Fear, Stigma, Ignorance Keep AIDS Epidemic Going

There’s been a lot of progress in the fight against AIDS over the past 30 years, but as the 30th World AIDS Day is observed on Dec. 1 — people still die from the disease. And others are newly infected every day even though the tools are available to end the epidemic.

Fear, stigma and ignorance. The World Health Organization says these are the reasons the AIDS epidemic is not over because doctors can treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. 

With treatment, no one needs to die from AIDS, and those with the virus can’t give it to someone else. In addition, with prevention therapy, no one needs to get infected.  

Dr. Jared Baeten, an HIV specialist at the University of Washington, spoke to us via Skype and says even with these tools we’re not there yet.

“… because the ability to deliver those at the scale and with the coverage needed to be able to get HIV to go away is not nearly where it should be,” said Baeten. 

Nearly a million people still die every year from AIDS. Professor Steffani Strathdee at the University of California San Diego says one of the biggest challenges is that HIV often affects people on the fringes of some societies around the world.  

“There are populations all over the world that are underserved and these include injection drug users and sex workers, in particular,” Strathdee said.

It also includes men who have sex with men, transgender people, prisoners and the sexual partners of these people. Professor Strathdee says people who are hungry or need shelter are more concerned about their immediate needs than they are about HIV.

“My research and research in this field really shows you have to address the whole person and their needs in order to address HIV as one of their health concerns,” Strathdee said.

Strathdee says unless this happens, countries will have to bear the heavy social and economic costs of AIDS.

In addition, Baeten says testing and treatment have to be available to everyone.    

“The biggest thing that we’ve learned for preventing HIV in the last decades is that there is no magic bullet, but when you put a whole bunch of really good things together and it has exactly the kind of impact that a magic bullet can give you,” Beaten said 

Scientists say using these tools, educating people and getting more people into treatment will reduce stigma, and then, when a vaccine comes along, we can finally put an end to AIDS.

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UN Official: Polio Remains Global Threat

Tremendous progress has been made in efforts to wipe out polio around the world. Before a global eradication program began 30 years ago, about 350,000 children became paralyzed from polio each year. The figure dropped to 28 in 2018. 

Nevertheless, Helen Rees, chair of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee, said Friday that polio remained an international threat. She said every available health strategy must be used to prevent the wild polio virus from spreading across borders. 

“The fear is that we might well see a resurgence, that we could see exportation again and a reversal of all of the work and all of the country global efforts that have gone into trying to eradicate polio,” Rees said. “And we certainly cannot allow that to happen.” 

Polio remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Rees said that over the last few months, there has been a worrying exportation of the wild polio virus to and from Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

“We have got widespread, positive environmental sampling in Pakistan,” she said. “And in Afghanistan, because of the more difficult situation there in terms of security, we are unable to access probably as many as a million children for vaccination.”  

Separately, there is good news from the African region. The director of WHO’s polio eradication program, Michel Zaffran, noted that the wild polio virus has not been seen in Nigeria since it was last detected more than two years ago. 

If this keeps up, he said, the regional certification commission could be able to declare the wild polio virus eradicated from the African region at the end of 2019 or early 2020. He said $4.2 billion would be needed over the next five years to see the last of this disease. 

Polio, which has no cure, invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. The WHO says polio is transmitted from one person to another through the fecal-oral route, or less frequently by a common vehicle like contaminated food and water. Fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and limb pain are among polio’s symptoms. 

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New North American Trade Deal Signed in Buenos Aires

U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto have signed the new U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, a deal designed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara reports.

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Markets Sweat on Lopez Obrador’s ‘True Colors’ on Eve of New Mexican Presidency

During Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s successful campaign for the Mexican presidency, his advisers met representatives of dozens of investment funds to allay fears about the leftist’s plans, saying he prized economic stability and wanted to attract foreign capital.

Initially, it worked.

When Lopez Obrador won office by a landslide on July 1, the peso and the stock market rose, buoyed by his conciliatory tone.

