Beni’s Ebola-free baby
There was a glimmer of hope amid the rising death toll in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s largest Ebola outbreak when a baby called Sylvana tested negative for the virus.
Sylvana was the second baby known to have survived after being born to a woman who had Ebola. It was the first time both mother and child had survived.
Her mother was cured and discharged from a treatment centre in Beni while pregnant. Her baby’s development was monitored and she gave birth to Sylvana on January 6.
The outbreak in the DRC is proving difficult to bring under control but 2019 saw major advances in the development of an effective vaccine. Most significant was the approval by both EU and US regulators of Merck’s new drug developed at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.
The single-dose vaccine, which provokes a quick immune response, had been used in DRC under the so called “compassionate use” research protocol that allowed it to be actively tested under field conditions prior to wider licensing.
The 2019 Nobel prize recognised the pioneering contribution of economists Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.
Their methods aim to ensure that policies on poverty are backed by scientific evidence and now dominate the field of development economics. The academy praised their use of randomised controlled trials to measure the effect of policies on vaccines, education and agriculture, which have helped millions of people. In India, more than 5 million children have benefited from programmes of remedial tutoring in schools as a result of one of their studies.
The Boston-based non-profit J-PAL, founded by Duflo and Banerjee, continues to oversee some of the most pioneering examples of their methods.
Trees in Ethiopia
An ambitious reforestation campaign spearheaded by Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, engaged millions of Ethiopians in planting trees in their native soil.
Technology minister Getahun Mekuria claimed 353,633,660 seedlings had been planted on one July day alone with some government employees given the day off to get involved. Most of the trees were indigenous species with some avocado and other fruit trees.
Some Ethiopians were sceptical at the final total claimed but the government says 23 million people out of a population of 105 million took part and the UN has praised the scheme.
The Guinness Book of Records said it had not been asked to verify the numbers. The current record is held by India’s state of Uttar Pradesh where 50 million trees were planted in one day by 800,000 people in 2016.
Toilets in India
A great toilet construction spree ended in 2019 with 110 million new latrines having been built under the ambitious five-year “Clean India” mission.
Backed by an authoritarian prime minister, Bollywood stars and high-profile stories of brides refusing to marry men who didn’t have toilets in their houses, the £15bn campaign was to honour Mahatma Gandhi who said “Sanitation is more important than independence” and dreamt of total cleanliness for all.
Hundreds of millions of Indians had been defecating in the open because half the population had no access to toilets. The practice was causing disease, polluting land and water, and putting women and girls at risk when they went out alone to relieve themselves. Rates had been declining slowly but the right-wing nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata party-led government made Clean India a flagship campaign and in October claimed that 100% of Indians now have access to a toilet.
However, other surveys suggest coverage is not yet universal and some issues do remain with open defecation in rural India, reportedly mostly down to a lack of proper maintenance of the new latrines and of old habits dying hard.
The latrine bonanza is driving a market for toilet-related products and services that is predicted to double to $62bn by 2021. The hygiene drive has spurred an 81% jump in sales of building materials and 48% rise in sales of sanitation ware, according to Euromonitor International.
Algeria and Argentina officially eliminated malaria this year, and the World Health Organization said that in the past eight years malaria infections in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam dropped by 76%, and deaths fell by 95%. India also reported a huge reduction in malaria, with 2.6 million fewer cases in 2018 than in 2017.
A pilot programme of the world’s first malaria vaccine was launched in Malawi for children aged under two. The vaccine is the first to offer partial protection against the disease. Clinical trials have shown those who are immunised are likely to have less severe cases of the disease. Smaller trials also showed the vaccine prevented four in 10 cases of malaria overall in babies aged between five and 17 months.
“Nobody is suggesting that this is a magic bullet,” said Dr David Schellenberg, scientific adviser to the WHO’s Global Malaria Programme. “It may not sound like much but we’re talking about 40% reduction in severe malaria, which unfortunately still has high mortality even when you have access to good treatment.”
In 2017 there were 219 million cases of malaria in 87 nations, African countries had 92% of all cases. There are fears that the fightback against the disease has been stalling despite it being both preventable and curable.
After her story was published in the Guardian, Nina Saleh, who was refused a visa to return to the UK after travelling to Pakistan to adopt a baby, was told by the Home Office she could come home.
Saleh holds a Norwegian passport but has full UK residency rights after living in London for 20 years. She was refused a visa to return with her baby, despite going through a lengthy adoption process with the involvement of British authorities.
School ban ruling
A court ordered Sierra Leone to overturn a “discriminatory” policy that banned tens of thousands of pregnant girls from attending school.
The decision was welcomed by many in a nation where an estimated third of all pregnancies are to teenagers. Women’s rights group Equality Now filed the challenge to Sierra Leone’s ban before the the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court in Nigeria.
Gabon, Kenya and Malawi are among 26 African countries that have “re-entry” policies to enable pregnant girls to continue their education after giving birth.
Tanzania, Burundi and Equatorial Guinea still have laws expelling pregnant girls from school.
South Africa’s HIV pill
In December South Africa began rolling out an antiretroviral drug in what has been called a “game-changing” bid to drastically reduce HIV rates.
HIV rates around the world have been in steady decline and Aids-related deaths have dropped from 1.4million in 2010 to 770,000 in 2018. But about 20% of global HIV infections are in South Africa where about 7.7 million people are living with HIV.
When it is introduced nationwide in March, the three-in-one pill is likely to have a far-reaching impact on HIV incidence at home and worldwide, said Dr Michelle Moorhouse, of Ezintsha, Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in Johannesburg.
“[This] could halve the number of new infections in South Africa between now and 2038, especially if we get people on treatment more quickly. And as HIV in South Africa accounts for about 20% of infections globally, this impacts the global infection rate.”
Protection at work
Better legal protection against sexual harassment and violence at work was promised after the adoption of a “milestone” treaty by a UN agency, the International Labour Organization.
A global set of standards has been established for working women in countries that ratify the treaty to prevent, identify and provide redress in cases of gender-based violence and harassment.
More than one in three countries currently lack protections for some 235 million women on sexual harassment and violence in the workplace.
Senegal became the first African country to begin providing free treatment for women with breast or cervical cancer (the leading cause of cancer deaths), and Mali announced it would begin providing free healthcare for pregnant women and children under five in a “brave and bold” move.
In Mali the announcement was heralded as a “tremendous” moment for a country that has long struggled to contain preventable infectious diseases and where one in 10 children die before their fifth birthday.
The Philippines passed a Universal Health Care Act, entitling all of its 107 million citizens to health insurance and medical treatment, and Malaysia started providing free healthcare insurance for the country’s poorest 40%, providing coverage against 36 critical illnesses.
Child marriage fatwa
The year saw the first African summit on child marriage, in Senegal, which resulted in one of the world’s most prestigious Islamic learning centres issuing a fatwa against the practice.
The fatwa states that marriage should be based on the consent of both parties and “particularly the young woman”. Activists hope news of the fatwa will filter through to imams in countries with high rates of child marriage. About 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year. — The Guardian
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