Air pollution a factor in spiking cancer cases, report says

New estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) predict a 77% increase in cancer cases globally by 2050. The report points to air pollution as one of the factors driving the expected increase in cancer rates, even though it does not have the same effect on everyone.

As a global health watchdog, the WHO rarely has good news. It stayed true to its mission ahead of World Cancer Day, when its International Agency for Research on Cancer released a report on February 1 predicting an increase of some 35 million new cases of cancer by 2050. This represents an increase of 77% compared to 2022, noted WHO.  

Among the factors driving the expected increase in cancer rates was air pollution.

Fine particles lead to cell dysfunction

“This mainly concerns fine particle pollution”, said Dr Emmanuel Ricard, a spokesperson for the French League Against Cancer.

Diesel exhaust is one of the main sources of these particles, he said. The finest of these particles can descend into the lungs, all the way down to the alveoli. These are the tiny air sacs located at the end of the respiratory tree-like structure of the lung, where the blood exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide during the process of breathing in and breathing out.

The body’s defence cells will “want” to remove these particles, and inflammation follows. This ends up disrupting the cells which, instead of continuing to replicate in a healthy way, will begin to “dysfunction”, becoming cancerous. “These cancer cells will multiply, and form a tumour,” Ricard said.

More people, and older 

At least several factors indicated by the study are unrelated to pollution. The rapidly growing global cancer rate reflects population growth: as the number of human beings on the planet continues to increase, the total number of cancer cases will also increase.

And while humans are becoming more numerous, the species is also living longer. “Cancer is a problem of immunity, and immunity declines the older we get. As a result, the longer the population’s life expectancy, the more it will be at risk of getting cancer,” said Ricard.

Another classic illusion in the epidemiological data is linked to the improvement of cancer diagnosis itself. These are cases that already existed in the past, but which escaped medical radars. Now, as they are being detected, they contribute to an increase in overall cancer cases.

There are also situations of “overdiagnosis”, in which the presence of cancer cells is confused with cancer as such, said Catherine Hill, a French epidemiologist.

A classic case is prostate cancer. According to the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance (InVs), 30% of 30-year-old men and 80% of 80-year-old men have cancer cells in their prostate. “This is extremely common. It’s obvious that not all of these cancer cells give rise to symptomatic cancers,” said Hill.

Mental health

More and more studies are establishing – although it has yet to be confirmed – a link between pollution and the deterioration of health, including mental health. Pollution even supposedly aggravates depression.

These are “trends” full of scientific estimations, said Hill. After tobacco, alcohol consumption is the leading cause of cancer in France according to WHO, said Hill. “Pollution causes 50 times less cancer in France than tobacco, and 20 times less than alcohol,” she added, quoting a study by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Yet it would be wrong to consider the factors of cancer as isolated, said Ricard. An individual exposed to several factors will have a higher risk of getting cancer. The knowledge that exists on the effect that tobacco and alcohol together can have on cancer rates can be applied elsewhere, he said. “We were thus able to find, in the case of lung cancer, genes that were just as impacted by cigarettes as by atmospheric pollution,” said Ricard.  

The dangers of the world’s ‘dumping ground’

Yet the pollution factor is not the same for everyone, since humans do not breathe the same air. “In the big cities of China, India, South America, Antananarivo [in Madagascar], and even Cairo, clouds of particles form out of the pollution. Under this ‘smog’, people develop lung cancer, just like in England during the industrial revolution,” said Ricard.

There is now a transfer of pollution towards the “South”, which is used as a “dumping ground for the world”, Ricard added. “Besides the ‘at-risk’ factories that industrialized countries prefer to relocate, developing economies are sold low-cost oil derivatives of inferior quality.”

Those who have visited the megacities of developing countries will agree: the pollution seems stronger there. This is indeed because it is more aggressive: “The diesel fuels used there are even richer in sulphur and nitrogen than those emitted in Europe,” said Ricard.

For Richard, WHO’s report highlights an epidemiological transition. The countries previously impacted by infectious diseases, which are declining, will soon face a surge of diseases, like cancer, common to Western countries.

