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Improve resistance to neglected tropical diseases, WHO urges

In his message for the day, WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust millions of people deeper into poverty and affected those who already have limited access to health services.

The Day provides an opportunity to re-energize momentum to end the suffering from these 20 diseases that are caused by a variety of pathogens including viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi and toxins.

WHO and other stakeholders fighting NTDs, have been holding several events to mark it, which this year, coincides with World Leprosy Day.

WHO held 2 events this week, World NTD Day 2022: Achieving health equity to end the neglect of poverty-related diseases and  Mobilizing the World to Defeat Neglected Tropical Diseases, while partners involved government and industry leaders through the ‘100% committed’ campaign on Thursday, which aims to support the roadmap for neglected tropical diseases, for 2021-2030.

“Progress achieved over the last decade is the result of the excellent public-private partnership with countries endemic for NTDs and the unfaltering support of partners who endorsed the London Declaration in 2012” said Dr. Gautam Biswas, acting Director, WHO Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “It is exciting to see political will gearing up around the Kigali Declaration to achieve the new road map targets for 2030.”

Devastating consequences

NTDs are a diverse group of 20 conditions that are caused by a variety of pathogens including viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi and toxins. They can often result in devastating health, social and economic consequences, for more than one billion people worldwide.

The epidemiology of NTDs is complex and often related to environmental conditions. Many of them are vector-borne, have animal reservoirs and are associated with complex life cycles, says WHO. All these factors make their public-health control challenging.

NTDs are prevalent mainly in rural areas, in conflict zones and hard-to reach-regions.

They thrive in areas where access to clean water and sanitation is scarce – worsened by climate change. Addressing these diseases effectively requires a huge amount of cooperation, as well as tackling associated mental health and other issues such as stigma and discrimination.

‘One health’ approach

(WHO) has published a document that aims to support countries, international organizations, and partners to work together to identify common grounds to maximize efforts to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

Ending the neglect to attain the sustainable development goals. One health: approach for action against neglected tropical diseases 2021-2030 – a companion document to the current NTD road map – provides guidance on actions that are needed by stakeholders and how to support a paradigm shift towards new national programmes.

“Engagement in One Health is growing” said Dr. Bernadette Abela-Ridder, of the WHO Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “Building One Health into NTD programmes will ensure the contribution of partners from various sectors in increasing the health gains of people, animals and the environment”

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can carry Zika as well as Dengue and Chikungunya viruses. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calma

Photo: IAEA/Dean Calma
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can carry Zika as well as Dengue and Chikungunya viruses. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calma

Myanmar: Voices of the people must be ‘heard and amplified’

In a statement issued by his Spokesperson, Secretary-General António Guterres described the multiple crises which have resulted due an intensification of violence, human rights violations, rising poverty and indifference to worsening humanitarian conditions by the military regime.

“The multiple vulnerabilities of all people across Myanmar and its regional implications require an urgent response”, the statement said.

Furthermore, humanitarian access to people in need is “critically important for the United Nations and partners to continue to deliver on the ground. Armed forces and all stakeholders must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The people of Myanmar need to see concrete results.”

The Burmese military overthrew the democratically elected Government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint on 1 February last year, announcing a state of emergency, and imprisoning democratic leaders, while brutally supressing street protests against the coup and imposition of martial law.

‘Urgent, renewed effort’

Last Friday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet reminded that around 12,000 remain arbitrarily detained for voicing their opposition, which nearly 9,000 remain in custody, and at least 290 have died in detention, many likely tortured.

Armed clashes have grown in frequency and intensity throughout the country, while persecution against ethnic and religious minorities has grown, including against the Rohingya.

Ms. Bachelet said it was time for an “urgent, renewed effort” to restore human rights and democracy, and ensure that perpetrators of “systemic human rights violations and abuses, are held to account.”

Active engagement

The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzer, has been actively engaging all stakeholders in support of a Myanmar-led process.

“She will continue to mobilize immediate action, including through strengthened cooperation between the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to address the desperate needs of the people of Myanmar”, said the UN chief’s statement.

“This is crucial for creating an enabling environment for inclusive dialogue”, added Mr. Guterres.

