renowned vaccines currently being administered include the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. These vaccines have been approved by various national and regulatory administrations across the world. The World Health Organisation also states that there is strong evidence that all vaccines offer good protection against variants, especially against the occurrence of severe disease. Yet, the concern underlying the potential for these vaccinations to be ineffective in the long-term still remains at large.
Variants are a complex collection of mutations, all of which have the potential to alter the SARS-CoV-2 virus in ways that experts cannot foresee or expect. Viruses multiply by replicating their genomes repeatedly. Every time a duplicate is made, the resultant genome may not always be identical to the host genome. When a new version of the virus genome is developed, a variant arises. Typically, the transformations in the genome of the variant virus do not cause any significant deviations in the way the virus acts. Sometimes, they can even make a virus less successful than the original strain. However, on rare occasions, mutations can result in alterations to the virus that affects its behaviour in substantial ways. These changes can cause symptoms such as the virus becoming more infectious or developing the ability to avoid the immune system of the body it invades. The more a virus replicates the more chances it has of developing variants. This often occurs when viruses spread rapidly through a population. If a variant becomes more effective, it tends to become more prevalent than other mutations.
Scientists across the world who are rapidly studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus, are identifying variants that are spreading more prolifically than others and those that are causing significant Covid symptoms. Understanding how specific variants act and why they emerge requires various types of scientific studies and vigorous human effort, especially given the worrying patterns of infection that have recently begun to emerge globally. This is more than likely to be a long-term and arduous journey as scientists continue to monitor and trace the ever-changing emergence of mutations and variants.
With the fast-tracked development of vaccines aimed at minimising severe disease from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the implications that variants may have on the efficacy of vaccinations will continue to effect the world at large. Trials of the Novavax, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines in South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant of concern consists of virtually all of the circulating SARS-CoV-2, seemed to justify concerns of vaccine efficacy. On the other hand, studies trialling the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the UK SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant, concluded in their efficacy analyses that the vaccine resulted in positive outcomes. Data from Moderna trials indicate that the vaccine remains 90% effective, and Pfizer has reported similar results. To add to the challenge, there are currently many vaccines that are still being developed and are at various stages of approval.
Despite these concerns, the coronavirus is actually mutating at a much slower rate compared to other viruses such as influenza. While scientists are taking the threat variants pose seriously, they are promising the vaccines developed to date will remain effective for some time to come. Understanding that vaccine efficacy means that vaccinated populations will still have lower rates of infection compared to unvaccinated populations is essential, and will help diminish the ongoing spread of the virus. Existing vaccines can also be redesigned and vaccine combinations are being tested as well. Vaccines remain a critical tool against the spread of Covid-19, with clear public health and lifesaving benefits in preventing the occurrence of severe disease symptomology.
Even if vaccines become somewhat less effective against some variants, they still protect against severe disease that can cause hospitalisation or death. While some wonder if they should wait until a more efficacious vaccine is developed, those that are currently approved do still provide an effective defence against this devastating virus. The long-term impact of vaccines will remain unknown for some time to come, however current information largely denotes that the benefits certainly outweigh the risks.
Dr Nasir is a Research Fellow working in the field of chronic disease and mental health. Her research interests lie in understanding the intersections and associations between mental health and chronic disease comorbidities.
Racism at the root again: Inequalities in Health organisations
Whilst many sectors have suffered at the hands of racist predispositions, Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation states that racism is at the crux of the escalating humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. He claims that, “Some are more equal than others” despite Ethiopia being the largest recipient of this aid. Ethiopia receives a grand total of $3 billion USD and has been the largest recipient for several years. Human Rights Lawyer, Khalil Yousuf, told Analyst News that there is a lack of “evidence to suggest that there is active racism” in the case of Ethiopia with many individuals from the country in the management.
Mr Tedros, an Ethiopian himself, believes that the lack of media coverage in non-Western regions has prevented better management and protection of human life. He suggests that the value of Ethiopian lives is deemed lesser than that of Ukrainians for instance. “Maybe the reason is the colour of the skin of the people,” speculates the WHO Director. There are currently 8.1 million people in a dire humanitarian crisis, suffering from continuous seasons of drought, political instability, and violence.