An ecological wake-up call?

In France, for instance, air quality has improved over the past 30 years. In the Toulouse metropolitan area, the presence of fine particles and nitrogen oxide fell respectively by 40% and 17% between 2009 and 2019. This has had a positive impact on cardiovascular diseases, strokes, heart attacks and cancers, said Ricard.

Less encouraging is the study carried out in the Toulouse region, which concludes that the economically disadvantaged population is more exposed to air pollution, and more concerned by deaths attributable to long-term exposure.

Beyond these socio-economic disparities, Xavier Briffault, a researcher working in social sciences and epistemology of mental health at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) saw potential for an ecological wake-up call. By demonstrating a direct correlation between health and environmental degradation, science could take us from environmental protection, driven by ethics, to ecological awareness, driven by public health concerns. 

Health is not an end in itself but also a means in our fight for a greener world, said Briffault. By mobilizing our fears, the health issue also allows citizens to put pressure on politicians with the message: “Not only are you killing the planet, but you are killing us.”

The rallying cry that “polluting is bad” is bound to disappear, to be replaced by a new logic: Pollution is killing us.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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If Ukraine’s health sector is to recover, the world has to step up now

By Dr Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine

The world can — and should — play even more of a role now in supporting health sector recovery, a key pillar of Ukraine’s ability to withstand and overcome current challenges and build a better future for its resilient people, Dr Jarno Habicht writes.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has led to the widespread destruction of social and economic infrastructure in the country —   especially in the health sector. 

As of today, WHO has confirmed over 1,004 attacks that have damaged or destroyed health facilities, including hospitals and pharmacies, with more than 100 health providers killed and dozens more wounded. 

As I have seen with my own eyes — including during recent visits close to the frontline and other war-damaged zones — these attacks have profoundly impacted the population’s access to essential health services and medicines.

Despite the devastation, and even as the war rages on, the process of recovery and reconstruction in Ukraine’s health sector is well underway. 

As of June, according to national authorities, more than 600 damaged healthcare facilities have been partially or fully repaired.

Billions are needed just for Ukraine’s health sector recovery

Yet many challenges remain – including the urgent need for additional resources. In February 2023, a joint assessment conducted by the Government of Ukraine, the World Bank Group, the European Commission, and the United Nations estimated that the total amount of funding needed for health sector recovery would be roughly $16.4 billion (€15bn). 

More than $3.6 million (€3.3m) is urgently required to meet needs this year alone, and that was calculated before the Kakhovka Dam destruction, which has now significantly increased the needs.

Last week, the international community convened at the annual Ukraine Recovery Conference in London. In this context, the WHO Country Office in Ukraine has undertaken new research to help inform discussions related to the country’s health sector recovery.

Under this study, we visited four inspiring sites of recovery and reconstruction in territories reclaimed from temporary Russian military control — and where the scale of the damage and destruction has been severe.

A summary of just one of these cases symbolises the breadth of the challenge before us, as well as the opportunities to build back better.

A case of a pharmacy restored to the benefit of the local community

The Apteka 911 pharmacy network is headquartered in the Kharkiv region; it has 174 pharmacies in the city of Kharkiv and the surrounding settlements. 

Much of this region was under Russian military occupation for several months after the onset of the invasion — until fierce fighting with Ukrainian forces between mid-May and early September of 2022.

Since then, however, the bombardment has continued to cause havoc, along with hundreds of civilian casualties. 

At least 58 Apteka 911 pharmacies have been damaged or destroyed; two staff members have been killed, and many others were injured.

After the area returned to Ukrainian control — and despite disruptions to electricity, water, heating, and supply routes — the network used its savings to finance the restoration and re-opening of pharmacies. 

Now, in many settlements, these re-established pharmacies are the only source of health care available to local people.

Innovative models are now saving lives

Apteka 911 has been engaged by government authorities to deliver outpatient medicines under the state-funded Affordable Medicines Programme (AMP). They have also become an important conduit for steering humanitarian supplies towards areas of high need, using their own logistics capacity and local knowledge.