“Any solution needs to derive from engaging directly with and listening carefully to all those affected by the ongoing crisis. Their voices must be heard and amplified.”

If you’re not thinking about the climate impacts of thawing permafrost, (here’s why) you should be

Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice Simon Kofe made headlines during COP26 this past November by addressing the UN climate conference while standing knee-deep in seawater.

“We are sinking,” he said, highlighting the existential danger that climate change fuelled sea-level rise represents to the world’s low-lying island nations.

The video from Tuvalu went viral. The image was impactful, like those coming from fellow Pacific Islands Kiribati and Fiji in recent years, showing entire towns being moved further inland as villages slowly succumb to the sea around them.

Tuvaluan politician, Simon Kofe, speaks on behalf of Tuvalu in a pre-recorded video for COP26.

Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government
Tuvaluan politician, Simon Kofe, speaks on behalf of Tuvalu in a pre-recorded video for COP26.

A similarly troubling, but much less eye-catching tragedy is occurring on the opposite side of the globe: The Arctic, where rising temperatures are shrinking ancient glaciers, thinning sea ice, and warming and thawing the planet’s permafrost.

Permafrost is ground below the Earth’s surface that has been continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years and in most cases, for hundreds or thousands of years. It extends over a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, including many regions that are not covered in snow.

This frozen ground is present beneath large parts of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, where people, mostly indigenous communities, have lived, worked, and hunted for hundreds of years.

Displaced by climate change

Eriel Lugt, Inuit young activist from Tuktoyaktuk, the coast of the town that has been eroding for years due to permafrost thaw.

© Eriel Lugt
Eriel Lugt, Inuit young activist from Tuktoyaktuk, the coast of the town that has been eroding for years due to permafrost thaw.

“In my future and our youth’s future, I picture our community being completely relocated,” Eriel Lugt, a 19-year-old Inuit indigenous activist from Canada’s Arctic region, tells UN News.

Although heartbreaking images of malnourished polar bears struggling to cope with changes of the Arctic landscape might be now embedded in our brains, the thought of entire human settlements having to be relocated or of indigenous communities having to rethink their traditional way of life is not something we hear much about.

“When I first learned about climate, I was in grade 9 and I hadn’t realized that climate change was happening so rapidly in my own community, right in front of my eyes”.

Indeed, for years her hometown, Tuktoyaktuk, has been suffering the consequences of our melting cryosphere.

“Here in Tuk our whole land is on permafrost,” she explains, “The thawing is completely changing our land structure, and with that our wildlife is also being affected.”

The melting of this frozen ground below the surface that covers about 9 million square miles of the north of our planet is barely visible to us, but its effects are not. Roads, houses, pipelines, even military facilities, and other infrastructure are collapsing or starting to become unstable.

Many northern villages such as Tuktoyaktuk are built on permafrost, which when frozen is harder than concrete. But as the planet rapidly warms – the Arctic at least twice as fast as other regions – the thawing ground erodes and can trigger landslides.

Moreover, the reduction and change of sea ice leave coastal villages more vulnerable to storm surges.

“Our community is known for having fierce winds, and every summer there would be days when the wind just makes the sea level rise, so that’s another problem we face… Each winter I notice still that the coast loses about an inch of land,” Eriel highlights.

Some of her neighbors who lived right in the tundra above the beach have already been forced to move inland.

“The ground was basically caving in under their houses,” she said.

Layers of permafrost.

© US Geological Survey/NASA
Layers of permafrost.

Consequences on human health and access to water

Susan M. Natali is a scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center*, she has been studying permafrost thawing in the Arctic for over 13 years.

I can see the changes, it’s devastating. I don’t even know if I can communicate the magnitude of how this is impacting people. They are literally having to prop up and raise their houses (off the collapsing ground). This is something they might have done in the past maybe once a year, and now they’re doing it five times a year because their houses are tilting,” she describes.

Dr. Natali explains that the thawing permafrost is also causing fuel storage units to collapse, and she notes that landfills that had once been in dry areas are now leaking waste and toxic materials such as mercury into lagoons and rivers.

“Rivers are where people get their water and their fish, so there are human health impacts… The thawing it is also causing some rivers to sink making it harder to access clean water,” she adds.