Khalil Yousuf believes that it is not necessarily racism that has driven Ethiopia to a humanitarian crisis but its geographical and political isolation from western nations that render it inessential to their foreign policies. He stated, “Tigray is a long way away and not enough people who originate from there to warrant news, for example in the United Kingdom”. He further went on to acknowledge “Part of the problem with international aid is that it is not always given on the basis of need but there are a myriad of other factors which influence whether or not a country will give international aid and who they will give it to”. Influencing factors include political alliances, geographical relevance, budget, need to resolve transnational problems and if the provider and receiver have sufficient sources to transport aid from one place to another. He insisted that neighbouring countries must play an active role to ensure that peace, security and health crises are resolved for the long term.
This is not the first time WHO has been accused of racism. Earlier this year, Dr Takeshi Kasai, Regional-Director of WHO Western Pacific was accused of making derogatory remarks and behaving unethically towards staff. In an ongoing investigation, Mr Kasai was eventually removed from office. Hence, it is likely that racism exists in some form in organisations including WHO but the extent to which it shapes decisions is obscure.
Institutionalised racism is prevalent in many departments of the health sector and considerable evidence has been sourced from the United States, Australia, Germany, and Portugal amongst many others. Indigenous populations in Australia have to wait longer in elective surgery queues and are 20% less likely to receive proper care in hospital emergency departments. Hence, racial disparities certainly shape healthcare on micro and national levels and could also be permeating international health policies. In Ethiopia, racism may be a negligible driving force of the humanitarian crisis with regional politics, ethnic disparities and corruption shaping the distribution and administration of aid.
Contrastingly, the Ethiopian government accuses Mr Tedros’s personal affiliations with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to be the root of his critique of the government’s administration of the aid. The ongoing violence and military operations occurring in the West African region have resulted in increasing cases of gender-based crimes, embezzlement, fraud, and abuses committed by insurgency groups. In 2022 TPLF was accused of severe violationsincluding rape and murder of at least 20 civilians. This instability is a key factor that has prevented Ethiopia’s journey to recovery and has only contributed to health issues with greater numbers of premature mortality, tuberculosis, respiratory infections, and HIV/AIDS.
The exclusion of issues pertaining to people of colour in the media is likely sculpted by race and their economic and political irrelevance to the West; a central provider of aid and media. Hence, racism is a key factor shaping the humanitarian crisis, but war and food shortages barricade the narrow road to recovery. Ethiopia must rigorously seek political and military peace to see a notable difference in their health status.
‘Don’t forget them’: millions of Afghans face hunger, economic crisis
International aid workers share stories of children and families struggling to make ends meet
“Winter is coming.”
That’s how Ammar Ammar, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, describes the situation in Afghanistan. The current hunger crisis, the result of a collapsing economy and drought, will only get worse if the country doesn’t get help, he says, especially in the colder months when people also have to stay warm.
“It’s not Game of Thrones here, it’s reality.”
Almost a year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the world has become silent about the plight of the country and its people, who are facing one of their worst humanitarian and economic crisis in decades.
After the fall of Kabul, the international community declined to recognize the Taliban regime. Countries paused foreign aid and imposed sanctions. The United States also froze billions in Afghan state assets.
A country that had become reliant on external aid was left on its own. In the process, millions of Afghans were abandoned, too.
On a recent lunch break in Kabul, Ammar saw two girls, one about six years old and the other about three. One of them was lying down on the sidewalk, while the other was squatting next to a big nylon bag. They’d been collecting pieces of scrap metal on the streets to make ends meet.
“You could see that they were exhausted,” Ammar said. “You are going for your break and at the same time you can see two kids on the street, where they have no break at this age. It strikes you.”
And there are thousands of children like them.
“We are doing a massive job,” Ammar says. “But the sad reality is we can’t help everyone at the end of the day.”
A woman in Qala-e-Naw, the capital of the Badghis province recently told the UN-run World Food Programme (WFP) in Kabul how she made ends meet after her husband died five years prior.
“In the past, she said, she had a fair life, just getting by cleaning and washing for other people. After the economy collapsed, families have no money anymore to pay her and her work dried up,” said WFP spokesperson Philippe Kropf in an email. As a result, she borrows money to buy food, going further into debt.
“She told me she has not been able to buy cooking oil for weeks. She eats bread with tea and sometimes rice,” he said.
A young man told Kropf that “his family went to sleep many evenings without anything to eat in the past months.”
