Arctic ‘doomsday’ food vault welcomes millionth seed variety

By Gwladys Fouche

OSLO (Reuters) – A vault in the Arctic built to preserve seeds for rice, wheat and other food staples contains one million varieties with the addition on Tuesday of specimens grown by Cherokee Indians and the estate of Britain’s Prince Charles.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built on a mountainside in 2008, was designed as a storage facility to protect vital crop seeds against the worst cataclysms of nuclear war or disease and safeguard global food supplies.

Representatives from many countries and universities arrive in the Svalbard’s global seed vault with new seeds, in Longyearbyen, Norway February 25, 2020. NTB Scanpix/Lise Aserud via REUTERS

Dubbed the “doomsday vault”, the facility lies on the island of Spitsbergen in the archipelago of Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, and is only opened a few times a year in order to preserve the seeds inside.

On Tuesday, 30 gene banks deposited seeds, also including offerings from India, Mali and Peru.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in Britain banked seeds harvested from the meadows of Prince Charles’ private residence, Highgrove.

The vault also serves as a backup for plant breeders to develop new varieties of crops. The world used to cultivate around 7,000 different plants but experts say we now get about 60% of our calories from three main crops – maize, wheat and rice – making food supplies vulnerable if climate change causes harvests to fail.

“The seed vault is the backup in the global system of conservation to secure food security on Earth,” Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Crop Trust, the Bonn-based organization that manages the vault, told Reuters.

“We need to preserve this biodiversity, this crop diversity, to provide healthy diets and nutritious foods, and for providing farmers, especially smallholders, with sustainable livelihoods so that they can adapt to new conditions.”

One in nine people go to bed hungry globally, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme, and scientists have predicted that erratic weather patterns could reduce both the quality and quantity of food available.

The vault was last opened in October. With Tuesday’s deposit, it contains one million different seeds, from almost all nations.

In 2015, researchers made a first withdrawal from the vault after Syria’s civil war damaged a seed bank near the city of Aleppo. The seeds were grown and re-deposited at the Svalbard vault in 2017.

In October, Norway completed an $11 million, year-long upgrade of the building, which was constructed at Svalbard because the Arctic’s cold climate means its contents will stay cool even if the power fails. But even the doomsday vault has been affected by climate change as an unexpected thaw of permafrost when it first opened let in water to the tunnel entrance, although no seeds were damaged.

(Additional reporting by Thin Lei Win in Rome; Editing by Susan Fenton and John Stonestreet)

Hunt on for ‘patient zero’ who spread coronavirus globally from Singapore

By John Geddie, Sangmi Cha and Kate Holton

SINGAPORE/SEOUL/LONDON (Reuters) – As lion dancers snaked between conference room tables laden with plastic bottles, pens, notebooks and laptops, some staff from British gas analytics firm Servomex snapped photos of the performance meant to bring good luck and fortune.

But the January sales meeting in a luxury Singapore hotel was far from auspicious.

Someone seated in the room, or in the vicinity of the hotel that is renowned for its central location and a racy nightclub in the basement, was about to take coronavirus global.

Three weeks later, global health authorities are still scrambling to work out who carried the disease into the mundane meeting of a firm selling gas meters, which then spread to five countries from South Korea to Spain, infecting over a dozen people.

Experts say finding this so-called “patient zero” is critical for tracing all those potentially exposed to infection and containing the outbreak, but as time passes, the harder it becomes.

“We do feel uncomfortable obviously when we diagnose a patient with the illness and we can’t work out where it came from…the containment activities are less effective,” said Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the World Health Organisation.

Authorities initially hinted at Chinese delegates, which included someone from Wuhan – the Chinese city at the epicentre of the virus that has killed over 1,350 people. But a Servomex spokesperson told Reuters its Chinese delegates had not tested positive.

Fisher and other experts have compared the Singapore meeting to another so-called “super-spreading” incident at a Hong Kong hotel in 2003 where a sick Chinese doctor spread Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome around the world.

The WHO has opened an investigation into the Singapore incident, but said its “way too early” to tell if it is a super-spreading event.

SCARY AND SOBERING

It was more than a week after the meeting – which according to a company e-mail included Servomex’s leadership team and global sales staff – that the first case surfaced in Malaysia.

The incubation period for the disease is up to 14 days and people may be able to infect others before symptoms appear.

The firm said it immediately adopted “extensive measures” to contain the virus and protect employees and the wider community. Those included self-isolation for all 109 attendees, of whom 94 were from overseas and had left Singapore.