Another problem is that many communities move across the land in the winter using frozen rivers and lakes that are not “freezing” enough anymore.

“This is not only a health risk, but it is also impacting people’s accessibility to food. There are so many things going on… this is a multifaceted problem impacting both natural systems and social systems… This is something that is a reality now for people who are living in the Arctic, and it’s been a reality for a long time.”

Dr. Susan Natali, scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Centre, studies permafrost in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska.

© Chris Linder
Dr. Susan Natali, scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Centre, studies permafrost in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska.

Humans and wildlife

Eriel Lugt is no stranger to the scientist’s affirmations, her people have been on their land for hundreds of years, knowing where to hunt and how to travel, but now they are being forced to adapt.

“The ancestors taught generations and generations where we need to go while travelling, like which routes of the ice and land are safe to go by. With the climate changing, the land has become dangerous because our hunters are not so sure anymore what’s the safest route to take.”

The Inuit indigenous communities are not the only ones that have had to learn how to adapt.

According to Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, coordinating lead author of the Polar Regions Chapter of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere, and Head of Conservation for the Artic Program at WWF, animal habitats and living conditions are also being transformed.

“The Arctic is going to warm two to three times as much as the global average over the course of this century. So, when we’re talking about 1.5C degrees globally, we’re talking about 3 degrees in the Arctic”, he explains.

This means more frequent heatwaves during both winter and summer, with some of what he calls ‘indirect effects” already happening.

“Heatwaves lead to wildfires and insect outbreaks on land and together this weakens the ecosystems, and they basically burn. They get very vulnerable to defoliation from insect outbreaks, which have cascading effects through the entire ecosystem, making it very difficult for the Arctic species to exist in these places,” Dr. Sommerkorn adds.

The expert says that however, there is not an immediate extinction of Arctic species in many places because, just like some human settlements, they are moving further north to escape warming.

“We are seeing desperate accounts of wildlife. For example, Caribou escaping the summer heat and these wildfires. Also, on the sea, we are seeing a complete takeover of previously Arctic marine ecosystems by boreal fish communities. There are impacts that you can see anytime you are up there.”

Dr. Sommerkorn adds that however, the northward migration of species, or in biological terms “range shifts”, has some hard limits in places such as Siberia, where are very few islands north of the coastline.

A mountain caribou.

A mountain caribou.

Why care? The global impacts

But why should the entire world care about what is happening in the Artic? Dr. Natali explains that what is happening there impacts the future of the entire planet.

“There’s so much carbon stored in permafrost, and it’s frozen now. It’s locked away, and when that thaws, it then becomes vulnerable for being released into the atmosphere to exacerbate global climate change,” she tells UN News.

Plant and animal material frozen in permafrost – called organic carbon – does not decompose or rot away. But as the permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing the material and release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

“It just sort of turns into this organic soil that’s been building up for thousands and thousands of years so it’s a carbon pool that’s out. It’s not part of our active carbon cycling…It’s a fossil carbon pool that it hasn’t been part of our earth system for many thousands of years,” Dr. Natali emphasizes.

Dr. Sommerkorn adds that even under low levels of global warming, permafrost thawing could represent the emissions of a medium-sized country.

“And they could grow much more… that is what we know. What we don’t know is how much of that will be compensated on-site. So how much more new plants will be growing on permafrost soils? Taking that carbon back in? But these emissions will be coming,” he explains.

Peatland forests like this one in central Kalimantan, Indonesia, can store harmful carbon dioxide gasses.

CIFOR/Nanang Sujana
Peatland forests like this one in central Kalimantan, Indonesia, can store harmful carbon dioxide gasses.

He gives the example of peatlands in Scotland, the host of the latest UN Climate Conference COP26 and a country working to reduce its emissions by more than 50 percent before 2030.

Peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing (and releasing carbon).

“They are fighting big time and don’t have a solution yet for the legacy emissions from drained peatlands that were made available for farming and forestry. Once you drain them it’s basically what will happen to permafrost soils once they start thawing deeper in many places: you just commit to centuries of emissions and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Right now, emissions coming from peatlands drained decades ago are almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of Scotland’s emissions. The country is now in a race trying to restore these vital carbon sinks.

