India to Rollout Momentous Tax Reform, But Many Fear Rocky Transition

India is set to rollout a momentous tax reform at midnight Friday that will transform the country of 1.3 billion people into a single market.

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) will replace an entanglement of more than a dozen confusing levies with a single tax and bring down barriers between states.

But the transition is bringing upheaval. The new tax has sparked strikes, protests and concerns it could disrupt many businesses unprepared for a leap into the digital economy.

In markets across the country, confusion and chaos prevail among millions of small shopkeepers and traders, who have for decades maintained records in dusty ledgers and issued paper receipts to customers. Some are hurriedly investing in computers as new rules require all but the smallest businesses to submit online taxes every month.

Calculator to computer

Suresh Kumar, who runs a family owned store in a bustling neighborhood market in New Delhi, has never operated a computer and does not have an Internet connection in his shop. His customers mostly pay in cash and a calculator on his counter is the only modern gadget he has used since he opened this shop 47 years ago.

“How will I pay the salary of an accountant? I can barely cover the costs of these three men who help me,” Kumar said, pointing out that stores like his run on wafer-thin profit margins to stay in business.

The archaic accounting systems that were the method of operation of thousands of shops and traders also kept them out of the formal economy.

But as GST draws them into the tax net, government revenues are expected to get a huge boost in a country where tax compliance has been very low.

​Growing pains

The government agrees there will be growing pains due to the scale of the task ahead but points to long-term advantages. Over time, the new tax is expected to add about 2 percent to gross domestic output and vastly improve business efficiencies in the world’s fastest growing economy.

Economists say the GST will be a benefit for manufacturers, because it will free up domestic trade by cutting through a gigantic bureaucracy that involved a myriad of tax inspectors and checkpoints at state borders.

At the moment, trucks transporting goods lose an estimated 60 percent of transit time as they wait at state borders. Paying bribes was a fact of life accepted by businesses.

The tax will also make India’s $2 trillion economy more attractive to investors as it makes the economy more transparent.

More time needed

But in recent weeks many businesses have called for a postponement of the July 1 rollout, saying they did not get enough time to prepare.

K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organization, said businesses need more time to adjust.

“The way it is being implemented, it is bound to create lots of chaotic conditions,” he said.

Underlining concerns of millions of small and medium manufacturers, he said, “they neither have the wherewithal to understand the sudden implementation and if they approach chartered accountants or consultants, it costs lots of money.”

A big concern is that the GST being rolled out by India is far more complex than that introduced by other countries where a single rate prevails. There will be four layers of taxation with rates of 5, 12, 18 and 28 percent.

Manufacturers and traders complain the different levels are creating confusion.

More than 50,000 textile traders went on strike this week. Thousands of other traders shut businesses Friday.

Many big and small retailers worried about the switchover have been offering massive discount sales across the country to get rid of their inventories.

Government pushes ahead

But the government has brushed aside concerns about businesses not being prepared for the switchover. 

“If he is still not ready, then I am afraid he does not want to be ready,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently as he rejected calls for a delay of the rollout.

Businesses say the tax rollout is the second disruption they have faced, coming months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radical move to scrap 86 percent of the country’s currency, which slowed the economy.

As customers pour into his shop to buy stationery and other items, New Delhi shopkeeper Vimal Jain wonders whether he will handle customers or enter transactions in a computer starting Saturday. 

“Now this is another headache,” he said. “We had barely begun to recover from demonetization and now this sword hangs over our head.”

The tax will be ushered in at a grand midnight ceremony in parliament, but even that has become contentious. Calling it a “publicity stunt,” the main opposition Congress Party and several other parties have said they will boycott the special session.

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In the Age of Smart Devices, How to Protect Yourself from Surveillance, Abuse?

As technology has become part of our daily life, it’s increasingly been used to intimidate victims of domestic violence. In Australia, an organization is helping victims discover smart devices abusers might be using to invade their privacy and control them from afar. As Faiza Elmasry has the story. VOA’s Faith Lapidus narrates.

