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Measles cases, deaths surging in Afghanistan: WHO

February 11, 2022 09:48 PM


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A raging measles outbreak in Afghanistan infected tens of thousands and killed more than 150 people last month alone, the World Health Organization said Friday, warning of more deaths.

The UN health agency said the outbreak was particularly concerning since Afghanistan is facing massive food insecurity and malnutrition, leaving children far more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease.

"Measles cases have been increasing in all provinces since the end of July 2021," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva.

He said cases had surged recently, ballooning by 18 percent in the week of January 24 and by 40 percent in the last week of the month.

In all, 35,319 suspected measles cases were reported in January, including 3,000 that were laboratory confirmed, and 156 deaths.

Ninety-one percent of the cases and 97 percent of the deaths were children under the age of five.

Lindmeier stressed that the measles-related deaths were likely underreported and the numbers were expected to swell.

"The rapid rise in cases in January suggests that the number of deaths due to measles is likely to increase sharply in the coming weeks," Lindmeier said.

Measles is a highly-contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections.

The latest surge in cases comes as Afghanistan is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover in August -- when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad.

The United Nations has warned that half the country is threatened with food shortages.

"Malnutrition weakens immunity, making people more vulnerable to illness and deaths diseases like measles, especially children," Lindmeier said.

The best protection against measles is broad vaccination, with the WHO recommending that countries ensure at least 95-percent vaccination coverage -- a difficult goal in the Afghan context.

Lindmeier said the WHO and its partners had been working to scale up their measles surveillance capacities and provide support for things like lab testing and immunisation campaigns.

Last December, a vaccination campaign in the hardest-hit areas reached 1.5 million children, he said.

They have also been providing Vitamin A supplements, which are important to help reduce sickness and death from measles, reaching 8.5 million children in a nationwide campaign last November.

The WHO, Lindmeier said, was now working towards a larger measles vaccination drive starting in May, aimed at reaching more than three million children.

Russia on Friday said French President Emmanuel Macron was made to sit at an enormously long table for his talks with Vladimir Putin because he refused to take a Kremlin-performed Covid test.  

The leaders sat at opposite ends of an unusually long table in the Kremlin on Monday, when Macron came to Moscow with a mission to defuse fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The table drew much ridicule online, and raised more eyebrows when Putin sat at a tiny table with the Kazakh president, a close ally, three days later.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peksov said the decision to subject Macron to the huge table was taken after the French leader refused to take a Covid test performed by the Kremlin's medics. 

"Talks with some are being held at a long table, the distance (across the table) is about six meters," Peskov said. 

"It is linked to the fact that some follow their own rules, they don't cooperate with the host side," he said. 

In such cases, he said, the Kremlin has to take "additional sanitary protocol on protecting the health of our president and his guests."

He said the decision on who is subjected to the long table is not political. 

"There is no politics here and this in no way interferes with negotiations," Peskov said. 

He said that if medics from both sides of diplomatic meetings cooperate, then "Putin communicates with his guests directly, sitting very close and shaking hands."

A source in Macron's entourage told AFP that the French president "did everything as he had to as always when he travels."

Without going into full details, a French presidential official, who asked not to be named, confirmed that the issue has come about over the conditions of the PCR test demanded by the Russian side."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi were also subjected to the long-table diplomacy, made to sit at a distance from Putin when they visited earlier this year.

Putin and Orban also drank champagne while standing at opposite ends of a large carpet in the Kremlin. 

The Kremlin has gone to extreme lengths to protect 69-year-old Putin, who is vaccinated with Russia's home-grown Sputnik V, from being infected with Covid. 

While social distancing has been lax in many places in Moscow, the long-time Russian leader has been extremely careful with Covid. 

Under Russia's current Covid rules, foreigners travelling to Russia are required to take a PCR test before a flight to the country but do not have to take one on arrival.

 

 



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