“It is a strong and steady contribution at a time when we are desperately trying to keep within our atmospheric budget for Scotland… permafrost carbon will (also) come at a very, very inconvenient time to us.”

But unlike drained peatlands, thawing permafrost cannot be reversed in a human’s lifetime while the global temperature keeps increasing.

Moreover, when permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. These microorganisms could make humans and animals very sick.

According to NASA, scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost.

The need for science and adaptation

Change in permafrost extent map.

Carl Churchill/ Woodwell Research Center
Change in permafrost extent map.

Back in 2019, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called the thawing of permafrost one of the top 10 emerging issues of environmental concern. At that time, the southern permafrost boundaries in the Artic had receded northwards by 30 to 80km, a significant loss in coverage.

In 2020, UNEP supported a study on Coastal and Offshore Permafrost Rapid Response, where residents of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the western Canadian Arctic participated.

Hundreds of people attended a call for a community science day in “Tuk.” The study concluded that people living along the Arctic coast generally appreciate the efforts of the scientific community to better understand permafrost processes and change.

However, they have rarely been directly involved in the science, provision of logistics support, or, most importantly, guiding scientific research towards issues of importance for Arctic peoples.

UNEP called for incorporating traditional ecological knowledge of coastal environments and processes in research programmes wherever possible.

“It’s amazing to me how people are dealing with this. Because you know, there’s not a support system. I can only speak for the United States, but there is not a support system in place to deal with climate change adaptation. It’s almost as if climate change is happening faster than science can keep up and happening faster than policy can keep up. There are people dealing with this almost on their own and piecing together support to deal with this, there’s no governance framework,” highlights Dr. Natali, who recently testified on the issue before the US Congress.

Newtok, a village in Alaska, became one of the first communities in North America to be displaced due to climate change.

Its residents, the Yup’ik tribe, have seen their town crumble little by little due to thawing permafrost, with water taking over to the point they had already decided to move.

Since 2019, they have been progressively relocated to the new village of Mertarvik, which is nine miles away.

The erosion of permafrost on Alaska’s Arctic Coast.

© USGS/Christopher Arp
The erosion of permafrost on Alaska’s Arctic Coast.

A lack of visibility

Meanwhile in Canada, in September 2021, Tuktoyaktuk residents were told that protecting their town from climate change would cost at least $42 million and that any such protective measures could only be “guaranteed” to last until 2052.

In an effort towards adaptation, engineers have undertaken different options to protect the coastline, one of them, putting down layers of Styrofoam insulation and geotextile to protect the permafrost from rising temperatures.

Tuktoyaktuk is eroding away at an average of two metres per year. At the current rate, the entire island will be gone by 2050 unless mitigation is put in place. Other North American and Siberian communities could see a similar fate.

Eriel Lugt and her people know this. For two years now, she has been working in a climate monitoring programme where she goes with other locals to retrieve samples of the land and register any changes.

“I personally think that if enough people worldwide really knew the situation of climate change and if leaders acknowledged it more, then it would be dealt with.

Ms. Lugt and three other young Inuit activists had the opportunity to tell the story of how their town is dealing with a changing climate during COP25 in Madrid in December 2020.

They shared a trailer of Happening to Us a movie they made in collaboration with their Community Corporation, as well as Canadian filmmakers and academics.

Is there a solution?

Dr. Natali explains that while we can’t now reverse permafrost thaw – because it has already started – ambition is key to avoid the worst of it.

I think even under our most ambitious scenarios (for reducing global carbon emissions and subsequent warming), we’re going to lose, you know, probably 25 per cent of surface permafrost, and then some of the carbon that’s in there will go to the atmosphere. But this is much better than less ambitious scenarios which could take us to 75 per cent thaw. Permafrost is a climate change multiplier and so it needs to be an ambition multiplier,” she stresses.

For Dr. Sommerkorn, there still is not enough general understanding of the long-term effects of changes in the cryosphere (frozen elements of the world) at the decision-making levels.

“These changes have a direct link to the ambitions for 2030. The IPCC said it clearly: We have to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels if we want to stay below 1.5C (warming) without overshoot, and cryosphere doesn’t grant us the luxury of overshoot… We will trigger thresholds of melting that cannot be undone. It is very, very hard to regrow glaciers. It is basically impossible to grow back permafrost under raising temperatures”.