The rally continued when Mexico and the United States reached a deal to rework the NAFTA trade pact in late August.

But the mood has since changed.

Lopez Obrador, who takes office Saturday, began saying in September that Mexico was “bankrupt.” When he canceled a new $13 billion Mexico City airport on Oct. 29 on the basis of a widely-derided referendum, investors took flight.

“[Lopez Obrador] behaved quite well from the election in early July until the referendum on the airport. That was really an indication of his true colors,” said Penny Foley, portfolio manager for emerging markets and international equities groups at TCW Group Inc, which manages $198 billion in total.

Foley said the referendum prompted TCW to cut its exposure to bonds issued by state oil firm Pemex, on the grounds that under a Lopez Obrador administration the company would be driven more by politics than by profit.

“We are now slightly underweight Mexico in the dollar fund and neutral in the local currency fund,” she added.

Lopez Obrador wants to attract investment from home and abroad to fuel economic growth and drive an ambitious infrastructure agenda, including a major rail project linking Cancun to Mexico’s southeast, plus a new oil refinery.

Yet decisions such as the airport cancellation have fed investors’ concerns he could push Mexico toward a more authoritarian, arbitrary and partisan form of government.

Mexico’s S&P/BVM IPC stock index has tumbled 17 percent since the market’s post-election peak on Aug. 28, while the peso has fallen around 8 percent against the dollar.

Bond yields on Mexican 10-year sovereign debt have jumped 121 basis points, a sign investors see it as a riskier bet.

By contrast, yields on Brazil’s 10-year debt have fallen over 20 basis points since the Oct. 28 presidential election victory of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who has appointed a group of pro-market economists to his team. Mexican corporate debt markets have taken note.

Airport operator GAP, which controls terminals in a dozen cities including Tijuana and Guadalajara, canceled a planned 6 billion peso debt issuance this week.

“We decided to wait for better conditions,” GAP chief financial officer Saul Villarreal told Reuters.

Some European businesses are also in wait-and-see mode, said Alberico Peyron, a board member and former head of the Italian chamber of commerce in Mexico.

There was “no panic so far,” but a few executives had put plans on hold until the picture became clearer, he said, adding: “There are more who are worried than are optimistic.”

‘Errors’ made

After 30 years of kicking against the establishment, the veteran Lopez Obrador, a 65-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, claimed the presidency with a promise to clean up government, cut poverty and tame Mexico’s drug cartels.

Aiming to almost double economic growth to around 4 percent, Lopez Obrador wants to revive Pemex, increase pensions and spur development in the poorer south to contain illegal immigration that has strained ties with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Lopez Obrador says rooting out corruption will free up billions of dollars, while he intends to save more with pay cuts for civil servants. However, critics say the cuts could affect the quality of officials in his new administration.

Johannes Hauser, managing director of the German chamber of commerce in Mexico, told Reuters the association’s annual survey of firms, currently underway, was upbeat on Mexico.

Still, initial results suggested companies were not quite as eager to invest or create new jobs as they were a year ago. And the airport cancellation had been a shock, he said.

During their campaign outreach, some of Lopez Obrador’s advisers sought to play down the airport’s importance to markets, while others suggested it was likely to be completed.

Without providing evidence, Lopez Obrador said the project — which has been under construction since 2015 — was tainted by corruption. But more than once, Lopez Obrador had raised the possibility of turning its completion into a private concession.

Incoming Finance Minister Carlos Urzua, whose team sat down with financial heavyweights such as Bank of America, BlackRock, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, told Reuters in April that foreign investors were “not very worried” about the airport.

Now, the scrapping of the hub has raised the prospect of a messy legal dispute with investors that could cost billions of dollars — as well as cloud interest in new projects.

Some members of Lopez Obrador’s incoming government privately express deep misgivings about the decision to cancel the airport, which was based on a referendum organized by his own party in which barely 1 percent of the electorate voted.

