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Africa’s cholera crisis is worse than ever

LILANDA, Zambia — Extreme weather events have hit parts of Africa relentlessly in the last three years, with tropical storms, floods and drought causing crises of hunger and displacement. They leave another deadly threat behind them: some of the continent’s worst outbreaks of cholera.

In southern and East Africa, more than 6,000 people have died and nearly 350,000 cases have been reported since a series of cholera outbreaks began in late 2021. 

Malawi and Zambia have had their worst outbreaks on record. Zimbabwe has had multiple waves. Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia also have been badly affected. 

All have experienced floods or drought — in some cases, both — and health authorities, scientists and aid agencies say the unprecedented surge of the water-borne bacterial infection in Africa is the newest example of how extreme weather is playing a role in driving disease outbreaks. 

“The outbreaks are getting much larger because the extreme climate events are getting much more common,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a South Africa-based scientist who studies diseases in the developing world. 

De Oliveira, who led a team that identified new coronavirus variants during the COVID-19 pandemic, said southern Africa’s latest outbreaks can be traced to the cyclones and floods that hit Malawi in late 2021 and early 2022, carrying the cholera bacteria to areas it doesn’t normally reach. 

Zimbabwe and Zambia have seen cases rise as they wrestle with severe droughts and people rely on less safe sources of water in their desperation like boreholes, shallow wells and rivers, which can all be contaminated. Days after the deadly flooding in Kenya and other parts of East Africa this month, cholera cases appeared. 

The World Health Organization calls cholera a disease of poverty, as it thrives where there is poor sanitation and a lack of clean water. Africa has had eight times as many deaths this year as the Middle East, the second-most affected region. 

Historically vulnerable, Africa is even more at risk as it faces the worst impacts of climate change as well as the effect of the El Niño weather phenomenon, health experts say. 

In what’s become a perfect storm, there’s also a global shortage of cholera vaccines, which are needed only in poorer countries. 

“It doesn’t affect countries with resources,” said Dr. Daniela Garone, the international medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF. “So, it doesn’t bring the resources.” 

Billions of dollars have been invested into other diseases that predominantly affect the world’s most vulnerable, like polio and tuberculosis, largely because those diseases are highly contagious and could cause outbreaks even in rich countries. But that’s not the case with cholera, where epidemics remain contained. 

WHO said this month there is a “critical shortage” of oral cholera vaccines in the global stockpile. Since the start of 2023, 15 countries — the desperate few — have requested a total of 82 million doses to deal with deadly outbreaks while only 46 million doses were available. 

There are just 3.2 million doses left, below the target of having at least 5 million in reserve. While there are currently cholera epidemics in the Middle East, the Americas and Southeast Asia, Africa is by far the worst-affected region. 

Vaccines alliance GAVI and UNICEF said last month that the approval of a new cholera vaccine would boost stocks. But the result of the shortage has already been measured in deaths. 

Lilanda, a township on the edge of the Zambian capital of Lusaka, is a typical cholera hot spot. Stagnant pools of water dot the dirt roads. Clean water is like gold dust. Here, over two awful days in January, Mildred Banda saw her 1-year-old son die from cholera and rushed to save the life of her teenage daughter. 

Cholera shouldn’t be killing anyone. The disease is easily treated and easily prevented — and the vaccines are relatively simple to produce. 

That didn’t help Banda’s son, Ndanji. 

When he fell sick with diarrhea, he was treated with an oral rehydration solution at a clinic and released. He slipped back into dehydration that night at home. Banda feels terrible guilt. 

“I should have noticed earlier that my son was not feeling well,” she said, sitting in her tiny concrete house. “I should have acted faster and taken him back to the clinic. I should have taken him back to save his life.” 

Because of the vaccine shortage, Zambia couldn’t undertake a preventative vaccination campaign after neighboring Malawi’s outbreak. That should have been a warning call, said de Oliveira. Zambia only made an emergency request when its cases started mounting. 

The doses that might have saved Ndanji started arriving in mid-January. He died on Jan. 6. 

In Zimbabwe, a drought worsened by El Niño has seen cholera take hold in distant rural areas as well as its traditional hot spots of crowded urban neighborhoods. 

Abi Kebra Belaye, MSF representative for Zimbabwe, said the southern African nation normally has around 17 hard-hit areas, mostly urban. This year, cholera spread to 62 districts as the struggle to find water heightened the risk. 

“This part of Africa is paying the highest price of climate change,” Kebra Belaye said. 

Augustine Chonyera, who hails from a cholera-prone part of the capital, Harare, was shocked when he recently visited the sparsely populated rural district of Buhera. 

He said he heard grim tales of the impact of the disease: a family losing five members, a husband and wife dying within hours of each other and local businesses using delivery trucks to take the sick to a clinic several kilometers (miles) away. 

“It seems now the people in rural areas are in more danger than us. I still wonder how it happened,” Chonyera said. 

He said he returned home as soon as he could — after giving a large bottle of treated water he had brought with him to an elderly woman. 

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Report: Tobacco industry uses manipulative practices to hook young people on addictive products 

Geneva — The World Health Organization and STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog, warn the tobacco industry is using a variety of manipulative tactics to hook a new generation of young people into becoming users of their addictive, toxic tobacco and nicotine products for life.

