Hong Kong children form chains of protest as economic worries grow

Secondary school students hold placards as they join a human chain protesting against what they say is police brutality against protesters, after clashes at Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, China September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of uniformed school students, many wearing masks, formed human chains in districts across Hong Kong on Monday in support of anti-government protesters after another weekend of clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Metro stations reopened after some were closed on Sunday amid sometimes violent confrontations, although the mood in the Asian financial hub remained tense.

Early on Monday, before school started, rows of students and alumni joined hands chanting “Hong Kong people, add oil”, a phrase that has become a rallying cry for the protest movement.

“The school-based human chain is the strongest showcase of how this protest is deep-rooted in society, so deep-rooted that it enters through the school students,” said Alan Leong, an alumnus of Wah Yan College in the city’s Kowloon district.

Three months of protests over a now withdrawn extradition bill have evolved into a broader backlash against the government and greater calls for democracy.

Police said they had arrested 157 people over the previous three days, including 125 males and 32 females aged 14 to 63, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 1,300.

The former British colony is facing its first recession in a decade as the protests scare off tourists and bite into retail sales in one of the world’s most popular shopping destinations.

Tourist arrivals plunged 40% in August year on year, said Paul Chan, the city’s finance secretary, with sustained clashes blocking roads and paralyzing parts of the city. Disruptions at the city’s international had also hit the tourism industry.

“The most worrying thing is that the road ahead is not easily going to turn any better,” Chan said in his blog on Sunday, noting that some hotels had seen room rates plunge up to 70%.

Activists started fires in the street and vandalized a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station in the main business district of Central on Sunday after thousands rallied peacefully at the U.S. consulate, calling for help in bringing democracy to the special administrative region.

The students, brandishing posters with the protesters’ five demands for the government, called on authorities to respond to the promises of freedom, human rights and rule of law, promised when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. One of the five demands – to formally withdraw the extradition bill – was announced last week by embattled leader Carrie Lam, but protesters are angry about her failure to call an independent inquiry into accusations of police brutality against demonstrators.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged people to protest peacefully and called on authorities to respond to any acts of violence with restraint.

The protesters’ other demands include the retraction of the word “riot” to describe demonstrations, the release of all those arrested and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

A journalist wearing a hard hat and protective goggles at a police briefing condemned the use by police of pepper spray against media over the weekend.

‘CRUSHED’

In a rare public appearance, Lam walked around the central business district with the city’s Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan and MTR officials to inspect the damaged station, where she chatted with staff and commuters.

Dressed in a black suit, she examined electronic ticketing machines and boarded up windows smashed the previous day, according to footage by public broadcaster RTHK.

Following the demonstration at the U.S. consulate on Sunday, Hong Kong’s government warned foreign lawmakers not to interfere in the city’s internal affairs after thousands of protesters called on U.S. President Donald Trump to “liberate” the city.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling in the city and says Hong Kong is an internal affair. It has denounced the protests, accusing the United States and Britain of fomenting unrest, and warned of the damage to the economy.

Chinese state media on Monday said Hong Kong was an inseparable part of China and any form of secessionism “will be crushed”.

The China Daily newspaper said Sunday’s rally was proof foreign forces were behind the protests and warned demonstrators should “stop trying the patience of the central government”.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was released from police custody after breaching bail conditions following his arrest in August when he was charged along with a number of other prominent activists for inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was monitoring events.

“The freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong, and those freedoms must be vigorously protected. As the president has said, ‘They’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy’,” the official said.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree, Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu; Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell in Hong Kong, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)

Motive elusive in Alabama boy’s slaying of his family

Police Lights

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A 14-year-old Alabama boy was charged with five counts of murder on Tuesday in the shooting deaths of his family including three younger children, Limestone County Sheriff’s officials said, in the latest high-profile gun crime.

Details emerged early Wednesday, but officials do not know why the boy took a gun and shot his father, stepmother and three siblings late on Monday, and then threw the gun away before calling the police to report that he heard gunshots.

The boy is accused of shooting his father, John Sisk, 38, an automobile repairman, stepmother Mary Sisk, 35, a teacher in Huntsville, Alabama, and three siblings who were not named by the sheriff’s office.