But the virus kept spreading.

Two South Korean delegates fell sick after sharing a buffet meal with the Malaysian, who also passed the infection to his sister and mother-in-law. Three of the firm’s Singapore attendees also tested positive.

Then cases started appearing in Europe.

An infected British delegate had headed from the conference to a French ski resort, where another five people fell ill. Another linked case then emerged in Spain, and when the Briton returned to his home town in the south of England the virus spread further.

“It feels really scary that one minute it’s a story in China… and then the next minute it is literally on our doorstep,” said Natalie Brown, whose children went to the same school as the British carrier. The school said in a letter that two people at the school had been isolated.

“It’s scary and sobering how quickly it seems to have spread,” said Brown.

TIME RUNNING OUT

Back in Singapore, authorities were battling to keep track of new cases of local transmissions, many unlinked to previous cases.

Management at the hotel – the Grand Hyatt Singapore – said they had cleaned extensively and were monitoring staff and guests for infection but did not know “how, where or when” conference attendees were infected. The lion dancers, who posted photos of the event on Facebook, said they were virus free.

“Everyone assumes it was a delegate but it could have been a cleaner, it could have been a waiter,” said Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert at National University Singapore. He added it was “very important” to find “patient zero” to establish other possible “chains of transmission”.

But time may be running out.

Singapore health ministry’s Kenneth Mak said the government will continue to try and identify the initial carrier until the outbreak ends, but as days pass it will get harder.

“We might never be able to tell who that first patient is,” Mak said.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the conference continues to sow trepidation weeks after the event and thousands of miles away.

Reuters visited Servomex’s offices in the suburbs of South Korea’s capital, Seoul. It was closed and dark inside, and a building guard told Reuters employees were working from home.

A notice posted by building management stated a coronavirus patient had entered the complex, while several young women could be overheard in a nearby elevator discussing whether it had been used by the infected person.

“Do you think the patient would have gotten on this elevator or the other one?” one said.

(Reporting by John Geddie, Joe Brock and Keith Zhai in Singapore, Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith in Seoul, Kate Holton in London, and Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Cold, disease threaten more than half a million Syrians fleeing Idlib fighting

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Cold weather, disease and a lack of shelter and medicine threaten hundreds of thousands of civilians as they flee fighting in Idlib province, in one of the biggest upheavals of Syria’s nine-year civil war, aid groups and doctors said.

The migrants, their numbers swelling by the day, are trapped between advancing Syrian government forces, keen to crush the last significant opposition stronghold, and Turkey’s closed border.

Some are having to flee by foot, while many others are having to sleep in their cars, as Syrian and Russian warplanes bombard the highways leading north toward Turkey.

A U.N. official appealed for emergency financial assistance to help an estimated 800,000 people in northwest Syria to survive the coming months.

“People are facing a tragedy. For the last two weeks it’s been very, very cold. There is rain and mud, and influenza is spreading,” said Wassim Zakaria, a doctor who works in a clinic in Idlib city that closed on Monday due to heavy bombardment.

The numbers on the move have increased in recent days as the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advanced to within 8 km (5 miles) of Idlib city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

“If the cold weather continues…there is a risk of epidemics as a large migrant flow is coming,” he said.

Since November, 692,000 people have abandoned towns south of Idlib city, Tosun said. The number “is rising every hour” and could reach 1 million, he added.

Zakaria said people had also started to flee from Idlib city but their options for shelter were limited, with people forced to sleep in cars or tents, many near the walled-off border which prevents Syrians taking refuge in Turkey.

“It’s like people are imprisoned here. Last week women and children demonstrated at the border, asking to be allowed across,” he said.

Turkey’s IHH is distributing urgent aid and blankets to those traveling on the highway from Idlib city and has set up 2,000 tents, with plans to put up another 1,500, Tosun said.

Some 700 breeze-block dwellings have also been built out of a total 10,000 which Turkey is planning to erect in the region south of its border, he said.

He added that many people were now seeking shelter beyond Idlib province, already home to waves of civilians displaced earlier in Syria’s civil war, and were heading toward Afrin and Azaz, areas just to the northeast under the control of Turkish-led Syrian rebel forces.

AID APPEAL

David Swanson, U.N. regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis, said $336 million was urgently needed to help those being displaced, with shelter a critical problem.

“This crisis continues to deteriorate by the minute. This is easily one of the largest waves of displacements since the (Syrian civil war) began in March 2011,” Swanson said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are in now in urgent need of critical, life-saving assistance,” he said.