“The terrible truth is that eight million people every year die from tobacco use. The single greatest cause for these deaths is a vast industry that works relentlessly to sell products that are essentially poison,” Jorge Alday, director of STOP at Vital Strategies, said at the recent launch of a new tobacco interference report, “Hooking the next generation.”

Speaking in advance of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, Alday asserted that the tobacco industry’s products kill at least half of the people who use them, therefore, he said, “It has an endless need to replace its customers.”

“From the perspective of a tobacco company, an addictive customer means a lifetime of profits. So, the younger someone gets hooked the more money they can make at the expense of that person’s health,” he said.

The report shows that globally, an estimated 37 million children ages 13 to 15 use tobacco, and in many countries, the rate of e-cigarette use among adolescents exceeds that of adults.

While significant progress has been made in reducing tobacco use, the report says the emergence of e-cigarettes and other new tobacco and nicotine products presents “a grave threat to youth and tobacco control.”

“Studies demonstrate that e-cigarette use increases conventional cigarette use, particularly among non-smoking youth, by nearly three times,” it says.

Ruediger Krech, director of health promotion at WHO, told journalists attending the global launch of the report last week that the industry is “exploiting digital and social media, delivery apps, and other innovative ways to reach our children. At the same time, they are continuing with old tricks such as giving away free samples to recruit a new generation as customers.”

He said the use of child-friendly flavored e-cigarettes combined with sleek and colorful designs that resemble toys “is a blatant attempt” by tobacco and related industries “to addict young people to these harmful products.”

“Currently, we have about 16,000 flavors that are very appealing to children and young people—fruity flavors, candy, bubble gum and vanilla ice-cream,” he said, noting that most adult tobacco users start their deadly habit when they are young.

“Most of them have started before the age of 21. Then they stay tobacco or nicotine users for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That is alarming when we are now seeing that with these novel products, so many children and young people are taking up this nicotine use.

“So, there is an urgency to act now to regulate those products, ban them if possible. But to be very, very serious about this,” he added.

One of many youth advocates around the world taking a stand against “the destructive influence and manipulative marketing practices” of the tobacco and nicotine industry is Given Kapolyo of Zambia. She is the Global Young Ambassador of the Year with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, CTFK.

“I totally agree with the sentiments shared already today that the industry continues to hook young people,” she said, speaking from the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

“It is extremely sad here in Africa because they continue to target low-income communities because they know that these young people do not have access to information on just how deadly these products are. … They tell young people that vaping is cooler, that electronic cigarettes are cooler, and they continue to hook young people as early as 10 years and 13 years old.

“Their only interest is profits, and they want to hook young people while they are young, so they can have lifelong customers, which means more profits for them, without caring how many lives we are losing due to non-communicable diseases caused by tobacco abuse,” she said.

The World Health Organization is urging governments to protect young people from taking up tobacco, e-cigarettes and other nicotine products by banning or tightly regulating them. Its recommendations include the creation of smoke-free indoor public places, bans on flavored e-cigarettes, as well as bans on marketing, advertising, and promotions, and the enactment of higher taxes.

Authors of the reports say these measures work. They cite an example from the United States where research found that “more than 70 percent of youth e-cigarette users would quit if the products were only available in tobacco flavor.”

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New cars in California could alert drivers for breaking the speed limit

SACRAMENTO, California — California could eventually join the European Union in requiring all new cars to alert drivers when they break the speed limit, a proposal aimed at reducing traffic deaths that would likely impact motorists across the country should it become law.

The federal government sets safety standards for vehicles nationwide, which is why most cars now beep at drivers if their seat belt isn’t fastened. A bill in the California Legislature — which passed its first vote in the state Senate on Tuesday — would go further by requiring all new cars sold in the state by 2032 to beep at drivers when they exceed the speed limit by at least 16 kph.

“Research has shown that this does have an impact in getting people to slow down, particularly since some people don’t realize how fast that their car is going,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and the bill’s author.

The bill narrowly passed Tuesday, an indication of the tough road it could face. Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle said he voted against it in part because he said sometimes people need to drive faster than the speed limit in an emergency.

“It’s just a nanny state that we’re causing here,” he said.

While the goal is to reduce traffic deaths, the legislation would likely impact all new car sales in the U.S. That’s because California’s auto market is so large that car makers would likely just make all of their vehicles comply with the state’s law.

California often throws its weight around to influence national — and international — policy. California has set its own emission standards for cars for decades, rules that more than a dozen other states have also adopted. And when California announced it would eventually ban the sale of new gas-powered cars, major automakers soon followed with their own announcement to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles.

The technology, known as intelligent speed assistance, uses GPS technology to compare a vehicle’s speed with a dataset of posted speed limits. Once the car is at least 16 kph over the speed limit, the system would emit “a brief, one-time visual and audio signal to alert the driver.”

It would not require California to maintain a list of posted speed limits. That would be left to manufacturers. It’s likely these maps would not include local roads or recent changes in speed limits, resulting in conflicts.

The bill states that if the system receives conflicting information about the speed limit, it must use the higher limit.

The technology is not new and has been used in Europe for years. Starting later this year, the European Union will require all new cars sold there to have the technology — although drivers would be able to turn it off.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 10% of all car crashes reported to police in 2021 were speeding related — including an 8% increase in speeding-related fatalities. This was especially a problem in California, where 35% of traffic fatalities were speeding-related — the second highest in the country, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended federal regulators require all new cars to alert drivers when speeding. Their recommendation came after a crash in January 2022 when a man with a history of speeding violations was traveling more than 100 miles per hour when he ran a red light and hit a minivan, killing himself and eight other people.

