Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Civil Society actors seek to protect Murchison Falls tourism site

Civil Society actors have written to the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) to reject the application by Bonang Power to conduct a feasibility study and other activities leading up to the development of a dam at Murchison Falls.

In the protest letter dated 17th June 2019, the civil society actors protest against plans by ERA to issue a licence to Bonang Power and Energy Ltd to develop a 360MW power plant at Murchison Falls.

The falls and the entire Murchison landscape are already under threat from oil activities as over 70% of the oil under the Tilenga project is found in Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP).

The actors also call on ERA and government to promote the exploitation of clean energy such as off-grid solar as opposed to hydropower dams and oil in protected areas.

The letter raises concerns that Murchison Falls landscape is already under immense pressure from oil activities; no more pressures should be allowed. This is more so the case because tourism remains one of the biggest sources of government revenue; it earned the country over $1.6 billion in the 2018/2019 financial year.

On the other hand, development of hydropower dams has increased Uganda's debt burden amidst a few returns. The country's debt burden stands at $11.5 billion and dams are responsible for over 30% of this debt yet few returns are being experienced from them. For instance, only over 20% of the population has power. Poverty has also increased and the much-touted industries arising from increased power generation have offered insufficient and mostly poor-paying jobs.

Uganda is also producing excess power which citizens and industries cannot afford; this drives the tariff up. Another dam amidst excess power will further drive up the tariff. Moreover, Uganda is already over-reliant on hydropower yet to ensure sustainable energy supply amidst climate change threats, countries need to diversify their energy mix.

The government also faces legal action and international shame should ERA allow a dam to be developed at Murchison Falls. The dam would lead to more degradation of the Murchison Falls landscape, which is against international agreements that Uganda is a signatory to, the letter reads.

The signatories to this letter from the Acholi and Bunyoro sub-regions where the planned dam will be located also demand that :

(i) ERA should not approve the application to undertake studies for the development of a hydropower dam at the Murchison Falls. The Murchison falls ecosystem is important in the survival of species such as the Nile crocodile, fish, and others. Moreover, the falls and MFNP provide employment, foreign exchange and are a source of national pride. The above services cannot be replaced by electricity moreover which Ugandans cannot afford to consume.

(ii) Explore alternative energy sources. Uganda is richly endowed with alternative energy resources such as solar and wind. However, these resources remain largely unexploited mainly because Uganda is concentrating on hydropower. In line with aspirations under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Sustainable Energy for All (SEA4ALL) initiative, Uganda should invest more in other energy sources especially off-grid solar and avoid over-reliance on grid-based hydropower. In addition, in line with aspirations under the Paris Climate Change Agreement that Uganda is a signatory to, the government should promote investment in clean energy over oil and should avoid oil activities in protected and critical biodiversity areas including in MFNP.

(iii) UWA should not issue a permit for a dam at Murchison falls:

(iv) Citizens should say no to ERA and the government’s proposal to destroy Murchison Falls: It is only the citizens of Uganda who have the power under Article 1 of the Constitution that can save the Murchison Falls. Only the citizens can stop the single biggest challenge facing our country today, the dominance of politics over governance institutions. Key institutions such as the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), UWA, National Forestry Authority (NFA), ERA and others that are entrusted with the responsibility of conservation and ensuring that developments benefit citizens without destroying the environment have been pushed on the sidelines by selfish and corrupt politicians. The institutions are being used by politicians to destroy the environment. This is why the country is in an environmental mess characterized by loss of forests, wildlife reserves, wetlands, river banks, lake shores, and others. Citizens must campaign against the destruction of Murchison Falls and all critical biodiversity areas of Uganda. We encourage companies like Bonang Power and Energy to desist from being part of the destruction. Instead, they should invest in other clean energy sources such as off-grid solar.

(v) Civil society: Non-governmental organizations(NGOs)and other civil society groups should work with us to mobilize and empower Ugandans to stop environmental abuses in the country. Only strong civic competence will compel government and institutions such as ERA to know that this country belongs to the people of Uganda and our biodiversity must be used in a manner that meets the needs of the present and future generations.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Study exonerates suspect contraceptives from risk of HIV

By Esther Nakkazi

The good news from the long-awaited trial on a link between three contraceptive methods and increase in the risk of HIV acquisition has brought a sigh of relief, will boost confidence for family planning and reassures women who are at the centre stage.

The results are reassuring at many levels and a winner for all women using contraceptives and those intending to use them, the men who support their partners to use them, the providers who now have more confidence in dispensing them, the researchers and the funders who ensure they are forever available on the market.

We now know that there is no increased HIV risk for women using the injectable depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA), the implant Jadelle and the copper intrauterine device (IUD) according to results from the Evidence for Contraceptive Options and HIV Outcomes (ECHO) randomised clinical trial.