The children were only identified as his two stepbrothers, ages 6 and 6 months, and a 5-year-old stepsister, the sheriff’s office said in a release.

The shootings happened at the family home in Elkmont, Alabama, about 100 miles north of Birmingham, at about 10:30 p.m. Monday, officials said.

The youth then took the 9 mm pistol and threw it away on a nearby roadside, before calling the police to say he heard gunshots, officials said. It has since been found.

The boy later confessed to shooting his family, officials said.

“The 14-year old caller was interviewed and confessed to shooting all five members of his family in the residence,” the sheriff’s office said on Twitter.

The gun used in the homicides was in the home illegally, Sheriff’s spokesman Stephen Young told the media in a Tuesday news conference.

It was unclear where the teenager obtained the gun.

Young did not take questions from the media.

The boy is charged as a juvenile, which means his name and other details have not been released, but a prosecutor could ask a judge to try the youth as an adult.

“Unfortunately, we are facing a tragedy on the scale we aren’t used to in Limestone County, Alabama,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

The boy is being held at a juvenile detention facility. It is unclear if he has an attorney.

The killings follow a rash of mass shootings in the United States, including a weekend one in Texas in which seven people were killed and 22 wounded, including a toddler.

Last month, a gunman killed 22 people and wounded 24 in El Paso, Texas, while another assailant killed nine and injured 27 in Dayton, Ohio.

Amid a renewed national debate, President Donald Trump said over the weekend that background checks on gun purchasers would not have prevented the recent violence.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Study shows cute kids are YouTube clickbait; child advocates concerned

FILE PHOTO: 2019 Kids Choice Awards – Arrivals – Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 23, 2019 – YouTube star Ryan ToysReview. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo

By Arriana McLymore

NEW YORK (Reuters) – YouTube videos featuring young children drew nearly triple the average viewership of other content, according to research released on Thursday that provided ammunition for child advocates who want Alphabet Inc. (Google) to take more aggressive steps to make it’s streaming service safer for kids.

Pew Research Center said its findings show videos aimed at or featuring children are among YouTube’s most popular materials, attracting an outsized audience relative to the number uploaded.

Lawmakers and parent groups have criticized YouTube in recent years, saying it has done less than it should to protect minors’ privacy.

Last year, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), saying YouTube’s parent company violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The groups complained that the company “has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information” and has “profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.”

YouTube, which announced 2 billion monthly users in May, shares limited data about its service. But music, gaming and kids’ content generally have been known to rank highly in viewership.

Other groups have called on YouTube to take more steps to block access to age-inappropriate content and prevent predators from getting to clips that could allow them to sexualize minors. Complaints also prompted YouTube to introduce punishments for parents uploading videos in which kids are placed in dangerous situations.

The video unit has become a major driver of revenue growth at Alphabet Inc, and it has said that it is weighing additional changes to how it handles content related to kids.

Pew researchers said in a report that they used automated tools and human review to analyze activity during the first week of 2019 on nearly 44,000 YouTube channels with more than 250,000 subscribers.

Just 2% of the 243,000 videos those channels uploaded that week featured at least one individual that looked under 13 years old to human reviewers. But the small subset received an average of 298,000 views, compared with 97,000 for videos without children, according to the report. The median viewership figures were about 57,000 and 14,000.

Channels that uploaded at least one video featuring a child averaged 1.8 million subscribers, compared to 1.2 million for those that did not, Pew said.

YouTube said it could not comment on Pew’s survey methods or results. It maintained that the most popular categories are comedy, music, sports and “how to” videos.

“We have always been clear YouTube has never been for people under 13,” the company added.

Popular videos with children included those with parenting tips or children singing or dressing up.

YouTube’s policies ban children under 13 from using its main service and instead direct them to its curated YouTube Kids app. But many parents use the main YouTube service to entertain or educate children, other research has found.

(Reporting by Arriana McLymore in New York; Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by David Gregorio)

California settles decades-long lawsuit over lead paint, but outcome is bittersweet

Ashley Avila, 11, plays with her nephew Alexander Avila, 3, outside of their home where Alexander was lead poisoned by lead-based paint in Oakland, California, U.S. June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Kate Munsch

By Joshua Schneyer

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – When Californian counties and cities first sued paint makers in 2000, they wanted the companies to pay billions to remove dangerous old lead paint from hundreds of thousands of homes.