“They borrowed food with neighbours, but increasingly the neighbours have nothing to share,” he added, noting the young man had only completed second grade and was trying to find labour jobs to make ends meet. “But these jobs are getting rarer and rarer because of the collapse of the economy, too.”
The man participated in a training program to gain skills such as tailoring or mobile phone repair to earn a livelihood. The program trains 200 men and women over six months, during which participants receive food assistance for their families.
“After the training, (the young man) hopes to either open his own little shop, sewing clothing for men and children or to find work in a tailor shop and work for a salary,” Kropf said.
Prospects of famine remain
With the country reeling from recent droughts, and facing high inflation, a difficult situation is becoming even worse.
“For the first time, urban residents are suffering from food insecurity at similar rates to rural communities, marking the shifting face of hunger in the country,” Kropf said, noting some people are seeking help from WFP for the first time in their lives.
“The scale of the crisis in Afghanistan is immense, and needs continue to outpace available funding,” he added. The WFP needs nearly US $1 billion by the end of 2022 to help 18 million people – nearly half the population of Afghanistan.
Of that, the group urgently needs US $172 million to secure 150,000 metric tonnes of food to support 2.2 million people in remote parts of Afghanistan, which can get cut off by ice and snow in winter.
“We need these even more urgently because of the long lead-times for food commodities that we need to buy internationally,” Kropf said, including vegetable oil and specialized nutritious foods. “We need to get them into (the) country and then drive them into the mountains.”
The lack of funds in state bank accounts means civil servants aren’t being paid regularly, companies are shutting down and ordinary civilians face restricted access to their own savings.
Prospects of famine remain, said Ammar, noting that the main indicator is farming, which most people depend on to make ends meet. Farmers say climate change is resulting in less food production, resulting in extended periods when people don’t have adequate access to food.
Need for international aid
At the end of June, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit southeast Afghanistan, killing over 1,000 people and causing damage the International Rescue Committee described as “catastrophic.”
“This earthquake is a catastrophe for the people affected, but the response to the wider crisis in Afghanistan remains a catastrophe of choice for the international community,” said David Miliband, the group’s CEO and president in a release at the time.
“While humanitarian aid has averted famine for now, policies of economic isolation, the halting of development funding, and the lack of support for Afghan civil servants are unraveling the two decades of development progress that western leaders vowed to protect.”
He noted that families across the country face unemployment, leading to lower demand among local businesses which in turn leads to further job losses. He called for the international community to urgently provide funding to the country as well as “the phased and closely monitored unfreezing of assets.”
The question of frozen assets
Advocates for Afghanistan have criticized U.S.’s decision to freeze a portion of the country’s assets and decried a proposal for the U.S. to use some of them to support families affected by 9/11.
Afghanistan’s assets rightfully belong to Afghanistan, said Zubair Iqbal, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
However, while unfreezing the funds would help bring immediate help to alleviate Afghanistan’s crisis, the country will need more support in the long-term, said Iqbal, who previously worked at the International Monetary Fund for more than 30 years.
The solution is to grant foreign aid to Afghanistan in a sustainable way to allow recovery, while managing its spending through an independent entity, he said.
Concerns around a proposal in the U.S. to use some of the Afghan assets to support families affected by 9/11 prompted a group of Afghan women to write an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden in February.
“Taking funds from the Afghan people is the unkindest and most inappropriate response for a country that is going through the worst humanitarian crisis in its history,” the letter reads. “It is the squeezing of a wounded hand.”
Freezing the assets from the Taliban was the right decision, said one of the signatories in an interview, but they belong to the Afghan people and must be released to address the humanitarian crisis.
“My expectation from the international community is to put serious attention on Afghanistan,” said Roshan Mashal, former deputy director of Afghan Women’s Network, who left Afghanistan after the takeover and is now a fellow at the University of Texas at Arlington.
She called for coordination on how countries engage with the Taliban and to support the country’s people, as millions of Afghans face hunger and economic crisis.
“Don’t forget them,” she said.
Learning From The Lancet’s New Study on Alcohol Consumption
A new study in The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical journals, calls for “stronger interventions, particularly those tailored towards younger individuals…to reduce the substantial global health loss attributable to alcohol.” This study sought to elucidate the effects of alcohol consumption in varying populations. Its data comes from the Global Burden of Disease investigation, which began in 1990 and has used information from 204 countries and territories to “understand the changing health challenges around the world.” Regarding research on alcohol consumption, the authors wrote, “No study to date has examined the variation in the theoretical minimum risk of alcohol consumption by geography, age, sex, and time, conditioned on background rates of disease.” In other words, the new study is groundbreaking in its thorough and holistic analysis of the health impacts associated with drinking alcohol.