The NTSB has no authority and can only make recommendations.

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Italian museum recreates Tanzanian butterfly forest

TRENTO, Italy — In a lush greenhouse high in the Alps, butterflies of various species and colors flutter freely while butterfly pupae are suspended in a structure as they grow into adult insects.

This is the Butterfly Forest in the tropical mountain greenhouse in Trento, Italy, a project by the Museo delle Scienze (MUSE), an Italian science museum. It’s modeled on Udzungwa Mountains, a mountain range and rainforest area in south-central Tanzania that’s one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The Butterfly Forest features plant species endemic to the region, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates from different parts of the world, all inside 600 square meters of forest with cliffs, inclinations and a waterfall.

The Butterfly Forest was created this spring to create public awareness on some of the research that MUSE is doing in Udzungwa Mountains to study and protect the world’s biodiversity against threats such as deforestation and climate change.

Deforestation leads to habitat loss, which causes declines in nectar sources for butterflies, changing the functioning of the ecosystem. It can also limit the movements of the insects causing a decline in biodiversity and potential extinction of vulnerable butterfly species. Changes to soil and air temperatures are altering the life cycles of the insects, impacting their development rates, mating behaviors, and migration patterns. Butterfly populations are declining in many areas, especially in places under intensive land use.

“Our aim is that of being able to study better, to understand better what is happening,” said Lisa Angelini, a botanist and director of the MUSE greenhouse. “Our work consists of monitoring and trying to develop projects in order to bring attention to biodiversity-related issues.”

Butterflies are pollinators that enable plants to reproduce and therefore facilitate food production and supply. They are also food for birds and other animals.

Because of the multiple roles of butterflies in the ecosystem and their high sensitivity to environmental changes, scientists use them as indicators of biodiversity and a way to study the impact of habitat loss and other threats. “Insects in general play a fundamental role in the proper functioning of ecosystems,” said Mauro Gobbi, an entomologist and researcher at MUSE.

Through a partnership with the Tanzania National Parks Authority, MUSE established the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center in 2006 to support research as well as in development of environmental education programs for schools.

“Research on butterflies is essential for informing conservation efforts and ensuring the long-term survival of the insects,” said Arafat Mtui, research coordinator at Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Centre. Conservation efforts such as habitat restoration and good land management practices, which address climate change impacts, are essential for protecting butterfly populations, he added.

With at least 2,500 plant species, more than 120 mammals, and thousands of invertebrate species, Udzungwa Mountains is rich in biological diversity. It’s part of the Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania that are a proposed UNESCO Heritage site. It has more than 40 endemic species of butterflies.

MUSE’s work here is vital because of this variety, said Sevgan Subramanian, principal scientist and head of environmental health at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.

“If you want to have a monitoring of the health of the ecosystem, monitoring such indigenous or endemic insect population diversity is very critical, so that we have an idea whether the ecosystem is still healthy or not,” he said.

Gobbi, the entomologist, said high-altitude environments like Udzungwa Mountains National Park are suitable for studying the effects of climate change because they usually have no direct human impact.

He and other scientists have warned that failure to protect insects from climate change effects will drastically reduce the planet’s ability to build a sustainable future.

Scientists at MUSE said the main challenge in butterfly conservation is changing the current farming policies to increase the amount of low-intensity farmland, and promote diverse landscapes preserving the remaining patches of natural habitats.

“Often our grandparents used to say ‘there are no longer as many butterflies as there used to be,'” he said. This is “absolutely supported by scientific research, which confirms that butterflies, like other insects, are in crisis. We are losing species, we’re losing them forever, and this is going to break the balance of ecosystems.”

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Scientists: Climate change, rapid urbanization worsen impact of East African rains

NAIROBI, Kenya — The impact of the calamitous rains that struck East Africa from March to May was intensified by a mix of climate change and rapid growth of urban areas, an international team of climate scientists said in a study published Friday.

The findings come from World Weather Attribution, a group of scientists that analyzes whether and to what extent human-induced climate change has altered the likelihood and magnitude of extreme weather events.

The downpours caused floods that killed hundreds of people, displaced thousands of others, killed thousands of livestock and destroyed thousands of acres of crops.

To assess how human-caused climate may have affected the floods, the researchers analyzed weather data and climate model simulations to compare how these types of events have changed between today’s climate and the cooler pre-industrial one. They focused on regions where the impacts were most severe, including southern Kenya, most of Tanzania and a part of Burundi.

It found that climate change had made the devastating rains twice as likely and 5% more intense. The study also found that with further warming, the frequency and intensity of the rains would continue to increase.

“We’re likely to see this kind of intensive rainfall happening this season going into the future,” said Joyce Kimutai, research associate at Imperial College London and the lead author of the study.

The study also found that the rapid urbanization of East African cities is increasing the risk of flooding.

Highly populated urban areas, especially high-density informal settlements, were significantly impacted by the downpours. Torrential rain flooded houses and roads, in some places exposing weaknesses in urban planning to meet the demands of fast-growing populations.

March to May is “long rains” season in East Africa. It’s when most of the region’s average annual rainfall occurs, and is typically characterized by torrential rains.

