Saturday, April 19, 2014

Europe Urges Citizens to Avoid U.S. and Mexico Travel

By DONALD G. McNEIL and ANAHAD O’CONNOR—

Hoping to head off a global pandemic of swine flu that has surfaced in North America, the European Union’s health commissioner on Monday urged Europeans to avoid traveling to the United States or Mexico if doing so was not essential.

The warning came as health officials in Spain confirmed early Monday that a man hospitalized in eastern Spain had tested positive for swine flu, becoming what appeared to be Europe’s first case of the disease. Health authorities were also testing 17 other suspected cases across Spain, a major hub for travel between Mexico and Europe.

Britain and other European Union nations had already issued travel advisories for those traveling to Mexico, but the European Union’s health commissioner went a step further on Monday in urging Europeans to avoid nonessential trips. Europeans, she told reporters in Luxembourg, “should avoid traveling to Mexico or the United States of America unless it is very urgent for them.”

The fear that outbreaks of the flu might severely curtail travel was enough to unnerve markets in Europe and Asia, sending stocks tumbling, particularly shares of airlines and other companies in the travel industry.

But Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., called the European Union’s advisory against traveling to the United States unwarranted, saying that only 20 cases had been diagnosed here, just one of which required hospitalization.

“We are looking very hard for cases of swine flu,” he told CNN early Monday. “I expect we’re going to find some, and we’ll find some of increasing severity and more of the mild cases. At this point I would not put a travel restriction or recommendation against coming to the United States.”

The European Union’s travel advisory followed an advisory by Hong Kong on Sunday that called for residents of that territory to avoid all travel to Mexico and to try to avoid travel to cities with confirmed cases in the United States.

Other nations also imposed travel bans or made plans to quarantine air travelers over the weekend as additional confirmed cases appeared in Mexico and Canada, and at least 10 suspected cases appeared in New Zealand. Eight of the 20 confirmed cases in the United States were diagnosed in New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was expected to hold a news conference early Monday afternoon.

Top global flu experts struggled to predict how dangerous the new A (H1N1) swine flu strain would be as it became clear that they had too little information about Mexico’s outbreak – in particular how many cases had occurred in what is thought to be a month before the outbreak was detected, and whether the virus was mutating to be more lethal, or less.

“We’re in a period in which the picture is evolving,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the World Health Organization. “We need to know the extent to which it causes mild and serious infections.”

Without that knowledge – which is unlikely to emerge soon because only two laboratories, in Atlanta and Winnipeg, Canada, can confirm a case – his agency’s panel of experts was unwilling to raise the global pandemic alert level, even though it officially saw the outbreak as a public health emergency and opened its emergency response center.

President Obama, said on Monday that the outbreak was “a cause for concern” but not alarm. Speaking at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, he promised that “Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Centers for Disease Control will be offering regular updates to the American people so that they know what steps are being taken and what steps they may need to take.”

Concerns about the potential economic impact of the outbreak sent stocks tumbling across the globe, hitting travel-related companies particularly hard. Most Asian and European markets were down by the end of trading Monday, with tourism and airline industry stocks leading the decline. Shares of United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and other major carriers plunged as well.

In Spain, the Ibex 35, a benchmark stock index, was off 2.5 percent. A health official there said that the man who tested positive had been hospitalized in Almansa, in eastern Spain, but was not seriously ill. The other suspected cases were scattered around the country, with 10 in the northeastern region of Catalonia and cases in Madrid, Valencia and the Basque regions.

Normally, there are about two dozen flights between Spain and Mexico each day.

Other governments tried to contain the infection amid reports of potential new cases, including in New Zealand. Health officials there said that nine students and their teacher had tested positive for influenza A after returning to Auckland from a trip to Mexico. The W.H.O. was conducting tests to determine if the virus was in fact swine flu. In the meantime, airport workers in Auckland were stepping up their screening of people traveling from North America.

On Sunday, at a news conference in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the United States’ emergency declaration “standard operating procedure,” and said she would rather call it a “declaration of emergency preparedness.”

“It’s like declaring one for a hurricane,” she said. “It means we can release funds and take other measures. The hurricane may not actually hit.”

American investigators said they expected more cases here, but noted that virtually all so far had been mild and urged Americans not to panic.

The speed and the scope of the world’s response showed the value of preparations made because of the avian flu and SARS scares, public health experts said.

The emergency declaration in the United States lets the government free more money for antiviral drugs and give some previously unapproved tests and drugs to children. One-quarter of the national stockpile of 50 million courses of antiflu drugs will be released.