They felt the poll, which critics lambasted as opaque and open to abuse, undermined the credibility he had built up over the years he spent campaigning against corruption and vote-rigging.

Lopez Obrador’s taste for rule by referendum, and changes to laws governing everything from banking to mining and pension funds that have been proposed by his National Regeneration Movement and the party’s allies in Congress, have further curdled sentiment.

“I’ve moved from being cautiously optimistic after the election, to being quite pessimistic now,” said Andres Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico. “He’s not building on what he got. He’s destroying little by little what he got.”

Facing questions about the airport controversy from a panel of prominent Mexican journalists this month, Lopez Obrador was unrepentant about the referendum, saying that “errors” made were blown out of proportion by adversaries trying to hurt him.

“What I regard as most important in my life is my honesty,” he said. “We are not creating a dictatorship,” he added, repeating what is a frequent aside in his public pronouncements.

Nevertheless, Arturo Herrera, an incoming deputy finance minister, conceded this week that the transition had tested the next government, which must present its first budget by mid-December.

“What we’re all learning is that we need to be extremely careful,” he told Mexican television.

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Indian Politicians Spar Over Dodgy Economic Data as Election Nears

It may be the world’s sixth largest, but most other things about India’s economy are up for debate.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is under fire for the release of new historical GDP figures that significantly downgraded growth during the years the opposition Congress party was in power, replacing old government estimates and those prepared by an independent committee.

The figures, released by the government’s Central Statistics Office (CSO), showed growth in the 10 years of Congress rule to 2014 averaged 6.7 percent, below an average of 7.4 percent under the current government. A previous government estimate had growth under Congress at 7.8 percent.

P. Chidambaram, a former Congress finance minister, called the release “a joke”. In response India’s current finance minister, the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, said the CSO was a credible organization.

The fallout comes at a critical time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India’s economy grew a weaker-than-expected 7.1 percent in the July-September quarter, from a more than two-year high of 8.2 percent in the previous quarter, government data showed on Friday.

Modi faces a general election next year, when the performance of the economy under his pro-business administration compared with the Congress era is likely to dominate campaigning.

The spat has also alarmed India’s top statisticians, who have long faced the difficult task of estimating growth and unemployment in an economy with hundreds of millions of informal workers, and dominated its financial press and political cartoons in recent days.

“The entire episode threatens to bring disrepute to India’s statistical services,” said an editorial in Mint, one of the country’s leading business newspapers, on Friday.

A joke widely circulated on WhatsApp said the government would soon be reinterpreting the last cricket World Cup, in which India crashed out in the semi-finals, to say the country won based on a new methodology.

COMPETING INTERESTS

Unlike many major economies, India lacks an independent statistical body.

An organization called the National Statistics Commission (NSC) was formed in 2005 with that intention, though it is yet to be recognized as the official body for generating statistics.

Last year the NSC set up a committee, chaired by economist Sudipto Mundle, to come up with a new set of historical GDP figures.

Its report, published in July, showed growth averaged 8.1 percent in the decade before the BJP took power.

After the figures were cheered by the Congress, the government issued a clarification saying the report “had not yet been finalised and various alternative methods are being explored”. Shortly after, the report was pulled from the government’s website.

“The whole thing has unfortunately become very political,” said Mundle, on the battle between the two parties. “It is very troubling.”

Attempts to formalize the NSC’s role have been successively stonewalled by both Congress and the BJP, said N R Bhanumurthy, who sat on the committee chaired by Mundle.

“They have not shown much interest in making it independent from our government,” he said.

The debate over India’s true level of growth is the latest to frustrate economists looking to measure the performance of the country of 1.3 billion people.

India has not published its official employment survey since 2015, while a smaller quarterly survey on companies employing more than 10 workers has not been released since March while the government comes up with new methodology.

India’s large informal sector made calculating employment “almost impossible”, Bhanumurthy said, leading to a vacuum that was filled with competing political interests.

