Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed
In this June 9, 2021, file photo, a health worker administers Covishield, Serum Institute of India's version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, during a drive-in vaccination program in Kolkata, India. (AP)
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Updated 19 June 2021

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed
  • While various strategies have been devised to combat vaccine hesitancy, shortage of doses remains a challenge nationwide
  • Officials say local healers, or bhumka, can help todispel myths as they have a great influence over local community life

NEW DELHI: Authorities in central India have employed faith healers in their coronavirus vaccination drive to help combat vaccine superstitions and encourage tribal populations to take the jab.
While a devastating second wave of the pandemic has already taken the country’s coronavirus death toll to more than 318,000, India’s vaccination rate remains low, with only 4 percent of the 1.3 billion population having received at least one vaccine dose.
The immunization campaign has not only been marred by vaccine shortages but, as in the predominantly tribal district of Betul in Madhya Pradesh, by superstition-driven hesitancy, prompting officials to employ local healers, or bhumka, who have a great influence over the local community’s life, to encourage tribal populations to take the shot.
“In remote tribal areas rumor spread that vaccination leads to illness and other diseases,” the district’s key officer for vaccination Manohar Lal Tyagi told Arab News on Friday. “To dispel the myth, we decided to use the local bhumka who have a hold over the tribal society.”
In a video circulated by the local administration when the campaign started three weeks ago, Ram Muni — one of the 20 traditional healers employed in the campaign — is seen appealing to people to come forward for vaccination, saying that vaccines do not cause sickness and are meant to make them healthy.

FASTFACTS

• While various strategies have been devised to combat vaccine hesitancy, shortage of doses remains a challenge nationwide.

• Officials say local healers, or bhumka, can help to dispel myths as they have a great influence over local community life.

“We are all trying our best to mobilize people and promote vaccination in the region,” Betul lawmaker Nalay Daga told Arab News. “It is the responsibility of all political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, to reach out to people and convince them to have the vaccination.”
Laxmikant Sahoo, a Betul-based journalist, said that besides the faith healers, politicians should also be involved in the drive.
“Political leaders have wider reach and influence,” Sahoo said. “If they involve themselves vaccine hesitancy can be addressed effectively.”
While various strategies have been devised across the country to combat vaccine hesitancy, on the national level it is the shortage of doses that remains the biggest challenge.
India currently relies on two locally made vaccines — Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech.
Until April, the SII and Bharat Biotech were able to produce only 64 million doses a month. They are expected to double production in August. The government is meanwhile in talks with other international vaccine producers as it intends to vaccinate its entire population by the year’s end.
“We should have allowed some foreign vaccines to come into India earlier,” Indian Medical Association (IMA) secretary general Dr. Jayesh Lele told Arab News.
“The impact of the second wave could have been less had more people been vaccinated,” he said. “To have herd immunity in India, vaccination is the biggest tool.”


US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
Updated 01 August 2021

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
  • Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament

WASHINGTON: US national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged Tunisia's president on Saturday to outline a swift return to the "democratic path" following his seizure of governing powers last Sunday, the White House said.
Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament and seize executive control in a move welcomed by street rallies but which his opponents branded a coup.
In a phone call, Sullivan underscored to Saied the need for "rapidly forming a new government, led by a capable prime minister to stabilize Tunisia’s economy and confront the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ensuring the timely return of the elected parliament," the White House National Security Council said in a statement.


US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
Updated 01 August 2021

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
  • Washington’s strategy to deploy the heavily armed planes a ‘worrying sign’

KABUL: A US B-52 bomber has pounded Taliban positions in Afghanistan’s western Herat province after the group gained ground near the area amid intense clashes with government forces, officials and lawmakers said on Saturday.

The strike took place on the outskirts of Herat city on Friday, with flights to and from the area suspended after increased violence near its airport.

“Unfortunately, all flights to Herat have been canceled due to the fighting and the information we have received suggest that a B-52 was used in the fighting yesterday (Friday) in Herat,” provincial lawmaker Habib Ur Rahman Pedram told Arab News.

No further details were given, such as the number of casualties or the scale of the attack.

Violence has surged across Afghanistan since May 1, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as the US began its troop withdrawal after 20 years of occupation.

In recent weeks, the group has captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

The Taliban have reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

Friday’s attack by the US military marks the second time in less than two weeks that it has deployed the long-range, nuclear-capable plane against the Taliban from distant bases after US-led troops cut vital air support for overstretched Afghan forces.