Border patrols and airport security officers are to begin asking travelers if they have had the flu or a fever; those who appear ill will be stopped, taken aside and given masks while they arrange for medical care.

“This is moving fast and we expect to see more cases,” Dr. Besser said at the news conference with Ms. Napolitano on Sunday. “But we view this as a marathon.”

He advised Americans to wash their hands frequently, to cover coughs and sneezes and to stay home if they felt ill; but he stopped short of advice now given in Mexico to wear masks and not kiss or touch anyone. He praised decisions to close individual schools in New York and Texas but did not call for more widespread closings.

Besides the eight New York cases, officials said they had confirmed seven in California, two in Kansas, two in Texas and one in Ohio. The virus looked identical to the one in Mexico believed to have killed 103 people – including 22 people whose deaths were confirmed to be from swine flu – and sickened about 1,600. As of Sunday night, there were no swine flu deaths in the United States, and one hospitalization.

Dr. Fukuda of the W.H.O. said his agency would decide Tuesday whether to raise the pandemic alert level to 4. Such a move would prompt more travel bans, and the agency has been reluctant historically to take actions that hurt member nations.

Canada confirmed six cases, at opposite ends of the country: four in Nova Scotia and two in British Columbia. Canadian health officials said the victims had only mild symptoms and had either recently traveled to Mexico or been in contact with someone who had.

Other governments issued advisories urging citizens not to visit Mexico. China, Japan, Hong Kong and others set up quarantines for anyone possibly infected. Russia and other countries banned pork imports from Mexico, though people cannot get the flu from eating pork.

In the United States, the C.D.C. confirmed that eight students at St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens, had been infected with the new swine flu. At a news conference on Sunday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that all those cases had been mild and that city hospitals had not seen a surge in severe lung infections.

On the streets of New York, people seemed relatively unconcerned, in sharp contrast to Mexico City, where soldiers handed out masks.

Hong Kong, shaped by lasting scars as an epicenter of the SARS outbreak, announced very tough measures. Officials there urged travelers to avoid Mexico and ordered the immediate detention of anyone arriving with a fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit after traveling through any city with a confirmed case, which would include New York.

Everyone stopped will be sent to a hospital for a flu test and held until it is negative. Since Hong Kong has Asia’s busiest airport hub, the policy could severely disrupt international travel.

The central question is how many mild cases Mexico has had, Dr. Martin S. Cetron, director of global migration and quarantine for the Centers for Disease Control, said in an interview.

“We may just be looking at the tip of the iceberg, which would give you a skewed initial estimate of the case fatality rate,” he said, meaning that there might have been tens of thousands of mild infections around the 1,300 cases of serious disease and 80 or more deaths. If that is true, as the flu spreads, it would not be surprising if most cases were mild.

Even in 1918, according to the C.D.C., the virus infected at least 500 million of the world’s 1.5 billion people to kill 50 million. Many would have been saved if antiflu drugs, antibiotics and mechanical ventilators had existed.

Another hypothesis, Dr. Cetron said, is that some other factor in Mexico increased lethality, like co-infection with another microbe or an unwittingly dangerous treatment.

Flu experts would also like to know whether current flu shots give any protection because it will be months before a new vaccine can be made.

There is an H1N1 human strain in this year’s shot, and all H1N1 flus are descendants of the 1918 pandemic strain. But flus pick up many mutations, and there will be no proof of protection until the C.D.C. can test stored blood serum containing flu shot antibodies against the new virus. Those tests are under way, said an expert who sent the C.D.C. his blood samples.

Reporting was contributed by Victoria Burnett in Madrid, Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington, Jack Healy from New York, Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong and Ian Austen from Ottawa.

source: The New York Times

Secretary-General to dispatch UN relief team to Sri Lankan combat zone

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today announced that he will immediately send a United Nations humanitarian team to the shrinking conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka, calling for the mission to be allowed into the area as soon as possible.

The dispatch of the team to the five square-mile pocket of land where fighting rages between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was agreed upon recently between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mr. Ban’s envoy, Vijay Nambiar, who also serves as his Chef de Cabinet.

The purpose of the team will be to assess the situation and provide assistance to civilians, the Secretary-General told reporters today in Brussels.

“It is critical that this beam be allowed into the zone as soon as possible and I am asking for strong support and speedy assistance of the Sri Lankan Government,” he said, adding that, for its part, the LTTE must put down its arms and protect civilians.

“So many lives have been sacrificed and there is no time to lose,” Mr. Ban stressed, calling on the parties to respect the call issued by the Security Council yesterday, in which it urged both sides to respect international humanitarian law and allow aid agencies access those affected by fighting.