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Experiencing Hurricane-Force Wind

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has arrived. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there’s a 45 percent chance that this year’s activity will be above normal, with up to four major hurricanes. VOA’s George Putic visited the wind tunnel at the nearby University of Maryland to experience the hurricane-strength wind and check out the latest in the science of predicting the stormy weather.

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US Growth in First Quarter Better Than Expected, Global Outlook Improves

U.S. economic growth in the first quarter of 2017 was better than expected but not by much. The Commerce Department says U.S. GDP, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the country, grew 1.4 percent from January to March, 0.2 percent faster than the previous estimate. But many analysts believe U.S. growth will improve in the second quarter. And growth prospects for the global economy are the best they’ve been in six years. Mil Arcega has more.

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Preterm Births in US Increase for a Second Year 

New government data show the health of pregnant women and babies in the U.S. is getting worse, and a report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows the number of babies born prematurely has been increasing since 2014.

Preterm American births increased in 2016 and 2015 after seven years of steady declines. Prematurity rose by 2 percent in 2016 and by 1.6 percent the year before.

Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, a nonprofit U.S. group that works to eliminate prematurity and birth defects, called the increase “an alarming indication that the health of pregnant women and babies in our country is heading in the wrong direction.”

Expand health care

Stewart called on Washington to expand access to quality prenatal care and promote proven ways to help reduce the risk of preterm birth. Noting that the U.S. Senate is considering a health care bill that many Americans believe would reduce health benefits for poor families and change coverage for maternity and newborn care, Stewart said now “is not the time to make it harder for women to get the care they need to have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.”

In the U.S., about 400,000 babies born each year before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered preterm. No one knows all the causes of prematurity, but researchers have discovered that even late-term “preemies” face developmental challenges that full-term babies do not. Several studies show that health problems related to preterm births persist through adult life, problems such as chronic lung disease, developmental handicaps and vision and hearing losses.

African-American rates

Research also shows that African-American women are 48 percent more likely to bear a child prematurely than all other women. And African-American infants born with birth defects are much more likely to face severe outcomes, compared to other U.S. newborns.

African-American women in general are worse off than low-income white women, Stewart said.

“We want to make sure that all babies have access to opportunities to be delivered at full term,” she told VOA, “that mothers have the opportunity to have healthy pregnancies and deliver their babies full term, and we know we must do a much better job in African-American and Hispanic communities and in other communities of color,” to make sure that solutions are available.

The report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that preterm rates rose in 17 of the 50 U.S. states, and that none reported a decline.

The incidence of low birth weight, a risk factor for some serious health problems, also rose for a second straight year in 2016. Again, rates of low birth weight babies were higher for African-Americans than for other racial groups.

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Simple Malaria Intervention in African Schools Leads to Big Improvement in Students’ Performance

New research suggests that the ability of children in Africa to perform well in school could be dramatically improved through basic malaria education and treatment. While less fatal among older children, malaria infections often reduce a child’s ability to concentrate, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Kenya’s Nomads Work Together to Reduce Conflicts and Poverty

It looked like a hostage swap, only the currency was livestock and the mission was to end decades of deadly clashes.

More than 50 sheep, goats and cows stood in the scorching heat of a desolate no-man’s land in arid northern Kenya, as Maasai and Samburu herders negotiated their handover.

Lipan Kitonga cast a critical eye over his emaciated herd, which 10 gun-toting Samburu had stolen from his home in Isiolo County, 300 kilometres (186 miles) north of Kenya’s capital.

“I was not around at the time,” said Kitonga, a community-based police officer, known as a police reservist, dressed in camouflage fatigues with a G3 rifle in hand. “Otherwise it would have been a different matter,” he said, his voice still tight with anger nine days after the animal theft.

Drought and violence

Nomadic herders in remote northern Kenya, which is awash with illegal arms, frequently raid cattle from each other and fight over scarce pasture and water, especially during droughts.

A wave of violence has hit Isiolo’s neighboring Laikipia region in recent months as armed herders searching for grazing have driven tens of thousands of cattle onto private farms and ranches from denuded communal land.