The network is also involved in a range of innovative models, including mobile delivery of medicines, online consultations for patients in recently re-taken cities (which, in many cases, lack health care capacity due to widespread damage), and deliveries of medicines by mail.

The Apteka 911 pharmacy in Tsyrkuny was under the temporary military control of the Russian Federation between February and September 2022. 

During this period, the facility was extensively damaged; equipment and stocks were looted; and medical staff were forced to evacuate. 

Russian troops were forced out of the village in May 2022. However, the area remained a battleground until September 2022, at which point reconstruction began (though the village is still regularly shelled by the Russian military). 

The Apteka 911 pharmacy in Tsyrkuny is now the only pharmacy covering three villages — and it plays a critical role in ensuring population access to essential health care in an area in which several local hospitals and primary care clinics have been completely destroyed.

Ukrainians can’t do it solely by themselves

As the Apteka 911 case highlights, domestic Ukrainian businesses have — alongside the public sector and other organisations — played a key role in re-establishing access to health care in the most war-damaged areas.

It also illustrates a broader pattern: that many investments in recovery and reconstruction have not involved externally sourced funds. They are being led by Ukrainians – the people on the ground.

For organisations like Apteka 911, the only source of capital for such investments is their own savings.

Yet such savings are limited — they will be further depleted as the war drags on. And yet the needs will grow as the conflict shows no sign of easing.

Going forward, then, more external investment and other forms of financial support — including from international organisations, philanthropic organisations, and the private sector — will be needed to continue Ukraine’s drive to health sector recovery.

The world needs to help the health sector get back on its feet

Ukraine had embarked on ambitious health reforms well before the advent of Russia’s full-scale war. 

These reforms laid a foundation that has stood the health system in good stead amid 16 months of war. 

The world can — and should — play even more of a role now in supporting health sector recovery, a key pillar of Ukraine’s ability to withstand and overcome current challenges and build a better future for its resilient people.

Dr Jarno Habicht is the World Health Organisation’s Representative in Ukraine and Head of the WHO Ukraine Country Office.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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India likely to achieve SDG goals for reduction in newborn deaths: WHO expert Anshu Banerjee

India, which has taken proactive steps to reduce neonatal mortality, is likely to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets in this key area by 2030, a top WHO official has said, citing data on the annual rate of reduction for newborn deaths in the country between 2016 and 2021.

“India has taken important steps to improve the quality of care during labour and childbirth, leading to reductions in maternal deaths. This will also bring better outcomes for new-borns,” Dr. Anshu Banerjee, Director, Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organisation, Geneva, told PTI , in Cape Town.

“If we use the annual rate of reduction for newborn deaths between 2016–2021 and apply it to 2022–2030, it is likely that India will be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal targets,” Dr. Banerjee, who was here last week to attend the ‘International Maternal Newborn Health Conference’ (IMNHC 2023), said.

“India has been proactive in taking action to accelerate neonatal mortality reductions, including strengthening policy and planning for newborn health,” Dr. Banerjee said. Dr. Banerjee addressed several sessions during the four-day conference which was held from May 8-11.

The IMNHC 2023 was hosted by the government of South Africa and AlignMNH – a global initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and in partnership with UNFPA, UNICEF, and the World Bank.

India has an established newborn care programme at both the health facility and community levels.

Essential newborn care is given through dedicated Newborn Care Corners in health facilities, Newborn Stabilisation Units have been established in primary health facilities to take care of simple newborn illnesses, and a large network of about 1,000 newborn care units covers nearly every district in the country has been established in hospitals to take care of sick and preterm newborns.

India also has one of the largest “home-based care for newborns” programmes where six to seven visits are made by frontline health workers (ASHAs) to provide health services and counselling at home after birth.

“In order to bring further gains, it will be important to continue improving the quality of care available to newborns, especially those that are born early, small or sick,” he said.

On being asked about the learnings from the ‘Born too soon: decade of action on preterm birth’ report by the WHO, UNICEF and PMNCH — the world’s largest alliance for women, children, and adolescents, which was also launched here last week, Dr. Banerjee said that complications relating to premature births are now the leading cause of under-five child deaths globally, and as such, its is one of the most pressing issues for child survival. Preterm birth is when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

“We simply can’t achieve global newborn health and survival targets without moving on this big issue. And yet, there has been very little progress in reducing rates of preterm births globally over the last decade,” he said.

