Italy gives safe port to 558 migrants rescued at sea

CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) – Italy on Tuesday allowed a charity boat carrying hundreds of migrants rescued at sea to dock in the Sicilian port of Augusta, with another vessel waiting offshore for permission to bring 440 more to land.

The Geo Barents ship, run by charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), took onboard 558 people, mainly Africans, in eight separate operations off the coast of Libya in the last 11 days, the charity said.

They include 174 minors and a woman who is eight months pregnant.

The German charity boat Sea Watch 3 is also seeking a port to disembark 440 migrants it rescued in recent days in the Mediterranean, including women and young children.

“The weather deteriorates … Everyone has the right to disembark, now,” Sea Watch wrote on Twitter.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in boat migrants in recent months with the government struggling to secure an agreement with European Union partners over how to deal with the influx.

As of Dec. 28, 66,482 migrants have reached Italy so far this year against 34,134 in the same period of 2020, interior ministry data show.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Battle against Ebola being lost amid militarized response, MSF says

FILE PHOTO: A mother of a child, suspected of dying from Ebola, cries outside a hospital during the funeral in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The battle against Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo is failing because ordinary people do not trust health workers and an overly militarized response is alienating patients and families, the medical charity MSF said on Thursday.

Last week Medecins Sans Frontres (Doctors Without Borders) suspended medical activities at the focal point of the epidemic after two of its facilities were torched by unidentified assailants.

MSF’s international president Joanne Liu said the outbreak, which has killed 569 people, would not be beaten unless the community trusted the authorities and were treated humanely.

“The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic,” Liu told reporters in Geneva.

Ebola responders were increasingly seen as the enemy, with more than 30 attacks and incidents against the Ebola response in the past month alone, she said.

The epidemic is in a region of Congo that is prey to armed groups and violence where officials are prone to see threats through a security lens and to use force.

“There is a lot of militarization of the Ebola response,” she said. “Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s totally counterproductive. The communities are not the enemy.”

Involvement of security and police forces merely deepened suspicions that Ebola was being used as a political tool, she said.

A spokeswoman for Congo’s Health Ministry said there appeared to be confusion about the security forces’ role.

“The police and the army are not involved in Ebola response activities and their role has never been to enforce sanitary measures,” Jessica Ilunga said.

The Interior Ministry has been asked to guarantee security, as it is unacceptable for health officials to be threatened and attacked, or for the threat of violence to stop families burying their loved ones in a dignified and safe manner, she said.

MSF was insisting on security before it returned to its damaged facilities, she said. Local officials, unlike international staffers, did not have the privilege of being evacuated for security reasons, she said.

Liu said there were still signs the outbreak – the second worst ever – was not being brought under control.

Forty percent of deaths were outside medical centers, meaning patients had not sought care, and 35 percent of new patients were not linked to existing cases, meaning the spread of the disease was not being tracked.

“Ebola still has the upper hand,” Liu said.

Villagers saw fleets of cars racing to pick up a single sick person and vast amounts of money pouring in. Some were instructed to wash their hands but had no soap to do so.

“They see their relatives sprayed with chlorine and wrapped in plastic bags, buried without ceremony. Then they see their possessions burned,” she said.


(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Kinshasa; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

MSF says closing most cholera centers in Yemen as epidemic wanes

MSF says closing most cholera centers in Yemen as epidemic wanes

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) is closing most of its 37 cholera treatment centers in Yemen, saying the epidemic appears to have peaked.

Some 884,368 suspected cholera cases have been recorded in the war-torn country in the past six months, including 2,184 deaths, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO). The case fatality rate is now 0.25 percent.

“The number of cholera cases reported in MSF treatment centers has significantly decreased since the peak of the outbreak. As a result, the medical organization is closing the majority of its cholera treatment centers or reducing their capacity,” MSF said in a statement late on Monday.