The livestock exchange was organized by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a charity set up in 2004 with support from donors and conservationists to reduce conflict and poverty among nomads by helping them better manage their land.

Almost 300,000 people are members of NRT’s 33 conservancies, which are community organizations focused on conservation, owning nearly 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) of land across Kenya’s north and coast.

Nomads no more

Drought has hit millions this year in northern Kenya, where most people live off their livestock. As Kenya’s population has doubled in 25 years, nomads can no longer freely follow the rains, turning some overgrazed common lands to dust.

“You have got more people, with more livestock, on less and less productive rangeland and it’s a really explosive situation,” said Mike Harrison, chief executive of NRT, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “The only answer to this is that everybody has to invest in improving their land.”

NRT promotes rotational grazing with a sustainable number of livestock, which allows land to rest, and the reseeding of degraded areas. Zones are set aside for wildlife, people and livestock, with limited access during drought for nomadic animals from other communities.

It also helps develop new businesses — tourism, bead-making and livestock markets — so nomads are less dependent on herding.

Tourism is the real money-spinner.

The most successful conservancies earn about $500,000 a year from visitors paying daily entry fees of $50-$80, Harrison said.

These earnings go into a community fund with 40 percent spent on operations, such as rangers’ salaries, and 60 percent on community projects, such as education and health, NRT says.


One of NRT’s main achievements has been to reduce conflict, cattle rustling and poaching by funding more than 500 rangers, trained by Kenya Wildlife Service, to patrol members’ land.

Many are police reservists, like Kitonga, issued rifles by the government to back up the overstretched police.

In Nasuulu, just north of Isiolo town, the Samburu, Turkana, Somali and Borana — who have traditionally fought each other — have come together to form one conservancy, an NRT member.

“They never used to talk to each other before, but they are now working together,” said Omar Godana, Nasuulu’s chairman.


Wildlife protected, too

Elephant poaching has stopped on 35,000 hectare (86,487 acre) Nasuulu since 12 NRT-funded scouts were deployed, he said.

NRT’s mobile security teams work with the police and wildlife service and receive aircraft and tracker-dog backup from a nearby wildlife conservancy, Lewa.

With increased security and strict controls on grazing, shootouts between armed herders and rangers are inevitable.

“It’s a killer squad,” said John Leparsanti, a Samburu herder in Laikipia who sees the crackdown on illegal grazing on NRT conservancies as a threat to his traditional way of life. “When there is a biting drought we cannot graze.”

Herding is key to the identity and culture of Kenya’s nomads, whose young men are initiated as warriors in colorful ceremonies where each kills a cow and drinks its blood. Their role as ‘morans’ is to guard the community and its animals.

Livestock provide nomads with a ready income because they can be sold quickly for cash. Pastoralists often do not have bank accounts and have high illiteracy rates because they roam over vast terrains with their cattle from a young age.

“We are not ready to do business like other tribes because we believe in cows,” said Samburu politician Mathew Lempurkel. “What are we going to replace them with?”

Harrison says less than 1 percent of NRT members’ land is set aside exclusively for wildlife.

Livestock is life

In remote, insecure lands, with poor roads and patchy mobile phone networks, there are no obvious alternative ways of life.

“If we went to say: ‘Look, you’ve all got to cut your livestock numbers in half, we would be laughed out the door,” Harrison said. “It’s a long slow process of rethinking what the incentives might be, trying different options.”

The authority of elders who used to control shared grazing land has been eroded by centralized government rule and modern education, experts say.

As climate change has brought increasingly frequent and prolonged drought and less grass, herders are keeping more goats as they can browse on shrubs and young shoots, unlike cattle.

The goats rip out the grass roots, further degrading the rangeland and reinforcing the vicious downwards cycle.

Some northern counties have formalized traditional land management customs in local bylaws, with the aim of giving power back to elders, in contrast to NRT’s approach of supporting decision-making by conservancy boards of directors.

“When you have the elders managing, there is enhanced ownership and the feeling of exclusion is not there,” said George Wamwere-Njoroge, an expert with the International Livestock Research Institute, which supports such initiatives.