East Africa also suffered flooding during the “short rains” of October to December 2023 and before that, it endured a three-year drought. WWA scientists found that both events were worsened by climate change.

Philip Omondi, climate change specialist at the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre in Nairobi and wasn’t involved in the study, said human-caused impacts result in intense and high-frequency extreme floods and droughts.

Shaun Ferris, senior technical advisor for agriculture and climate change at Catholic Relief Services in Nairobi, said more intense weather put a new level of pressure on old and unplanned buildings and basic infrastructure and there’s a need to put up infrastructure that will be more able to cope with climate change.

“There is huge pressure on basic services,” he said giving the example of Nairobi, whose population has doubled over the past 20 years.

Ferris said that the global community needs to start using the loss and damage fund for climate disasters so they can repair and upgrade their basic infrastructure.

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World’s largest tree passes health check

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, California — High in the evergreen canopy of General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, researchers searched for evidence of an emerging threat to giant sequoias: bark beetles.

The climbers descended the towering 2,200-year-old tree with good news on Tuesday.

“The General Sherman tree is doing fine right now,” said Anthony Ambrose, executive director of the Ancient Forest Society, who led the expedition. “It seems to be a very healthy tree that’s able to fend off any beetle attack.”

It was the first time climbers had scaled the iconic 85-meter sequoia tree, which draws tourists from around the world to Sequoia National Park.

Giant sequoias, the Earth’s largest living things, have survived for thousands of years in California’s western Sierra Nevada range, the only place where the species is native.

But as the climate grows hotter and drier, giant sequoias previously thought to be almost indestructible are increasingly threatened by extreme heat, drought and wildfires.

In 2020 and 2021, record-setting wildfires killed as much as 20% of the world’s 75,000 mature sequoias, according to park officials.

“The most significant threat to giant sequoias is climate-driven wildfires,” said Ben Blom, director of stewardship and restoration at Save the Redwoods League. “But we certainly don’t want to be caught by surprise by a new threat, which is why we’re studying these beetles now.”

But researchers are growing more worried about bark beetles, which didn’t pose a serious threat in the past.

The beetles are native to California and have co-existed with sequoias for thousands of years. But only recently have they been able to kill the trees. Scientists say they recently discovered about 40 sequoia trees that have died from beetle infestations, mostly within the national parks.

“We’re documenting some trees that are actually dying from kind of a combination of drought and fire that have weakened them to a point where they’re not able to defend themselves from the beetle attack,” Ambrose said.

The beetles attack the trees from the canopy, boring into branches and working their way down the trunk. If left unchecked, the tiny beetles can kill a tree within six months.

That’s why park officials allowed Ambrose and his colleagues to climb General Sherman. They conducted the tree health inspection as journalists and visitors watched them pull themselves up ropes dangling from the canopy. They examined the branches and trunk, looking for the tiny holes that indicate beetle activity.

But it’s not possible to climb every sequoia tree to directly inspect the canopy in person. That’s why they’re also testing whether drones equipped with sensors and aided by satellite imagery can be used to monitor and detect beetle infestations on a larger scale within the forests.

Tuesday’s health inspection of General Sherman was organized by the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, a group of government agencies, Native tribes and environmental groups. They hope to establish a health monitoring program for the towering trees.

If they discover beetle infestations, officials say, they could try to combat the attacks by spraying water, removing branches or using chemical treatments.

Bark beetles have ravaged pine and fir forests throughout the Western United States in recent years, but they previously didn’t pose a threat to giant sequoias, which can live 3,000 years.

“They have really withstood insect attacks for a lot of years. So why now? Why are we seeing this change?” said Clay Jordan, superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “There’s a lot that we need to learn in order to ensure good stewardship of these trees for a long time.”

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Ocean heat, La Nina likely mean more Atlantic hurricanes this summer

WASHINGTON — Get ready for what nearly all the experts think will be one of the busiest Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, thanks to unprecedented ocean heat and a brewing La Nina. 

There’s an 85% chance that the Atlantic hurricane season starting in June will be above average in storm activity, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday in its annual outlook. The weather agency predicted between 17 and 25 named storms will brew up this summer and fall, with eight to 13 achieving hurricane status (at least 75 mph sustained winds) and four to seven of them becoming major hurricanes, with at least 111 mph winds. 

An average Atlantic hurricane season produces 14 named storms — seven of them hurricanes and three major hurricanes. 

“This season is looking to be an extraordinary one in a number of ways,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said. He said this forecast is the busiest that NOAA has seen for one of their May outlooks; the agency updates its forecasts each August. 

About 20 other groups — universities, other governments, private weather companies — also have made seasonal forecasts. All but two expect a busier, nastier summer and fall for hurricanes. The average of those other forecasts is about 11 hurricanes, or about 50% more than in a normal year. 

“All the ingredients are definitely in place to have an active season,” National Weather Service Director Ken Graham said. “It’s a reason to be concerned, of course, but not alarmed.” 

What people should be most concerned about is water because 90% of hurricane deaths are in water and they are preventable, Graham said. 

When meteorologists look at how busy a hurricane season is, two factors matter most: ocean temperatures in the part of the Atlantic where storms spin up and need warm water for fuel, and whether there is a La Nina or El Nino, the natural and periodic cooling or warming of Pacific Ocean waters that changes weather patterns worldwide. A La Nina tends to turbocharge Atlantic storm activity while depressing storminess in the Pacific, and an El Nino does the opposite. 