“There is now no excuse for inaction – we have so many solutions and innovations that we didn’t have a decade ago. What we need is a big focus on investment and implementation for both prevention of preterm birth – in particular, this means ensuring high-quality care during pregnancy for every woman, including early ultrasound – and better care for small and sick newborns and their families,” he stressed.

“Next week, the WHO will be launching new resources for countries to support the wider roll-out of kangaroo mother care, a lifesaving technique involving both skin-to-skin contact between a mother and a baby and exclusive breastfeeding,” Dr. Banerjee said.

“This needs to be available to preterm babies everywhere to ensure they have the best possible chance of survival.”

On countries facing twin problems of obesity and malnutrition with urbanisation, Dr. Banerjee said while the problem of undernutrition in women and children (manifested as wasting, stunting, and micronutrient deficiencies) continues to be a major contributor to sickness and mortality throughout the world, rising rates of obesity are contributing to increases in non-communicable diseases. This has been called “the double burden of malnutrition”.

“This means that health programmes and healthcare workers must simultaneously scale up interventions to address both ends of the spectrum at the same time – and ensure they are screening for and managing both undernutrition and obesity,” he said.

“This can be a huge challenge, but we are finding that there are achievable “double-duty actions” that are important to reduce both undernutrition and obesity. “For example, protection and support of continued breastfeeding – including through maternity protections, for instance – supports better child growth and protects against the later development of obesity.”

“Delivering supplemental food products that are highly nutritious without containing unhealthy fats and sugars can also be a double-duty action,” he said.

On what are some best practices that India can emulate from other countries for improving maternal and newborn health, Dr. Banerjee said, “India does not have to look far.” There are success stories within India – for example, the State of Kerala has achieved a maternal mortality rate of 19 per 100,000 live births, followed closely by a few other States.

“Implementation of quality standards in obstetric care helped address the common causes of maternal death, complemented by improvements in the response to childbirth-related emergencies,” he stated.

“In South Asia, Sri Lanka has achieved remarkable success and that too with limited financial resources by focussing on universal health coverage, deploying professional midwives for skilled birth attendance and ensuring quality of care.”

On what learnings others can derive from India’s policies to reduce MMR, he said leadership and commitment at the highest level to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality are instrumental in driving change.

“In addition, India has several unique policies and schemes that have focussed on reducing inequities in access to quality care in public and private healthcare facilities.”

In particular: India has adopted a policy to provide every woman and newborn with assured, dignified, respectful and quality healthcare, free of cost and with zero tolerance for denial of services under SUMAN.

Another scheme guarantees pregnant women a minimum package of antenatal care services, including ultrasound, in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy at designated public health facilities.

India is supporting monitoring and safe delivery for all high-risk pregnant women through additional extra antenatal visits for them.

Interventions during labour and childbirth are estimated to have the greatest impact on reducing preventable maternal and newborn deaths, and India has focussed hard on improving care at this point.

The Ministry of Health has undertaken quality certification of hundreds of labour rooms and maternity operation theatres under the “LaQshya” programme. Standardisation of labour rooms, adherence to critical (clinical and non-clinical) practices around childbirth and creation of a conducive environment for “respectful maternity care” has fostered more confidence in the public health system.

Competencies of the health care providers in these labour rooms have been strengthened through a programme called “Dakshta” which focusses on improving essential skills.

India has introduced several IT initiatives to leverage digital platforms to support health service provision for pregnant women and children. Several states are using innovative mobile technology to support health status monitoring and response.

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#TuckerTwitterFiles: Tucker Carlson censored for complaining about big tech censorship

About a year ago, Tucker Carlson wrote an opinion piece on the Fox News website complaining about big tech censorship:

To quote from his piece:

[T]he WHO’s latest finding — that the vaccine is not safe for children — threatens everything that reckless creeps like Zeke Emanuel and the pharmaceutical industry have been working for….