ILRI is also encouraging herders to keep fewer, healthier animals, which fetch a better price at local markets, instead of trucking their cattle for 24 hours to the capital, Nairobi, where cartels control sales, he said.

Status cows

One solution, rarely discussed by politicians, would be to reduce the number of livestock owned by wealthy, urban elites, who keep vast herds on northern lands as a status symbol.

Unlike in the past, when droughts would naturally have reduced livestock numbers, the elites ship in hay and water to keep their animals alive.

“A lot of destitute pastoralists have dropped out and moved to the small trading centers and depend on relief and petty trade,” said Wamwere-Njoroge. “But the elite pastoralist animals keep on going.”

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The Next Silicon Valley? Head to France  

France is known worldwide for its wine, food and culture, but under its new president, the French are aiming to be the new global hub for tech startups.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to build a version of Silicon Valley in France. His administration has launched pro-business initiatives that are loosening government restrictions and encouraging entrepreneurs to launch their startups in the country.

“The tradition has been in Europe and in France to invest in big, traditional companies and not specifically [in] tech startups. So we will dedicate a €10 billion fund to the investment in tech startups in France,” said Mounir Mahjoubi, France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs.

Both public and private investments will factor into Macron’s vision of France as a “country of unicorns” — the term popularly used for tech startups valued at $1 billion or more, said Mahjoubi, who recently was in New York City for “La French Touch” conference, where he discussed France’s strategy for attracting the tech world’s best and brightest.

In the French tech world, all eyes are on the privately financed Station F, which is set to open this summer in Paris. Billed as the world’s biggest startup campus, the 34,000-square-meter space already has major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Ubisoft signed on. The companies will develop their products, as well as host and mentor startup founders in incubator programs. One thousand individual startups are expected to set up shop at Station F.

Seeking global appeal

Silicon Valley has attracted tech talent from all over the world. Now France hopes to do the same for those beyond its borders. Initiatives like the “French Tech Ticket” and more recent “French Tech Visa” are designed to bring startup founders, employees and investors to the country through a combination of mentorships, grants and subsidized work spaces. The French Tech Visa fast-tracks a process for participants to obtain a renewable, four-year residence permit.

Not to be left out are the locals in France’s poorer, outer suburbs, the banlieue. The new administration is aiming for social diversity through inclusion initiatives that foster entrepreneurship, said Mahjoubi.

“We decided to create hubs in the private area[s] of France,” said Mahjoubi. “There might be entrepreneurs over there that believe that it’s not for them, because they couldn’t afford to not having a salary for a year of entrepreneurship … we created the condition so they could receive money from the state, to have a salary during these 12 months [to] push their project to the highest level they can.”

Unemployment at 9.5 percent

The encouragement of entrepreneurship is a novel sentiment in a country where traditional attitudes and strict labor laws have long dominated work culture. With a national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, venturing out on one’s own to start a business can seem too risky.

But with the success of French unicorns like ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar and network provider Sigfox, attitudes appear to be shifting; 68 percent of French people aged 18 to 25 aspire to run their own business one day, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young survey.

“I think the ecosystem, the government, have done a very good job to do some marketing about entrepreneurship and I think it’s very important because when we compare our situation to the U.S., in the U.S. there is a lot of storytelling, everyone is super enthusiast[ic] and it brings a momentum that is super beneficial,” said François Wyss, co-founder of French startup DataBerries.

Funding available

Wyss and his co-founders recently secured $16 million in their first round of funding for his digital marketing startup.

“There is a lot of funding now in France, so it’s great. We have the chance to have world-class engineers, which are far cheaper than in the U.S. So a lot of companies are developing their core product and R&D in France before exporting it overseas,” said Wyss.

“French tech is all about having roots in France and having a vision for the world,” said Mahjoubi. “The French tech startup scene is an international startup scene.”

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Facebook Says Internet Drone Lands Successfully on Second Test

Facebook Inc. said Thursday that it had completed a second test of an unmanned aircraft designed to someday beam internet access to remote parts of the planet, and unlike in the first test, the drone did not crash.