La Nina usually reduces high-altitude winds that can decapitate hurricanes, and generally during a La Nina there’s more instability or storminess in the atmosphere, which can seed hurricane development. Storms get their energy from hot water. Ocean waters have been at record temperatures for 13 months in a row, and a La Nina is forecast to arrive by mid- to late summer. The current El Nino is dwindling and is expected to be gone within a month or so. 

“We’ve never had a La Nina combined with ocean temperatures this warm in recorded history, so that’s a little ominous,” said University of Miami tropical meteorology researcher Brian McNoldy. 

This May, ocean heat in the main area where hurricanes develop has been as high as it usually is in mid-August. “That’s crazy,” McNoldy said. It’s both record warm on the ocean surface and at depths, which “is looking a little scary.” 

He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see storms earlier than normal this year as a result. Peak hurricane season usually is mid-August to mid-October, with the official season starting June 1 and ending November 30. 

A year ago, the two factors were opposing each other. Instead of a La Nina, there was a strong El Nino, which usually inhibits storminess a bit. Experts said at the time they weren’t sure which of those factors would win out. 

Warm water won. Last year had 20 named storms, the fourth-highest year since 1950 and far more than the average of 14. An overall measurement of strength, duration and frequency of storms last season was 17% bigger than normal. 

Record hot water seems to be key, McNoldy said. 

“Things really went of the rails last spring [2023], and they haven’t gotten back to the rails since then,” McNoldy said. 

“Hurricanes live off of warm ocean water,” said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. “That tends to basically be fuel for the hurricane. But also, when you have the warm Atlantic, what that tends to do is also force more air up over the Atlantic, more rising motion, which helps support strong thunderstorms.” 

There’s the background of human-caused climate change that’s making water warmer in general, but not this much warmer, McNoldy said. He said other contributors may include an undersea volcano eruption in the South Pacific in 2022, which sent millions of tons of water vapor into the air to trap heat, and a reduction in sulfur in ship fuels. The latter meant fewer particles in the air that reflect sunlight and cool the atmosphere a bit. 

Seven of the last 10 Atlantic hurricane seasons have been more active than the long-term normal. 

Climate change generally is making the strongest hurricanes even more intense, making storms rain more and making them rapidly intensify more, McNoldy said. 

This year, Colorado State University — which pioneered hurricane season forecasting decades ago — is forecasting a season that’s overall 71% stronger and busier than the average season with 23 named storms and 11 hurricanes. 

That’s at “levels comparable to some of the busiest seasons on record,” said Klotzbach. 

Klotzbach and his team gave a 62% probability that the United States will be hit with a major hurricane with winds of at least 111 mph. Normally the chance is 43%. The Caribbean has a two-out-of-three chance of getting hit by a major hurricane, and the U.S. Gulf Coast has a 42% likelihood of getting smacked by such a storm, the CSU forecast said. For the U.S. East Coast, the chance of being hit by a major hurricane is 34%. 

Klotzbach said he doesn’t see how something could shift soon enough to prevent a busy season this year. 

“The die is somewhat cast,” Klotzbach said. 

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu in 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

New York — A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu, becoming the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows. 

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday. 

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said. 

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month, but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes. 

Health officials said they didn’t know whether the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing. 

Texas case

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered. 

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears, and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries. 

The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans. 

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan. 

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows. 

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview. 

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms. 

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people. 

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said. 

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus. 

The new case marked the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’ appearance in cows. 

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Small island states secure climate win at international ocean court

BERLIN — A group of small island states that include Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas secured a win on climate change in an international court Tuesday as they seek to combat rising sea levels.

In its first climate-related judgment, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or ITLOS, said that greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by the ocean are considered marine pollution and countries are obliged to protect marine environments by going further than required under the Paris climate agreement.

The opinion was requested by a group of nine island nations facing climate-driven rises in sea levels.

The opinion is not legally binding, but it can be used to help guide countries in their climate policy and, in other cases, as legal precedent.

“The ITLOS opinion will inform our future legal and diplomatic work in putting an end to inaction that has brought us to the brink of an irreversible disaster,” Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.

The other nations in the group that brought the case were Tuvalu, Palau, Niue, Vanuatu, St.Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis.

The court said states are legally obligated to take all necessary measures to achieve the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas.

In the case hearings in September, China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, had challenged the islands’ request, arguing that the tribunal does not have general authority to issue advisory opinions. Beijing said its position was taken to avoid the fragmentation of international law.

“If ITLOS were to find that such an obligation exists, Beijing’s response would most likely be to characterize this as falling outside of its proper scope of authority,” said Ryan Martinez Mitchell, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Eselealofa Apinelu, a representative of the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, said the advisory opinion spells out the legally binding obligations of all states to protect the marine environment and the states against the existential threats posed by climate change.

“This is a historic moment for small island developing nations in their request for climate justice, an important first step in holding the major polluters accountable, for the sake of all humankind,” Apinelu said.

Climate activists and lawyers said the decision could also influence two upcoming legal opinions by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and the International Court of Justice, which are also considering states’ climate obligations.

Last month, the European Court of Human Rights issued a historic ruling in favor of plaintiffs who argued that Switzerland was violating their human rights by not doing enough to combat climate warming.

