Back to its roots: how Zika may threaten Africa

PRAIA/LONDON Florzinha Amado is eight months pregnant and trying to stay calm about whether the Zika virus infection she contracted at 21 weeks could have harmed her unborn child. But Amado isn't Brazilian. She lives on the volcanic archipelago of Cape Verde, 570 km (350 miles) west of Senegal, and is one of 100 pregnant women in the capital of Praia who have contracted Zika there.Their fears, and those of West African authorities seeking to prepare the region's defenses, are shared by global health experts who say it could have unknown consequences in countries ill-equipped for another public health emergency following the Ebola epidemic.Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, was first identified by two Scots, virologist George Dick and entomologist Alexander Haddow, in a forest near Entebbe in Uganda in 1947. The disease itself is mild and 80 percent of those infected do not feel ill, but it has shot to the top of the global health agenda after an outbreak in Brazil was suspected of causing a spike in birth defects. And now, nearly 70 years after its discovery in mainland Africa, it is threatening to return to its roots - this time apparently in a changed form causing large-scale outbreaks."Cape Verde has historical links with Brazil and it seems very likely it has got there from Brazil," said Nick Beeching of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, a Zika expert for the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.According to new data from Cape Verde's health ministry, more than 7,000 cases of Zika have been recorded in the country since the beginning of the epidemic in October 2015, with heavier than normal rains last summer boosting mosquito numbers.Beeching believes it is highly probable Zika will soon be back on the African mainland, thanks to regular flight connections from the Atlantic islands, potentially triggering a new chain of transmission. Regional health officials told Reuters they were most worried about Zika being exported to Senegal or Guinea Bissau, which shares the same Portuguese heritage as Cape Verde. A regional meeting on Zika took place in Dakar on Feb. 9, with African and Western partners discussing preparations for possible imported cases, according to officials.Abdoulaye Bousso, the coordinator of the health emergency operations center in Senegal, said his country had an active surveillance program with several "sentinel sites" being established as early warning points for an outbreak."We do not have cases in the country currently but the risk is there," he said.MANY MOSQUITOES Africa is fertile ground for Zika. Researchers have found more than 20 different mosquito species carrying the virus there, although whether they all transmit the disease effectively to humans is unclear.Ultimately, how much damage Zika may cause on this vast continent will depend on the level of immunity among African populations - and that hinges, crucially, on the extent to which Zika's genetic make-up has mutated on its round-the-world trip.A warning from World Health Organization experts in a paper published online on Feb. 9 that the virus "appears to have changed in character" is heightening concerns.The exact nature of the shift has yet to be unraveled but Mary Kay Kindhauser and colleagues said Zika had altered as it moved through Asia - from an infection causing limited cases of mild illness to one leading to large outbreaks and, from 2013 onwards, linked to babies born with neurological disorders and abnormally small heads.Jimmy Whitworth, a British-based researcher now at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who studied Zika in Uganda back when it was still a "virological curiosity", said the ground was shifting and the risks increasing. "There are a few genetic differences between the African and Asian lineages, and it looks like the Asian lineages may be better able to transmit and flourish in a human population," he told Reuters.What this means on the ground is uncertain. In theory, there may be some cross-protection between different Zika strains, which could protect Africans from the latest version.But Beeching noted that dengue fever, a closely related mosquito-borne virus, had four recognized strains and there was only limited and temporary cross-protection between them. "We just don't know how Zika will spread if it gets to Africa," he said.Another big question is why there is no apparent link in Africa between Zika and birth defects, since the continent has been home to sporadic cases of Zika for decades, if not centuries or millennia.It may be that any past cases of small heads in newborns, known as microcephaly, or of the neurological condition Guillain-Barre syndrome may have been missed in Africa given its limited healthcare infrastructure.But Whitworth hopes to go back and take a retrospective look, since countries including Malawi, Kenya and Uganda have good population records, head measurement data and serum banks that should make checks possible.Back in Cape Verde's Central Hospital in Praia, clinical director Maria do Ceu says there is so far no evidence from scans of any microcephaly among the country's infected mothers-to-be, who are due to deliver their first babies this month.Amado is optimistic. "The doctor encouraged me to do morphological ultrasound and told me that I am okay," she said. "It happened suddenly. I started having blotchy skin and then I went to the maternity ward. I was followed up and thank God everything is fine." (Writing and additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, with Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Pravin Char) Read more