Facebook plans to develop a fleet of drones powered by sunlight that will fly for months at a time, communicating with each other through lasers and extending internet connectivity to the ground below.

The company called the first test, in June 2016, a success after it flew above the Arizona desert for 1 hour, 36 minutes, three times longer than planned. It later said the drone had also crashed moments before landing and had suffered a damaged wing.

The second test occurred on May 22, Martin Luis Gomez, Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms, said in a blog post. The aircraft flew for 1 hour, 46 minutes before landing near Yuma, Arizona, with only “a few minor, easily repairable dings,” he said.

Facebook engineers had added “spoilers” to the aircraft’s wings to increase drag and reduce lift during the landing approach, Gomez said.

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Firms Worldwide Still Recovering From Massive Cyberattack

Several companies around the world continue to report outages and damage from Tuesday’s massive Petya cyberattack that hit firms in more than 60 countries.

Heritage Valley Health System, a network of medical offices in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania reported Thursday it still could not provide lab or diagnostic testing to patients. The company said some surgeries had to be canceled and and its satellite offices had been closed since Wednesday.

The large Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk – one of the largest companies hit by the cyberattack – said it had restored operations at some of its terminals, but others remained inoperable.

A.P. Moller-Maersk said it couldn’t be specific about how many sites were affected, but noted some terminals are “operating slower than usual or with limited functionality.”

Similarities to WannaCry

Europol director Rob Wainwright called Tuesday’s hack “another serious ransomware attack.” He said it bore resemblances to the previous ‘WannaCry’ hack, but it also showed indications of a “more sophisticated attack capability intended to exploit a range of vulnerabilities.”

The WannaCry hack sent a wave of crippling ransomware to hospitals across Britain in May, causing the hospitals to divert ambulances and cancel surgeries. The program demanded a ransom to unlock access to files stored on infected machines.

Researchers eventually found a way to thwart the hack, but only after about 300 people had already paid the ransom.

The most recent hack has been largely contained, but now some researchers are questioning the motivation behind the attack. They say it may not have been designed to collect a ransom, but instead to simply destroy data.

“There may be a more nefarious motive behind the attack,” Gavin O’Gorman, an investigator with U.S. antivirus firm Symantec, said in a blog post. “Perhaps this attack was never intended to make money [but] rather to simply disrupt a large number of Ukrainian organizations.”

Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab similarly noted that the code used in the hacking software wouldn’t have allowed its authors to decrypt the stolen data after a ransom had been paid.

“It appears it was designed as a wiper pretending to be ransomware,” Kapersky researchers Anton Ivanov and Orkhan Mamedov wrote in a blog post. “This is the worst-case news for the victims – even if they pay the ransom they will not get their data back.”

NSA tools

The computer virus used in the attack includes code known as Eternal Blue, a tool developed by the NSA that exploited Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and which was published on the internet in April by a group called Shadowbrokers. Microsoft released a patch in March to protect systems from that vulnerability.

Tim Rawlins, director of the Britain-based cybersecurity consultancy NCC Group, said these attacks continue to happen because people have not been keeping up with effectively patching their computers.

“This is a repeat WannaCry type of outbreak and it really comes down to the fact that people are not focusing on what they should be focusing on, the very simple premise of patching your systems,” Rawlins told VOA.

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Experts Watch for Coral Reef Rebound

Coral reefs are diverse underwater ecosystems often called “rainforests of the sea.” They are habitats for a wide variety of marine life.

So it’s good news for the fishing and tourism industries that widespread coral bleaching — a process that turns the reefs white, weak and vulnerable to breaking down — has stopped in all three ocean basins, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The coral bleaching event of the last two years, triggered by high water temperatures, has had far-reaching effects, said Mark Eakin, NOAA research scientist and Coral Reef Program coordinator.

“There are islands in the central Pacific Ocean…where the entire coral reef has been bleached,” he told VOA. The bleaching drove the fish away, and “the people who relied on fish for food or their businesses, their livelihood just disappeared.”

