Earth Day 2018 Focuses on Plastics Pollution

Each year on April 22, many people stop to think about the health of the world environment, as as if it were a New Year’s Day for nature, many make resolutions to treat the world around them more responsibly.

The day first celebrated in 1970 is approaching a half-century of existence with a movement that started in the United States and spread around the world. People celebrate the day with environmental action such as natural area cleanups, public demonstrations, tree plantings and, in 2016, the signing of the international Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep climate change in check.

The theme for 2018 is plastic pollution. Experts say a large mass of discarded plastic that has gathered in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has grown to more than 600,000 square miles — more than 155 million hectares (600,000 square miles), or twice the size of the U.S. state of Texas.

The patch developed in less than 100 years, as plastics have been in common use only since the 1950s. It is one of several masses of refuse found in the world’s oceans, brought together by weather patterns and water currents. Experts say many types of plastic that do not biodegrade can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years.

This year’s Earth Day focuses on getting rid of single-use plastics, promoting the using of alternative materials, recycling and developing more responsible behaviors concerning the use of plastics.

The environmental group behind Earth Day, the Earth Day Network, estimates that 1 billion people around the world recognize Earth Day in some way.


WHO Urges Everyone: Make Vaccines a Priority

Tuesday marks the start of World Immunization Week, set aside by the U.N. to remind parents with children, and even adults, to get immunized against deadly diseases. The World Health Organization, which is hosting the event is encouraging governments to invest in immunization efforts, urging advocates to make vaccines a priority, and asking people to get themselves and their families vaccinated. VOA’s Carol Pearson reports.


WHO Urges Everyone: Make Vaccines Priority

The Pan American Health Organization aims to get 70 million people in the Americas and the Caribbean vaccinated this week as part of the U.N.-designated World Immunization Week. 

Dr. Flavia Bustreo worked for years at the World Health Organization and for GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. She says, “Immunization and vaccines are the most powerful public health tools that we have.”


WATCH: WHO Urges Everyone: Make Vaccines a Priority

Imagine, she says, how many lives could have been saved if a vaccine for AIDS were available in the 1980s, when doctors discovered the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. 

Between April 24 and April 30, the U.N. wants everyone to be aware that vaccines save millions of lives each year, from the very young to the very old. It’s encouraging governments to invest in immunization efforts, telling advocates to make vaccines a priority, and urging people to get themselves and their families vaccinated. 

Only in humans

According to the WHO, close to 13 million children have lost their lives to diseases in the last 35 years — lives that might have been saved if these children had been vaccinated. 

Measles is a disease that exists only in humans, not in the wild. It’s highly contagious and can cause blindness, deafness and intellectual disabilities, yet many parents are concerned that the vaccine could harm their children, even though study after study shows the vaccine is safe.

Other parents don’t vaccinate their children because they have never experienced how sick measles can make their children. In 2017, measles killed 35 people, mostly children in Europe. In Italy, there were 3,232 cases of measles from January through June, while in 2016, there were only 478 in the same time period.

While global measles deaths have decreased 84 percent worldwide in recent years — from 550,100 deaths in 2000 to 89,780 in 2016 — the WHO reports that measles is still common in some developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia.

Comeback for measles?

Measles has now been eradicated from the Americas, but with the number of parents who don’t immunize their children, there is growing concern that the highly contagious disease could make a comeback. 

The WHO reports that immunization rates in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are as low as 40 percent in some areas and continuing to decline, increasing the risk of larger outbreaks.

Bustreo says when children are not vaccinated, it affects their health and the health of others. 

“We need to have vaccination coverage that is about 90 percent in order to have what we call the “herd effect” … which means you cover the children who are vaccinated, but also, because of the reduction of transmission of infections, you also cover the children that are not vaccinated,” she says.

Vaccines exist for many other deadly diseases as well. The WHO aims to vaccinate as many as 1 billion people from 27 high-risk African countries by the year 2026 against yellow fever — a mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal.

Misinformation in Brazil

On the VOA program Africa 54, Dr. Ken Redcross told viewers, “It’s fatal because it can cause liver failure. It can cause kidney failure. It can even cause what’s called a coagulopathy, which is a long word to mean that it causes a problem with our blood clotting.” 