COLUMN-Australia's tough miners want government help; shouldn't get it: Russell

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)By Clyde RussellLAUNCESTON, Australia Feb 10 - When the going gets tough, the tough ask for tax relief. If you are looking for a sign that the end game of the commodity downturn is getting closer, witness the clamour for more support from Australia's embattled resources sector.Asking for government help is one of the last steps a mining company can take to stay alive, assuming it's already exhausted every conceivable cost saving, emptied the pockets of its owners and reached the limits of what its bankers will lend.The latest call came this week from the Queensland Resources Council (QRC), which said the coal mining industry needs support to keep the remaining 60,000 workers employed, following the loss of 21,000 jobs in the past two years."We are not looking for bailouts or subsidies but our entire sector needs certainty and support in the shape of commitments to reduce red tape and unjustified government-imposed and government-sanctioned costs," QRC Chief Executive Michael Roche said in a Feb. 8 statement."At the top of our list are royalties, local government rates and the charges from government and private sector providers of rail, port, power and water services," he said.The preceding two paragraphs from the statement illustrate the problem facing the resources sector, insofar as they don't want to be seen to be asking for government handouts, although in effect that's exactly what they want.Asking for relief from royalty payments, other government charges and for lower costs at government-owned facilities is a de facto request to receive what could broadly be termed as a handout.It may well be the case, especially for smaller and higher-cost coal mines, that more jobs will be lost and pits closed if such relief isn't forthcoming, as Roche warns.But governments also find themselves in a bind, facing ever-rising demands for more spending on health and other services while seeing the revenue they expected from the resources boom evaporate in the face of low commodity prices.The Queensland state government wrote down the expected revenue from coal-mining royalties over the next four years by almost A$3 billion ($2.11 billion) in its budget last year. This means it's extremely unlikely to want to lower royalty payments, or the amount state-controlled corporations charge for using railways and ports.Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is willing to discuss the issues with the QRC, but won't hand out cash to mining companies, the Brisbane-based Courier Mail reported on Wednesday."As I said very clearly, my Government is not in the business of giving money to private enterprise," the newspaper quoted her as saying.This is a consistent message from Palaszczuk, who earlier this year refused to provide financial guarantees to Queensland Nickel, the refining operation owned by flamboyant miner turned politician Clive Palmer that was placed in voluntary administration last month.It is sensible policy for the Queensland state government to decline to subsidise struggling resource companies, even if this will come at the cost of mine closures and job losses.For politicians in democracies it's a brave decision to risk job losses and subsequent voter displeasure, even in pursuit of sustainable longer-term industries. For the QRC, there is nothing wrong with lobbying hard in the interests of your members, even if the wider interest of all of them would actually be better served by the collapse of the weakest.It still seems that many in the resources industry haven't yet grasped that the inevitable consequence of massively overbuilding supply is the failure of the shakiest companies.LNG, IRON ORE ALSO SEEK RELIEFQueensland, which produces the vast majority of Australia's coking coal and is also home to three new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, will be better served in the longer term by the closure of unprofitable operations, rather than seeing them cling on through royalty and other government relief.Just like coal, the LNG plants are also facing the reality of huge oversupply, and have started the process of seeking relief, albeit in a somewhat different manner. APLNG, the facility owned by Origin Energy Energy and ConocoPhillips, is asking the state Supreme Court to set aside the Queensland government's royalty calculations, according to a report in the Australian Financial Review on Feb. 8.Even if the legal challenge fails, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to expect the LNG industry to also seek other forms of relief, especially if prices and demand in Asia remain soft.But the problems of government support can be seen across the country in Western Australia, home to the world's biggest iron ore mining industry.There the state government decided last year to waive 50 percent of royalty payments to smaller mines that were actively trying to restructure their operations.This provided a lifeline to minnows such as BC Iron , but at the same time kept supply in the market that should have been closed down.Iron ore is probably one of the most over-supplied commodities currently, and with the softening outlook for Chinese steel demand is likely to remain that way.The question for governments is whether assistance in any form is actually a help or a hindrance to efforts to re-balance commodity markets.The faster markets can re-balance, the faster the relief of higher prices can be felt by the survivors.Ultimately, a smaller but more sustainable resources sector is better than weak companies struggling along, propped up by the public purse.($1 = 1.4190 Australian dollars) (Editing by Christian Schmollinger) Read more

