More Newborns Dying in West, Central Africa as ‘World Fails Poorest Babies’

More babies are dying each year in West and Central Africa even as child health improves overall, aid agencies said on Tuesday, calling the region’s newborn death rate a “hidden tragedy.”

Five of the 10 most dangerous countries to be born are in West and Central Africa, with infants there 50 times more likely to die within a month than if they were born in Japan or Iceland, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said in a report.

One in 16 pregnancies in the region results in stillbirth or death within a month — mostly preventable deaths caused by premature birth, labor complications or infection, UNICEF said.

“Neonatal health hasn’t really been addressed by governments or institutions,” UNICEF’s regional health specialist, Alain Prual, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While the infant mortality rate is slowly declining, population growth means that the number of deaths is still increasing in West and Central Africa, Prual said.

For years aid agencies have focused on reducing deaths of children under five, which have dropped sharply, said Laurent Hiffler of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Yet babies are still dying at high rates in the first month after they are born, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Neonatal mortality reveals the weaknesses in the system,” said Hiffler, adding that it is difficult to address because it requires continuous care throughout pregnancy and birth. “It’s been a neglected tragedy … a hidden tragedy.”

Only one in two women in the region gives birth in a health facility, often because clinics are few and far between and they cannot afford to travel, according to UNICEF.

Even when women can access a health center, staff are often poorly trained and ill-equipped, added Hiffler.

MSF teaches women simple birth techniques that can be carried out at home, such as basic resuscitation skills and using skin-to-skin contact to warm up premature babies, he said.

While the number of deaths among children under the age of five globally has more than halved in the last 25 years, progress in ending deaths of children less than one month old has been much slower, said Henrietta Fore, the new UNICEF chief.

“Given that the majority of these deaths are preventable, clearly, we are failing the world’s poorest babies,” she said.

Babies born in Japan, Iceland and Singapore have the best odds of survival globally, while newborns in Pakistan, Central African Republic and Afghanistan are the worst off, UNICEF said.


Togo Charity Wins Award for Improving Access to Safe Drinking Water

An African charity that improved access to drinking water and sanitation and reduced the chance of cholera deaths in a village in Togo was on Monday awarded the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize.

The award is granted every three years for outstanding grassroots projects to solve water issues in developing nations.

Judges said the project by the Christian Charity for People in Distress (CCPD), which helped 290 villagers, had cut the risk of disease and death in a community prone to cholera outbreaks.

“The organization provided a serious and coherent project, with proper monitoring, and demonstrated above all an excellent efficiency,” said Jean Lapègue, a board member of the World Water Council, which adjudicates the award.

Judges also praised the project’s use of ecological toilets as an alternative to pit latrines, Lapègue told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

More than 60 percent of Togo’s population lives below the poverty line, and many people lack reliable access to drinking water, education, health and electricity, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

In addition, the UNDP said Togo’s natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, particularly clean water.

The CCPD will receive the award and the 2 million Japanese yen prize ($19,000) at a ceremony next month in the Brazilian capital Brasilia during the eighth World Water Forum. 

Lapègue said the prize should help CCPD to extend its project in rural areas of Togo — a former French colony of 8 million people in West Africa — and would help connect the charity to other actors in the water and sanitation sector.

The award is co-organized by the Japan Water Forum and the World Water Council. CCPD is the second African charity to win — Uganda’s Katosi Women Development Trust won in 2012.



Collect Some Uranium Glass for That Peaceful Glow

Uranium glass occupies a little-known niche in the collectables world, whose members appreciate its soft color and distinctive glow, which comes from the uranium added as the glass was created.

The pieces shown here come from the collection of Peter Marti and Markus Berner, who trade in antique glass at a small shop downstairs from their flat in Wangen an der Aare, a town in Switzerland. They discovered the glass about 15 years ago at a Swiss flea market and have been collecting ever since.

Like many uranium glass collectors, they are especially drawn to pearline, which was created by several companies, mostly in Britain, from the end of the 19th century into the 20th.

Yellow pearline is called vaseline, because the shade is similar to the color of petroleum jelly – until it’s exposed to ultraviolet light, when it glows a bright green.

The glass is slightly radioactive, enough to register on Geiger counters. But the levels are about the same as electrical appliances like microwave ovens emit, so they represent no threat to health.


Malawi Cholera Cases Pass 500, Eight People Dead

Cholera cases in Malawi have tripled and four more people have died, the Ministry of Health said on Monday, a month after the spread of the disease from Zambia was thought to have been contained.

Ministry of Health spokesman Joshua Malango said the number of cases had increased to 527 from 157 recorded in January, and that deaths had doubled from four to eight.

He said new cases continued to emerge in Central and Northern Malawi districts, including the administrative capital, Lilongwe where 10 new cases were recorded at the weekend.

“It’s mainly due to drinking of water from contaminated, shallow sources. We’ve intensified chlorine spraying in the localised infection centres,” he said.