Ultimately, the researchers’ data was intriguing. They found that for individuals between 15-39 years old, consuming alcohol only confers risks, i.e. there are no health benefits associated with drinking alcohol. Furthermore, the authors write, “The recommended level of alcohol consumption in existing low consumption recommendations is too high for younger populations.” In other words, following existing guidelines is not enough to protect people between 15-39 from the health risks associated with alcohol consumption. Interestingly, the study found that consuming small amounts of alcohol, such as one or two 3.4-ounce glasses of red wine, can yield some health benefits for individuals over 40. These include reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.
In their discussion, the researchers emphasized, “These findings highlight the need for tailored guidelines that discourage alcohol consumption among young people, as well as alcohol control policies and interventions that are targeted especially towards young males.” The scientists pointed out young males because they are the group that currently struggles the most with alcohol overconsumption. Overall, the authors in the study clearly caution against drinking alcohol if one is below 39. Even for older individuals, limiting alcohol consumption is essential to avoid health risks.
Interestingly, The Lancet study corroborates many religions’ guidance regarding alcohol consumption. Chapter 5:91 of the Holy Quran, for example, says, “O ye who believe! wine and the game of chance… are only an abomination of Satan’s handiwork. So shun each one of them that you may prosper.” Similarly, Proverbs 20:1 advises, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” For people that associate with a particular religion, it is heartening to see scientific research confirm one’s religious texts and commandments; it often affirms and strengthens one’s faith. For anyone, regardless of whether or not they practice any religion, seeing scientific research support religious teachings is an important reminder that religion and science are not at odds. In the media and popular culture, we often see religion portrayed as diametrically opposed to science. This is far from the truth, however, and it is critical to not let such prejudices cloud our view of others.
Abortion care-A Fundamental Right Under the Kenyan Constitution
Abortion care – A fundamental right under the Kenyan Constitution.
By making abortion legal for victims of sexual abuse and women with pregnancy complications, Kenya is making health care accessible for women. AnalsytNews spoke to Dr. Anne-Beatrice Kihara about abortion laws.
Over a decade ago, Kenya set out on a course to provide constitutional reproductive rights to women. By replacing the colonial constitution with a new democratic text, it secured the rights of privacy and abortion for women in the constitutional framework. Although the country is still a long way from translating the articles into a legal language of implication, they are helping to save the lives of women.
The long struggle for the right to abortion in Kenya yielded results when a minor, PAK and her health care provider, Muhammad Saleem, were released of charges by the High Court in the Kenyan city of Malindi after Saleem was detained by the officials along with PAK under the accusation of performing an illegal abortion for the said minor.
The ruling in the PAK and Saleem Muhammad case established abortion as a legal right for women experiencing pregnancy complications and has been hailed as a victory for women’s rights to privacy in the country.
According to Article 26(4) of the constitution of Kenya, Abortion is permitted if in the opinion of a medical expert, “there is a need for emergency treatment”.
Similarly, if the pregnancy complications are putting the “life or health of the mother in danger,” the mother can undergo a procedure with the assistance of a certified care provider.
Kenya also provides post-abortion treatment for women under Article 43 (2).
With 41% of Kenyan women experiencing sexual violence, in 2019 the high court in the FIDA- Kenya case gave the victims of assault the Right to Abortion.
As elections are fast approaching in Kenya, the issue of abortion is once again making headlines. The recent Roe v Wade ruling, and organised online campaigns against the Reproductive Health Care Bill and Surrogacy Bill by the right-wing are shaping up to become a growing threat to women’s right to abortion in the country.
According to the President of the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (FIGO) Dr Anne-Beatrice Kihara (obgyn), although the laws in Kenya do not provide “abortion on demand,” they do take into consideration the “life and health of the mother”. She told The Analyst in an interview that “The foetal viability in Kenya is after 20 weeks of conception.” Thus, safe abortion services can be provided in the 2nd trimester at gestation when the fetus is not viable,” she added.
“Although the laws in Kenya do not provide ‘abortion on demand,’ they do take into consideration the “life and health of the mother.”