Facebook has just censored a woman called Michelle Coriaty-Herbst for sharing the WHO’s bulletin on vaccines word-for-word. She just posted it. Facebook deleted it. ‘Your comment goes against our community standards on spam,’ Facebook wrote. So, this is Silicon Valley’s new policy: everything about vaccines is good. Period. You are not allowed to suggest otherwise. No matter what data you might have. No matter what data you might have, no matter what a health organization might tell you.

You got that? The WHO cast doubt on vaccines for children but if someone dares to quote them … Facebook was deleting the post.

And if, like Mr. Carlson, you quote the WHO, while complaining about how big tech censored a person just for quoting the WHO, well … that is double plus ungood. For that, Tucker was put on double-secret probation by Twitter, as Paul D. Thacker just revealed:

He understates this. Not only was the WHO website stealth edited, but according to the substack linked at the end of this thread, it was immediately stealth-edited after Mr. Carlson cited them in his piece, which might have contributed to calls to suppress his column. After all, by citing what the WHO had said the day before, they were contradicting what the WHO was saying the day after. From the substack post:

When Tucker’s June 2021 report on the WHO’s vaccine recommendations hit Twitter, the WHO stealth edited their COVID vaccine page to remove language Tucker cited in his op-ed. The following day, Twitter officials began discussing Tucker’s essay and how to limit its impact without calling attention to Tucker and creating ‘political risks’ for Twitter by directly censoring Fox News.

Back to Mr. Thacker’s thread:

To review, a platform (Twitter) with an advertising deal with a vaccine manufacturer, did their best to suppress a story that, if enough people were persuaded by it, would reduce the sales of vaccines. But they also did their best to keep Mr. Carlson from finding out what they were doing, to prevent them from being called out for this corrupt behavior.

In the long arc of history, the people who try to silence critics are almost never the good guys.

Mr. Carlson, for his part, does not seem to be down about his dismissal from Fox News. Here he is laughing at someone in the media for filming him and his wife:

When he gets back ‘on the air’—and he might have a non-compete agreement that prevents him from doing that for a while—we suspect he will say some very interesting things. It might not be that he has been deplatformed, so much as unleashed.


Editor’s Note: Do you enjoy Twitchy’s conservative reporting taking on the radical left and woke media? Support our work so that we can continue to bring you the truth. Join Twitchy VIP and use the promo code SAVEAMERICA to get 40% off your VIP membership!

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‘Unprecedented’ situation as two African countries report outbreaks of Marburg virus

For the first time, the world is seeing two simultaneous outbreaks of the Marburg virus – one in Equatorial Guinea, the other in Tanzania. The Marburg virus is just as deadly as Ebola, to which it is closely related, but it has been extremely rare until now.

The situation with the Marburg virus entered uncharted territory on March 21, when Tanzania announced an outbreak of the disease in addition to the one in Equatorial Guinea, on the other side of the African continent.

Five people have died out of eight confirmed cases as of April 6, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), which issued a health alert warning that doctors in the US should “be aware of the potential for imported cases”, even if the risk of the disease reaching the US is low.

The situation in Equatorial Guinea currently seems the most worrying. The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an alert on February 25 after the discovery of several suspected deaths from Marburg in two villages in the north of the country in early January.

Since the first cases appeared, there have been 15 confirmed cases of Marburg in Equatorial Guinea. According to a report by the country’s health ministry, eleven of those patients died just days after symptoms of the disease appeared – vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea and high fever.

But the WHO has concerns that the official tallies are underestimating the disease’s real toll. Indeed, the cases in Equatorial Guinea come from regions quite far from each other, which suggests there “may be undetected community spread of the virus in the country”, the CDC noted.

The WHO suspects that Equatorial Guinea is not being fully transparent in reporting cases.

“This is a problem – this unprecedented outbreak of the Marburg virus in two different countries,” said Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia.

“There has been an acceleration in the number of Marburg virus outbreaks over recent years,” added Cesar Munoz-Fontela, a specialist in tropical infectious diseases at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg.