He added that in many places, the bleaching began to kill and disintegrate the coral reefs, which protect shorelines from beach erosion and often draw tourists who don diving gear to see the reefs’ unique underwater beauty.

“In many of those places, people are dependent on coral reefs for income, because they are popular tourist attractions,” Eakin said. “If the bleaching happens, people don’t come to visit dead coral reefs.”

High temps kill coral

Coral bleaching has been a recurring problem in recent decades, as water temperatures have risen worldwide, a result of global warming. One of the worst bleaching events began in late 2014. Since then, more than 70 percent of coral reefs around the world have experienced prolonged high temperatures.

The heat makes coral expel tiny organisms, called zooxanthellae, that provide the coral with its nutrients. If the organisms do not return, the coral can starve and die. In time, the coral skeletons crumble, causing the entire reef to collapse

The first global bleaching event noticed by scientists happened in 1998 during a strong El Nino — the phenomenon that makes Pacific ocean waters warmer than normal, often wreaking havoc on weather patterns.

The latest bleaching also coincided with a strong El Nino.

But “coral reef are not beyond help,” said Jennifer Koss, director of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program.

She said scientists are taking steps to protect the reefs, in part by identifying coral species “that are more resilient to rising ocean temperatures and acidified waters.”

According to the NOAA report, areas of the U.S. hit by severe bleaching are Florida, Hawaii, the Pacific territory of Guam and the Mariana Islands.

“And we have also seen bleaching all the way from the east coast of Africa all the way around and back again to the west coast of Africa,” Eakin said.

For now, the bleaching has eased or stopped in most areas. “There may be some bleaching later this year in the north Pacific and in the Caribbean but its not as widespread as it had been,” he said.

Long-term, scientists will be watching closely to see if the reefs regain their strength. If they don’t, the oceans and those who depend on them for a living could be in trouble.

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Minnesota Hoping for All-clear After Measles Outbreak in Somali-American Community

Minnesota has had 78 cases of measles so far this year, eight more than in the entire United States in 2016.

There have been no new cases in the state since June 16, but health officials are waiting for two 21-day incubation periods to pass without new infections before they declare the outbreak over.

The virus broke out in the Somali-American community in Minneapolis. No one knows how measles came to Minnesota, since the disease no longer occurs naturally in the U.S.

State health workers identified nearly 9,000 people who were exposed to the measles infection. Those people had to be watched, immunized, if they were not vaccinated, and isolated if they became sick. Most of those who were exposed had already been vaccinated.

“It tells us that the vaccine works really, really well,” said Patsy Stinchfield, an infectious disease nurse practitioner who said she worked in “the eye of the storm” at Children’s Minnesota hospital.

Previous outbreak

Stinchfield has been involved in vaccine work since a measles outbreak in 1990 claimed the lives of three children, two at Children’s Minnesota.

“Measles is such a highly contagious disease; all you have to do is be in the same room with someone who is breathing it,” Stinchfield said during an interview with VOA via Skype. Ninety percent of those exposed will go on to develop the disease unless they have been vaccinated or have already suffered the infection.

Stinchfield described efforts at Children’s Minnesota to contain the infectious disease. She said nurses wearing face masks met people at the doors of the hospital emergency room and at the facility’s clinics. They also required the patients to do the same.

All but two of those who contracted measles were children. Twenty-one were hospitalized, mostly for dehydration. There is no treatment for measles, only for its symptoms.

The virus broke out in the mostly Muslim Somali-American community so health workers met with the community’s religious leaders, who invited Stinchfield and others to provide information to their followers about the vaccine and measles itself. The imams also encouraged parents to have their children vaccinated.

Stinchfield said Somali-Americans, at one time, had the highest rates of vaccinations against measles in the entire state. Then, she said, the vaccination rate dropped dramatically after anti-vaccination groups told the community that the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, could cause autism.

“I would say almost exclusively the whole responsibility lands on the anti-vaccine movement, and the reason is misinformation and myths spread about a link between MMR and autism, of which there is none, and science has proven that not to be true,” Stinchfield said.