The expert explains that by reducing emissions and rates of warming, we are also reducing rates of melting and sea level rise, and giving people time and methods to adapt.

We have to urgently make decisions now when we plan for infrastructure, cities etc., and we can in parts of the world that have technical help and the funding…others need global help in adaptation funding,” Dr. Sommerkorn adds.

Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, Head of Conservation of the WWF Arctic Programme.

© WWF/Laura Margison
Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, Head of Conservation of the WWF Arctic Programme.

An urgent call on world leaders to act

The Head of Conservation of the WWF was part of a group of scientists and polar and mountain communities who called on leaders at COP26 to devote more attention to the dire global impacts of glacier and ice sheet loss.

“For too long, our planet’s frozen elements have been absent from the climate debate at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) even though their crucial role in determining the future for more than a billion people and our climate is becoming even more clear,” he said at the time, asking the COP organizers to create a dedicated space to discuss actions to be taken in response of the cryosphere crisis.

According to permafrost expert, Dr. Natali, not incorporating important Earth system feedback such as greenhouse gases resulting from frozen ground thaw, makes reaching the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement nearly impossible.

We’re not even doing the math right because permafrost is not properly and fully accounted in the bookkeeping

“It’s a big enough challenge to get nations to make the commitments and take action. But imagine that we’re not even aiming for the right target, which is essentially what’s happening right now because we’re not even doing the math right, because permafrost is not properly and fully accounted in the bookkeeping, and because people aren’t thinking about it,” she warns.

She adds that while physically controlling the emissions from permafrost in the ground is not feasible, getting the science to the place where it needs to be and getting that information in the hands of the public and policymakers is.

“Actions we take elsewhere have a multiplying effect, right? The more we reduce fossil fuel emissions, the more we protect forests… this way we are also, in turn, reducing the emissions that will come out of permafrost and the impact on northern communities,” she says.

No longer an early warning

Permafrost melting in Siberia near Cherskii, Russia.

© Chris Linder
Permafrost melting in Siberia near Cherskii, Russia.

Scientists are asking that a thematic day be set aside during the next round of UN climate talks, COP27, for a dedicated dialogue on cryosphere, to discuss with leaders the impacts and consequences of the changing landscape.

“It is not enough to look at previous IPCC reports and to carry over our understanding that the melting of cryosphere and its effects in the polar regions are an early warning signal. No, at this point there are actually no longer an early warning signal, they are driving climate change and impacts globally,” Dr. Sommerkorn highlights.

The expert notes that the preamble of the COP26 final outcome text reads: We need to guarantee the intactness of ecosystems, including the cryosphere.

“Just saying that is already showing that the matter has not been fully taken into account and fully understood, so we will be asking for such communication to go forward,” he adds.

For Dr. Sommerkorn, Glasgow left the world an increased possibility of ramping up the contributions through the Paris Agreement, and this forward momentum should be used to achieve the 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

“I think the happy message here is that it is actually in our hands. We made some advances on good global governance at COP26. It’s not all disastrous, but we must find ways to actually translate that into urgent action. And that’s the key to the cryosphere crisis”.


*Woodwell scientists helped to launch the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and shared the Nobel Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

First Person: The Holocaust, genocide, and war

“My first recollection of the word Holocaust came from my grandfather. My father would buy second-hand comic books on the Second World War for me and my brothers, and we would admire the fighter pilots and the jets that they flew. 

My grandfather was a veteran who had fought in the First and the Second World Wars, and he told me that I should read those comic books with fahamu, which is the Kiswahili word for consciousness.

He said, ‘You know, war is not good. The bombs that were dropped by the fighter pilots killed people, and human beings have this tendency to fight against each other and to resolve issues through violence. You must find a way to ensure that this does not happen’.

And when I asked him, what is the worst possible thing that you think happened during the wars, he said that it was definitely the Holocaust. 

He talked about Auschwitz, and he talked about the kind of things that happened there. Reading about this with fahamu, I thought about the impact it had.

Later, I was invited to Auschwitz itself for a workshop and, to be in the camp, and to understand what had happened, it made me conscious of what war actually means. Being there made a huge impact on me.