After a 19-year legal struggle, they have finally succeeded in getting the companies to fund a remediation program, albeit on a much smaller scale. Sherwin-Williams, Conagra Brands Inc and NL Industries have agreed to a $305 million settlement, according to a filing in Santa Clara County Superior Court in California on Wednesday.

The resolution marks a rare success for a public nuisance claim, under which counties and municipalities can sue corporations for past activities – including those conducted decades ago – they say have harmed communities.

High-profile public nuisance claims have proliferated in recent years in the United States as local governments try to use the courts to make corporations pay for societal ills like lead poisoning, the opioid addiction crisis and climate change.

Yet the glacial pace and complex twists in California’s lead paint case highlight just how difficult it can be to use the public nuisance strategy against corporations, even in a state whose courts are particularly consumer-friendly.

A trial judgment in 2014 ordered the paint companies to pay $1.15 billion, but an appeals court decision led to the amount being slashed by more than half in 2017. Once the companies had exhausted the appeals process, they threatened to sue individual property owners who received help cleaning up their properties, by claiming they had failed to properly maintain their housing.

“This landmark settlement will allow thousands of homes to be remediated, and as a result, current and future generations of California children will no longer face the threat of lead poisoning,” said James Williams, County Counsel for Santa Clara County, where the lawsuit was first filed.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to hold lead paint manufacturers accountable and responsible,” he said.

The defendant paint companies did not admit any wrongdoing under the settlement.

One of the companies said the agreement would limit its liability.

“Sherwin-Williams is pleased to have reached an agreement to resolve this litigation, and it will continue to vigorously and aggressively defend against any similar current or future litigation,” the company said in a written statement.

BITTERSWEET VICTORY

The number of U.S. children poisoned by lead has fallen sharply since the United States banned the toxic metal from residential paint and gasoline, during the 1970s and 80s.

But for California districts like Oakland and Los Angeles, where childhood lead poisoning still exacts a heavy toll, the outcome of the legal struggle is bittersweet.

In the decades it took the local governments to prevail, tens of thousands of more children in California have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead, state public health data shows.

In Alameda County, for example, some zip codes have lead poisoning rates higher than those found in Flint, Michigan, at the peak of that city’s water contamination crisis.

County inspectors found dangerous paint dust in the East Oakland home of 3-year-old Alexander Avila, who tested with lead levels more than five times the elevated standard of five micrograms per deciliter set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When a reporter visited the nearly century-old home last month, Alexander was a ball of hyperactive energy. His mother Stephanie, 26, said he is able to speak few words and has trouble engaging with other kids at preschool. She fears his past lead exposure will affect him for life.

“People just don’t know what’s in their own houses, or the dangers their kids can face,” she said.

A county program helped fix lead paint hazards at the home, but public funds are scarce to repair housing before it can harm children.

In nearby Hayward, California, another predominantly working-class city in the San Francisco Bay Area, five members of the Mariscal family, including two children, were poisoned by lead paint at their old home during 2017 and 2018, county health data and inspection reports show.

Three-year-old Isaac, who tested at levels more than twice the CDC’s elevated threshold, suffered anemia – a common symptom of lead exposure – and, like Alexander, has also had speech problems.

The CDC says there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. At least 4 million U.S. children remain at risk of exposure from chipping paint or lead dust in their housing, the agency says. Lead paint doesn’t pose an immediate danger unless it is deteriorating.

Many of the 10 counties and cities that brought the lawsuit have tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of older housing units. Neutralizing lead paint hazards in a single home can cost thousands of dollars, so the settlement money may only cover the clean-up of a fraction of homes that need work.

“The litigation money can only go so far, but it’s a start,” Larry Brooks, director of Alameda County’s lead poisoning prevention program, said in an interview last month.

More than 6,300 children have been exposed to elevated lead levels in his county since 2000, when the litigation began, according to county health data.

Although the United States banned lead paint sales in 1978, most old housing still contains it, and thousands of U.S. neighborhoods still have alarming poisoning rates, Reuters found in a series of articles in 2017.

NEW LEGAL PRECEDENT?