The United Nations has put the number of displaced from the Idlib fighting since Dec. 1 at 520,000, with a further 280,000 seen at “imminent risk of displacement”.

Many of the displaced are staying with host communities who themselves are struggling to cope, while others have sought shelter in schools or mosques, or are sleeping in their vehicles or in the open air, said Swanson.

“The humanitarian situation in Syria is more catastrophic than ever before. Who would have imagined that entire cities would be displaced in a single month?” said Atef Nanou, manager of Molham Volunteering Team, a relief group in northern Syria.

He said he had encountered families unable to get away from the bombing because they couldn’t afford fuel for their car or transportation costs.

“So they either stayed despite the bombing or went out on foot on the international road that the Syrian regime and Russian warplanes are bombing around the clock,” Nanou added.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Wider Image: The Indian children who need to take a train to get to water

By Rajendra Jadhav

MUKUNDWADI, India (Reuters) – As their classmates set off to play after school each day, nine-year-old Sakshi Garud and her neighbor Siddharth Dhage, 10, are among a small group of children who take a 14-km (9-mile) return train journey from their village in India to fetch water.

Their families are some of the poorest in the hamlet of Mukundwadi, in the western state of Maharashtra, a village that has suffered back-to-back droughts.

India’s monsoons have brought abundant rain and even floods in many parts of the country, but rainfall in the region around Mukundwadi has been 14% below average this year and aquifers and borewells are dry.

“I don’t like to spend time bringing water, but I don’t have a choice,” Dhage said.

“This is my daily routine,” said Garud. Their cramped shanty homes are just 200 meters (220 yards) from the train station. “After coming from school, I don’t get time to play. I need to get water first.”

They are not alone. Millions of Indians do not have secure water supplies, according to the UK-based charity, WaterAid. It says 12% of Indians, or about 163 million people, do not have access to clean water near their homes – the biggest proportion of any country.

For an interactive graphic on India’s depleting water resources, please click https://tmsnrt.rs/2mgof1L

Recognizing the issue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to spend more than 3.5 trillion rupees ($49 billion) to bring piped water to every Indian household by 2024.

More than 100 families in Garud and Dhage’s neighborhood do not have access to piped water and many depend on private water suppliers, who charge up to 3,000 rupees ($42) for a 5,000-litre tanker during summer months.

But private water supply is something Garud and Dhage’s parents say they can not afford.

“Nowadays, I don’t get enough money to buy groceries. I can’t buy water from private suppliers,” said Dhage’s father, Rahul, a construction worker. “I am not getting work every day.”

PIPE DREAM

The children take the train daily to fetch water from the nearby city of Aurangabad.

The train is often overcrowded, so a group of small children jostling to get on board with pitchers to fill with water is not always welcome.

“Some people help me, sometimes they complain to railway officials for putting pitchers near the door. If we don’t put them near the door, we can not take them out quickly when the train stops,” Dhage said.

Garud’s grandmother Sitabai Kamble and an elderly neighbor help occasionally by pushing them on board in the face of irritable passengers.

“Sometimes they kick the pitchers away, they grumble,” Kamble said.

When the train pulls into Aurangabad thirty minutes later, they scramble to fill the pitchers at nearby water pipes. Garud can’t reach the tap, so she relies on her taller sister, Aaysha, 14, and grandmother.

Others, like Anjali Gaikwad, 14, and her sisters, also board the train every few days to collect water and wash clothes.

Their neighbor Prakash Nagre often tags along with soap and shampoo. “There’s no water to bathe at home,” he says.

When the train returns them to Mukundwadi, they have just under a minute to disembark. At times, Dhage’s mother, Jyoti, is waiting at the station to help.

“I’m careful, but sometimes pitchers fall off the door in the melee and our work is wasted,” she said, holding her infant in one arm and a pitcher in the other. “I can’t leave my daughter at home alone so I have to take her along.”

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Additional reporting by Francis Mascarenhas; Writing by Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Euan Rocha and Neil Fullick)

U.S. records 16 new measles cases as outbreak shows signs of slowing

FILE PHOTO: Materials are seen left at demonstration by people opposed to childhood vaccination after officials in Rockland County, a New York City suburb, banned children not vaccinated against measles from public spaces, in West Nyack, New York, U.S. March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

(Reuters) – The United States recorded 16 new measles cases between July 18 and July 25, federal health officials said on Monday, as the spread of the disease, which has infected 1,164 people this year in the worst U.S. outbreak since 1992, shows signs of slowing.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the new cases represented a 1.4% increase in the number of cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease since the previous week.