From bat caves to humans

First detected in humans in 1967 in the German city of Marburg, the virus has broken out a dozen times in Africa since the late 1970s. But until recent years, the was never more than one outbreak every three or four years.

A bat – namely the Egyptian fruit bat – is the virus’s natural host, and transmits it to humans either directly or via an intermediate host such as monkeys.

Most of these outbreaks have been small – affecting no more than a dozen people each time, according to official statistics. That is lucky because Marburg is one of the most deadly viruses along with Ebola, which also belongs to the filovirus family of diseases. The two related diseases have mortality rates as high as 90 percent.

This grim statistic was borne out in the two largest Marburg outbreaks. Between 1998 and 2000, 128 patients died out of a total of 154 confirmed cases in DR Congo. Four years later, Marburg struck Angola, killing 227 out of 252 infected patients.

Since then, specialists have concluded that it is possible to reduce the fatality rate with rapid medical intervention. But even with speedily provided care, the fatality rate is still close to 50 percent, according to the WHO.

No vaccine

Marburg is much more dangerous than Ebola because – unlike with Ebola – there is “no vaccine or post-exposure treatment”, said Munoz-Fontela. There is no vaccine because, until now, there has been “no market” for one. “Without the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, we wouldn’t have an Ebola vaccine,” he continued, referring to the Everbo jab created in 2015.

The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people.

The WHO said at the end of March that it was ready to test vaccine candidates in Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania – implementing a policy of rapid vaccine development it developed in response to the accelerating emergence of epidemics in recent years.

But this phenomenon of one new outbreak a year since 2020 may be a product of the “improved detection of infectious diseases in Africa since Ebola and Covid-19”, Hunter said.

National health authorities in Africa have become increasingly aware of the risk of such viruses spreading – and are consequently looking more actively and efficiently for potential outbreaks.

But this is not necessarily so reassuring, Munoz-Fontela pointed out, because it suggests that “we’ve missed Marburg virus outbreaks in the past”, meaning it is not as rare as previously thought.

Meanwhile, environmental conditions have become much more amenable to the spread of the virus. “Global warming and other human activities are increasing the risk of new diseases spreading,” Hunter said.

Notably, the encroachment of humans into the natural habitats of animals means that people are more readily exposed to new infectious diseases.

“In the past, a person could go into a forest, get infected by a bat in a cave, and then die far away from other people,” Hunter said. “But now the forest is retreating and humans are moving closer to animals’ natural habitats – so viruses spread more easily.”

Less transmissible than Covid-19

Scientists have suggested the same phenomenon of increased human exposure to animal habitats may have caused the emergence of Covid-19.

But there are important differences between Marburg and Covid-19. Thankfully, the outbreak of a global Marburg (or indeed Ebola) pandemic is a lot less likely than it proved to be in the case of the coronavirus.

First, Marburg only starts to become contagious at the same time symptoms start appearing, between two and 21 days after the virus has been contracted. So there is zero risk of undetected transmission by asymptomatic carriers.

Second, the Marburg virus is “much less easily transmissible than Covid-19”, Munoz-Fontela said. While the coronavirus spreads by respiratory droplets – with coughing and sneezing spreading it into the air – transmission of Marburg requires contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

On the other hand, it only takes a small amount of the Marburg pathogen to infect another person. “Most of the time, the disease spreads during the haemorrhagic phase of Marburg, exposing in particular healthcare workers and family members around the patient’s bedside,” Hunter noted.

Filoviruses also appear to be “more stable than coronaviruses such as Sars-CoV-2 [Covid-19],” Munoz-Fontela said. That means the virus is not likely to mutate – and that in turn means that a vaccine would not require regular updates to stay effective.

But in the meantime, development of vaccines against Marburg virus are only in the earliest stages. The WHO estimated that both ongoing outbreaks pose “moderate” risk at the regional level. “Equatorial Guinea has porous borders with Cameroon and Gabon, and so far the cases have appeared in geographically diffuse parts of the country. In Tanzania, the Kagera region has busy borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi,” The New York Times noted.

