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More research needed into COVID-19 effects on children

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Students at a primary school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the second day after their school reopened. The students, teachers and school administrators wear masks while at the school and maintain physical distancing. UNICEF/Seyha Lychheang

More research is needed into factors that increase the risk of severe COVID-19 disease among children and adolescents, the head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has said, adding that while children may have largely been spared many of the most severe effects, they have suffered in other ways. 

Joining the heads of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at a press conference on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus outlined that since the start of the COVID pandemic, understanding its effects on children has been a priority.  

“Nine months into the pandemic, many questions remain, but we are starting to have a clearer picture. We know that children and adolescents can be infected and can infect others”, he said. 

“We know that this virus can kill children, but that children tend to have a milder infection and there are very few severe cases and deaths from COVID-19 among children and adolescents.” 

According to WHO data, less than 10 per cent of reported cases and less than 0.2 per cent of deaths are in people under the age of 20. However, additional research is needed into the factors that put children and adolescents at an increased risk. 

In addition, the potential long-term health effects in those who have been infected remains unknown. 

Referring to closure of schools around the world, which has hit millions of children, impacting not only their education but also a range of other important services, the WHO Director-General said that the decision to close schools should be a last resort, temporary and only at a local level in areas with intense transmission. 

Keeping classrooms open, ‘a job for all of us’

The time during which schools are closed should be used for putting in place measures to prevent and respond to transmission when schools reopen. 

“Keeping children safe and at school is not a job for schools alone, or governments alone or families alone. It’s a job for all of us, working together,” added Mr. Tedros. 

“With the right combination of measures, we can keep our kids safe and teach them that health and education are two of the most precious commodities in life,” he added. 

Guidance on reopening schools, while keeping children and communities safe 

Although children have largely been spared many of the most severe health effects of the virus, they have suffered in other ways, said Director-General Tedros, adding that closure of schools hit millions of children globally. 

Given different situations among countries: some, where schools have opened and others, where they have not, UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO, issued updated guidance on school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19.  

Based on latest scientific evidence, the guidance provides practical advice for schools in areas with no cases, sporadic cases, clusters of cases or community transmission.  They were developed with input from the Technical Advisory Group of Experts on Educational Institutions and COVID-19, established by the three UN agencies in June. 

Schools provide critical, diverse services 

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, also highlighted the importance of school, not only for teaching, but also for providing health, protection and – at times – nutrition services. 

“The longer schools remain closed, the more damaging the consequences, especially for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds … therefore, supporting safe reopening of schools must be a priority for us all”, she said. 

In addition to safely reopening schools, attention must focus on ensuring that no one is left behind, Ms. Azoulay added, cautioning that in some countries, children are missing from classes, amid fears that many – especially girls – may not ever return to schools. 

Alongside, ensuring flow of information and adequate communication between teachers, school administrators and families; and defining new rules and protocols, including on roles of and trainings for teachers, managing school schedules, revising learning content, and providing remedial support for learning losses are equally important, she said. 

“When we deal with education, the decisions we make today will impact tomorrow’s world,” said the UNESCO Director-General. 

A global education emergency 

However, with half the global student population still unable to return to schools, and almost a third of the world’s pupils unable to access remote learning, the situation is “nothing short of a global education emergency”, said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. 

“We know that closing schools for prolonged periods of time can have devastating consequences for children,” she added, outlining their increased exposure risk of physical, sexual, or emotional violence. 

The situation is even more concerning given the results from a recent UNICEF survey which found that almost a fourth of the 158 countries questioned, on their school reopening plans, had not set a date to allow schoolchildren back to the classrooms. 

“For the most marginalized, missing out on school – even if only for a few weeks – can lead to negative outcomes that last a lifetime,” warned Ms. Fore. 

She called on governments to prioritize reopening schools, when restrictions are lifted, and to focus on all the things that children need – learning, protection, and physical and mental health – and ensure the best interest of every child is put first. 

And when governments decide to keep schools closed, they must scale up remote learning opportunities for all children, especially the most marginalized.  

“Find innovative ways – including online, TV and radio – to keep children learning, no matter what”, stressed Ms. Fore. 

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Health & Wellness

Mushrooms emerge from the shadows in pesticide-free production push

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By Ali Jones

Mention La Rioja in northern Spain and most people will picture majestic sun-drenched vineyards nestled in the hillsides. But, hidden from the sunlight, the region is also home to a very different crop that happens to be at the heart of efforts to make European food production more sustainable.