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Space Force: To Stand Alone or Not to Stand Alone

Top administration officials are debating whether to create a stand-alone Space Force to handle space defense or a Space Force that falls within the Air Force, officials tell VOA.

Either option requires congressional approval, which could prove difficult with a Democratic-led House and a Republican-led Senate.

An Oct. 26 memo obtained by VOA directs that the Department of Defense create the “optimal organizational construct to meet (the president’s) intent.” 

The memo, signed by Executive Secretary of the National Space Council Scott Pace and National Security Council official Earl Matthews, instructs the Pentagon to focus on whether the Space Force is most efficient as a new independent department or as “a separate service within the Department of the Air Force, along the lines of the U.S. Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy or the U.S. Coast Guard within the Department of Homeland Security.”

Support in the House

This latter organizational structure has bipartisan support in the House, but the former has often been seen by Democrats as an expensive solution. 

Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan met Thursday to discuss how to build the first new military branch since 1947, as President Donald Trump has directed. 

A National Space Council official told VOA Thursday the October memo does not represent a shift in White House guidance. 

“The direction to create the U.S. Space Force remains exactly the same, and the Space Council is continuing to work with the departments and agencies responsible for implementing the president’s direction to develop the sixth branch of the Armed Forces,” the official said.

Space Command next?

Officials say the president also intends to establish a U.S. Space Command, a move already directed by Congress.

The U.S. military is organized into 10 combatant commands based on either geography, such as Indo-Pacific Command and European Command, or unified functions, such a Transportation Command and Cyber Command.

This new, 11th combatant command would oversee space defense much like U.S. Cyber Command oversees cyber defense. Space Command is expected to start in mid-2019 with initial operation capability.

Officials familiar with Space Force deliberations have raised concerns to VOA that a new military branch could duplicate the work of the new combatant command. They say a separate military service may not be needed once the combatant command is fully operational. 

“You don’t see a Cyber Force in addition to Cyber Command,” one official said on condition of anonymity.

Cost estimates for the Space Command have been modeled after the creation of U.S. Strategic Command, which was set up in the early 1990s. The biggest expense will be the creation of a new headquarters for the combatant command in order to make room for providing new capabilities, according to one official.

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Soviet-Era Moon Rocks Sell for $855,000 in New York

Three tiny rocks brought back from the moon in 1970 by the unmanned Soviet Luna-16 mission sold for $855,000 on Thursday at a New York auction. 

They’re the only documented lunar rocks in private hands, Sotheby’s auction house said. The U.S. collector who bought the rocks was not named. 

The sellers, also from the U.S., bought the rocks for $442,500 at a Sotheby’s Russian space history sale in 1993. That was the first time that a piece of a celestial body had been offered for sale to the public.

The rocks originally had been given to the widow of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the former director of the Soviet Union’s space program, by the Soviet government in recognition of her husband’s work.

It is extremely rare for authentic lunar samples to come on the market. All samples collected by American astronauts are deemed the property of the U.S. government — except one.

Last year, a bag used by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong to collect moon dust was sold by Sotheby’s for $1.8 million, netting a hefty profit for its owner. 

 

A Chicago-area woman, Nancy Carlson, bought the bag, which had been misidentified, at an online government auction for $995. After she sent it to NASA for identification, the space agency confirmed that it had been used by Armstrong and still contained moon dust. 

NASA fought to keep the bag but lost a court fight in 2016. 

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Rosenstein Calls for Tech Firms to Work With Law Enforcement

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called on social media companies and technology firms Thursday to work with law enforcement to protect the public from cybercriminals.  

 

Speaking at a symposium on online crime, Rosenstein said that “social media platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for the free exchange of ideas. But many users do not understand that the platforms allow malicious actors, including foreign government agents, to deceive them by launching vast influence operations.” 

 

He said it was up to the companies to “place security on the same footing as novelty and convenience, and design technology accordingly.”  

 

He warned that if the technology sector failed to do so, government would have to step in.  