In interviews with Somali mothers last month, VOA’s Somali Service found that anti-vaccine views in the state are widespread.

Known history with measles

In Somalia, measles is widespread, Stinchfield said, and those in the Somali-American community are familiar with the disease and know that it can kill.

“They did not think that measles would be in the United States, and so the level of fear was greater for autism,” Stinchfield said. “This has now shifted, because the level of fear and the level of fear for measles is great because these families know measles. They’ve had loved ones die of measles in Somalia.”

Measles can cause a number of medical problems.

“The people who decline vaccines are actually increasing their risk for neurological problems … encephalitis, brain infections, developmental delay, and it is absolutely taking a risk to do nothing, to decline vaccines,” Stinchfield said.

Some researchers, such as Daniel Salmon at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Vaccine Safety, maintain that the rubella vaccine can prevent autism. Rubella, which is also prevented by the MMR vaccine, is generally a mild disease, but 90 percent of infants suffer complications, including brain damage, if a pregnant woman contracts it during her first trimester.

Members of anti-vaccine groups, however, say that vaccines expose children to health risks and can cause harm. But, Stinchfield cites the higher health risks of not being vaccinated.

“Anything that can cause neurological impairment should be avoided and so, for example, with measles disease, one in a thousand cases from measles can have encephalitis with permanent brain damage, whereas one in one million doses of measles, mumps, rubella vaccine can have anaphylaxis,” a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine, “and so it really is important to prevent the disease, which is a greater chance of having brain issues.”

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US Economic Growth a Bit Faster Than First Thought, But Still Slow

The U.S. economy grew a little faster than first thought in January, February and March.

The Commerce Department said Thursday the world’s largest economy expanded at a 1.4 percent annual rate in the first quarter. This is two-tenths of a percent faster than first thought, a rate that many economists called disappointing. Economists routinely revise these figures as more complete data becomes available.

Analysts said consumer spending, which drives two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, was higher than first estimated. Exports and business spending on equipment also provided a bit of a boost.


A separate Labor Department report said 244,000 Americans signed up for unemployment benefits last week. That is a slight increase from the prior week, but still low enough to indicate healthy job market.

The unemployment rate, which comes from a different study and is reported monthly, stands at a 16-year low of 4.3 percent.

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Myanmar Mobile Project Helps Lift Young Workers Out of Poverty

It’s six o’clock in the evening, Saw Ku Do reviews his English lessons shortly after finishing an 11-hour shift serving food and sweeping the floor at the tea shop where he works.

“Dog, cat, pig,” he said while looking at his notebook.

Saw Ku Do, age 15, only has a second grade education. He dropped out of school to go to work to help support his family. He says his parents are day laborers and struggle to take care of their six children.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to stay in school but I felt sorry for my parents,” Saw Ku Do said. “When we are broke we have to borrow money and have to repay with interest so it’s very difficult.”

Saw Ku Do says he gets one day off every other week and makes the equivalent of about 60 U.S. dollars per month. He sends most of that money home to his parents who live in a village about eight hours away from Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital.

His story is a common one across Myanmar, also known as Burma, where more than a quarter of the population is impoverished. One out of five children ages 10 to 17 goes to work instead of school to help support their families. Many of them move away from small villages to work in tea shops in Myanmar’s cities. At night they often sleep on top of tables in their tea shops or on a piece of cardboard that’s spread out on the floor.

Child labor laws

Myanmar has laws prohibiting children under the age of 14 from working and until 16, they’re not allowed to work more than four-hours per day. However, enforcement is lax.

But while these kids often left the classroom years ago, there’s a program that’s bringing class to some of them.

It’s the Myanmar Mobile Education Project also known as myME. The program teaches subjects including math and English plus vocational training in fields such as hospitality and tailoring. Three nights a week, Saw Ku Do’s tea shop is converted into a makeshift classroom. “I hope to improve my education so I can have a better job,” he said.

The goal of myME is to help these tea shop workers get an education and skills so they’re not stuck in these low paying jobs for the rest of their lives. MyME trained Naw Aye Aye Naing, 20, to be a tailor. She now works at a boutique clothing store earning double what some tea shop workers make.

