Saturday November 25, 2017

Amid Government Silence in Venezuela, Babies diagnosed with Microcephaly struggle to Survive

In the last three months, doctors say some 25 babies with microcephaly have been examined at what was once one of the leading hospitals in Latin America

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Ericka Torres holds her 3-month-old son, Jesus, who was born with microcephaly, at their home in Guarenas, Venezuela, Oct. 5, 2016. VOA

Deep inside a hilly Venezuelan slum, Ericka Torres rocks her three-month-old son Jesus to soothe his near-constant crying.

Jesus was diagnosed with microcephaly, a birth defect marked by a small head and serious developmental problems, after his mother contracted what was probably the mosquito-borne Zika virus during pregnancy in the poor city of Guarenas.

Torres said her boyfriend left after scans showed their child had birth defects, and she now struggles to afford medicine, clothes and even diapers for Jesus in the midst of Venezuela’s brutal economic crisis.

The Venezuelan government has not acknowledged a single case of Zika-related microcephaly in the country. Click To Tweet

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“It’s intense. But I can’t get stressed, because this struggle is only just beginning,” said Torres, 28, a supermarket security guard who smiles easily despite barely sleeping because of Jesus’ screams and convulsions, common traits of babies born with microcephaly.

The Venezuelan government, however, has not acknowledged a single case of Zika-related microcephaly in the country.

Beyond some health warnings and a handful of televised comments about Zika at the start of the year, the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro has largely kept quiet about the virus even as neighboring Brazil and Colombia publish weekly bulletins.

Venezuela does provide data to the World Health Organization, which shows it has had some 58,212 suspected Zika cases and 1,964 confirmed ones since the virus emerged in Brazil last year and then spread rapidly through the Americas.

But it has not, however, declared any cases of confirmed congenital syndrome associated with Zika, such as microcephaly, and has not mentioned any suspected cases either.

To be sure, inadequate Zika testing has thwarted efforts to precisely diagnose Zika-caused microcephaly. But countries like Brazil have turned to clinical diagnoses and report “confirmed and probable cases” of Zika-associated congenital syndromes to the WHO, for instance.

Some doctors accuse Venezuela’s unpopular government of hiding the Zika problem amid a deep recession that has everything from flour and rice to antibiotics and chemotherapy medicines running short and spurred fierce criticism of Maduro.

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They also say government inaction means kids are missing out on targeted state-sponsored therapy programs that would help to stimulate them.

“This delays the patient’s development, because no matter how much knowledge or drive you have, if you don’t have the physical tools like materials, resources, medicines, well that delays everything,” said Maria Pereira, a doctor in Caracas.

Local media have put the number of babies born with suspected Zika-linked microcephaly so far this year at around 60. Physicians in Caracas, the western city of Maracaibo, and the coastal state of Sucre, confirmed at least 50 cases in interviews with Reuters.

Venezuela’s Institute of Tropical Medicine estimates the real number could be much higher by the end of the year – between 563 and 1,400. That estimate is based on the numbers in Brazil, which has more than 1,800 confirmed cases, and pregnancy rates in Venezuela.

Product shortages have likely aggravated the effects of Zika in Venezuela: lack of contraceptives lead to unwanted pregnancies; lack of bug spray and fumigations lead to bites; and lack of anticonvulsant drugs or state support add to the hardships of children with the birth defect.

Venezuela’s health and information ministries did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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The government says it has one of the best health care systems in the world, pointing to free Cuban-staffed clinics in slums and social programs for maternal and child well-being. But it has stopped releasing data as the health sector has crumbled in the last two years.

No resources’

Dozens of women and babies line up in the hot, dimly lit corridors of the J.M. de los Rios children’s hospital in Caracas, often waiting hours before an overstretched doctor can finally see them.

In the last three months, doctors say some 25 babies with microcephaly have been examined at what was once one of the leading hospitals in Latin America, with the majority of their mothers reporting symptoms including rashes or fevers during pregnancy.

Physicians order exams and prescribe therapies, but the overwhelmingly poor families struggle to scrape together enough money in the face of triple-digit inflation.

That delays early intervention and the discovery of other potential syndromes that have been linked to Zika, like vision problems or joint deformities.

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“You feel impotent that you can’t provide anything more because there are no resources,” said Pereira, who works at the J.M. de los Rios hospital. Her family has to send her food and money from the provinces because she only earns around $70 a month between her salary and food tickets.

Other poor Latin American countries have also been criticized for their response to Zika. Brazil was called slow to investigate the initial surge of microcephaly cases and doctors say Zika prevention was spotty in Honduras, which estimates it will have some 340 cases of microcephaly by the end of the year.

Doctors and opposition lawmakers say Venezuela is faring the worst and have called for foreign aid and a stronger stance from the WHO.

Venezuela has rebuffed requests for aid, with officials saying it is an attempt to justify a foreign intervention in the oil-rich country.

When asked about criticism it was not doing enough in Venezuela, the WHO’s regional office for the Americas told Reuters its role was to provide technical cooperation to member countries and that it was working to strengthen that cooperation with Venezuela’s Health Ministry.

In the meantime, families are feeling the squeeze.

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Home-based hairdresser Isabel Jimenez, her unemployed husband, and their four kids had already stopped having breakfast before the birth of Joshua, who has microcephaly, two weeks ago.