California jurisdictions are the first to have a public nuisance verdict upheld against former lead paint manufacturers. Several lawsuits in other states have failed since 2000, from Illinois to Missouri and Rhode Island.

The California case may set a new legal precedent for seeking remediation. Legal scholars say it could encourage new lawsuits against paint companies, and Californian local governments report receiving inquiries from counterparts in other areas of the country interested in bringing their own nuisance claims.

In product liability lawsuits, attorneys must prove harm to individual plaintiffs. In public nuisance cases, the plaintiffs don’t have to prove harm to specific people. Instead, they can claim that the defendants’ activities impeded broad community rights, such as the public right to enjoy property.

In California, the plaintiffs argued the companies were responsible for creating a public health threat and knew of the toxic dangers of lead paint when they marketed it, without properly warning consumers, for decades before the U.S. government banned its use in homes.

The paint companies argued that they stopped marketing lead paint products once risks became known. They contended that homeowners were responsible for preventing any poisoning hazards in their living spaces.

Santa Clara County recently filed another public nuisance case against opioid pill manufacturers, and similar cases are popping up with increasing frequency nationwide.

Many of these suits share a common goal: making big business pay to fix high-cost societal burdens that their profit-making activities may have left behind.

Corporate defense attorneys worry that more wins for local governments under the public nuisance doctrine could saddle businesses with huge and unpredictable liabilities, in some cases for decades-old actions they thought were safe at the time.

WHY SETTLE NOW?

The California local governments and the companies settled after a marathon legal battle that saw both sides suffer setbacks.

Beyond seeing the earlier $1.15 billion judgment sharply cut back by an appeals decision, the plaintiffs were concerned with court-imposed restrictions on how the money could be used.

For instance, the terms had limited the remediation program to housing built before 1951, and only indoor paint hazards could be fixed. The local governments also faced a tight, four-year window to complete the program, after which any unspent funds would be returned to the paint companies.

As recently as January, court filings from the case show, lawyers for the paint companies vowed to sue California property owners who sought to use the remediation funds. Counties were concerned the mere specter of these suits would have a chilling effect on the remediation program, which will rely on housing owners’ voluntary participation.

It was an unusually bold move, legal scholars say.

“Talking about suing property owners is an aggressive tactic,” said Bob Rabin, a tort law specialist at Stanford University.

“I can’t think of another public nuisance judgment where defendants turned around and said recipients of the damages should be disqualified because they are to blame,” he said.

With the settlement in place, these threats and court-imposed limitations on how the money can be spent will now be lifted.

Paint companies have agreed not to target property owners with lawsuits, cities and counties can take as much time as they need fixing homes, and housing built through the 1970s when lead paint was still being sold are also eligible for help, including on exterior walls.

(Reporting By Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Michael Williams and Ross Colvin)

U.S. holding 200 children at border, down from 2,500 in May

A teacher uses the Pledge of Allegiance in a reading class the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. July 9, 2019. Picture taken July 9, 2019. Eric Gay/Pool via REUTERS

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – U.S. immigration authorities held about 200 unaccompanied children at locations along the southwest border as of Wednesday, down from more than 2,500 in May as funding increases enabled a U.S. health agency to take custody of them.The reduction in detainees as reported by a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official follows a pair of recent internal government inspections that revealed overcrowding and filthy conditions for immigrants that inflamed the debate about President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy.

Staff oversee breakfast at the U.S. government's government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. July 9, 2019. Picture taken July 9, 2019. Eric Gay/Pool via REUTERS

Staff oversee breakfast at the U.S. government’s government’s newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. July 9, 2019. Picture taken July 9, 2019. Eric Gay/Pool via REUTERS

Almost all detained unaccompanied children picked up by border officers are being turned over to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials within 72 hours of apprehension, the official told reporters on a conference call, speaking on the condition he not be named.

Criticism mounted after government inspectors and immigration lawyers found evidence children were being held long past legal limits at border facilities not equipped to house them.

Increasing numbers of mostly Central American families and children traveling alone – many seeking asylum in the United States – have overwhelmed authorities at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to limit legal and illegal immigration.

From late May to early June, the United States held about 2,500 to 2,700 children who were detained after crossing the border by themselves or who were separated from adults who were not their parents, the official said.

