More than 3,100 pregnant women in Colombia have Zika virus: government

BOGOTA More than 3,100 pregnant Colombian women are infected with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Saturday, as the disease continues its rapid spread across the Americas.The virus has been linked to the devastating birth defect microcephaly, which prevents fetus' brains from developing properly. There is no vaccine or treatment.There are so far no recorded cases of Zika-linked microcephaly in Colombia, Santos said.There are 25,645 people infected with the disease in Colombia, Santos said during a TV broadcast with health officials. Among them are 3,177 pregnant women."The projection is that we could end up having 600,000 cases," Santos said, adding there could be up to 1,000 cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can cause paralysis and which some governments have linked to Zika infection.Santos said the government was now uncertain about a previous projection for up to 500 cases of Zika-linked microcephaly, based on data from other countries battling the disease. Authorities will continue to investigate, he said. The government will be working across the country to fight mosquitoes - fumigating and helping families rid their homes of stagnant water, the president said.Colombian health minister Alejandro Gaviria has said he believes three deaths are connected with Zika.The province of Norte de Santander had nearly 5,000 cases of the virus, more than any other in the country, an epidemiological bulletin from the national health institute published on Saturday showed. Norte de Santander, along the eastern border with Venezuela, also had the highest number of pregnant women with Zika - nearly 31 percent of total cases.The country's Caribbean region, which includes popular tourist destinations Cartagena and Santa Marta, had more than 11,000 cases of the virus, the bulletin showed.The government has said pregnant women with Zika are eligible to access much-restricted abortion services. Many women struggle to find abortion providers even when they meet strict legal requirements and illegal abortions are widespread. On Friday, local media reported the first abortion because of Zika infection.The government has urged women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months. Unreported cases and patients with no symptoms of infection could mean that there are between 80,000 and 100,000 current Zika infections in Colombia, the government has said.An estimated 80 percent of those infected with Zika show no symptoms, and those that do have a mild illness, with a fever, rash and red eyes. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Nick Zieminski) Read more

Quake fells Taiwan apartment building, at least two dead

TAINAN, Taiwan A powerful earthquake toppled a 17-story apartment building in southern Taiwan on Saturday, killing at least two people, including a 10-day-old girl, and triggering frantic efforts to rescue dozens of people feared trapped inside.The baby and a 40-year-old man are the only confirmed deaths from the building, a complex of towers whose floors pancaked down onto to each other when the 6.4 magnitude tremor hit at around 4 a.m. (2000 GMT), at the start of a Lunar New Year holiday.Rescuers mounted hydraulic ladders and a crane to scour the wreckage, plucking more than 120 survivors to safety, with dozens taken to hospital, a fire brigade official said.Elsewhere in the city of 2 million people, several buildings tilted at alarming angles but a fire department official said rescue efforts were now focused entirely on the apartment block."I was watching TV and after a sudden burst of shaking, I heard a boom. I opened my metal door and saw the building opposite fall down," said a 71-year-old neighbour who gave his name as Chang.A plumber, he said he fetched some tools and a ladder and prised some window bars open to rescue a woman crying for help."She asked me to go back and rescue her husband, child, but I was afraid of a gas explosion so I didn't go in. At the time there were more people calling for help, but my ladder wasn't long enough so there was no way to save them."The quake was centred 27 miles (43 km) southeast of Tainan, at a depth of 23 km (14 miles), the U.S. Geological Survey said. Several aftershocks shook Tainan, Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau said. One elderly woman, wrapped in blankets, was strapped to a board and slowly slid down a ramp to the ground as the cries of those still trapped rang out. Rescuers used dogs and acoustic equipment to pick up signs of life in the rubble."There are 60 households in that building," said Tainan fire department information officer Lee Po Min, estimating that there might be about 240 people living there.One city hospital said 58 people had been brought in, most of them with light injuries. The fire department said a total of 115 people had been taken to hospital from around Tainan.SEVERAL BUILDINGS DAMAGED Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, speaking to reporters in the capital before leaving for the disaster scene, said authorities were not clear on the extent of the disaster."The disaster situation is not very clear yet. We will do our utmost to rescue and secure (survivors)," Ma said.The quake initially cut power to 168,000 households in Tainan, many of whose residents lived through a massive 1999 tremor that killed about 2,400 people. Later, utility Taipower said power had been restored to all but about 900 households.Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world's largest contract chipmaker, said some of its wafers made in Tainan had been damaged and some customers might be affected. It did not say which customers. TSMC will step up production to make up for any delayed shipments, spokeswoman Elizabeth Sun said. The company is a major supplier to global smartphone firms, including Apple Inc .Taiwan lies in the seismically active "Pacific Ring of Fire". Television quoted Tainan residents as saying the quake felt worse than the 1999 tremor, centred in central Taiwan.China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which in is charge of Beijing's relations with the self-ruled island, said China was willing to provide help if needed, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said. Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province.Taiwan's Formosa TV said its reporters could hear the cries of people trapped inside the collapsed apartment tower as firefighters, police and troops swarmed the area. The defence ministry said 810 soldiers had been mobilised for rescue efforts.Firefighters hosed down part of the building to prevent a fire while others used ladders and a crane to enter upper floors. The building appeared to have collapsed onto the first story where a child's clothes fluttered on a laundry line.Some bullet train services were suspended to the south of Taiwan as inspections were carried out on the tracks for damage, Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp said in a statement. (Additional reporting by J.R. Wu, Faith Hung, Carol Lee, Eric Walsh, Eric Beech, Elizabeth Dilts and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Robert Birsel) Read more