The next few weeks will prove illuminating about how much the disease has spread, Hunter concluded: “No new cases have been reported, but it will take as long as three weeks to find out if contacts of the previous recorded cases have been infected.” 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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WHO spokesperson: In Turkey and Syria, we are in a race against time

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

After an unprecedented series of deadly earthquakes struck Syria and Turkey, the death toll keeps rising, surpassing 16,000 by Thursday morning, while domestic and international rescue teams continue their search for survivors.

Harsh weather conditions and significant damage to infrastructure have affected both rescue efforts and incoming international aid, and the extent of the devastation is still unclear, especially in the less accessible areas of the two countries.

Euronews View talked to WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević about the destruction the quake left in its path, the ways in which the disaster has struck the affected communities in Turkey and Syria, and what still needs to be done to help right now.

Euronews View: The earthquake struck a vast area in Turkey and Syria. Could you please tell us more about the sheer scale of the disaster we are witnessing?

Tarik Jašarević: The two earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks have caused significant destruction on each side of the Turkish/Syrian border, claiming thousands of lives across both countries and damaging or destroying essential infrastructure, including health facilities. 

These have been some of the strongest earthquakes to hit the region in a century (on a scale not seen since 1939), prompting a global humanitarian response — including from WHO and other United Nations partners — at the request of the Government of Turkey.

As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at Wednesday’s press conference, “With the weather conditions and ongoing aftershocks, we’re in a race against time to save lives. People need shelter, food, clean water and medical care for injuries resulting from the earthquake, but also for other health needs.”

Euronews View: Your organisation has initially predicted that the death toll could rise to 20,000. This would mark one of the most disastrous events in Europe’s recent history. What kind of an effect can this have on the societies in Turkey and Syria in the immediate aftermath?

Tarik Jašarević: The figures on casualties are expected to rise as the situation evolves and are likely to increase as the full extent of the damage becomes clearer. 

As DG Tedros said on 7 February, “What these numbers don’t tell us is the grief and loss being experienced by families right now who have lost a mother, a father, a daughter, a son beneath the rubble — or who don’t know whether their loved ones are alive or dead.”

The initial focus is on saving lives and providing care to the injured. National officials in both countries are leading search and rescue operations while anticipating an increased need for trauma care to treat the injured, but it’s a race against time. 

Continued aftershocks, severe winter conditions, and damage to roads, power supplies, communications, and other infrastructure hamper access and search and rescue efforts. 

Heavy snow, rainfall and cuts to electricity and communications further aggravate the situation, while people have only temporary or no shelter from the elements.

We are especially concerned about areas where we do not yet have information. Damage mapping is ongoing, but with hospitals and clinics damaged and health workers needing to care for those around them, we expect there will be a need for further support from around the country and region.

Euronews View: What has been affected the most, what kind of disruptions are people facing, and which services are critical at the moment?

Tarik Jašarević: Widespread damage has been caused in southeastern Turkey and north-western Syria; in Turkey, 3 471 collapsed buildings have been reported so far, and (according to the authorities) at least 15 hospitals have been damaged, with many more health facilities affected. 

Through the health cluster, WHO and partners are currently mapping the health facilities affected, their functionality and needs, and collecting further data on trauma and injuries resulting from the earthquakes.

Earthquakes cause high mortality resulting from trauma, asphyxia, dust inhalation (acute respiratory distress), or exposure to the environment (i.e. hypothermia). 

In any earthquake, it is critical to respond to the immediate needs as well as the potential many downstream consequences of the event, including disruptions to healthcare services, threats due to exposure to cold weather, mental health needs, and increased risk of disease outbreaks.

Immediate health impacts include trauma-related deaths and injuries from building collapse, so surgical needs are important in the first weeks. 

The broad pattern of injury is likely to be a mass of people with minor cuts and bruises, a smaller group suffering from simple fractures, and a minority with serious multiple fractures or internal injuries and crush syndrome requiring surgery and other intensive treatment. 

Burns and electroshocks are also present, especially where energy supplies and infrastructure have been heavily affected.

The wider health system needs support in the affected areas, including where health facilities have been damaged.  Earthquakes damage health facilities and transportation, which disrupts service delivery and access to care, while health workers may not be able to reach the still functional health facilities.