In Brazil, efforts to vaccinate up to 24 million people against the disease have fallen short because some fear the vaccine is unsafe. Officials have been trying to counter this misinformation.  Red Cross says not only is the vaccine safe, it’s also highly effective. “It confers 90 percent immunity. And that’s huge as a vaccine goes,” Redcross says.

Brazilian public health authorities announced in early 2017 an outbreak of yellow fever in several eastern states of Brazil, including areas where yellow fever was not traditionally considered to be a risk. Since the end of 2017, yellow fever cases have reoccurred in several states, including areas close to the city of Sao Paulo.

Yellow fever in U.S.

On its website, the Florida Department of Health says yellow fever was a major public health concern in the U.S. and was responsible for several large outbreaks in Florida during the 1700s and 1800s. 

The mosquito that transmits yellow fever is in the southern U.S. With international travel, there’s concern that yellow fever could again become a major public health concern in the U.S. 

The WHO is urging countries to strengthen routine immunizations. Among its goals by the year 2020: to complete international efforts to end polio, which now exists in only three countries, thanks to a highly effective vaccine. The WHO also wants to control more vaccine-preventable diseases and develop new vaccines for HIV and other diseases that still plague the modern world.


Earth Day Call to Arms: Skip the Straw

The United Kingdom is proposing a ban on disposable plastic straws.

With Earth Day coming up this Sunday, advocates are asking everyone to follow suit and skip the straw.

Straws and stirrers are among the top 10 items found in coastal cleanups worldwide, according to the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, which has been conducting annual trash pickups for more than 30 years.

The group says the ocean is littered with 150 million metric tons of plastic trash, clogging coastlines, ensnaring wildlife and even littering land far from any human settlement.

And each year, another 8 million tons wash in, according to a recent study.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London on Thursday, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to ban plastic straws, stirrers and cotton ear buds.

May called on other Commonwealth nations to do the same.

Skipping the straw will not solve the problem on its own, acknowledges Nick Mallos, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program. 

“But they are a tangible action that all of us as individuals can take that do add up,” he said.

“It’s also about this mind shift that takes place when you start thinking about, ‘Oh, I don’t need a straw.’” Mallos added. “It cascades into other aspects of your consumer decision-making. Maybe after (skipping) the straw becomes habit, you think about the next step you might be able to take to reduce your waste footprint.”


Scientists Coax Plastic-Munching Enzyme to Eat Faster

Recently, the world was stunned to learn that an island of mostly plastic trash, floating in the Pacific Ocean, grew to the size of France, Germany and Spain combined. Because plastics take centuries to decompose, could civilization someday choke in it? Scientists at Britain’s University of Portsmouth say they may have found a way to speed up the decomposition of plastics. VOA’s George Putic reports.


South Africa Tests Potential Game-Changer in HIV Treatment

What if refilling a prescription was as easy as withdrawing money from an ATM? A South African tech company wants to make that possible. Its innovation, the Pharmacy Dispensing Unit, is being tested in Johannesburg, and health experts say it could provide a strong boost for the fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and potentially the region. Zaheer Cassim reports for VOA from Alexandra township of Johannesburg.


Senate Narrowly Confirms Trump’s Pick to Head NASA

NASA’s latest nail-biting drama was far from orbit as the Senate narrowly confirmed President Donald Trump’s choice of a tea party congressman to run the space agency in an unprecedented party-line vote.

In a 50-49 vote Thursday, Oklahoma Representative James Bridenstine, a Navy Reserve pilot, was confirmed as NASA’s 13th administrator, an agency that usually is kept away from partisanship. His three predecessors — two nominated by Republicans — were all approved unanimously. Before that, one NASA chief served under three presidents, two Republicans and a Democrat.

The two days of voting were as tense as a launch countdown.

A procedural vote Wednesday initially ended in a 49-49 tie — Vice President Mike Pence, who normally breaks a tie, was at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — before Arizona Republican Jeff Flake switched from opposition to support, using his vote as leverage to address an unrelated issue.