It is NOT contraception that puts women at a risk of HIV.

ECHO adds the most robust data about contraception safety and effectiveness with solid evidence. It is a much better world for women to know that none of these 3 methods increase the risk of acquiring HIV.

DMPA or Depo is an injection given into the muscle. It is given every 3 months there may be a 6-9 month delay in getting pregnant after the last injection. Jadelle has 2 thin, flexible rods filled with progestogen inserted under the skin of a woman’s upper arm. It lasts up to 5 years but can be removed any time with a rapid return to fertility once removed.

The copper IUD has a ‘T’ shape and is made of soft but strong plastic with copper bands and has a ‘tail’ made of 2 strings. The health worker places it in the womb and it can last up to 10 years, although it removed at any time and fertility returns immediately.

In Uganda two of these researched methods, Jadelle and depot are the two highest used contraceptives by women which help them put off unwanted or avoid high-risk pregnancies, space childbirth, prevent maternal and infant deaths every year. The unmet need for family planning in Uganda reduced from 34.4% in 2011 to 28% in 2016.

In the countries where the ECHO randomized clinical trial took place, at the 12 sites in Eswatini, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia depot is the number one choice. Women love it because it is discrete and in not all but some circumstances the shot is the only long-acting option on the shelf.

It is good to know that the contraceptives under the ECHO study were highly effective and acceptable further endorsing their primary purpose. The study says participants used either of the three methods assigned to them for 92% of the time they were in the study.

However, we should know that over 150 million women worldwide use modern methods of contraception for family planning and some do not necessarily use the three methods in the ECHO trial so these results cannot be generalised to other contraceptive methods that were not included in the study.

Unfortunately, the study had high HIV incidence and high Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) recorded among the 7,800 women who participated yet they were given an optimised level of prevention.

Except for condoms, no contraceptive method protects against HIV or other STIs, and thus women at risk of HIV infection who are using contraception should also be advised to use condoms.

Moving forward we know now that Depot, Copper IUDs and Jadelle has nothing to do with the HIV infection it is high time to invest more in programs to protect women against HIV.

Isn’t it logical that HIV prevention services and family planning should be integrated? African governments can also avail more funding for contraceptives and HIV prevention and enforce that the two are provided in one place.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Committee to Protect Journalists demands UCC to rescind media staff suspensions

Press release (World Press Freedom Day)

The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Uganda's media regulator to immediately rescind an order yesterday suspending staff from 13 radio and television stations in connection to their coverage of opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, known as Bobi Wine.

"This order to suspend journalists from working is a transparent retaliation against stations that covered a critical opposition figure. That Ugandan authorities made this move immediately before World Press Freedom Day communicates a casual disregard for the rights of journalists to report freely and the right of citizens to know," said CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo.

"This order should be immediately lifted and the stations should be allowed to operate without interference."

In a statement published on its website, the Uganda Communications Commission directed the six television stations and seven radio stations to suspend their producers and heads of news and programs, alleging they breached standards by airing "extremist or anarchic messages" and inciting and misleading content.

The stations ordered to suspend staff are Akaboozi FM, BBS TV, Beat FM, Bukedde TV, Capital FM, CBS FM, Kingdom TV, NBS TV, NTV, Pearl FM, Salt TV, Sapientia FM, and Simba FM.

The regulator did not cite specific programming, only asking the stations to submit live bulletins aired on April 29, 2018. However, media reports and a statement issued by the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association indicate that the suspension is likely connected to the airing live of Kyagulanyi's arrest on April 29.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Malaria vaccine trial starts

By Esther Nakkazi

Malawi has launched the world’s first malaria vaccine today in a pilot programme. Ghana and Kenya will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks.

The vaccine RTS,S will be made available to children up to 2 years of age in 3 doses given between 5 and 9 months of age and the fourth dose at the 2nd birthday.

Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya were selected from among 10 African countries following a request by WHO for expressions of interest. These qualified because they had well-functioning malaria and immunization programmes, as well as areas with moderate to high malaria transmission.

“The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.

Dr. Ghebreyesus said while there are many gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas.

Thus the vaccine is a complementary malaria control tool – to be added to the WHO-recommended measures for malaria prevention, including the routine use of insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying with insecticides, and the timely use of malaria testing and treatment.

“We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus.

Malaria is one of the world’s leading killers, killing one child every two minutes. Most of these deaths are in Africa, where more than 250,000 children die from malaria every year. Worldwide, malaria kills 435 000 people a year, most of them children.