A B-52 was also sighted in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of southern Helmand province, and the scene of intense fighting between Taliban and government forces, “but appeared to have not carried out any attack on Friday,” Helmand lawmaker Mirwais Khadem told Arab News.

According to security sources from the adjacent Kandahar province, the heavily armed plane hit a group of Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak bordering Pakistan two weeks ago as well, “killing scores of them.”

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid could not confirm whether the B-52 was used to attack the group across Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND

• In recent weeks, Taliban have captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

• The group has reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

But he told Arab News that the Taliban had “tightened the net on government forces around Herat city, in Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar city” in recent days.

Khadem confirmed Mujahid’s accounts, adding that the Taliban had taken over two districts within Lashkar Gah after “heavy fighting for successive days.”

“Government helicopters have hit the Taliban,” the lawmaker added. “People have been displaced and largely heading to Taliban-held areas as the situation in the city is not good.”

The US military in Afghanistan was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday, while Afghan officials refused to discuss the decision to reinstate the B-52 to curb Taliban advances.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told Arab News that “government forces had foiled Taliban’s attacks on the three cities and the enemy has suffered heavy losses.”

B-52 bombers played a crucial role in toppling the Taliban from power in late 2001, with the US using its bases in the Gulf to deploy the plane.

The strategy to deploy the B-52 appears to be a military necessity, as over-stretched Afghan troops are struggling to prevent the loss of more territory and provincial capitals to the Taliban and avoid the potential for renewed civil war without foreign forces to protect the Kabul government.

The clashes in Herat and Kandahar have forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to safer grounds, with government estimates placing the number of families displaced by the surge in violence since early May at more than 40,000.

During Friday’s fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, according to a statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

“This attack against the United Nations is deplorable, and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

The halt of flights to Herat and the reuse of the B-52 were “worrying signs of an escalation in insecurity” across Afghanistan, according to security analyst and retired colonel Mohammad Hassan.

“It is getting worse day by day here,” he told Arab News. “The cancelation of flights to Herat and the fact that America has back started using B-52 are not good signs. It will cause more panic among people at large and shows the precariousness of the situation.”


Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike
Updated 01 August 2021

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike
  • July has been the ‘deadliest month’ so far with more than 31,000 fatalities, compared to 7,913 deaths in June, official says

JAKARTA: Indonesia has detected three cases of the new ‘delta plus’ COVID-19 variant on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

The surge in infections has spread to provinces on the two islands and the Kalimantan region, or the Indonesian part of Borneo, from Bali and its most populous island of Java.

The Health Ministry’s director for prevention and control of direct communicable diseases, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, told Arab News on Saturday that the delta plus variant, or AY.1, was identified earlier this week as a result of local transmission in two patients in the Jambi province on Sumatra and Mamuju, a district of West Sulawesi province.

The delta plus variant B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1 is a sublineage of the highly contagious delta variant.

It has a renewed mutation in the virus’ spike protein and therefore, according to Tarmizi, is “just as infectious as the original delta variant.”

The findings in Jambi and Mamuju add Indonesia to a list of 10 countries — Japan, Nepal, Poland, the US, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, China, Russia and India — where the delta plus variant has been detected. It was first identified in India in April.

Scientists said that Indonesia needed to step up its outbreak mitigation in response to the delta variant and “to detect the emergence of other new variants.”

“We need to increase our whole genome sequencing testing so that we are well aware of the variants that we have here and to mitigate them better,” public health professor Tjandra Yoga Aditama said in a statement on Saturday.

Indonesia’s government had predicted a spike in infections after the Eid break, despite the travel ban, citing a pattern seen during the holiday season.

However, authorities were caught off-guard with rising infections made worse by the delta variant.

There had been a rise in cases since early June, peaking on July 15, with 56,757 daily cases reported from less than 10,000 in mid-June.

Indonesia registered 37,284 new cases on Saturday, taking the total tally to 3,409,658 out of its population of 270,000 million, while its positivity rate has been consistent at about 25 percent in recent weeks.

The national caseload, mainly from infections in Java’s provinces, showed a decreasing trend after restrictions to movement were imposed on Java and Bali, which have now been added to other islands, since early June. Restrictions are expected to end on Monday.

“I see that the numbers in regions on Java Island are slowly decreasing, but now it is the other way around (on islands) outside of Java,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Friday.

The daily number of infections is still far from the 10,000 figure the government aims to achieve by imposing restrictions in Java and Bali, while the daily testing and vaccinations rate is far below the target as well.