Yesterday’s statement, read out by Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico, which holds the Council’s rotating monthly presidency, also strongly condemned the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields and its actions that block people from leaving the conflict area.

The 15-member body also appealed to the Tamil rebels to “renounce terrorism, allow UN-assisted evacuation of remaining civilians in the conflict area and join the political process of dialogue in order to put an end to the conflict.”

Today, a senior UN relief official put the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone in the Vanni region at 50,000.

Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Government has reported that 103,000 people have left the area and are in transit to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs)

“We hope that those numbers are accurate,” but the world body cannot verify them, she said at a press briefing in New York.

The most current information also points to 26,000 new arrivals at transit centres, as well as 95,000 IDPs seeking refuge in camps, up from 80,000 yesterday, Ms. Bragg said at a press briefing in New York.

She also underscored the need for extra camps to accommodate the expected influx of more than 100,000 people, noting that the UN has been pressing the Sri Lankan Government for additional sites and relocation of IDPs now in camps to live with host families.

“It is in the interest of the Government and the IDPs to be able to leave these camps as soon as possible,” Ms. Bragg said.

She emphasized that both the Government and LTTE are violating international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians, with heavy weapons being used in the so-called no-fire zone and the LTTE preventing people from fleeing the “very horrendous situation” in the region.

Also today, the UN issued an urgent plea for funds to meet the needs of IDPs who have fled the combat zone, with less than one-third of its $155 million appeal having been met to date.

The exodus of tens of thousands of people has stretched humanitarian and Government capacities, according to a statement issued by the world body’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka.

Many of those who escaped conflict “were forced from their homes more than a year ago, and it is something of a miracle that they have survived such a terrible ordeal,” said Neil Buhne. “We need to ensure that no more lives are lost by meeting their immediate needs, and beyond that to help them get back on their feet, so that they can eventually return to their homes.”

He said he recently saw first hand how relief teams are scrambling to provide assistance to “crowds of weary and hungry people.”

At camps at the town of Vavuniya which is housing most of the civilians who fled fighting, “I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they’ve been wearing for months,” Mr. Buhne said.

The funds requested by the UN are intended to cover the costs of basic needs, such as food, medicine, water, sanitation, shelter and clothing, and also to help put children back into school to “give them some semblance of normality.”

source: UN

Pakistan Sends Special Police to Taliban-Held Area

By JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH –

ISLAMABAD – Pakistani authorities on Thursday deployed special constabulary forces to a strategically important district only 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, that has come under the effective control of the Taliban in the last several days, police and residents said.

Four platoons of the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary police force, moved into the district at the request of the civilian commissioner of the area on Thursday, following four platoons that arrived Wednesday. At least one officer was killed and another seriously wounded in a clash with Taliban militants during the deployment, police said.

The fall of the district, Buner, did not mean that the Taliban could imminently threaten Islamabad. But it was another indication of the gathering strength of the insurgency and it raised new alarm about the ability of the government to fend off an unrelenting Taliban advance toward the heart of Pakistan.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration. He was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence commanders.

Buner, home to about one million people, is a gateway to a major Pakistani city, Mardan, the second largest in North-West Frontier Province, after Peshawar. The deploying platoons, each with about 40 officers, will be used to increase the Pakistani security presence in the region. But the underpaid, poorly trained force was not expected to immediately challenge the Taliban militants, who, armed, with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, have erected checkpoints and intimidated local police, forcing them into their stations, residents.

There are about 400 to 500 Taliban fighters in the district, local authorities said.

“They take over Buner, then they roll into Mardan and that’s the end of the game,” a senior law enforcement official in North-West Frontier Province said. He asked that his name be withheld because was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The Taliban had pushed into the district from the neighboring Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Army agreed to a truce in mid-February and remains in its barracks.

In another sign that the Taliban are consolidating control of Buner, Taliban militants held a meeting, or jirga, with local elders and the local administration on Thursday, residents said, agreeing to a truce similar to the one reached in Swat.

The Taliban pledged to local leaders that they would not interfere with non-government organizations or government installations, nor openly display their weapons. Negotiations would be used to sort out friction with local residents, and there would be forgiveness for those who killed Taliban in earlier fighting.

Representatives of Mualana Sufi Mohammed, the Taliban leader who brokered the peace deal in Swat, were present at the meeting, the results of which will be announced at a public rally on Sunday, a resident in Daggar, Buner’s main city, said.

Pakistani television news reports indicated Thursday that Taliban militants were also crossing into Shandla, another district bordering Buner and Swat.