Tropical Tonga declares Zika outbreak after five cases confirmed

SYDNEY The tiny South Pacific island nation of Tonga has declared an outbreak of the Zika virus after five cases of the mosquito-borne illness were confirmed and another 259 suspected, the country's chief medical officer said on Friday.Chief Medical Officer Dr. Reynold Ofanoa said that officials became suspicious after a sharp rise in the number of patients suffering acute fever and rashes since the beginning of the year."We were suspecting a probable outbreak of either Zika, dengue or chikungunya," he told Reuters, referring to two other mosquito-borne viruses. "So we sent the blood specimens for testing overseas and when we obtained the results it showed that we've got confirmed positive blood tests for Zika." The tropical archipelago had never previously had any confirmed cases of the Zika virus, Ofanoa said, so it was likely brought into the country by an infected person and then spread by mosquitoes."I think this is the first time it happened in Tonga, so surely the disease came from overseas." There were no immediate plans to introduce travel restrictions in or out of the country, he said.Since it was detected in Brazil in April, the virus has spread to 26 countries in the Americas. The World Health Organization declared Zika an international health emergency this week, citing a "strongly suspected" relationship between the virus in pregnancy and microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and can suffer developmental problems. Brazil's government is investigating the potential link between Zika and more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly. Researchers have identified evidence of Zika in 17 of those cases but have not confirmed the virus can cause the condition. (Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie) Read more

U.N. halts Syria talks as government closes in on Aleppo

GENEVA A United Nations envoy halted his attempts to conduct Syrian peace talks on Wednesday after the army, backed by Russian air strikes, advanced against rebel forces north of Aleppo, choking opposition supply lines from Turkey to the city.Another senior U.N. official said the Russian escalation was the main reason for the suspension of the peace talks, which have made little progress since beginning earlier this week.Staffan de Mistura announced a three-week pause in the Geneva talks, the first attempt to negotiate an end to Syria's war in two years, saying they needed immediate help from the rival sides' international backers, principally the United States and Russia."I have indicated from the first day that I won't talk for the sake of talking," the envoy, who has described the negotiations as Syria's last hope, told reporters.A senior U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that De Mistura halted the talks after Russia's military escalation undermined the negotiating process."I think the special envoy decided to suspend the talks because the (United Nations) did not want to be associated with the Russian escalation in Syria, which risks undermining the talks completely," the official said."The stepped up air strikes gain the government ground, but also aim at humiliating the opposition on the ground and in Geneva," he added.Washington and Moscow's support for opposite sides in the five-year-old war, which has drawn in regional states, created millions of refugees and enabled the rise of Islamic State, means a local conflict has become an increasingly fraught global standoff.De Mistura has said a ceasefire is essential but Russia refused to suspend its air strikes. They helped government forces end a three-and-a-half year siege of the Shi’ite towns of Nubul and al-Zahraa on Wednesday, a step towards recapturing all of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war."I don't see why these air strikes should be stopped," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, saying they were targeting al Qaeda-linked rebels.Opposition delegation co-ordinator Riad Hijab said there would be no ceasefire until a transition without President Bashar al-Assad was in place.Moscow accuses Washington, which is backing opponents of Assad, of supporting terrorists, while the U.S. State Department said the air strikes around Aleppo focused mainly on Assad's foes rather than the Islamic State militants Russia says it is trying to defeat. In a statement on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Syrian government and its supporters to halt bombardment of opposition-held areas, especially in Aleppo, and end sieges of civilians in accordance with a U.N. Security Council resolution."It is past time for them to meet existing obligations and restore the international community's confidence in their intentions of supporting a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis," Kerry added.The United Nations said it had been told hundreds of families had been uprooted following "an unprecedented frequency" of air strikes in the past two days. Three aid workers were among the dead.Its envoy had formally opened the peace talks on Friday but both sides denied they had ever begun.Aleppo rebel factions, reeling from the assault, told the opposition delegation late on Tuesday they would bring down the negotiations within three days unless the offensive ended, a source close to the talks said. De Mistura halted the talks until Feb. 25 at the latest after meeting the opposition."I have concluded frankly that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but by the stakeholders," de Mistura said. French Foreign Minister Fabius Laurent Fabius said his government supported De Mistura's decision and he accused Assad and his allies of "torpedoing" the peace effort.The opposition's Hijab said the pause gave the West a chance to put pressure on the Assad government and Russia to end their assault and that he would not return until there was a change on the ground.NO END TO RUSSIAN STRIKESGovernment delegation chief Bashar al-Ja'afari accused the opposition of pulling out of the talks because it was losing the fight.Developments on the ground were crucial," he said, accusing de Mistura of providing them with political cover. "Those who have the responsibility of this failure are the Saudis, Turks and Qataris. They are the real handlers and masters of the Riyadh group."Aleppo, 50 km (30 miles) south of the Turkish border, was Syria's most populous city before the country's descent into civil war. It has been partitioned into zones of government and insurgent control since 2012.If the government regains control, it would be a big blow to insurgents' hopes of toppling Assad after a war that has divided Syria between western areas still governed from Damascus and the rest of the country run by a patchwork of rebels. The Levant Front rebel group said the breaking of the sieges of the Aleppo villages of Nubul and Zahraa came only after more than 500 raids by Russian airplanes. One commander said opposition-held areas of the divided city were at risk of being encircled entirely by the government and allied militia, and appealed to foreign states that back the rebels to send more weapons.Diplomats and opposition members said they were taken by surprise when de Mistura called for immediate efforts to begin ceasefire negotiations despite there being no official talks or goodwill measures from the Syrian government.The opposition has said it will not negotiate unless the government stops bombarding civilian areas, lifts blockades on besieged towns and releases detainees.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said Russian and Syrian warplanes launched dozens of strikes on the rebel towns of Hayan and Hreitan in northern Aleppo on Wednesday."Less than 3 km separate the regime from cutting all routes to opposition-held Aleppo," Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said. "It did in three days what it failed to do in 3-1/2 years." (Additional reporting by Firas Makdesi, Cecile Mantovani, Kinda Makieh and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Mariam Karouny, Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Beirut, Fatma Al Arini in Muscat, Louis Charbonneau in New York, and Eric Walsh in Washington; Writing by Andrew Roche and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Richard Chang) Read more