“Now we have clarity on what states are obligated to do, which they have failed to do through 30 years … but this is the opening chapter,” Payam Akhavan, lead counsel for the nine island nations in the proceedings, said of the ITLOS opinion, adding that the next step was to ensure that major polluters would implement their obligations.

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Global carbon emissions pricing raised record $104 bln in 2023

LONDON — Countries raised a record $104 billion last year by charging firms for emitting carbon dioxide, but prices remain too low to drive changes needed to meet Paris climate accord targets, the World Bank said in a report on Tuesday.  

Several countries are using a price on carbon emissions to help meet their climate goals by making polluters pay in the form of a tax, or under an emissions trading (ETS), or cap-and-trade, system.

“Carbon pricing is a critical part of the policy mix needed to both meet the Paris Agreement goals and support low emissions growth,” the World Bank’s State and Trends of Carbon Markets report said.  

There are 75 global carbon pricing instruments in operation, up two from a year ago, covering around 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The figure raised in 2023 in carbon revenues was up from around $95 billion raised in 2022.  

However, the report said less than 1% of global greenhouse emissions are covered by a direct carbon price at or above the range recommended by the High-level Commission on Carbon Prices to meet the 2015 Paris agreement target of limiting temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.  

In 2017, a report by the High-Level Commission indicated carbon prices need to be in the $50-100 per ton range by 2030 to keep a rise in global temperatures below 2C. Adjusted for inflation those prices would now need to be in a $63-127 metric ton range, the World Bank report said.  

The largest single contributor to global carbon revenue is the EU’s Emissions Trading System.

“Recent price drops in the EU ETS… suggests global carbon pricing revenues may fall in 2024,” the report said.  

The benchmark EU carbon contract CFI2Zc1 is currently trading around 73 euros/ton, down from around 80 euros/ton at the start of the year and having touched a record over 100 euros/ton in February 2023.

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Study: Climate change key driver of record-low Antarctic sea ice

Paris — Climate change played a key role in last year’s record-low levels of Antarctic sea ice, a study published on Monday found, marking an abrupt shift from the growth seen in previous decades.

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) found that human-caused global warming resulted in a once-in-2,000-year low in ocean surface around the continent blanketed by ice.

Compared to an average winter over the last several decades, the maximum extent of Antarctic sea covered by ice shrank by two million square kilometers — an area four times the size of France, the BAS said.

“This is why we were so interested in studying what climate models can tell us about how often large, rapid losses like this are likely to happen,” the study’s lead author Rachel Diamond told AFP.

Scientists, having analyzed 18 distinct climate models, found that climate change quadrupled the likelihood of such large and rapid melting events.

Understanding the cause of sea ice melt is complex as there are many variables — from ocean water to air temperature to winds — that can effect it, scientists say.

But determining the role of climate change is critical since ice formation has global impacts from ocean currents to sea-level rise.

Sea ice, which forms from freezing salt water already in the ocean, has no discernible impact on sea levels.

But when highly reflective snow and ice give way to dark blue ocean, the same amount of the Sun’s energy that was bounced back into space is absorbed by water instead, accelerating the pace of global warming.

Recovery unlikely

Unlike the Arctic, where sea ice has been declining since satellite records began in the 1970s, the melt trend in Antarctica is a more recent phenomenon.

Antarctic sea ice increased “slightly and steadily” from 1978 until 2015, according to the BAS.

But 2017 brought a sharp decline, followed by several years of low ice levels.

In the study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, BAS researchers also ran projections to see whether the ice would return.

“It doesn’t completely recover to original levels even after 20 years,” Diamond told AFP. That means “the average Antarctic sea ice may still stay relatively low for decades to come”, he added.

“The impacts… would be profound, including on local and global weather and on unique Southern Ocean ecosystems — including whales and penguins,” co-author Louise Sime said.

Previous studies by the BAS have shown that the abnormal melt has led to the deaths of thousands of emperor penguin chicks.

Reared on the ice sheets, they perished when they were plunged into the ocean before they had developed their waterproof feathers.

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Researchers use artificial intelligence to classify brain tumors

SYDNEY — Researchers in Australia and the United States say that a new artificial intelligence tool has allowed them to classify brain tumors more quickly and accurately.  

The current method for identifying different kinds of brain tumors, while accurate, can take several weeks to produce results.  The method, called DNA methylation-based profiling, is not available at many hospitals around the world.

To address these challenges, a research team from the Australian National University, in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute in the United States, has developed a way to predict DNA methylation, which acts like a switch to control gene activity.  

This allows them to classify brain tumors into 10 major categories using a deep learning model.

This is a branch of artificial intelligence that teaches computers to process data in a way that is inspired by a human brain.

The joint U.S.-Australian system is called DEPLOY and uses microscopic pictures of a patient’s tissue called histopathology images.

The researchers see the DEPLOY technology as complementary to an initial diagnosis by a pathologist or physician.

Danh-Tai Hoang, a research fellow at the Australian National University, told VOA that AI will enhance current diagnostic methods that can often be slow.

“The technique is very time consuming,” Hoang said. “It is often around two to three weeks to obtain a result from the test, whereas patients with high-grade brain tumors often require treatment as soon as possible because time is the goal for brain tumor(s), so they need to get treatment as soon as possible.”