In recent weeks, the CDC has reported smaller increases in the number of measles cases, compared with a surge of more than a hundred cases reported in a single week earlier this year.

The running tally of cases this year, which have popped up in 30 states, includes active cases and those that have since resolved. No fatalities have been reported.

Health experts say the virus has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to give them the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine, which confers immunity to the disease. A vocal fringe of U.S. parents cites concerns that the vaccine may cause autism despite scientific studies that have debunked such claims.

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.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; editing by Maju Samuel and Jonathan Oatis)

Cholera cases jump to 138 in Mozambique’s Beira after cyclone

Medical staff wear protective masks at a cholera treatment centre set up in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Stephen Eisenhammer

BEIRA, Mozambique (Reuters) – The number of confirmed cases of cholera in the cyclone-hit Mozambican port city of Beira jumped from five to 138 on Friday, as government and aid agencies battled to contain the spread of disease among the tens of thousands of victims of the storm.

Cyclone Idai smashed into Beira on March 14, causing catastrophic flooding and killing more than 700 people across three countries in southeast Africa.

Many badly affected areas in Mozambique and Zimbabwe are still inaccessible by road, complicating relief efforts and exacerbating the threat of infection.

Although there have been no confirmed cholera deaths in medical centers in Mozambique yet, at least two people died outside hospitals with symptoms including dehydration and diarrhea, the country’s environment minister Celso Correia said.

A Reuters reporter saw the body of a dead child being brought out of an emergency clinic in Beira on Wednesday. The child had suffered acute diarrhea, which can be a symptom of cholera.

“We expected this, we were prepared for this, we’ve doctors in place,” Correia told reporters.

The government said for the first time that there had been confirmed cholera cases on Wednesday.

Mozambique’s National Disaster Management Institute said the local death toll from the tropical storm had increased to 493 people, from 468 previously.

That takes the total death toll across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi to 738 people, with many more still missing.

“Stranded communities are relying on heavily polluted water. This, combined with widespread flooding and poor sanitation, creates fertile grounds for disease outbreaks, including cholera,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization’s Tarik Jasarevic said 900,000 doses of oral cholera vaccine were expected to arrive on Monday.

Cholera is endemic to Mozambique, which has had regular outbreaks over the past five years. About 2,000 people were infected in the last outbreak, which ended in February 2018, according to the WHO.

But the scale of the damage to Beira’s water and sanitation infrastructure, coupled with its dense population, have raised fears that another epidemic would be difficult to put down.

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Beira and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing Alexander Winning; Editing by Alison Williams)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Public mistrust after Congo election raises Ebola epidemic anxiety

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker sprays a room during a funeral of a person who is suspected of dying of Ebola in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

By By, Kate, Kelland,, Health and and

LONDON, Jan 14 (Reuters) – Global health teams battling the world’s second largest Ebola epidemic in Democratic Republic of Congo fear an election dispute may deepen public mistrust and allow the epidemic to run out of control.

Fostering confidence in health authorities is essential when fighting a disease that can spread furiously through communities where local services are scant and patients are often scared to come forward to government or international response teams.

“When you have political instability, public health always suffers,” said Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who recently visited east Congo with a World Health Organization leadership team.

Without public trust, he said, the Congo epidemic could kill many hundreds more people.

The Dec. 30 election was supposed to mark Congo’s first uncontested democratic transfer of power after 18 years of chaotic rule by President Joseph Kabila.

But accusations of fraud and calls for a recount are threatening more volatility and violence after opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner.

“The worst case scenario is that political instability remains, mistrust grows … and then there’s nothing to stop the epidemic getting embedded into a big urban center and taking off as it did in West Africa,” said Farrar.

“GAINS COULD BE LOST”

Already, 385 people have been killed in the outbreak of Ebola in east Congo that began six months ago and has infected at least 630 people, according to WHO data. The death rate in this epidemic – by far the biggest Congo has seen, and the world’s second largest in history – is more than 60 percent.

Ebola spreads through contact with bodily fluids. It causes hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding. The outbreak is concentrated in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

There are some signs case numbers in the North Kivu city of Beni may be leveling off, but WHO experts are cautious.

They say the apparent lull might be due to people getting ill but failing to seek proper diagnosis and treatment.

The West Africa Ebola outbreak Farrar referred to lasted for two years from 2014. It infected 28,000 and killed more than 11,300 people in an epidemic that devastated Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and spread in sporadic cases to several other African countries as well as the United States and Europe.