Some 567 new patients sought treatment for suspected cholera at MSF’s centers in nine governorates of Yemen during the second week of October, down from 11,139 at the peak in the third week in June, it said.

“Only 9 percent of patients admitted by MSF last week needed to be hospitalized and a limited number of patients have symptoms that correspond with the cholera case definition (acute watery diarrhea with or without vomiting),” it said. “The remaining cases are believed to be due to other pathogens.”

Ghassan Abou Chaar, MSF head of mission in Yemen, said: “The cholera outbreak is not over but it is no longer our medical priority in Yemen. However, this should not eclipse the dire health situation of millions of Yemenis who are unable to access basic primary healthcare.”

Civil war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people since it began in March 2015. Yemen’s war pits the armed Houthi movement that controls the capital against the internationally-recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition that has launched thousands of air strikes to restore him to power.

Cholera epidemics usually subside once the disease passes through a population, but aid agencies say the Yemen epidemic lasted longer and spread wider than they initially expected because of the war’s toll on health care.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said on Sunday that an aid effort by the World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies had managed to “largely contain the devastating cholera epidemic”, but warned it could flare up again without urgent investment in health, water and sanitation.

ICRC said last month that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is a “catastrophe”, and cholera cases could reach a million by the end of the year.

Alexandre Faite, head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen, said at the time that the “health sector is really on its knees in Yemen … the health staff is on its knees as well because they are not paid.”

“Preventable illnesses and deaths are increasing in Yemen, and this can be partly attributed to the salary crisis,” MSF said, noting that doctors, nurses and other public health workers had not been paid in 13 months.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians trapped by conflict: MSF

FILE PHOTO: People walk inside the Muna Internally displace people camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria December 1, 2016 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of people in northeastern Nigeria remain beyond the reach of aid, trapped between Boko Haram Islamist insurgents and counter-insurgency operations that have left many without food or work, Doctors Without Borders said.

Those who reach health centers report continuing violence against civilians by both sides in Borno state, said Bruno Jochum, general director of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Switzerland, upon return from the region.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people who are not accessible today for humanitarian assistance,” he told Reuters.

“What we see is a civilian population who for a bit more than two years has been caught and trapped between, on the one hand, violent attacks by the Boko Haram movement and, the other hand, very strong counter-insurgency operations by the Nigerian armed forces,” Jochum said.

Around 800,000 displaced people – mainly women, children and elderly – live near the state capital Maiduguri, about a quarter of them in camps, MSF says. The medical charity focuses on providing maternal and child health.

“Those that are accessible outside the regional capital often are regrouped in small towns, camps under the control of the Nigerian military, but they cannot move out or can hardly move … and they are not able to plant. They are completely cut off from their livelihoods,” Jochum said.

Boko Haram has killed around 15,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes during a seven-year insurgency.

Access has improved somewhat in Borno in the last six months after reports of people dying from malnutrition, Jochum said.

Nutrition and food distribution programs have helped, but the situation remains “extremely fragile”.

“There was a big focus on the food crisis last year and the need for a big pipeline of international aid to ensure the survival of the population.

“It’s still absolutely needed for the coming year but it should not hide what is behind it, which is an enormous issue of safety and protection for populations within a conflict where there are political and military objectives which in the end have little regard for civilians.”

An air strike by the Nigerian air force, which it said was accidental, on the town of Rann in January killed up to 150 people and wounded the same number, mainly people queuing for food vouchers, Jochum said. Three water and sanitation workers hired by MSF were among the dead.

“There are victims of this bombing who are going to need long-term help. You have people who have lost their physical integrity, who have been handicapped probably for life and you have children who lost their parents,” he said.

“It does raise questions about the conduct of warfare and proportionality beyond an individual event.”