Lia, the Pregnancy Test You Can Flush

Bethany Edwards and her co-workers spend a lot of time with pregnancy tests.

“We all peed on a lot of different things,” Edwards says, laughing. “So that’s been fun and interesting.”

Edwards is the co-founder and CEO of Lia Diagnostics. Together with co-founder Anna Simpson, Edwards and her team have created a new-and-improved pregnancy test called Lia.

Lia works like traditional, over-the-counter pregnancy tests, detecting the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in urine.

But unlike traditional tests, Lia is made of paper instead of plastic and is 100 percent biodegradable in 12 weeks, its creators say.

“We’re really bringing together a solution that is better for women but also better for the planet,” Edwards said.

Flushable, biodegradable

Born out of research conducted during their graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Lia’s creators say it’s the first flushable and biodegradable pregnancy test developed. The product recently obtained clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Lia breaks down like toilet paper and can be flushed in standard-flow sewer or septic systems.

Creating a paper test that could hold up long enough to test urine samples but eventually disintegrate after flushing was a major challenge.

“We really had to develop our own coatings, proprietary coatings, to allow the paper and the materials that we’re using to hold up in use but also be able to break down quickly after you’re done,” Edwards said.

“It’s kind of a very counterintuitive sort of thing,” she added. “You want something that has rigidity and structure, but then after you’re done with it, doesn’t, and is able to become flimsy and separate in water.”

Edwards demonstrated by wetting a Lia prototype under a faucet. In the section that tests urine samples, the water was absorbed, while along the outer edge, a water droplet remained intact.

The test eventually soaked up even more water, becoming pliable enough for its two paper layers to easily separate. Lia’s paper layers are crimped and held together by force, not glue, which helps it dissolve. Users can speed up the breakdown process by tearing the test in half, at notches near the center.

In addition to being better for the environment, a flushable test has major implications for women’s privacy.

“We know that there’s sometimes fear around getting and obtaining a pregnancy test,” Edwards said. “Those extra efforts or having to ask somebody, the judgment in that is sometimes enough to have somebody not take a pregnancy test as soon as they should.”

“Lots of women tell their stories about hiding pregnancy tests in trash, trash cans, taking them in public restrooms, wrapping them in tinfoil and hiding them in other garbage cans. I mean, some extreme stories,” she added.

Privacy concerns

Dr. Meera Shah, a physician based in New York and a fellow at Physicians for Reproductive Health, spoke of teenage patients whose privacy was compromised when their parents discovered pregnancy tests in the trash. The safety of domestic violence victims can also be potentially threatened by the discovery of a disposed test.

“I’ve had patients tell me that their partners found their pregnancy test in the trash can, and that put them at risk for further abuse at home,” Shah said.

“I think that a discreet pregnancy test can empower women and empower people to be able to take a test without worrying about outside interference,” she said. “That has the potential to further engage them with the reproductive health care that they need after that.”

Cost is another important factor for women.

“Often times I hear that pregnancy tests can be expensive,” Shah said. “I tend to work with lower-income patients, patients who have poorer access to reproductive health care services, and so I think cost can be a barrier.”

Lia will be available in the third quarter of 2018 and sell for between $7 and $8, comparable to pregnancy tests currently on the market.


British Government Temporarily Halts New Funding to Aid Group Oxfam    

The British government has suspended new funding to the aid organization Oxfam following allegations that some of its staff had paid for sex with prostitutes in Haiti after the country’s 2010 earthquake.

British Development Minister Penny Mordaunt said the group has agreed not to bid for any new funding from Britain’s government until London is satisfied the aid organization meets its “high standards.” 

In a statement, the British-based aid group said, “We are committed to proving that we deserve the confidence of the U.K. public.” 

The aid group has been rocked by allegations of sexually exploiting people in crisis zones, including using prostitutes and downloading pornography in Haiti after the country’s 2010 earthquake. 

Oxfam, one of the world’s biggest disaster relief organizations, said it investigated the case in 2011 and fired four staff members and allowed three others to resign. However, the British government has criticized the group’s lack of transparency. 

Earlier on Friday, Oxfam said it would create an independent commission to review the group’s practices and culture.

Oxfam International’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, told BBC Friday, “What happened in Haiti and afterwards is a stain on Oxfam that will shame us for years, and rightly so.”

“From the bottom of my heart, I am asking for forgiveness,” Byanyima said, adding she wants all victims of abuse to come forward.

Mordaunt said the British government had asked Oxfam and other recipients of aid funding to provide assurances by February 26 that they effectively safeguarded people they helped, and reported any breaches to the government.

“At that stage we will make further decisions about continuing or amending how those programs are delivered. Our primary guiding principle in this will be the welfare of the beneficiaries of U.K. aid,” she said.

Oxfam relies on public and corporate donations as well as government funding. The allegations relate to Oxfam Great Britain, one of 20 affiliates that make up Oxfam International.