Three small villages in La Rioja house the vast, dark, humid growing sheds that produce its 77 000 tonnes of mushrooms each year. Almost half of Spain’s cultivated mushroom crop is grown in the region, making Spain the third-largest producer in Europe, behind Poland and the Netherlands.

New world

‘Mushrooms are a whole different world than we are used to, from growing plants or rearing animals,’ said Pablo Martínez, an agronomist who worked in wineries before being drawn to the specialist mushroom sector after a chance conversation with a former colleague.

Based at the Mushroom Technological Research Centre of La Rioja (CTICH), Martínez manages a Europe-wide project to tackle the environmental challenges faced by the industry.

Many people know very little about how mushrooms are grown. While it’s easy to buy a starter kit online to have a go at home, growing on a commercial scale is very different – managing humidity, temperature and light to produce a regular, quality crop while contending with pest control.

Cultivated mushrooms can double in size in a day and consumer demand for them is mushrooming too.

The global market is projected to grow from around 15 million tonnes in 2021 to more than 24 million tonnes over the next five years. Packed with nutrients, they deliver a protein-rich umami kick that is well suited to the soaring trend for plant-based foods.

To meet demand, growers need to fail-safe their crop from pests and, for now, they rely on pesticides. Tighter regulations are limiting available products and concerns over the impact on the environment and human health mean growers are looking to researchers to come up with answers.

CTICH is coordinating the BIOSCHAMP project, which works with researchers, commercial partners and mushroom growers in six European countries. In addition to Spain, they are Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia and the UK.

Peatland protection

Mushrooms are grown on a substrate, or base layer, made of straw and animal manure, then covered with a thick blanket of peat known as the casing. Made up of partially decayed vegetation, peat perfectly mimics nature’s forest floors that so readily yield mushrooms.

The depletion of precious finite peatlands is a global concern. These wetlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and their conservation is ever more important for countering climate change.

‘Mounting restrictions on peat extraction in European countries threaten the long-term continuity of peat supplies,’ said Martínez. ‘We’re looking to develop a new product for growing mushrooms that could cut pesticide use by 90% while reducing the industry’s reliance on peat.’ 

Most of Europe’s peat comes from the Baltic countries, traveling first by boat to the Netherlands, where it is treated ready for commercial use, before being distributed to growers across Europe, amassing transport costs and a heavy carbon footprint.

BIOSCHAMP aims to create a low-peat sustainable casing for cultivated mushrooms made from renewable materials sourced close to existing mushroom production.

While the exact details are under wraps, it will combine with a substance known as a biostimulant to enhance the natural growing processes and strengthen the mushroom mycelium in their early phase, protecting them against disease without the need for chemical pesticides.

Fertile waste 

In Norway, two mushroom enthusiasts have pioneered a project to explore whether the crop could be cultivated in food waste. The EU-funded initiative is called VegWaMus CirCrop.

Dr Agnieszka Jasinska, who completed her postgraduate research on mushroom substrates, has led the research in partnership with Dr Ketil Stoknes, senior project leader of research and development at waste-management company Lindum and himself once a specialist mushroom grower.

The project has demonstrated that organic residue from food waste – usually used to feed anaerobic digestors, devised to capture methane and divert it from problematic greenhouse gas to useful fuel – can be a successful starter for mushrooms.

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) estimates that a whopping one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. Anaerobic digestion, also known as biogas, allows the nutrients from waste to be reused for growing plants in greenhouses.

‘It enables a climate-efficient, resilient, urban food production system based entirely on waste,’ said Stoknes.

Tomatoes, lettuce and herbs had been chosen as the initial candidates. But Stoknes said that mushrooms are degraders, breaking down fibres and so on, and are a necessary part of an integrated biosystem. Inspired by the natural cycle in the forest, the project set out to combine mushrooms and plants in one circular system.

The biogas system is explained as ‘food to waste to food’ and it’s a movement that is growing in popularity.

While mushroom cultivation ceased on a commercial scale in Norway in the early 2000s, unable to compete with other countries, VegWaMus CirCrop has proved there could be a sustainable future for Norwegian mushroom production after all.

Side hustle

The project has hatched a start-up company called SOPPAS with ambitions to scale up the process commercially. In the meantime, it’s embarking on a raft of new ideas, including expanding production at the food waste biogas facility from button mushrooms to oyster mushrooms.

‘The new company will produce starter blocks for growing mushrooms for farmers, plant producers and greenhouse owners who might want to diversify to mushrooms in their low season,’ said Jasinska. ‘They can put their existing pickers, packing line and cold-storage facilities to good use in idle times and sell the produce locally.’