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

U.S. military punishes 16 over 2015 Afghan hospital bombing

Hospital beds lay in the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military will announce on Friday that has it taken disciplinary action against 16 service members over a deadly Oct. 3 air strike in Afghanistan that destroyed a hospital run by the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The disclosure of the nonjudicial punishments will come during the release of the findings of a U.S. military investigation into the incident, which will broadly conclude that the strike was a tragic mistake, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

That finding is consistent with the results of a preliminary investigation released by the U.S. military in November, when commanders stressed that American forces did not intentionally target the hospital.

Instead, General John Campbell, who was then head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, described a series of blunders that allowed the American forces to target the hospital, even though it was on a no-strike list.

MSF, known as Doctors Without Borders in English, has in the past publicly cast doubt on the idea that the strike could have been a mistake.

Forty-two people were killed in the incident and 37 were wounded as American forces helped Afghans repel Taliban insurgents from the city of Kunduz last year.

One general was among those singled out for disciplinary action, the officials said. The nonjudicial punishments include letters of reprimand, which could have a career-ending effect on the service members involved.

“These people are not promotable,” said one U.S. official.

According to the initial U.S. investigation, U.S. forces had meant to target a different building in the city and were led off-track by a technical error in their aircraft’s mapping system that initially directed them to an empty field.

The U.S. forces then looked for a target that was visually similar to the one they had originally sought, the former National Directorate of Security headquarters in Kunduz, which they believed was occupied by insurgents.

The Taliban’s brief capture of the Kunduz provincial capital was arguably the biggest victory for the militants in the 15-year war since they were toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the departure of most foreign combat troops in 2014.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bernard Orr and James Dalgleish)

Cholera Outbreak Threatening World’s Largest Refugee Camp

A cholera outbreak is sweeping through the largest refugee camp in the world.

Doctors Without Borders, a medical charity, reported that seven people have died in Dadaab since the debilitating diarrhoeal disease first hit the Kenyan settlement back on November 23.

In a news release, the doctors said the disease has sickened more than 540 Dadaab residents in all, and doctors built a dedicated treatment center for cholera patients. Doctors said they have seen about 307 in the past three weeks, about 30 percent of whom were children less than 12.

According to the World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations, cholera is a bacterial disease that can kill within hours if it isn’t treated. The disease is usually transmitted through contaminated food or water, and is fueled by poor hygiene. Refugee camps are particularly at risk for outbreaks because their residents often lack access to clean water and proper sanitation.

Doctors Without Borders reported that funding cuts have accelerated the outbreak, as Dadaab hasn’t received any soap in two months and there aren’t enough latrines for its residents. More than 330,000 refugees live there, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The doctors worry seasonal rains could lead to more cases, as the weather has already exacerbated the issue.

“After each heavy rain, we see an increase of patients in our treatment (center),” Charles Gaudry, the head of Doctors Without Borders’ mission in Kenya, said in a statement.

Doctors Without Borders said its staff is working to educate the refugees about cholera and decontaminating the living spaces of infected patients, but called for more long-term solutions and improvements at Dadaab, which is located near Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia.

“The fact that this outbreak has occurred further highlights the dire hygiene and living conditions in the camp and a lack of proper long-term investment in sanitation services,” Gaudry said in a statement.

23 Civilians Killed in Afghan Hospital Due to U.S. Airstrikes

A U.S.-led bombing accidentally hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, resulting in the death of 23 civilians.

The victims included 13 staff members and 10 patients. Three of the patients who were killed were children. Doctors Without Borders also reported that 37 people were wounded. One nurse recounted the terrible situation to the Huffington Post.

“There are no words for how terrible it was. In the intensive care unit, six patients were burning in their beds,” Lajos Zoltan Jecs said in an account posted on the MSF website.

She continued describing the situation. She watched colleagues die, heard patients calling out for help in all directions, and watched some of the staff just freeze, tears streaming down their faces.

General John Campbell addressed reporters at the Pentagon Monday. He stated that the strikes were called for by Afghan forces to protect U.S. forces.

“We have now learned that on October 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces,” he said. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat, and several innocent civilians were accidentally struck.” Campbell also offered his condolences.