“To see these numbers currently at about 200 is very positive. That’s a huge difference since HHS has received their funding,” the official said. “Our goal is to get these individuals out of our custody as quickly as possible to HHS so they can have all the proper care and the long-term needs met for them.”

The U.S. Congress in June approved a $4.5 billion emergency supplemental funding bill aimed at improving conditions at the border, including $2.88 billion for HHS to provide shelter and care for unaccompanied children.

A legal settlement and anti-trafficking laws mandate that unaccompanied children traveling without a parent or legal guardian must be transferred to specialized facilities run by HHS. From there they are often released to sponsors in the United States as they pursue their immigration cases in court.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by James Dalgleish)

After long delay, U.S. Supreme Court may act on ‘Dreamers’ immigrants

FILE PHOTO: A police officer keeps watch at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court in the coming days will have a last chance before its three-month summer break to decide whether to take up President Donald Trump’s long-stalled bid to end a program that shields from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

The Trump administration on Nov. 5 asked the conservative-majority court to throw out three lower court rulings that blocked the Republican president’s 2017 plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program implemented in 2012 by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

The justices could have acted on the appeals as early as January but did not do so, with no reason given for the delay.

In the meantime, the DACA program remains in effect despite Trump’s efforts to terminate it, part of his hard-line immigration policies that have become a hallmark of his presidency and his 2020 re-election campaign.

DACA currently protects roughly 700,000 immigrants – mostly Hispanic young adults – from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship. These immigrants often are called “Dreamers” based on the name of previous failed legislation intended to provide them legal status.

The justices are in the last week of their current term, which began last October, with rulings due in eight remaining cases already argued. These include closely watched disputes over the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census and whether limits can be set on partisan gerrymandering, a much-criticized practice in which state lawmakers manipulate electoral maps purely for partisan gain.

After the term’s final rulings, the justices have one final private meeting to decide on taking new cases for their next term, starting on Oct. 7. The next such meeting is not scheduled until Oct. 1.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether the administration properly followed a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act in Trump’s plan to rescind DACA.

Three federal district court judges have issued orders halting Trump’s move to end DACA in lawsuits challenging the move filed by a group of states, people protected by the program, rights groups and others. Trump’s administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and created the program.

Since the administration launched its appeal, a second regional federal appeals court ruled against Trump. The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 17 that Trump’s rescission of DACA was unlawful.

‘DISCRIMINATORY MOTIVATION’

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 8 upheld federal judge William Alsup’s January 2018 ruling against Trump, saying the challengers provided evidence of “discriminatory motivation, including the rescission order’s disparate impact on Latinos and persons of Mexican heritage.”

During the Supreme Court’s inaction, Trump and Congress have made no progress toward reaching a deal to safeguard DACA recipients even as Democratic presidential candidates including front-runner Joe Biden pledge actions to protect the Dreamers and offer them citizenship.

If the Supreme Court takes up the matter, arguments and a ruling would come in its term that ends in June 2020, in the contentious months before the November 2020 election. If the court had agreed in January to hear it, a ruling would have been due this week, potentially a full year before a decision is now rendered.

The court could also refuse to hear the appeals or simply take no action, which would leave the lower court rulings in place and let the program remain in effect.

Trump announced his decision to rescind DACA in September 2017, planning for the Dreamers’ protections to begin phasing out in March 2018. But courts in California, New York and the District of Columbia directed the administration to continue processing renewals of existing DACA applications while the litigation over the legality of Trump’s action was resolved.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. records 33 new measles cases, raising year’s total to 1,077

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

(Reuters) – The United States recorded 33 new measles cases last week, bringing the number of confirmed cases this year to 1,077 in the worst outbreak of the virus since 1992, federal health officials said on Monday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease rose 3% in the week ended June 20 from the prior week. The 2019 outbreak, which has spread to 28 states, is the worst since 1992, when 2,126 cases were recorded.

Health experts say the virus has spread among school-age children whose parents declined to give them the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which confers immunity to the disease. A vocal fringe of U.S. parents, some in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, cite concerns that the vaccine may cause autism, despite scientific studies that have debunked such claims.

The disease has mostly affected children who have not received the vaccine.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

CDC officials have warned that the country risks losing its measles elimination status if the ongoing outbreak, which began in October 2018 in New York, continues until October 2019.