Against the backdrop of growing momentum for producing food from waste and an interest in keeping production local, both EU-funded projects look set to give mushrooms their moment in the sun.

Research in this article was funded via the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). ). This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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Sergey Lavrov: ‘If you want peace, always be ready to defend yourself’

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an exclusive interview to Sputnik on Thursday, February 2. The conversation took place at a time of heightened international tensions over the conflict in Ukraine.

Mr. Lavrov has answered questions posed by the General Director of Rossiya Segodnya International News Agency, Dmitry Kiselev (photo), on the most pressing issues regarding Russian foreign policy and the international agenda.

Key statements made by Russia’s FM Sergei Lavrov in his interview to Sputnik:

Moscow did not turn to Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) partners with a request for assistance in connection with the special operation in Ukraine. “We have not made such a request to anyone. We proceed from the fact that we have everything necessary to solve the tasks of the special military operation, to end the war that the West started through the Ukrainian regime even after the coup d’etat.”

It seems that the West will supply Kiev with modern military equipment together with foreign combat crews. “All types of weapons that have already been partially transferred, and especially those that have been announced, according to experts, it is impossible for Ukrainians to work on these systems, trained or having passed some two-month or even three-month courses. There are systems, according to specialists, that cannot be trained for in the foreseeable future, and if they are supplied, then most likely it will be done together with combat crews.”

The more long-range weapons are supplied to the Kiev regime by the West, the further they need to be moved away from Russian territory.

Russia wants the conflict with Ukraine to end, but the time factor is not the main issue.

The United States deprives nations of the right to remember their own history; their task is to melt everyone into “Americans”.

The US conviction of its own superiority and infallibility is the main reason for Russia’s current confrontation with the West.

The West is hoping for a strategic defeat for Russia so that it cannot recover for decades.

Nobody is trying to convince Kiev to return to negotiations with Moscow; Zelensky himself does not feel like an independent figure, he is being manipulated.

The presumption that Russia refuses to negotiate on Ukraine is a lie.

The West is now “eyeing” Moldova for the role of “next Ukraine”; its president is ready for almost anything.

The West, on an almost “daily” basis, forces developing countries, including those in Africa, to implement sanctions against Russia;

The ideas of different countries increasing trade in national currencies are emerging because of US actions, which violate all the boundaries of decency with the US dollar.

Relations between Russia and China are superior in quality to a military alliance; they have no restrictions, limits or taboo topics; China already began to reduce dependence on Western financial mechanisms.

Nuland made a confession, rejoicing at the explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines; her words reflect the direct participation of the United States in the terrorist attack.

The United States “crushed” the European Union under itself, depriving it of the last signs of independence.

Lavrov says he is for peace, follows philosophy ‘if you want peace, always be ready to defend yourself.’

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More Americans believe US provides ‘too much support’ to Ukraine

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A growing portion of Americans think that the U.S. is giving too much support to Ukraine, as the Biden administration and other western allies have taken steps in recent weeks to escalate their backing of the country in its war against Russia, notes ‘The Hill’.

About a quarter of Americans, 26 percent, think the U.S. support of Ukraine is ‘too strong’, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. It is a percentage of people that has steadily grown since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year and has jumped 6 points since September.

The U.S. has sent billions of dollars to Ukraine to support its military in the war against Russia. In a $1.7 trillion spending package passed by Congress late last year, lawmakers included around $45 billion in funding for Ukraine and NATO allies. But the spending levels have come under attack by some Republican lawmakers, who argue the country is opening its pockets at unsustainable levels for Ukraine.

Then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that House Republicans would not provide a “blank-check” for support of Ukraine if his party took control of the House — which it did. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said on Twitter that President Biden needed to understand the U.S. wasn’t an ATM (automated teller machine).

And as some prominent Republicans have started to sour on the support levels, the poll of 5,152 people, with a margin of error of 1.7 percent, found that Republican voters are following along. A total of 40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the U.S. is providing ‘too much support’, according to the poll. That is up from 32 percent in September and from 9 percent in February 2022.

While Republican attitudes have dimmed on Ukrainian support, they have also come to view the Russian war as less of a major threat to the U.S.

Just 29 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the war is a major threat.

In March 2022, Republicans were more likely to see the invasion as a direct threat to the U.S., but now Democrats are more likely to hold that opinion, with 43 percent holding that belief.

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