“MyME improved my life a lot,” she said.

The program’s executive director, Tim Aye-Hardy, is a Myanmar native who moved to the United States in 1989.

“When I came back to this country in 2012 and ‘13, I started to notice a bunch of young people who are on the streets at these tea shops, restaurants instead of in school. That’s what really triggered me,” Aye-Hardy said. “I started asking questions: Why are they not in school? Why are so many kids out there?”

Myanmar’s economy and education system were crippled during nearly 50 years of military rule. The country has been undergoing political and economic changes during the past several years.

Climbing out of poverty

MyME’s annual $200,000 budget comes from private donations. The program teaches about 500 workers at 35 tea shops across Myanmar. But that’s just a small fraction of the more than one-million child workers in this country.

“If we don’t help them they’ll never be able to climb out of this trap and then they might be so poor that their kids will also have to quit school to work just like they did,” Aye-Hardy said.

In Saw Ku Do’s English class, his teacher asks him what his favorite animal is. “It is a cat,” he replies.

Saw Ku Do dreams of owning his own business when he’s older. He says he and his coworkers feel lucky to be part of myME.

“If there’s no myME we will be stuck this way,” he said. “If we know more through myME we can get a new job.”

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World Food Prize Winner: Immense Challenges Lie Ahead

This year’s World Food Prize has been awarded to African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, for his work to improve the lives of millions of small farmers across the African continent —  especially in Nigeria, where he was once the agriculture minister.

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, based in Des Moines, Iowa, said the $250,000 award reflected Adesina’s “breakthrough achievements” in Nigeria and his leadership role in the development of AGRA — the nonprofit Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

For example, Quinn said, “our laureate introduced the E-Wallet system, which broke the back of the corrupt elements that had controlled the fertilizer distribution system for 40 years. The reforms he implemented increased food production by 21 million metric tons and led to and attracted $5.6 billion in private-sector investments that earned him the reputation as the ‘farmers’ minister.'”

Adesina is the sixth African to win what some consider the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture. He will accept the prize in October in the Midwestern state of Iowa, where farming is a mainstay of the economy.

Challenges ahead

As president of the African Development Bank, the 57-year-old economist said he is honored by the recognition of decades of work, but he noted to VOA that the challenges ahead in Africa are quite immense.

“The big issue is how we’re going to make sure that 250 million people that still don’t have food in Africa get access to food,” Adesina said. “The other one is, we still have 58 million African children that are stunted today and, obviously, stunted children today are going to lead us to stunted economies tomorrow.”

Almost 30 percent of the 795 million people in the world who do not have enough to eat are in Africa, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

While Africa imports $35 billion worth of food every year, Adesina says the money spent on food imports should instead go into food production.

“Our task ahead is to make sure that Africa fully feeds itself,” the bank president said. “That Africa conserves that $35 billion and Africa transforms its rural economies and creates new hope and prosperity for a lot of the young people.”

Agriculture as ‘cool’ career

Adesina said he has worked to promote agriculture as a “cool” career for young people, so they can see their future in agriculture as a business, not just a way of life.

Gold lying in the ground in the rough can look like a clump of dirt, and won’t look like the extremely valuable metal it is unless it is cleaned and polished, Adesina said, and “that’s how it is with agriculture.”

“The size of the food and agribusiness market in Africa will rise to $1 trillion by 2030,” he added, “so this should be the sector where the millionaires and billionaires of Africa are coming out of.”

The African Development Bank launched an almost $800 million initiative last year called “Enable Youth.” The aim, Adesina said, “is to develop a new generation of young commercial farmers in both production, logistics, processing, marketing and all of that, all across the value chain.”

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US Farmers Plow Through Uncertain Trade Environment

Many Americans in rural parts of the United States voted to elect Donald Trump as president in 2016, despite his stance against trade agreements. In the wake of the President Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, or TPP, and now curbing trade with Cuba, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on how farmers in the Midwest state of Illinois are reacting, and adjusting, to the uncertain road ahead.

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