On Wednesday, officials and residents said heavily armed Taliban militants were patrolling villages, and the local police had retreated to their station houses in much of Buner. Staff members of local nongovernmental organizations had been ordered to leave, and their offices were looted, residents said. Pakistani television news channels showed Taliban fighters triumphantly carrying office equipment out of the offices of the organizations.

“They are everywhere,” one resident of Daggar said by telephone. “There is no resistance.”

The Taliban advance has been building for weeks, with the assistance of sympathizers and even a local government official who was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban, the senior official said.

It also comes 10 days after the government of President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to the imposition of Islamic law, or Shariah, in Swat, as part of the deal with the Taliban.

A local politician, Jamsher Khan, said that people were initially determined to resist the Taliban in Buner, but that they were discouraged by the deal the government struck with the Taliban in Swat.

“We felt stronger as long we thought the government was with us,” he said by telephone, “but when the government showed weakness, we too stopped offering resistance to the Taliban.”

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was concerned that Pakistan’s government was making too many concessions to the Taliban, emboldening the militants and allowing them to spread by giving in to their demands.

“I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists,” Mrs. Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill.

She added that the deterioration of security in nuclear-armed Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”

A senior American official said Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were prompted in part by news of the Taliban takeover in Buner. The officials said that the further erosion of government authority in an area so close to the capital ought to stir concern not only in Pakistan but also among influential Pakistanis abroad.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration. He was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence commanders.

The takeover of Buner (pronounced boo-NAIR) is particularly significant because the people there have tried in the past year to stand up to the Taliban by establishing small private armies to fight the militants. Last year when the militants encroached into Buner, killing policemen, the local people fought back and forced the militants out.

But with a beachhead in neighboring Swat, and a number of training camps for fresh recruits, the Taliban were able to carry out what amounted to an invasion of Buner.

“The training camps will provide waves of men coming into Buner,” the senior law enforcement official said.

The Taliban expansion into Buner has begun to raise alarm among the senior ranks of the Pakistani Army, said a Western official who was familiar with the Pakistani military.

On Wednesday, one of the highest-ranking army officers traveled from Islamabad to Peshawar and met with the officers of the 11th Corps, the army division based in Peshawar, to discuss the “overall situation in Buner,” the official said.

One of the major concerns is that from the hills of Buner the Taliban have access to the flatlands of the district of Swabi, which lead directly to the four-lane motorway that runs from Islamabad to Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province.

The Pakistani military does not have a presence in Buner, Pakistani and Western officials said. The main government authority in Buner is the police, who have become demoralized by their low pay and lack of equipment in the face of the Taliban, Pakistani police officials say.

The Taliban have set up checkpoints in a number of villages in Buner, intimidating policemen and forcing them into their police stations, residents in Daggar said by telephone.

The militants were patrolling the bazaar in Daggar, residents said. Women, who used to move freely around the bazaars, were scarcely to be seen, they said. Those who did venture out were totally covered.

One of the big attractions of Buner for people from all over Pakistan, the shrine of the Sufi saint Pir Baba, was now in the control of the militants, the senior law enforcement official said.

Last year, the villagers around the shrine kept the Taliban at bay when the militants threatened to take it over.

But in the last 10 days, the Taliban closed the shrine and said it was strictly off limits to women, the senior official said. The militants are now patrolling it.

The Taliban control in Buner came swiftly in the last few days, officials said.

The militants were helped by the actions of the commissioner of Malakand, Javed Mohammad, who is also the senior official in Swat and who was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban, the senior law enforcement official said.

The Taliban began their assault on Buner in early April, when a battalion of the Taliban militia with heavy weaponry crossed over the hills from Swat to Buner, according to an account in the newspaper Dawn that appeared on Saturday.

The Taliban then captured three policemen and two civilians, and killed them, the newspaper said.

Infuriated by the killings, people in lower Buner and Sultanwas assembled a volunteer force and killed 17 Taliban fighters, the account said.

But soon after that, Mr. Mohammad tried to persuade the local elders to allow the Taliban to enter Buner, the newspaper said.

Soon afterward, Mr. Mohammad ordered the local armies to dissolve, the senior law enforcement official said. The order led many of those who had been willing to stand up to the Taliban to either flee or give up, the official said. Among those who are reported to have fled is Fateh Khan, a wealthy Buner businessman. Mr. Khan had been one of the main organizers and financiers of the private armies in Buner.

In a show of strength, the militants held a feast in the home of a local Taliban sympathizer two weeks ago, and since then the Taliban have fanned out into the district, the senior official said.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Islamabad, Mark Landler and David Stout from Washington, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

source: The New York Times