 

“I think the companies now do understand if they do not take it upon themselves to self-regulate — which is essentially the theme of my talk today — they will face the potential of government regulation,” he said. 

Extortion scheme

 

Rosenstein’s remarks came a day after the Justice Department charged two Iranian hackers in connection with a multimillion-dollar cybercrime and extortion scheme that targeted government agencies, cities and businesses. 

 

Rosenstein said many tech companies are willing to work with law enforcement and to prevent the use of their platforms to spread disinformation. 

 

But he said that “some technology experts castigate colleagues who engage with law enforcement to address encryption and similar challenges. Just because people are quick to criticize you does not mean that you are doing the wrong thing.” 

 

U.S. law enforcement officials have long been pushing tech companies to make it easier for them to access information on private devices such as cellphones and social media accounts. But most firms have resisted, citing privacy of the users.  

 

Rosenstein said data encryption practices were a “significant detriment to public safety.”  

 

“Improvements in the ability to investigate crime and hold perpetrators accountable must match the pace at which technology is making crimes easier to commit and more destructive,” Rosenstein said. 

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Report: Number of Uninsured Kids Spikes to 3.9M in US

The number of uninsured children in the United States has increased for the first time in nearly a decade, placing it at 3.9 million in 2017, according to a report Thursday from Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families. 

 

Nationally, the number of uninsured children increased by an estimated 276,000 in 2017, from a historic low of 4.7 percent in 2016 to 5 percent last year. Experts say about 75 percent of the newly uninsured children are clustered in states that did not expand Medicaid such as Florida, Texas and Georgia. 

 

Under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Florida and other states could take federal funding to help pay for health coverage for nearly 900,000 people, but the Republican-led Legislature in Florida voted against it. The vast majority of states have already expanded Medicaid and increased the number of residents eligible for its coverage. 

 

Joan Alker, executive director for Georgetown’s Center for Children and Families, has written the report for the last eight years and said she’s never seen the rates of uninsured children go up in all 50 states, which happened last year. 

Better economy, low unemployment

 

She said that what is perhaps most concerning is that the uninsured rate among children increased despite an improving economy and low unemployment rate that allowed more children to get private coverage through their parents. 

 

The study blamed the increases on the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to prompt an overhaul of publicly funded health care. There were major efforts to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid, and the children’s CHIP insurance funding also ran out and hung in the balance for months before Congress extended it. 

 

“There was a lot of confusion among families as to whether these public coverage sources were available,” Alker said.  

  

At the same time, the Trump administration slashed funding for advertising and enrollment counselors to help sign people up for these health insurance programs. The country’s enrollment decline was not just in Medicaid and CHIP, but also in Obamacare, or the federal marketplace where parents can purchase private health insurance and often receive a subsidy to help pay for it. 

 

The report noted that many of the children who do not have health insurance are eligible for coverage but just aren’t enrolled. 

‘More of a fluctuation’

 

Ed Haislmaier, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the figures were statistically insignificant. 

 

He did agree that there were dips in Medicaid enrollment and through the Obamacare marketplace, but noted there’s no enrollment cutoff for Medicaid, meaning families can sign up their children year-round. 

 

“It’s really more of a fluctuation. There’s no policy driver there,” he said, saying he didn’t think marketing cuts had any impact. 

 

In Florida, the uninsured rate went from 288,000 in 2016 to 325,000 in 2017.

Florida has one of the highest rates of uninsured residents in the country, and also has had the highest number of enrollees purchasing insurance through the Obamacare federal marketplace. However, Medicaid expansion in Florida is likely off the table for this upcoming legislative session. Incoming Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is against it. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, campaigned heavily on his support to expand Medicaid coverage for more residents. 

The report also expressed concern that strict immigration policies and enforcement were making many immigrant families leery of enrolling, even if their children were eligible for health coverage. “We think it’s really this national unwelcome mat regarding public coverage,” Alker said. 

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