The RTS,S vaccine has demonstrated that it can significantly reduce malaria in children. In clinical trials, the vaccine was found to prevent approximately 4 in 10 malaria cases, including 3 in 10 cases of life-threatening severe malaria.

“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Pilot programme;

“To step up the fight against malaria, we need every available tool. If this pilot shows that RTS,S is a cost-effective tool against malaria, it will help us save more children’s lives,” said Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund.

The pilot programme is designed to generate evidence and experience to inform WHO policy recommendations on the broader use of the RTS,S malaria vaccine.

“These pilots will be crucial to determine the part this vaccine could play in reducing the burden this disease continues to place on the world’s poorest countries,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi.

GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses for this pilot.

It aims to reach about 360,000 children per year across the three countries and will look at reductions in child deaths; vaccine uptake, including whether parents bring their children on time for the four required doses; and vaccine safety in the context of routine use.

Ministries of health will determine where the vaccine will be given; they will focus on areas with moderate-to-high malaria transmission, where the vaccine can have the greatest impact.

“This novel tool is the result of GSK employees collaborating with their partners, applying the latest in vaccine science to contribute to the fight against malaria,” said Dr. Thomas Breuer, Chief Medical Officer of GSK Vaccines.

He said they look forward to the results of the pilot, and in parallel, working with WHO and PATH to secure the vaccine’s sustained global health impact in the future.

Financing for the pilot programme has been mobilized through collaborations between Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and Unitaid. Additionally, WHO, PATH and GSK are providing in-kind contributions.

“The malaria vaccine is a shining example of the kind of inter-agency coordination that we need. We look forward to learning how the vaccine can be integrated for greatest impact into our work,” said Lelio Marmora, Executive Director of Unitaid.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Experts warn farmers on late planting due to delayed rains

By Esther Nakkazi 

Agriculture experts from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) request the scale up of climate resilient seeds and smart innovations, including drought-tolerant seeds and soil and water conservation practices to mitigate the impact of the current drought affecting millions of farmers living in areas of eastern and southern Africa.

The U.S. National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has just warned that abnormally dry conditions are affecting areas of eastern and southern Africa as well this year's El Niño, the second in a period of 3 years, has led to large pockets of drought across eastern and southern Africa.  

Although farmers have put off planting grains waiting for the long rains anticipated to start late April, experts from CIMMYT warn that the very late onset of the rainy season could lead to a poor cropping season and significantly reduce maize yields in farmers’ fields. 

Late planting may also expose maize crops to stronger attacks of pests like the fall armyworm, they say. Long rains usually arrive by mid- March but are late this time round.

Stephen Mugo, CIMMYT Africa regional representative, recommends that farmers shift to planting stress-resilient varieties, like early maturing maize varieties that just need 90 to 95 days to mature, instead of over four months for late maturing varieties. 

Seeds of such early maturing varieties are available from seed companies and agrodealers operating in maize growing areas.

"If more small farmers in Africa's drought-prone regions grow drought-tolerant varieties of maize and other staple crops, the farming communities will be better prepared for prolonged dry spells and inadequate rainfall,” says Mugo.

Crop diversification and more sustainable soil and water conservation practices are also recommended to improve soil fertility and structure and avoid soil compaction. When the rains finally come, run-off will be less, and soils will have more capacity to retain moisture, CIMMYT experts advise.

Moreover, research by CIMMYT shows that conservation agriculture, combined with a package of good agronomic practices, offers several benefits that contribute to yield increases of up to 38 percent.
CIMMYT works with the African seed sector and national partners to develop and deploy stress resilient maize and wheat varieties through initiatives like Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa and the Wheat rust resistant seed scaling in Ethiopia.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Measles cases on the rise says WHO

Press Release:

Measles cases have continued to climb into 2019. Preliminary global data shows that reported cases rose by 300 percent in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. This follows consecutive increases over the past two years.

While this data is provisional and not yet complete, it indicates a clear trend. Many countries are in the midst of sizeable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases.

Current outbreaks include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Myanmar, Philippines, Sudan, Thailand, and Ukraine, causing many deaths – mostly among young children.

Over recent months, spikes in case numbers have also occurred in countries with high overall vaccination coverage, including the United States of America as well as Israel, Thailand, and Tunisia, as the disease has spread fast among clusters of unvaccinated people.

Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases, with the potential to be extremely severe. In 2017, the most recent year for which estimates are available, it caused close to 110 000 deaths. Even in high-income countries, complications result in hospitalization in up to a quarter of cases and can lead to lifelong disability, from brain damage and blindness to hearing loss.

The disease is almost entirely preventable through two doses of a safe and effective vaccine. For several years, however, global coverage with the first dose of measles vaccine has stalled at 85 percent. This is still short of the 95 percent needed to prevent outbreaks, and leaves many people, in many communities, at risk. Second dose coverage, while increasing, stands at 67 percent.