The official death toll from COVID-19 increased to 94,119 after 1,808 new deaths were recorded on Saturday. The number of fatalities has risen consistently to more than 500 a day since early July, while the highest fatality count was recorded on July 27, with 2,067 deaths in a day.

Wiku Adisasmito, spokesman for the national COVID-19 task force, said: “July is the deadliest month during the pandemic in Indonesia,” with more than 31,000 deaths recorded throughout the month compared to 7,913 deaths in June.

Aditama, the former director of the World Health Organization’s Southeast Asia regional office, traced the high fatality count to the spike in cases.

“If infections in the community remain rampant, cases will continue to increase, and in proportion, deaths and cases with severe symptoms would also rise,” he said.


UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID

UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID
Updated 31 July 2021

UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID

UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID
  • Long COVID includes lingering symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain and problems with concentration
  • COVID-19 levels differ between men and women, according to other UK research

LONDON: People who have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine are 50 percent less likely to suffer from long COVID, a UK scientific advisory body has said.
Long COVID includes lingering symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain and problems with concentration.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said UK government statistics found that “in all age groups the odds of experiencing symptoms for more than 28 days after post-vaccination infection was approximately halved by two vaccinations.”
But women, older people and those who are overweight or obese are more likely to have lingering symptoms, with fatigue the most frequently reported, the group said.
SAGE added that the proportion of people suffering from symptoms 12 weeks after COVID-19 infection varied between 2.3 percent and 37 percent depending on studies, leading to uncertainty among scientists.
But the group said it has high confidence in research showing that just 1.2 percent of young adults and 4.8 percent of middle-aged people reported symptoms limiting their daily lives.
COVID-19 levels differ between men and women, according to other UK research. Men are more likely to have shortness of breath, exhaustion, chills and fever, while women are more likely to experience loss of scent, chest pain and a persistent cough.


600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days

600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days
Updated 31 July 2021

600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days

600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days
  • Increase in departures recalls 2011, when 25,000 Tunisians arrived in Italy during Arab Spring
  • Number of Tunisians trying to reach Italy has risen since early 2021 due to economic crisis, COVID-19 spike

ROME: Nearly 600 migrants reached the Italian island of Lampedusa from Tunisia in only two days. 
Countless departures of people fleeing the crisis-wracked North African country and attempting to reach Europe on dinghies and small boats are reported every hour by NGOs and Italian Coast Guard vessels patrolling the Channel of Sicily.
Only on Saturday, by midday, 99 migrants landed in Lampedusa on six different small boats. Before their arrival, 1,137 people were already present at the center in Contrada Imbriacola, well above the facility’s maximum capacity of 250.
“They arrive every hour, like a news bulletin,” Vincenzo Pandolfo, who owns a shop in the port of Lampedusa, told Arab News
“It seems that there is not much control on the Tunisian shores lately. We have not seen so many dinghies coming toward Lampedusa, and now even trying to reach the south of Sardinia, which is a much further and more dangerous trip, as we have since July 26, when the political crisis broke out in Tunisia,” Adm. Roberto Isidori, commander of the Coast Guard in Sicily, told Arab News.
“Our vessels are all out to make sure that no accident happens, but this situation is getting worse and worse”, Isidori added.
Italian security services had estimated at the beginning of the crisis that the ongoing political turmoil and instability in Tunisia may result in a drastic increase in migrants, with numbers potentially reaching up to 15,000 in a very short time.
But Isidori said that “if numbers continue to stay as they have been in the last week, that could be an optimistic forecast.”  
As a rule, Tunisians are not eligible for asylum in Italy, and up to 80 could be flown home each week under a deal reached between Rome and Tunisia last year.
The remainder are often given expulsion orders and released from migrant centers. Many then try to reach France or Germany.
The increase in departures has prompted fears of a repeat of 2011, when 25,000 Tunisians arrived in Italy during the Arab Spring uprising.
The number of Tunisians trying to reach Italy has been on the rise since the beginning of 2021 due to the worsening economic crisis at home, which was exacerbated by a dramatic spike of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and a lack of vaccines.
Good weather conditions have also encouraged migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing.
Nearly 1,000 have died on route between the shores of North Africa and Sicily this year, up from 267 in the same period last year, including around 57 migrants who drowned this week when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast.
The Interior Ministry’s records show that out of a total of 28,515 illegal migrants who arrived in Italy so far this year, a big part came from Tunisia, which far outstrips those from any other country, including Libya. From January to June, 2,962 crossed to Italy, with another 3,796 sailing this month.