The scandal has led Britain’s charity regulator to open an investigation into Oxfam and has caused three celebrity ambassadors to the aid group — South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, British actress Minnie Driver and Senegalese musician Baaba Maal — to resign.


Ethics Dispute Erupts in Belgium Over Euthanasia Rules

A disputed case of euthanasia in Belgium, involving the death of a dementia patient who never formally asked to die, has again raised concerns about weak oversight in a country with some of the world’s most liberal euthanasia laws.

The case was described in a letter provided to The Associated Press, written by a doctor who resigned from Belgium’s euthanasia commission in protest over the group’s actions on this and other cases.

Some experts say the case as documented in the letter amounts to murder; the patient lacked the mental capacity to ask for euthanasia and the request for the bedridden patient to be euthanized came from family members. The co-chairs of the commission say the doctor mistakenly reported the death as euthanasia.

Although euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002 and has overwhelming public support, critics have raised concerns in recent months about certain practices, including how quickly some doctors approve requests to die from psychiatric patients.

Dispute revealed

The AP revealed a rift last year between Dr. Willem Distelmans, co-chair of the euthanasia commission, and Dr. Lieve Thienpont, an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. Distelmans suggested some of Thienpont’s patients might have been killed without meeting all the legal requirements. Prompted by the AP’s reporting, more than 360 doctors, academics and others have signed a petition calling for tighter controls on euthanasia for psychiatric patients.

Euthanasia — when doctors kill patients at their request — can be granted in Belgium to people with both physical and mental health illnesses. The condition does not need to be fatal, but suffering must be “unbearable and untreatable.” It can be performed only if specific criteria are fulfilled, including a “voluntary, well-considered and repeated” request from the person.

But Belgium’s euthanasia commission routinely violates the law, according to a September letter of resignation written by Dr. Ludo Vanopdenbosch, a neurologist, to senior party leaders in the Belgian Parliament who appoint members of the group.

The most striking example took place at a meeting in early September, Vanopdenbosch wrote, when the group discussed the case of a patient with severe dementia who also had Parkinson’s disease. To demonstrate the patient’s lack of competence, a video was played showing what Vanopdenbosch characterized as “a deeply demented patient.”

The patient, whose identity was not disclosed, was euthanized at the family’s request, according to Vanopdenbosch’s letter. There was no record of any prior request for euthanasia from the patient.

After hours of debate, the commission declined to refer the case to the public prosecutor to investigate whether criminal charges were warranted.

Vanopdenbosch confirmed the letter was genuine but would not comment further about details.

Palliative sedation

The two co-chairs of the euthanasia commission, Distelmans and Gilles Genicot, a lawyer, said the doctor treating the patient mistakenly called the procedure euthanasia, and that he should have called it palliative sedation instead. Palliative sedation is the process of drugging patients near the end of life to relieve symptoms, but it is not meant to end life.

“This was not a case of illegal euthanasia but rather a case of legitimate end-of-life decision improperly considered by the physician as euthanasia,” Genicot and Distelmans said in an email.

Vanopdenbosch, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote that the doctor’s intention was “to kill the patient” and that “the means of alleviating the patient’s suffering was disproportionate.”

Though no one outside the commission has access to the case’s medical records — the group is not allowed by law to release that information — some critics were stunned by the details in Vanopdenbosch’s letter.

“It’s not euthanasia because the patient didn’t ask, so it’s the voluntary taking of a life,” said Dr. An Haekens, psychiatric director at the Alexianen Psychiatric Hospital in Tienen, Belgium. “I don’t know another word other than murder to describe this.”

Kristof Van Assche, a professor of health law at the University of Antwerp, wrote in an email the commission itself wasn’t breaking the law because the group is not required to refer a case unless two-thirds of the group agree — even if the case “blatantly disregards” criteria for euthanasia.

But without a request from the patient, the case “would normally constitute manslaughter or murder,” he wrote. “The main question is why this case was not deemed sufficiently problematic” to prompt the commission to refer the case to prosecutors.

Other problems

Vanopdenbosch, who in the letter called himself a “big believer” in euthanasia, cited other problems with the commission. He said that when he expressed concerns about potentially problematic cases, he was immediately “silenced” by others. And he added that because many of the doctors on the commission are leading euthanasia practitioners, they can protect each other from scrutiny, and act with “impunity.”

Vanopdenbosch wrote that when cases of euthanasia are identified that don’t meet the legal criteria, they are not forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office as is required by law, but that the commission itself acts as the court.

In the 15 years since euthanasia was legalized in Belgium, more than 10,000 people have been euthanized, and just one of those cases has been referred to prosecutors.

Genicot and Distelmans said the group thoroughly assesses every euthanasia case to be sure all legal conditions have been met.

“It can obviously occur that some debate emerges among members, but our role is to make sure that the law is observed and certainly not to trespass it,” they said. They said it was “absolutely false” that Vanopdenbosch had been muzzled, and they said they regretted his resignation.