Suicide bombing at Damascus police club kills several people: interior ministry

BEIRUT A suicide car bomber blew himself up at a police officers' club in a residential district of Damascus on Tuesday, killing several people, Syria's interior ministry said, and Islamic State militants claimed responsibility.It said that a number of people were also wounded in the blast in Masaken Barza, a middle class district where several major government buildings are located. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in Syria's civil war, said eight police officers were killed in the blast and at least 20 wounded after a vehicle was detonated in a parking lot in the police officers' club.The ultra-hardline Islamic State, in a statement carried by social media, named the bomber as Abu Abdul Rahman al Shami and said he had turned his enemies' "tranquility into horror" to avenge what it called the suffering of fellow Sunni Muslims.It put the death toll at 20 with at least 40 injuries. An interior ministry statement said security forces prevented the suicide bomber from entering the heavily patrolled complex and that the blast occurred at its gates.Syrian state television reported earlier that the blast took place in a busy marketplace. It then retracted this information. The last major blast in the Syrian capital occurred on Jan. 31 in a Damascus district where Syria's holiest Shi'ite Muslim shrine is located. The blast killed over 70 people including at least 25 Shi'ite militiamen, and was claimed by Islamic State. Suicide bombings in the heart of the Syrian capital have generally subsided in the last two years. Insurgents however continue to frequently fire mortars into the capital from rebel-held eastern suburbs. (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Mark Heinrich) Read more

Wall St. in selloff mode as techs extend rout, oil falls

Wall Street was deep in the red in volatile trading on Monday, as technology stocks continued to sell off and oil prices remained under pressure, sending investors scurrying to safe-haven assets.The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite fell nearly 3 percent to its lowest since October 2014, weighed down by Microsoft (MSFT.O), Amazon (AMZN.O) and Facebook (FB.O), while the Dow Jones industrial average shed more than 350 points."Equities are in a 'go-nowhere-fast' mode, with a downward bias in the near term," said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Minneapolis.Crude oil prices eased from their session lows, but were still down about 1 percent.Chesapeake (CHK.N) was the latest casualty of lower energy prices, tumbling 30 percent to $2.14 after sources told Reuters that the natgas company had hired restructuring lawyers. The stock halved before being halted earlier. Chesapeake said it has no plans to pursue a bankruptcy.Demand for crude is considered a barometer for global economic health, and markets across the world have closely tracked the rise and fall in the price of the oversupplied commodity this year.Gold XAU= prices rose to their highest since June and the yield on 30-year U.S. treasuries hit their lowest since April. At 11:31 a.m. ET, the Dow .DJI was down 343.38 points, or 2.12 percent, at 15,861.59.The S&P 500 .SPX was down 40.79 points, or 2.17 percent, at 1,839.26.The Nasdaq Composite index .IXIC was down 119.32 points, or 2.73 percent, at 4,243.82. The index is on track for its worst two-day fall since August.The CBOE volatility index .VIX, seen as a measure of Wall Street's fear, was up 14.5 percent, its biggest jump in a month. All 10 major S&P sectors were down, with the 3.05 percent fall in financial stocks .SPSY leading the decliners as they followed European banks lower. Goldman Sachs' (GS.N) 5.6 percent drop was the biggest drag.The index, down 15 percent for the year is the worst performing among the 10 sectors on increasing uncertainty about when the Federal Reserve will raise rates again.Investors have also been worried about the unraveling of rich valuations in a narrow group of stocks that led the market higher through most of 2015. "What you've seen regarding technology and other sectors is that the (higher) valuations are being ratcheted back down closer to the underlying fundamentals that are going to support their growth, if its there," said Ryan Larson, head of U.S. equity trading at RBC Global Asset Management in Chicago.Microsoft's (MSFT.O) 2.7 percent decline to $48.87 also dragged down the S&P 500. Facebook (FB.O) and Amazon (AMZN.O) were off about 4 percent, while Alphabet (GOOGL.O) dropped 2 percent.Cognizant (CTSH.O) dropped 7 percent to $54.46 after the IT services provider forecast its slowest revenue growth in 14 years.Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,675 to 342. On the Nasdaq, 2,245 issues fell and 434 advanced.The S&P 500 index showed five new 52-week highs and 76 new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded two new highs and 392 new lows. (Reporting by Abhiram Nandakumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Savio D'Souza) Read more

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

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