Now the family in the isolated Caribbean peninsula of Paraguana is under further pressure and has to rely on relatives for help with diapers, milk and medical appointments.

“I cried a lot,” said Jimenez, 28, of learning about Joshua’s condition. “At first I had a lot of anger and sadness, but I have to keep going with my baby because I can’t do anything else.” (VOA)

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Anti-dengue Antibody Drug May Neutralize Zika Virus

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Zika
Test for Zika more than once during pregnancy: Study

Washington, Sep 26: An anti-dengue antibody-based drug could potentially protect a mother and her foetus from the deadly Zika virus as well, suggests new research.

In experiments with mice, the researchers found that an antibody that protects against dengue virus is also effective against Zika.

“We found that this antibody not only neutralises the dengue virus but, in mice, protects both adults and foetuses from Zika disease,” said Michael Diamond, Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and senior author of the study published in the journal Nature Immunology.

Antibodies remain in the bloodstream for weeks, so one or a few doses of an antibody-based drug given over the course of a woman’s pregnancy potentially could protect her foetus from Zika, with the added benefit of protecting her from both Zika and dengue disease, the researchers said.

Dengue causes high fever, severe headaches, and joint and muscle pain in children and adults but does not directly harm foetuses.

Since dengue and Zika are related viruses, the researchers reasoned that an antibody that prevents dengue disease may do the same for Zika.

In collaboration with Gavin Screaton of Imperial College London, who had generated a panel of human anti-dengue antibodies years before, the scientists infected nonpregnant adult mice with Zika virus and then administered one of the anti-dengue antibodies one, three or five days after infection.

For comparison, another group of mice was infected with Zika virus and then given a placebo.

Within three weeks of infection, more than 80 per cent of the untreated mice had died, whereas all of the mice that received the anti-dengue antibody within three days of infection were still alive, and 40 per cent of those that received the antibody five days after infection survived.

To find out whether the antibody also could protect foetuses from infection, the researchers infected female mice on the sixth day of their pregnancies with Zika virus and then administered a dose of antibody or a placebo one or three days later.

On the 13th day of gestation, the amount of Zika’s genetic material were significantly lower in the placentas and in the foetal heads from the pregnant mice that were treated one day after infection, compared with mice that received the placebo.

However, administering the antibody three days after infection was less effective, the findings showed.

These findings suggest that for the antibody to effectively protect foetuses from Zika infection, it must be administered soon after infection.

Such a goal may be unrealistic clinically because women rarely know when they get infected.

However, giving women the antibody as soon as they know they are pregnant could provide them with a ready-made defence against the virus should they encounter it.

“We mutated the antibody so that it could not cause antibody enhancement of dengue infection, and it was still protective,” said Diamond.

“So now we have a version of the antibody that would be therapeutic against both viruses and safe for use in a dengue-endemic area because it is unable to worsen disease,” Diamond added.(IANS)

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Indian Origin Scientist Part of the team that Developed Nanotechnology-based Test that quickly Detects Zika Virus

When a drop of the patient's blood is applied on the paper mounted on the nanorods, the immunoglobulins in the blood will react with the protein if the patient has come into contact with the virus and demonstrate a colour change

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Test that quickly discovers Zika virus
Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) of Zika virus. Wikimedia Commons
  • Scientists have developed a nanotechnology based test that can quickly detect the presence of the Zika virus in the blood
  • The new test relies on a protein made by the Zika virus
  • The test is very quick as the results would be declared before the patient even leaves the clinic

New Delhi, August 13, 2017: Scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have developed a nanotechnology-based test that can quickly detect the presence of the Zika virus in the blood, an advance that may also be applicable to other emerging infectious diseases.

Currently, testing for Zika requires that a blood sample be refrigerated and shipped to a medical centre or laboratory, delaying diagnosis and possible treatment for Zika virus.

The new test, however, relies on a protein made by the Zika virus that causes an immune response in infected individuals, which is then attached to tiny gold nanorods mounted on a piece of paper.

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The paper then is completely covered with tiny, protective nanocrystals. The nanocrystals allow the diagnostic nanorods to be shipped and stored without refrigeration prior to use, the researchers said.

“If an assay requires electricity and refrigeration, it defeats the purpose of developing something to use in a resource-limited setting, especially in tropical areas of the world,” said Srikanth Singamaneni, Associate Professor at the Washington University in St. Louis.

“We wanted to make the test immune from variations in temperature and humidity,” Singamaneni added.

When a drop of the patient’s blood is applied on the paper mounted on the nanorods, the immunoglobulins in the blood will react with the protein if the patient has come into contact with the virus and demonstrate a colour change.

“The immunoglobulins persist in the blood for a few months, and when they come into contact with the gold nanorods, the nanorods undergo a slight colour change that can be detected with a hand-held spectrophotometer,” explained Jeremiah J. Morrissey, Professor at the varsity.

Also read: Zika Virus Infection may cause lasting Eye Diseases, also posing a wider Threat in Human pregnancies: Study

“With this test, results will be clear before the patient leaves the clinic, allowing immediate counselling and access to treatment,” he added in the paper detailed in the journal Advanced Biosystems.

As other infectious diseases emerge around the world, similar strategies potentially could be used to develop tests to detect the presence of viruses that may become problematic, the researchers said. (IANS)

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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

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Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)