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Coronavirus emergency: Here’s what we know so far

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Flight attendants wear face masks at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in China., by Man Yi

A new strain of coronavirus (officially named 2019-nCoV), which has caused respiratory diseases in China, and spread to at least 23 other countries, has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO). Here are the basic facts you need to know about the virus (figures correct as of February 3 2020).

At least 361 people have died from the novel coronavirus, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. More than 17,200 cases have been confirmed in China, and experts say they expect the numbers to rise in the coming weeks.

Although the vast majority of cases have been in China, the virus, which can cause pneumonia, is worrying global health authorities. Some 151 cases have been confirmed in 23 countries, and the first death outside of China was recorded in the Philippines. Most of those affected by the virus had travelled from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

This is only the fifth time that the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency of international concern.

What is a public health emergency of international concern?

A public health emergency of international concern is declared by the WHO in cases of “an extraordinary event” which constitutes “a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and potentially requires a coordinated international response”. 

This definition implies a situation that is “serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action”.

Speaking at a meeting of the WHO Executive Board on Monday, the agency’s chief, Tedros Gebreyesus, explained that the decision to announce a PHEIC was made because of signs of human-to-human transmission outside China, and WHO’s concern regarding what might happen if the virus were to spread in a country with a weaker health system.

International solidarity, preparedness, not panic

Ghebreyesus also noted the importance of containing the virus in China: “if we invest in fighting at the source, then the spread to other countries is minimal and also slow. If it’s minimal and slow, what is going outside can also be controlled easily. It can get even worse. But if we give it our best, the outcome could be even better”.

Several countries have already put travel restrictions in place, but Mr. Ghebreyesus pointed out that WHO is not recommending measures that “unnecessarily interfere with travel and commerce”. 

The WHO chief called on all countries to implement decisions that are “evidence-based and consistent”, support nations with weaker health care systems, accelerate the development of effective vaccines, and “invest in preparedness, not panic”. 

With the virus now present in some 23 countries, international solidarity is of utmost importance, said Mr. Tedros, because “we are all in this together, and we can only stop it together”.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses consist of a core of genetic material, enclosed within an envelope of protein spikes, which resembles a crown (or, in Latin, corona). They are a large group of viruses that cause respiratory diseases and, sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms. 

Diseases can range from the common cold to pneumonia, which can be fatal. In most people symptoms are mild, but some types can cause severe disease.

These include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), first discovered in China in 2003, or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012. MERS caused more than 2,400 cases and 850 deaths, and more than 800 people were killed by SARS.

It has been estimated that 20 per cent of patients infected with the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV have severe symptoms. People who have other health problems (such as asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease) are particularly vulnerable.

How deadly is novel coronavirus?

As of Monday February 3, 361 people had died from novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This represents about 2 per cent of cases. By comparison, around 25 per cent of MERS cases resulted in the death of the patient.

However, at this stage it is still too early to determine how deadly the virus is: thousands of patients are being tested, with around 2,110 in a serious condition, and it is not yet known how these cases will evolve.

Where does the virus come from?The first cases of novel coronavirus occurred in a group of people with pneumonia, linked to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, where many fish, reptiles, bats and other live and dead animals were traded. The disease then spread from those who were sick, to family members and healthcare workers.

Coronaviruses circulate in a range of animals and can sometimes make the jump from animals to humans, via process known as a “spillover”, which can occur due to a mutation in the virus, or increased contact between animals and humans.

It is not yet known how novel coronavirus was first transmitted to humans: in the case of MERS, it is known that people caught the virus via direct or indirect contact with infected camels, and SARS originated in civet cats. 

Is the virus transmitted from person to person?

The exact way that the disease is transmitted is yet to be determined but, in general, respiratory diseases are spread via drops of fluids when someone coughs or sneezes, or by touching a surface infected with the virus.

According to Chinese scientists, people who get the virus are contagious even before they show symptoms. The incubation period –  the period from when the infection occurs until symptoms develop – is between 1 and 14 days.

How fast is the virus spreading?

A large number of new cases are being reported on a daily basis (in the 24 hours period between February 1 and February 2, for example, over 2,590 new cases were confirmed in China), but this is not surprising, as more and more controls are being put in place to detect and confirm infections.

The total number of cases is expected to be much greater in the coming weeks. 

What can I do to protect myself?

There is no vaccine currently available to treat novel coronavirus, but WHO is recommending several precautionary and hygienic measures. For example:
•    Avoid direct contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections,
•    Wash your hands frequently, especially after direct contact with sick people or their surroundings,
•    Avoid direct contact with farm animals or wild animals, living or dead,
•    People with symptoms of a severe respiratory infection should try to keep their distance from other people, and cover their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.

Detailed information on novel coronavirus, including daily situation reports, can be found on the WHO website.