The outbreak has escalated since 82 people in 2018 and more than 40 people in 2019 brought measles to the United States from other countries, most frequently Ukraine, Israel and the Philippines, federal officials said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and Susan Thomas)

Eroding trust in vaccines leaves populations vulnerable, global study finds

FILE PHOTO: A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, June 19 (Reuters) – Trust in vaccines – one of the world’s most effective and widely-used medical products – is highest in poorer countries but weaker in wealthier ones where skepticism has allowed outbreaks of diseases such as measles to persist, a global study found on Wednesday.

France has the least confidence of any country in the world in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, with a third believing that vaccines are unsafe, according to the study.

While most parents do choose to vaccinate their children, varying levels of confidence expose vulnerabilities in some countries to potential disease outbreaks, the study’s authors said, recommending that scientists need to ensure people have access to robust information from those they trust.

Public health experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) say vaccines save up to 3 million lives every year worldwide, and decades of research evidence consistently shows they are safe and effective.

But to achieve “herd immunity” to protect whole populations, immunization coverage rates must generally be above 90% or 95%, and vaccine mistrust can quickly reduce that protection.

“Over the last century, vaccines have made many devastating infectious diseases a distant memory,” said Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at the Wellcome Trust health charity, which co-led the Wellcome Global Monitor study.

“It is reassuring that almost all parents worldwide are vaccinating their children. However, there are pockets of lower confidence in vaccines across the world.”

The spread of measles, including in major outbreaks in the United States, the Philippines and Ukraine, is just one of the health risks linked to lower confidence in vaccines.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, false rumors about polio vaccines being part of a Western plot have in recent years hampered global efforts to wipe out the crippling disease.

The study, led by Wellcome and polling company Gallup, covered 140,000 people from more than 140 countries.

It found 6% of parents worldwide – equivalent to 188 million – say their children are unvaccinated. “The highest totals were in China at 9%, Austria at 8% and Japan at 7%.”

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the not-for-profit GAVI vaccine alliance, said the report showed a “worrying number of people” questioning vaccine safety. But by focusing on the “vocal minority” who refused to vaccinate, it was easy to forget that the vast majority trusted vaccines and the science that underpinned them.

The study also found that three-quarters of the world’s people trust doctors and nurses more than anyone else for health advice and that in most parts of the world, more education and greater trust in health systems, governments and scientists is a also sign of higher vaccine confidence.

In some high-income regions, however, confidence is weaker. Only 72% of people in North America and 73% in Northern Europe agree that vaccines are safe. In Eastern Europe, it is just 50%.

Heidi Larson, director of the vaccine confidence project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worked with researchers on this study. She said it “exposes the paradox of Europe” which, despite being a region with among the highest income and education levels, also has the world’s highest levels of vaccine skepticism.

In poorer regions, trust levels tend to be much higher, with 95% in South Asia and 92% in Eastern Africa feeling confident that vaccines are safe and effective.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; editing by John Stonestreet)

India jails three for life after shocking child rape and murder

Sanji Ram, one of the convicted in the case of rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, leaves the court in Pathankot, in the northern state of Punjab, India, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

By Manoj Kumar

PATHANKOT, India (Reuters) – A court in north India jailed three men for life on Monday over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl that stirred nationwide outrage and religious rivalries.

The case illustrated India’s appalling record on violence against women and children, and drew criticism of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after some members criticized police for pressing charges.

“This is a victory of truth,” said prosecution lawyer M Farooqi after the convictions.

“The girl and her family have got justice today.”

The girl, from a nomadic Muslim community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January 2018.

The prosecution had sought the death penalty for the three men – including a Hindu priest – who received life sentences.

Three other men, all police officers, received five-year terms for destroying evidence.

The abduction, rape and killing of the child was part of a plan to remove the minority community from the area, the 15-page charge sheet said.

APPEAL PLANNED

In a 432-page judgment, the court also levied fines of 150,000 rupees ($2,150) on the three men given life terms – priest Sanji Ram, Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar.

The policemen – Surinder Kumar, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta – were also fined 50,000 rupees ($718) each.

Defense lawyer Vikram Mahajan said all six would appeal.

The case shocked India and prompted parliament to adopt the death penalty for rapists of girls younger than 12.