Afghan officials called the situation a tragedy, but have remained mute on the situation.

U.S., NATO, and Afghan officials are investigating the situation. Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), is demanding an independent investigation and calling the situation a “war crime.”

“Under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, MSF demands that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body,” the organization said. “Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient.”

MSF reports that the series of bombings took place in 15 minute intervals between 2:08 a.m. and 3:15 a.m. Saturday. The charity added that the bombings continued even after U.S. and Afghan officials were notified that the hospital was being attacked.

Afghan police report that Taliban militants had been using the hospital compound as a hiding place, but Doctors Without Borders denied the claims.

The charity has since closed the hospital due the extensive damages to the building and equipment. In less than a week, MSF has treated 394 wounded people in Kunduz.

“There is no access to trauma care now for the civilians and for the wounded in the whole area of Kunduz, which is some kind of battleground for the moment,” said Christopher Stokes, the aid group’s general director.

Aid Groups Claim ISIS Used Chemical Weapons

At least two aid groups working to help civilians trapped by the terrorist group ISIS say that many are showing wounds that correspond with a mustard gas attack.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said that it has treated potential chemical weapons victims in Marea although they did not officially confirm mustard gas.  The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said their doctors were able to identify the agent as mustard gas.

“Personally, I’ve never encountered these symptoms before, and clinical features and the evolution in time were highly suggestive of intoxication by a chemical agent,” an MSF doctor, who requested anonymity, told the Guardian newspaper. “I think we are never prepared to face this kind of atrocities among civilian population and children. As medics, we are trained to react in difficult and stressful situations, but events like this are overwhelming.”

At least one former military official with expertise in the field says the attack used mustard gas.

“This is classic mustard agent symptoms, I have no doubt,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear regiment and Nato’s Rapid Reaction CBRN battalion, told the Guardian.

U.S. Central Command had previously reported that ISIS is suspected to have used chemical weapons on Kurdish forces in northern Syria.  Also, they reported a sulphur mustard gas attack on Kurdish forces in Iraq by the terrorists.

Ebola Exposed Nurse Flaunts Quarantine

A nurse who worked on Ebola patients in Sierra Leone who returned to the U.S. and complained about mandatory quarantine is now flaunting a voluntary quarantine.

Kaci Hickox, 33, had been working in Sierra Leone as part of Doctors Without Borders.  New Jersey officials ordered her into quarantine when she returned to the United States and she hired lawyers to challenge the ruling.  She eventually was allowed to leave for her home state of Maine if she agreed to a voluntary quarantine.

Hickok said she would flaunt any quarantine order because she believes there’s no risk of exposing anyone to Ebola because she’s not sick.

She left her home to take a bike ride with her boyfriend this morning in full view of national media cameras.  Her lawyer said that because Hickox didn’t want to “freak people out” she didn’t ride through the center of town.

“Since there’s no court order, she can be out in public,” Siegel said. “Even if people disagree with her position, I would hope they respect the fact that she’s taking into account the fear, which is based on misinformation about the way the disease is transmitted.”

Hickox and her lawyer claim the orders for quarantine are just politically motivated.

Christian Doctor In Liberia Diagnosed With Ebola

A doctor with the Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse has been confirmed as a victim of the Ebola virus.

Dr. Kent Branley has been heading up one of the relief and treatment centers hosted by Samaritan’s Purse since last October.  He had been in Liberia with his wife and children, who have since been evacuated to the United States.

“Samaritan’s Purse is committed to doing everything possible to help Dr. Brantley during this time of crisis,” the organization said in a statement.  “We ask everyone to please pray for him and his family.”

The group has been working with the Centers for Disease Control, Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organization and Liberia’s Ministry of Health to control the outbreak that has infected almost 1,100 people and killed 660.

A second American doctor, Nancy Writebol, is suspected to have contracted the disease as well and is undergoing confirmatory testing.