The research team said its AI model was validated on large datasets of approximately 4,000 patients from across the United States and Europe and an accuracy rate of 95 percent.

Their study has been published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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What happened in the UK’s infected blood scandal? Inquiry report due Monday

London — The final report of the U.K.’s infected blood inquiry will be published Monday, nearly six years after it began looking into how tens of thousands of people contracted HIV or hepatitis from transfusions of tainted blood and blood products in the 1970s and 1980s.

The scandal is widely seen as the deadliest to afflict Britain’s state-run National Health Service since its inception in 1948, with around 3,000 people believed to have died as a result of being infected with HIV and hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver.

The report is expected to criticize pharmaceutical firms and medical practitioners, civil servants and politicians, although many have already died given the passage of time. It’s also set to pave the way to a huge compensation bill that the British government will be under pressure to rapidly pay out.

Had it not been for the tireless campaigners, many of whom saw loved ones die decades too soon, the scale of the scandal may have remained hidden forever.

“This whole scandal has blanketed my entire life,” said Jason Evans, who was four when his father died at the age of 31 in 1993 after contracting HIV and hepatitis from an infected blood plasma product.

“My dad knew he was dying and he took many home videos, which I’ve got and replayed over and over again growing up because that’s really all I had,” he added.

Evans was instrumental in the decision by then-Prime Minister Theresa May to establish the inquiry in 2017. He said he just “couldn’t let it go.” His hope is that on Monday, he and countless others, can.

Here is a look at what the scandal was about and what the report’s impact may be.

What is the infected blood scandal?

In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of people who needed blood transfusions, for example after childbirth or surgery, became exposed to blood tainted with hepatitis, including an as yet unknown kind that was later termed Hepatitis C, and HIV.

Those with haemophilia, a condition affecting the blood’s ability to clot, became exposed to what was sold as a revolutionary new treatment derived from blood plasma.

In the U.K., the NHS, which treats the majority of people, started using the new treatment in the early 1970s. It was called Factor VIII. It was more convenient when compared with an alternative treatment and was dubbed a wonder drug.

Demand soon outstripped domestic sources of supply, so health officials began importing Factor VIII from the U.S., where a high proportion of plasma donations came from prisoners and drug users who were paid to donate blood. That dramatically raised the risk of the plasma being contaminated.

Factor VIII was made by mixing plasma from thousands of donations. In this pooling, one infected donor would compromise the whole batch.

The inquiry heard estimates that more than 30,000 people were infected from compromised blood or blood products via transfusions or Factor VIII.

Missed chances

By the mid 1970s, there was evidence haemophiliacs being treated with Factor VIII were more prone to hepatitis. The World Health Organization, which had warned in 1953 of the hepatitis risks associated with the mass pooling of plasma products, urged countries not to import plasma.

AIDS, the biggest public health crisis since World War II, turned up in the early 1980s. Originally thought to be isolated to the gay community, it soon started appearing among haemophiliacs and those who had received blood transfusions.

Though the cause of AIDS — HIV — was not identified until 1983, warnings had been relayed to the U.K. government the year before that the causative agent could be transmitted by blood products. The government argued there was no conclusive proof. Patients were not informed of the risk and persisted with a treatment that put them in mortal danger.

Mistakes

The inquiry is expected to conclude that lessons from as early as the 1940s had been ignored.

Campaigners argue that since the 1940s it had been clear that heat killed hepatitis in another plasma product, albumin. They say authorities could have made Factor VIII safe before it was sold.

Evidence given to the inquiry suggested that authorities’ main objection was financial. Non-heated Factor VIII was prescribed by the NHS until late 1985.

Campaigners hope the inquiry’s core finding is that Factor VIII concentrates should never have been licensed for use unless heated.

Why now?

In the late 1980s, victims and their families called for compensation on the grounds of medical negligence. Though the government set up a charity to make one-off support payments to those infected with HIV in the early 1990s, it did not admit liability or responsibility and victims were pressured to sign a waiver undertaking not to sue the Department of Health to get the money.

Crucially, the waiver also prevented victims from suing for hepatitis, even though at that stage they only knew about their HIV infection. Years after signing, victims were told they had also been infected with hepatitis, mainly Hepatitis C.

There was no further group litigation until Evans, whose mother “crumbled” after his father’s death and who was called “AIDS boy” at school, brought a case claiming misfeasance in public office against the Department of Health.

Combined with political and media pressure, May announced the independent inquiry. It was, she said, “an appalling tragedy which should simply never have happened.”

Compensation

The government has accepted the case for compensation, with most estimates putting the final bill in the region of $12.7 billion. In October 2022, authorities made interim payments of 100,000 pounds to each survivor and bereaved partners.

The government is expected to announce different payments for different infections and address how and when bereaved families can apply for interim payments on behalf of the estates of people who have died.

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Blue Origin flies thrill seekers to space, including oldest astronaut 

Washington — After a nearly two year hiatus, Blue Origin flew adventurers to space on Sunday including a former Air Force pilot who was denied the chance to be the United States’ first Black astronaut decades ago. 

 

It was the first crewed launch for the enterprise owned and founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos since a rocket mishap in 2022 left rival Virgin Galactic as the sole operator in the fledgling suborbital tourism market. 

 

Six people including the sculptor Ed Dwight, who was on track to become NASA’s first ever astronaut of color in the 1960s before being controversially spurned, launched around 09:36 am local time (1436 GMT) from the Launch Site One base in west Texas, a live feed showed. 