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Health & Wellness

How to Ensure that your Teen Driver Learns the Principles of Safe Driving

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If your teenager is now eligible to apply for a provisional licence, it’s natural that you would have mixed emotions about this major milestone. Parents should feel excited to see their children growing up and getting prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. But it’s not uncommon to feel worried that their teens will not view driver safety with the seriousness it deserves. Make clear to your teen that the privilege of driving demands adhering to safe driving principles. Here are ways to drive that point home.

Set a Good Example

It may seem that teenagers are always ready to start an argument or rebel against their parents’ wishes, but they still look to their mum and dad for cues about how to “adult” properly. You have an excellent opportunity to set a good example every time your teen is a passenger in your car.

Let your teen see how careful you are about maintaining distance between cars, the proper way to use mirrors, how you always use your turn signals, and that you drive at or below the speed limit. Most important, do not use your mobile phone while driving, even if you have the option to for hands-free use. Emphasize that any distraction from driving could quickly lead to an accident.

Explain that Driving Has Both Benefits and Risks

You may be tempted to focus only on the risks of driving because that is what most concerns you. But this kind of one-sided discussion could backfire if it appears you’re just trying to lecture your teen. Teenagers may get the impression that you don’t trust them or lack confidence in their abilities.

The better way to frame your conversations is to first bring up the benefits of driving and the freedoms that privilege entails. Emphasize that you’re so proud of them for learning what all drivers need to know to keep themselves and other drivers safe. But also stress that all drivers must practice responsible driving if they wish to hold on to their licence. By referring to all drivers, it will look less like an admonishment and more like a plain fact about privilege and responsibility.

Enroll Your Teen in a Reputable Driver’s Education Course

The material presented in any good driver’s education course will include:

  • A comprehensive overview of the current road rules, including when to give the right of way to pedestrians
  • Instructions for how to perform specific actions while driving (such as how to switch lanes, use a parking brake, and master skills like parallel parking)
  • How to navigate hazardous road conditions
  • Proper ways to handle an emergency

Besides learning what’s necessary to pass the driving theory test, student drivers typically spend between 45-50 hours learning how to drive and around 22 hours practicing. A certified driving instructor will hold either a green or a pink licence. The green licence indicates that the instructor has passed all of the Driver and Vehicles Standards Agency (DVSA) exams. While instructors who hold the pink license have not yet passed all three of the exams, they are still considered qualified to teach, as they are currently in training and simply have fewer hours of teaching experience.

Prior to 2015, practicing student drivers were not allowed on the motorways, but now it’s permitted. It’s beneficial to learn how driving on motorways is different from driving on other kinds of roadways, so it’s an advantage to new drivers that the law was passed.

Safe Driving Means More Than Just Passing Tests

Teens are in school full-time and have probably developed specific strategies for taking tests. If those strategies involve cramming the night before and memorizing a list of facts, they may pass, but are they really in full-possession of the knowledge required for safe driving?

You could probably easily convince your teen that they should not study for a calculus exam the same way they study for the driving theory test. Teens may not ever need to use calculus in the real world, but they will certainly be tested every time they get behind the wheel. The results of that test could have enormous life-or-death consequences. Teens must see the value in really understanding driving rules and recognize that only practice will help them become safe drivers.

Make Sure Your Teen Has Access to Up-To-Date Study Resources

Years ago, the only way to learn how to drive was to sign up for classroom instruction. The teacher would lecture and deliver the lessons about road rules and safe driving practices and then venture out on the road with the student to practice driving skills.

Classroom driver’s ed instruction can be valuable if the teacher is experienced in teaching the subject and can interact one-on-one with the students during class. But that’s not often the case. Classrooms may be crowded and distracting for students, the sessions may be held at inconvenient times, and the material itself may be dry and boring.

Today, students have the opportunity to study for their driving theory exam using a mobile app. These app courses are generally less expensive than classroom instruction, and offer a more personalized approach to learning the material. They allow students to learn at their own pace and highlight the areas where students need to pay more attention to the lesson.

Mobile driver’s education courses are also more fun and entertaining than what is offered in the classroom. The driver’s education app from Zutobi is built like a game, and students can earn points and badges to indicate their progress. They can also compete with their friends, which adds another level of motivation for learning. This gamified approach works to make students more engaged in the learning process. While they’re having fun, they’re also discovering the correct ways to use traffic signals, how to respond when they see less common road signs, and the tips they’ll need to pass the practical driving test.

Ensure Your Teen Has Enough Time To Learn and Absorb the Material

Sure, you are excited about your teen finally earning a licence, but there’s a high probability your new student driver feels the excitement tenfold! Because the DVSA issues only guidelines – not mandates – for how long it should take to learn to drive, teens are often anxious to hit the road directly after they have their licence in hand.

Take control of the process early on by getting involved in finding the best method for learning the material. You can apply for a provisional driving licence a few months before your teen turns sixteen, and encourage study even before that birthday.

When looking for a driving instructor, ask other parents for recommendations. Make sure the lessons fit into your teen’s schedule so that he or she will not feel rushed while practicing. It may also be helpful to plan practice driving “appointments” on a calendar so that you are certain your teen will have as much driving experience as possible before taking the driving test.