The WHO says the risk of the disease spreading remains “very high” at national and regional levels and is working urgently with Congo and its neighbors – Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan – to do everything to avoid that happening again.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said 25 million people have already been screened for Ebola at border checks with Congo’s neighbors. Vaccination campaigns have also begun for health workers in Uganda and South Sudan.

Jasarevic also said multiple threats to response teams’ ability to find, treat and prevent cases of Ebola infection make the Congo situation particularly worrisome: “Gains could be lost if we suffer a period of prolonged insecurity,” he said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

China warns pig trade against African swine fever cover-ups as Taiwan concerns grow

Pork for sale is seen at a market in Beijing, China December 26, 2018. Picture taken December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) – China has warned the country’s pork industry that covering up cases of African swine fever is a crime, days after a dead pig was found on a Taiwanese beach prompting Taipei to claim Beijing was not sharing accurate information on the disease.

China’s animal husbandry and veterinary affairs bureau is stepping up investigation and punishment of illegal activity in the pig industry, said a statement published on the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs website on Friday.

Failing to report deaths and privately slaughtering and selling sick or dead pigs would be pursued under criminal law, it said, and compensation of 1,200 yuan ($175) for each pig culled was sufficient incentive for farmers to report the disease.

In the worst epidemic of the disease ever seen, China has confirmed about 100 cases of African swine fever across 23 provinces since August last year. The disease, for which there is neither cure nor vaccine, is deadly to pigs but does not harm people.

But many experts believe it is even worse than has been reported, and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen urged Beijing last month to “not conceal” information about the disease.

Tsai raised the issue again in a New Year’s speech after a dead pig was found on a beach on Taiwan’s Kinmen island, a half-hour ferry ride from the east coast of China. The pig has since been confirmed to have the African swine fever virus, while another dead pig was found on a nearby island on Friday, Taiwan’s official Central News Agency reported.

“During our recent efforts to prevent an African swine fever epidemic, China’s government has never followed the relevant agreements and provided Taiwan with accurate, real-time reports about the epidemic situation,” she said.

China has repeatedly said that the disease has been effectively dealt with and is under control. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not immediately respond to a fax seeking comment on Friday.

The dead animals found on the Taiwanese islands have stoked fears that Taiwan’s pigs could soon become infected with the disease.

Taiwan’s herd of 5.39 million pigs is tiny compared with China’s 700 million, but pork is the most popular meat in both places and domestic production in Taiwan reduces its need for imports of the staple meat.

(Reporting by Dominique Patton in BEIJING and Yi-Mou Lee in TAIPEI; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

Number of hungry children in Africa’s Sahel hits 10-year high

Rural women who have carried their malnourished children for days across the Sahel desert in search of [food] rush into an emergency feeding center in the town of Guidan Roumdji, southern Niger, July 1, 2005. [Niger's severe food crisis could have been prevented if the United Nations had a reserve fund to jump-start humanitarian aid while appeals for money were considered, a senior U.N. official said on July 19. Some 3.6 million people are in need of food, among them 800,000 malnourished children. About 150,000 may die unless food arrives quickly in the impoverished West African nation of 13 million.] Picture taken July 1, 2005. - PBEAHUNYKGE

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The number of hungry children in West Africa’s Sahel region reached a 10-year high in 2018 due to poor rains, conflict and high food prices, the United Nations said on Friday.

More than 1.3 million children under the age of five suffered from severe malnutrition this year in the six worst hit countries in the semi-arid belt below the Sahara – a 50 percent increase on 2017, said the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

“When children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, they are more vulnerable to illnesses such as malaria and waterborne diseases,” Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa said in a statement.

Hunger is a recurrent scourge in the region, whose growing population grapples with high poverty rates and periodic droughts, the agency said.

This year the problem was particularly acute across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, it added.

An estimated 6 million people did not have enough to eat across the region during the lean season, according to the U.N. food agency (FAO).

Pastoralist communities were among the worst hit because poor rains meant there was not enough vegetation for grazing, said Coumba Sow, the FAO’s regional coordinator for resilience.

The Sahel has only one growing season and if it goes poorly due to climate shocks or conflict people must survive on whatever they have until the next one.

Global warming exacerbates the problem by making rainfall more erratic, said Sow, adding the rains were late and suffered a prolonged break, causing many farmers to lose half their seeds.

U.N. agencies and local governments were currently evaluating production levels for the new season, she said.

“We still hope that we will be able to get some good results in harvest, but it is too early to say,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)