 

Dwight — at 90 years, 8 months and 10 days — became the oldest person to ever go to space. 

 

“This is a life-changing experience, everybody needs to do this,” he exclaimed after the flight. 

 

Dwight added: “I thought I didn’t really need this in my life,” reflecting on his omission from the astronaut corps, which was his first experience with failure as a young man. “But I lied,” he said with a hearty laugh. 

 

Mission NS-25 is the seventh human flight for Blue Origin, which sees short jaunts on the New Shepard suborbital vehicle as a stepping stone to greater ambitions, including the development of a full-fledged heavy rocket and lunar lander. 

 

To date, the company has flown 31 people aboard New Shepard — a small, fully reusable rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. 

The program encountered a setback when a New Shepard rocket caught fire shortly after launch on September 12, 2022, even though the uncrewed capsule ejected safely. 

 

A federal investigation revealed an overheating engine nozzle was at fault. Blue Origin took corrective steps and carried out a successful uncrewed launch in December 2023, paving the way for Sunday’s mission. 

 

After liftoff, the sleek and roomy capsule separated from the booster, which produces zero carbon emissions. The rocket performed a precision vertical landing. 

 

As the spaceship soared beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space 100 kilometers above sea level, passengers had the chance to marvel at the Earth’s curvature and unbuckle their seatbelts to float — or somersault — during a few minutes of weightlessness. 

 

The capsule then reentered the atmosphere, deploying its parachutes for a desert landing in a puff of sand. However, one of the three parachutes failed to fully inflate, possibly resulting in a harder landing than expected. 

 

Bezos himself was on the program’s first ever crewed flight in 2021. A few months later, Star Trek’s William Shatner blurred the lines between science fiction and reality when he became the world’s oldest ever astronaut aged 90, decades after he first played a space traveler. 

 

Dwight, who was almost two months older than Shatner at the time of his flight, became only the second nonagenarian to venture beyond Earth. 

 

Astronaut John Glenn remains the oldest to orbit the planet, a feat he achieved in 1998 at the age 77 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. 

 

Blue Origin’s competitor in suborbital space is Virgin Galactic, which deploys a supersonic spaceplane that is dropped from beneath the wings of a massive carrier plane at high altitude. 

 

Virgin Galactic experienced its own two-year safety pause because of an anomaly linked with the 2021 flight that carried its founder British tycoon Richard Branson into space. But the company later hit its stride with half a dozen successful flights in quick succession. 

 

Sunday’s mission finally gave Dwight the chance he was denied decades ago. 

 

He was an elite test pilot when he was appointed by President John F Kennedy to join a highly competitive Air Force program known as a pathway for the astronaut corps, but was ultimately not picked. 

 

He left the military in 1966, citing the strain of racial politics, before dedicating his life to telling Black history through sculpture. His art, displayed around the country, includes iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and more. 

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Musk, Indonesian health minister, launch Starlink for health sector 

DENPASAR, BALI, INDONESIA — Elon Musk and Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin launched SpaceX’s satellite internet service for the nation’s health sector on Sunday, aiming to improve access in remote parts of the sprawling archipelago.   

Musk, the billionaire head of SpaceX and Tesla TSLA.O, arrived on the Indonesian resort island of Bali by private jet before attending the launch ceremony at a community health centre in the provincial capital, Denpasar.   

Musk, wearing a green batik shirt, said the availability of the Starlink service in Indonesia would help millions in far-flung parts of the country to access the internet. The country is home to more than 270 million people and three different time zones.

“I’m very excited to bring connectivity to places that have low connectivity,” Musk said, “If you have access to the internet you can learn anything.”   

Starlink was launched at three Indonesian health centers on Sunday, including two in Bali and one on the remote island of Aru in Maluku.   

A video presentation screened at the launch showed how high internet speeds enabled the real-time input of data to better tackle health challenges such as stunting and malnutrition.   

Asked about whether he planned to also invest in Indonesia’s electric vehicle industry, Musk said he was focused on Starlink first.   

“We are focusing this event on Starlink and the benefits that connectivity brings to remote islands,” he said, “I think it’s really to emphasize the importance of internet connectivity, how much of that can be a lifesaver.”   

Indonesia’s government has been trying for years to lure Musk’s auto firm Tesla to build manufacturing plants related to electric vehicles as the government wants to develop its EV sector using the country’s rich nickel resources.   

The tech tycoon is scheduled to meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday, where he will also address the World Water Forum taking place on the island.   

Communications Minister Budi Arie Setiadi, who also attended the Bali launch, said Starlink was now available commercially, but the government would focus its services first for outer and underdeveloped regions.   

Prior to Sunday’s launch, Starlink obtained a permit to operate as an internet service provider for retail consumers and had been given the go-ahead to provide networks, having received a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) permit, Budi Setiadi told Reuters.   

SpaceX’s Starlink, which owns around 60% of the roughly 7,500 satellites orbiting earth, is dominant in the satellite internet sphere.   

Indonesia is the third country in Southeast Asia where Starlink will operate. Malaysia issued the firm a license to provide internet services last year and a Philippine-based firm signed a deal with SpaceX in 2022.   

Starlink is also used extensively in Ukraine, where it is employed by the military, hospitals, businesses and aid organizations.