Euronews View: What can be said about the communities that have been affected the worst? What kind of specific needs do these communities have that are possibly not being discussed at the moment?

Tarik Jašarević: In the midst of difficult winter conditions, this earthquake has affected a population of an estimated 23 million people (according to Pacific Disaster Centre), and the vulnerable have become even more vulnerable.

About 15 million people live in areas of Turkey where the impact of the earthquake is being most felt. The country hosts the largest refugee population in the world, with at least 4.2 million refugees and migrants and 300 000 asylum seekers. While the country has a very strong capacity to respond to earthquakes, the level of the destruction is such that they have put out an alert for international medical assistance.

In Syria, 15.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Twelve years of conflict, socioeconomic downturn, population displacement, and multiple public health hazards, including disease outbreaks, have put significant pressure on a fragmented health system. 

This tragedy adds to the suffering of the people of Syria and is expected to further exacerbate vulnerabilities, including outbreak control, potential disruption of life-saving referral networks, and additional pressures on already strained health services for trauma care and rehabilitation.

The immediate needs are search and rescue, trauma support and safe shelter, as well as psychosocial support for those who need it. Damage to water, sanitation and health care services may contribute to a heightened risk of disease outbreaks. Poor weather and exposure to the elements also increases the risk to people’s health. 

National authorities are focusing on search and rescue while anticipating an increased need for trauma care to treat the injured. Many hospitals have been damaged and may need additional supplies and support.

Euronews View: What is happening in Syria? Can international help reach the affected areas there at all at this time?

Tarik Jašarević: WHO is working with national and international health partners throughout Syria. 

In northwest Syria for example, WHO provides medical supplies to many of the 141 partners who have been delivering health care for a decade now. These are the local responders who are treating the wounded and shoring up health services.

WHO and its implementing partners continue to work with health authorities and other partners in Turkey and northwestern Syria from our cross-border operations based in Gaziantep to help provide essential health services and support to those affected. 

Trauma emergency and surgical supplies were shipped cross-border to 16 hospitals in northwest Syria on 6 February.

Euronews View: How would you rate the international response so far? Is there something that Europeans and others could do to help in particular, be it on an individual level or through their governments?

Tarik Jašarević: WHO is providing medical supplies, supporting both countries to respond and working with partners to provide specialised medical care, mental health and trauma response, preparedness and service provision for sanitation, disease surveillance and outbreak prevention and readiness, and ensuring continuity of essential health services.

We are closely monitoring the situation, mobilising supplies and working with local health authorities and other humanitarian partners to provide essential health services and support to those affected. Our priority is to ensure that people in need have access to adequate medical care and essential medicines.

Life-saving medicines and supplies have already been dispatched: one flight is currently on the way to Istanbul, carrying medical supplies and surgical trauma kits from our logistics hub in Dubai and a flight to Damascus is almost ready for departure. A third flight with supplies is being planned. 

To give an example of the volume and type of supplies shipped, the flight to Syria contains 160 metric tonnes of medical supplies to treat injuries and major surgical trauma supplies, medical equipment, medicines, and others.

In addition, 77 national and 13 international Emergency Medical Teams (EMTs) are deploying to both countries. EMTs are made up of health professionals from around the world who are trained to provide life-saving care in emergency situations.

In terms of immediate needs for the response, WHO and its partners need access to most affected populations, including by cross-border and cross-line approach, as well as facilitated entry and distribution of medicines, supplies, equipment, and surge support staff.

New resources are urgently needed, as the reduced funding is severely affecting operational capacity and ability to respond to any additional/emerging crises. Additional trauma and surgical supplies, prosthetics and assistive devices, basic first aid kits, and support to partners to ensure sufficient safe water supply are also required.

To quote DG Tedros, “this is a moment when we must come together in solidarity, as one humanity, to save lives and alleviate the suffering of people who have already suffered so much.”

Tarik Jašarević serves as World Health Organisation spokesperson at its Geneva headquarters. Previously, he worked as a public information officer for the United Nations in Haiti and Kosovo and as a UN volunteer in East Timor.

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