Thursday’s vote included the drama of another delayed but approving vote by Flake, a last-minute no vote by Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth — who wheeled onto the floor with her 10-day-old baby in tow — and the possibility of a tie-breaker by Pence, who was back in town.

NASA is a couple years away from launching a new giant rocket and crew capsule to replace the space shuttle fleet that was retired in 2011.

“I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the president’s vision for American leadership in space,” Bridenstine said in a NASA release after the vote. 

Sharply different views

Democrats opposing Bridenstine said his outspoken divisiveness, earlier rejection of mainstream climate change science and lack of space experience made him unqualified. Republicans praised him as a qualified war hero.

“His record of behavior in the Congress is as divisive as any in Washington, including his attacks on members of this body from his own party,” Florida Democrat Bill Nelson said.

Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, cited past Bridenstine comments that rejected mainstream climate science, invoking the movie “Apollo 13.”

“Houston, we have a problem,” Markey said. “NASA’s science, NASA’s mission and American leadership will be in jeopardy under Congressman Bridenstine’s leadership.”

During his confirmation hearing, Bridenstine said he acknowledged that global warming was real and man-made, but wouldn’t say that it was mostly human-caused, as the overwhelming majority of scientists and scientific literature have done. And Bridenstine told Nelson, “I want to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical.”

Texas Republican Ted Cruz praised the NASA nominee as “a war hero.”

“NASA needs a strong leader and it will have that strong leader in Jim Bridenstine,” Cruz said.

Sean O’Keefe, who was NASA chief under President George W. Bush and was confirmed unanimously, said the close vote “is a consequence of an erosion of comity in the Congress, particularly in the Senate. Political fights will always break out, but now most policy choices are more likely to emerge based on the party with the majority than the power of the idea.”

Alan Ladwig, a top NASA political appointee under Democrats, said this was a case of both party politics and a divisive nominee who doesn’t accept science.


UN Health Agency: Dengue Vaccine Shouldn’t Be Used Widely

The World Health Organization says the first-ever vaccine for dengue needs to be dealt with in “a much safer way,” meaning that the shot should mostly be given to people who have previously been infected with the disease.

In November, the vaccine’s manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, said people who had never been sickened by dengue before were at risk of developing a more serious disease after getting the shot.

After a two-day meeting this week, WHO’s independent vaccines group said it now had proof the vaccine should only be used “exclusively or almost exclusively in people who have already been infected with dengue.”

The U.N. health agency said a test should be developed so doctors would be able to quickly tell if people had previously been sickened by dengue – but the group acknowledged doing that so isn’t straightforward.

“We see significant obstacles in using the vaccine this way, but we are confident this also spurs the development of a rapid diagnostic test,” said Dr. Joachim Hombach, executive secretary of WHO’s expert group, during a news conference Thursday.

Sanofi said last year that doctors should consider whether people might have been previously infected with dengue before deciding whether they should risk getting immunized. The company said it expected to take a 100 million euro ($118 million) loss based on that news.

People who catch dengue more than once can be at risk of a hemorrhagic version of the disease. The mosquito-spread virus is found in tropical and sub-tropical climates across Latin and South America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. It causes a flu-like disease that can cause joint pain, nausea, vomiting and a rash. In severe cases, dengue can result in breathing problems, hemorrhaging and organ failure.

About half the world’s population is at risk of dengue; WHO estimates that about 96 million people are sickened by the viral infection every year.

Following Sanofi’s announcement last year, the Philippines halted its dengue immunization program, the world’s first national vaccination program for dengue. The government also demanded a refund of more than 3 billion pesos ($59 million) from Sanofi and is considering further legal action.

In February, the Philippines said the vaccine was potentially linked to the deaths of three people: all of them died of dengue despite having received the vaccine.

The country imposed a symbolic fine of $2,000 on Sanofi and suspended the vaccine’s approval, charging that the drugmaker broke rules on how the shot was registered and marketed.

More than 730,000 children aged 9 and above in the Philippines have received at least one dose of the dengue vaccine, usually delivered in three doses.

There is no specific treatment for dengue and there are no other licensed vaccines on the market.