ABB shifts focus in China as demand slumps

ZURICH Swiss engineer ABB (ABBN.VX) is responding to sluggish demand in China by expanding in the country's western cities and focusing on sales of robotics and high-voltage power equipment, while cutting costs across the group.A cost-cutting program meant to trim ABB's expenses by some $1 billion annually from 2017 is ahead of schedule "in some areas," CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer said on Wednesday when the company announced fourth quarter net profit fell 70 percent.ABB will press ahead with the program as low oil prices squeeze sales to energy customers. The Chinese government is also scaling back infrastructure projects, lowering demand for ABB's standard products like motors and drives. Rival General Electric (GE.N) is also having to cut costs as low oil prices and slow growth hurt earnings.The challenge now, Spiesshofer said, is redirecting ABB's resources toward untapped areas such as cities in China's west where he is seeking more partnerships with local companies. ABB is also pushing factory robots for car manufacturers and consumer electronics makers. It is also focusing on power grid equipment for electricity transmission and distribution projects needed to supply energy for China's growing population."The investment driven economy is coming down, the consumption-driven pattern is going up," Spiesshofer told reporters at a news conference in Zurich. "It's important for a technology player like us to make sure we are adapting our strategy and we are aligning our focus areas and priorities with the shifting market.""The robotics business is humming, we're driving that very strongly," he added.EYES ON INDIA ABB also said it wanted growth in India to help balance weakness elsewhere, underscoring its push on the subcontinent by announcing that Satish Pai, a deputy managing director at Hindalco Industries Ltd., would be one of four new ABB board members."Looking forward, there's quite solid growth particularly on the power and the base industries side," Spiesshofer said."Altogether, I'm optimistic about India, the government needs to find the right way to get all the actions aligned, but there's good intentions." Spiesshofer is under pressure from ABB's biggest two owners, Sweden's Investor AB with 10 percent of shares and activist shareholder Cevian with 5 percent. ABB's shares have fallen by a fifth since July, cutting about 10 billion Swiss francs from market value.The shares rose 0.75 percent by 6.25 a.m. ET, outperforming a Swiss Market Index .SSMI that was little changed.Cost cuts helped ABB's margin for operational earnings before interest, taxes and amortization improve to 11.7 percent in the quarter, above analysts' estimates. ABB's "bottom-line results came in stronger than consensus with an operational EBITDA beat of 8 percent," analysts at J. Safra Sarasin wrote in a note. "Despite challenging market conditions, ABB is delivering solid operational results."ABB proposed boosting its dividend to 0.74 Swiss francs per share from 0.72 francs. (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Keith Weir) Read more

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