The lack of safe abortion options could lead mothers to opt for unsafe choices. The consequences could be dire, Dr Kihara explains. There are short-term effects on a mother’s health such as “hemorrhage, sepsis, fistula formation, etc.” In the long-term they also develop “chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and mental illness.”
A mother who has had an unsafe abortion could develop “chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility or mental illness.”
As Dr. Kihara sees it, the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision could create issues for health care providers who are ethically and morally obligated to provide healthcare to patients in need. They might face “stigma, discrimination, and criminalization for supporting the provision of information and services.” Resultantly there will also be more referrals of patients to other US states for abortion services. This will result in failure to access emergency treatment, possibly more pregnancy related complications that will increase morbidity/mortality, she adds.
She argued that the issue should not only be dealt with at a medical level but at a social level with special attention paid to the “education, counselling of the girls with health promotion and prevention strategies; access to family planning and contraception programs”.
Dr Kihara further said there is need to “reduce the politicizing” of sexual and reproductive health services.
Instead we need to focus on what could be the outcome of investing in comprehensive, quality and safe health services on individuals, the health system and society at large. She suggested there is also need for “engagement of boys/ men taking responsibility for fatherhood and as agents for change”.
She further urged legislators to ponder over the “serious ramifications related to access, affordability, acceptability, quality and safety of services rendered” after the overturning of RoeVsWade.
While the US navigates it way through the confusions and controversies involve in the matter, abortion policies in Kenya can help them find a common ground that can ensure the safety and health of the mother and child.
Deadly Marburg Virus Spreads in Ghana
- The Marburg virus, a highly infectious disease currently spreading in Ghana, has killed two people and has more than 90 quarantined. The virus causes diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, and death in many cases.
- The World Health Organization has said that resources would be sent to Ghana to combat the outbreak, while warning that “without immediate and decisive action, Marburg can easily get out of hand.”
- The virus has been linked to the Ebola virus, which spread through West Africa until 2016 after killing more than 11,000 people. The Marburg virus was initially spread to humans through fruit bats.
- The virus has been detected in many other African countries over the past fifty years, killing hundreds of people with no vaccine or antiviral treatment yet approved.
- Hopefully the world will come together to put an end to this virus in a timely fashion, and not let poorer countries suffer.
UN debate human rights in Afghanistan, concern for women especially
Human rights in Afghanistan and more specifically those of women are being discussed at the UN after Taliban takeover of the country.
Since the recapture and overthrow of the Afghan government on August 15th 2021, the Taliban have slowly reverted to strict rulings for women in Afghanistan, raising issues of human rights in Afghanistan. Despite the several reassurances and claims that women’s rights would be protected under the new Taliban regime, the UN (Human Rights Council) believe it is now time to find solutions after many violations on women’s human rights have occurred.
Various points were discussed during the debate but the general consensus amongst all the countries who participated, was that women in Afghanistan are facing human rights violations on a systemic level. The Taliban have triggered the removal of women from many occupations as well as dismantling previous structures to help girls receive adequate education.
Many speakers expressed their concerns that the Taliban are slowly removing women from all public spheres of life, which would set up entirely male-dominated social hierarchies. These hierarchies are created from young ages, as girls are not allowed to participate in further education . If this is able to continue for the foreseeable future, although it may look grim for Afghanistan now, it may get worse. The lack of education for all girls may prove to be a bad decision for nature of the Taliban’s rule within the next decade. It was also mentioned that without the equality and participation of women in Afghanistan, the social and economic development of the country can only go so far.
The UN were also able to debate what they may be able to provide Afghanistan after the removal of US troops from the nation. One solution suggested was more general rather than specific for women but emphasised the importance of continuing humanitarian aid as the country is also facing a poverty crisis. Some in the council blamed this poverty on the previous US occupations in Afghanistan, whilst also requesting that the US restore the damages and assets to the country.
It was discussed that if these resources are provided by the UN in order to aid the Afghan people, it would still not be sufficient enough to allow the country to prosper because the involvement of women is fundamental both socially and economically.
Although it may seem like little, council members believed that this debate was a spark in the quest of restoring the human rights of women in Afghanistan. Fawzia Koofi (First Woman Vice President of the Afghan Parliament) stated that the situation for women had previously become “unique and dire” and there are fears amongst society that this may occur again and without debates like this, then our fears may become true.
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