The trial began in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir state more than a year ago, but India’s Supreme Court shifted it to Pathankot in neighboring Punjab state after the girl’s family and lawyer said they faced death threats.

Lawyers and Hindu politicians, including some from the ruling BJP, had also held protests against the charges.

Women and children in India have long been subjected to violence. Reported rapes climbed 60 percent to 40,000 from 2012 to 2016, government figures show, which officials attribute to more women coming forward due to greater public awareness.

However, many more cases still go unreported, especially in rural areas, because of the fear of social consequences and lack of trust in police.

Of eight people accused in the girl’s case, one man identified only as Vishal was to be freed after being found not guilty, defense lawyers said.

The last, a juvenile, awaits trial.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Andrew Cawthorne)

Sri Lanka blasts were revenge for New Zealand mosque killings: minister

A man holds a cross during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Sanjeev Miglani and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Devastating Easter bombings in Sri Lanka were retaliation for attacks on mosques in New Zealand, a Sri Lankan official said on Tuesday, as Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated blasts that killed 321 people.

Islamic State’s claim, issued on its AMAQ news agency, came shortly after Sri Lanka said two domestic Islamist groups, with suspected links to foreign militants, were believed to have been behind the attacks at three churches and four hotels, which wounded about 500 people.

People attend a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

People attend a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Islamic State gave no evidence for its claim. The government has said at least seven suicide bombers were involved.

“The initial investigation has revealed that this was in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack,” junior minister for defense Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament.

He did not elaborate on why authorities believed there was a link to the killing of 50 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch during Friday prayers on March 15. A lone gunman carried out those attacks.

Wijewardene said two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts early on Sunday during Easter services and as high-end hotels served breakfast.

U.S. intelligence sources said earlier the attacks carried some of the hallmarks of Islamic State, even though it had not made an immediate claim of responsibility, as it usually does.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament investigators were looking into foreign links.

Earlier on Tuesday, Sri Lankan government and military sources said a Syrian had been detained among 40 people being questioned over the bombs.

“He was arrested after the interrogation of local suspects,” one of the sources said, referring to the unidentified Syrian.

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

FUNERALS

Tuesday was declared a national day of mourning and the funerals of some of the victims were held, as pressure mounted on the government over why effective action had not been taken in response to a warning this month about a possible attack on churches by the little-known National Thawheed Jama’ut group.

The first six attacks – on three churches and three luxury hotels – came within 20 minutes on Sunday morning.

Two more explosions – at a downmarket hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital, Colombo – came in the early afternoon.

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans, although government officials said 38 foreigners were killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

The U.N. Children’s Fund said 45 children were among the dead.

Footage on CNN showed what it said was one of the bombers wearing a heavy backpack. The man patted a child on the head before entering the Gothic-style St. Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Dozens were killed there.

The bombs brought a shattering end to a relative calm that had existed in the Buddhist-majority Indian Ocean island since a bitter civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

The government imposed emergency rule at midnight on Monday, giving police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders.

An overnight curfew has also been imposed since Sunday.

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

FBI TO HELP

U.S. President Donald Trump called Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Monday to pledge U.S. support in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The Washington Post quoted an unidentified law enforcement official as saying Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were being sent to Sri Lanka to help with the investigation.

The FBI had offered expertise to test evidence and analysts were scouring databases for information, the Post said. Counter-terrorism officials from Britain were also due on Tuesday, a Western diplomat in Colombo said.

The attacks have also underlined concern over fractures in Sri Lanka’s government, and whether the discord prevented action that might have stopped them.

The government received a tip-off from India this month about a possible attack on churches by the National Thawheed Jama’ut.

It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken in response. A government minister said on Monday that Wickremesinghe had not been informed about the warning and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year only to be forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court. Their relationship is reported to be fraught.

The U.S. State Department said in a travel advisory “terrorist groups” were possibly plotting more attacks in Sri Lanka.

China’s embassy warned its nationals against traveling to Sri Lanka in the near term because of “huge security risks”.

China is a major investor in Sri Lanka. The embassy said one Chinese national was killed, five wounded and five were missing.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock, Mark Hosenball and Kieran Murray in WASHINGTON, and Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo in BEIJING; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry, Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)