You’ve Got This!

You may be nervous of the day your teen gets a provisional licence and starts driving, but there is plenty you can do to prepare. Find the type of course that will best engage your teen, set a good example, be firm about following rules, and insist on an adequate number of practice hours. Taking these steps will help reduce your anxiety and make it easier for you to hand over the keys.

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Africa Today

‘No end’ to conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

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A girl stands outside her home in the Tigray Region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

Disturbing reports have continued to emerge of widespread abuse of civilians in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, nearly six months since conflict erupted, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

“There is no clear end in sight” to the conflict, said agency spokesperson James Elder, after returning from a visit the northern Ethiopian region.

Worst fears

He said more than a million people were displaced, noting that fighting was continuing, and security remained a major issue. UNICEF had been “concerned from the onset about the harm that this is going to cause children, and unfortunately such fears are being realized.”

The conflict is the result of months of escalating tensions between the Ethiopian Government and the dominant regional force, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which culminated in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordering a military offensive after rebels attacked a federal army base. 

Within days, militias from the neighbouring Amhara region had joined the fray, reportedly followed by some troops from neighbouring Eritrea – a long-time rival of Tigray.

According to the Government, the region had been secured by the end of November, however TPLF resistance has continued, amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses on all sides. 

Child victims

Mr. Elder underscored the impact on women and girls, characterising it as a “protection crisis”.

He added: “What is really emerging now is a disturbing picture of severe and ongoing child violations, there is also unfortunately an education and nutrition emergency and I saw extensive destruction to systems on essential services that children rely on.”

Among the estimated one million displaced by the violence are children who have suffered terribly, the UNICEF official explained.

300 km march in flip-flops

“The many children I spoke with, there was one, a girl who is 16, Merhawit, she had walked 300 kilometres with her baby brother on her back from the west of country, amid pretty intense fighting…300 kilometres and in broken flip-flops”, he said.

“Those stories abound. She was a star in physics, and now she is searching for food and hasn’t seen a classroom in a year.”

Apart from the education crisis, the Tigray region is also in the grip of a nutrition emergency, linked to pillaging and the destruction of medical centres and costly irrigation systems which farming communities cannot do without.

“We had a recent assessment in 13 towns and more than half of boreholes are non-functional,” said Mr. Elder. “It’s important to remember that these were really advanced systems, supporting hundreds of thousands of people with generators and electrical circuitry, all looted or destroyed.”

Vandalizing and looting

Health centres have not been spared either, with the majority now out of action.

This includes a new maternal health clinic specialising in emergency surgery for mothers that opened 100 kilometres from Mekelle which has been ransacked.

“Everything – X-ray machines, oxygen, and mattresses for patients – are gone,” said Mr. Elder. A doctor there told me, “It had all the services a mother and baby needed. It was a life-saving place. There was no reason for forces to come here. They came here for vandalizing and looting.”

The UNICEF spokesperson also urged all those with influence on the military actors involved in the conflict to condemn rights abuses against civilians. “Severe and ongoing child rights violations” have been reported by victims, he said.

“We have an average of three cases of reported, reported gender-based violence, remembering of course that this is probably the tip of the iceberg because reporting is very, very difficult both for…security and cultural elements of shame, and so on. I heard traumatic stories of children as young as 14, I heard reports of gang-rapes.”

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Africa Today

Thousands flee fresh clashes in Central African Republic

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UN peacekeepers patrol the town of Bambari in the Central African Republic. (file) MINUSCA/Hervé Serefio

Recent fighting between government forces and rebels in northern Central African Republic (CAR) has forced more than 2,000 refugees into neighboring Chad over the past week, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday. 

According to the agency, new arrivals in Chad reported having fled clashes, as well as pillaging, extortion and other acts of violence at the hands of rebel groups. Most of the displaced were from CAR’s Kaga-Bandoro, Batangafo and Kabo regions.

UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said that to reach Chad, people had to wade shoulder-deep through the Grande Sido river, which flows along the Chad-CAR border, with the some carrying their few belongings on their heads.

“The refugees are now settled in Gandaza village and the bordering town of Sido, although some are having to resort to crossing back into CAR to find food or salvage what little is left from their properties”, he added.

Violence flared across CAR following last December’s contested elections, with armed elements allied with former president François Bozizé attacking several towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within the country as well as into neighbouring ones.

Chad currently hosts close to 11,000 of the total 117,000 Central African refugees who also fled to Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (ROC) in the wake of the post-electoral violence.

Longstanding humanitarian crisis

The influx slowed considerably since mid-March after government forces and their allies reclaimed most of the rebel strongholds, UNHCR said. The lull allowed some 37,000 formerly internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their areas of origin, who now need help to rebuild their lives, it added.

Roughly the size of France, CAR has been plagued by conflict and insecurity for years. 

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) about 2.8 million people in CAR – 57 per cent of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. The situation has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, with rising hunger, loss of livelihoods, closure of schools, and a reported increase in violence against women and children. 

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