With governments and partners such as the Measles & Rubella Initiative, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF, and others, response operations are underway to bring country outbreaks under control, strengthen health services, and increase vaccine coverage.

After conducting emergency vaccination campaigns targeting 7 million children from 6 months through 9 years of age:

  • Madagascar is now seeing overall declines in measles cases and deaths.
  • In the Philippines, over 3 890 000 doses of the measles and rubella vaccine have been given to children aged under 5 years.
  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country is preparing to launch a combined response with the polio vaccine.
  • In collaboration with local health authorities, WHO and UNICEF conducted the nationwide measles and rubella vaccination campaign in Yemen reaching more than 11.6 million (90%) children aged 6 months–16 years across the country.
Responding to measles requires a range of approaches to ensure all children get their vaccines on time, with particular attention to access, quality, and affordability of primary care services. It will also take effective public-facing communication and engagement on the critical importance of vaccination and the dangers of the diseases they prevent.

WHO also recommends tailored approaches that ensure immunization services meet the needs of everyone – making sure that clinics are accessible to all areas, at the right times and to all population groups - especially those who face systemic discrimination and disadvantage.

Coverage of the 2nd vaccine dose also needs to increase globally, to maximize a population’s protection against the disease. Today, 25 countries still need to make the 2nd dose part of their essential immunization programme.

Statement from WHO

Monday, February 25, 2019

Katwa town now a hot spot leads to spike in DRC Ebola cases and deaths

By Esther Nakkazi

Katwa, a town in North Kivu province is now the main focus and a hotspot of the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic. In the last 21 days, 86 new confirmed cases were reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), of which 49 (57%) were reported in Katwa.

North Kivu of DRC, which is affected by the outbreak of EVD, is among the most populated provinces, with eight million inhabitants. The region has been experiencing intense insecurity and worsening humanitarian crisis.

From the DRC Ministry of Health's Ebola updates Katwa surpassed Beni in terms of the number of cases and deaths. To date, Beni has reported 235 cases (226 confirmed and 9 probable) and 127 deaths while Katwa is 239 cases (228 confirmed and 11 probable) and 182 deaths.

The mortality rate is also higher in Katwa. The mortality rate in Beni is 54% while it is 76% in Katwa.

According to the DRC Ministry of Health, the high mortality rate in Katwa can be explained by the fact that contacts of confirmed cases who refused vaccination and follow-up of contacts are not found until after their death in the community.

Thus, the percentage of community deaths in Katwa is much higher than in other health zones. The high number of community deaths remains a concern as they are an important source of spread of the epidemic.

This situation demonstrates the importance of increasing community engagement and active case finding in the community and health facilities in Katwa, officials from the Ministry said.

Ebola Vaccinations
Since the beginning of vaccination on 8 August 2018, 83,118 people have been vaccinated, including 21,230 in Katwa, 20,593 in Beni, 10,091 in Butembo, 6,109 in Mabalako, 2,746 in Kalunguta, 2,551 in Goma, 2,317 in Komanda, 2,084 in Oicha.

1,813 in Mandima, 1,357 in Karisimbi, 1,325 in Kyondo, 1,283 in Kayina, 1,094 in Bunia, 1,064 in Vuhovi, 920 in Masereka, 772 in Mutwanga, 767 in Biena, 700 in Lubero, 590 in Rutshuru, 583 in Musienene, 527 in Nyankunde, 496 in Mangurujipa, 426 in Rwampara (Ituri), 355 in Tchomia, 333 in Lolwa, 280 in Mambasa, 254 in Alimbongo, 207 in Kirotshe, 141 in Nyiragongo, 97 in Watsa (Haut-Uélé), and 13 in Kisangani.

The only vaccine to be used in this outbreak is the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine, manufactured by the pharmaceutical group Merck, following approval by the Ethics Committee in its decision of 19 May 2018.

But as of 20th February 2019, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on Immunization has reviewed data on all Ebola candidate vaccines currently undergoing clinical evaluation. There are three candidate vaccines other than the rVSV-ZEBOV-GP vaccine, that are in advanced stages of clinical evaluation or have been licensed.

Two of them are licensed in their country of origin (Ad5-EBOV, monovalent Zaire Makona, licensed in China; and GamEvac-Combi, monovalent Zaire Makona, licensed in Russia). A third vaccine candidate (Ad26.ZEBOV & MVA-BN-Filo, based on a prime/boost strategy using a multivalent, Zaire Mayinga, Sudan, Tai Forest and Marburg,) will be submitted for approval under the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) Animal Rule.