A few years later, I started teaching there, at the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide. The consciousness kept growing in me, and I now find myself in my current role, as the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, advising the United Nations Secretary-General.

You cannot imagine a better position from which to articulate the values of fahamu that I learned from my grandfather, and there is not a single day that I do not walk into this office and think about fahamu in relation to the Holocaust: those who deny genocides like those that happened in Srebrenica, and in Rwanda against the Tutsi, take the template from the deniers of the Holocaust.  

If I did not approach the subject of the Holocaust with fahamu, the consciousness that my grandfather taught me, there is a great deal of history that I would never have learned.”

First Person: Holocaust survivor, ‘hate is vicious’

“My worst moment was when we were discovered in the Warsaw Ghetto when the uprising started [in April 1943], after hiding in a bunker for three weeks. I knew that we were going to die, because we knew that all the Jews in Warsaw Ghetto were going to be taken to Treblinka and murdered.

We were chased into train wagons, and my father, like an angel, pushed us to the little window surrounded by barbed wire, so we could breathe: they put so many people in the wagons, that some would die from suffocation. 

In the barracks [at the Majdanek camp in occupied Poland], we were told to undress naked. My father told me that I should say I’m six years older. I was eleven, and a head taller than my twin sister, but I looked 16. 

A man with a white coat pushed me into a place where there were shower heads, and I started saying my prayers, because we knew in the ghetto that the shower heads were false, that gas would come out and that we were going to die.

But instead, water came out and they gave us prison clothes, so I thought that my father must be alive, too. I started looking for him but I couldn’t find him. The next day I found out that my mother, my father and my sister were murdered by the Nazis. 

I turned almost into a nothing, I felt that my life had no meaning, that I had lost everything.

For the next ten years I never, ever thought about the Holocaust. My brain did something that made me not think about anything. I didn’t think about my family. I lived in the moment.

But ten years later, I started suffering very badly, for years and years. My wife, Dorothy, saved me when I was screaming at night. We’ve been married now since 1957, and we still love each other as much as before, and it’s thanks to her that I actually survived and that my kids are OK.

The Holocaust is right inside you. You can’t run away from it. It’s part of you. And it’s going to be with you until the day you die. And if you have a soul and the soul goes to heaven or wherever it goes, that soul is going to remember the Holocaust.

I have a torch, which I want to give to the children and to the world.

My torch has more than one flame. It has many flames. And my torch has no racial discrimination, no religious discrimination, no homophobia, no xenophobia and above all, no hate.

Hate is vicious. Hate is pernicious. Hate creates vengeance. Hate is something that should disappear from the world. This is the flame. These are the torches with all these different flames, which I hand over to the world, which I hand over to you.

Please take those flames and make the world a better place. It’s getting better, but very slowly. We are suffering at the moment and I would like the suffering to stop. The only way to do it is if everybody gets together to make the world shine bright, and spread goodwill.”

End leprosy discrimination laws ‘without delay’, UN rights expert urges 

“It is time for all States concerned to make a choice: whether to keep such discriminatory laws against persons affected by leprosy in violation of international human rights standards, or to eliminate such discrimination in law without delay”, said the Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, Alice Cruz. 

According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) figures, provided by 139 countries covering 2020, 127,558 new leprosy cases were detected around the world – a 37 per cent drop in new cases year on year. 

And some countries even reported a greater than 50 per cent decrease.  

However, as diagnosing and reporting have been impacted by the COVID pandemic, the real numbers may be much higher.  

Though curable, without early detection and treatment, the disease can potentially lead to irreversible physical impairments and disability. 

Discriminatory laws prevail 

India’s national human rights commission has stated there are currently 97 discriminatory legal provisions against those affected by leprosy.  

And while it has the highest number of cases, India is not alone in maintaining discriminatory leprosy-related laws, with at least 30 other countries also perpetuating them.  

Ms. Cruz said that unfair laws – whether actively enforced or not – motivate, authorize and normalize substantive violations, especially against women

“The mere existence of laws allowing for divorce on the grounds of leprosy have a devastating impact on women, hindering their access to healthcare and justice”, the UN expert said ahead of World Leprosy Day, marked on Sunday. 

“By formalizing harmful stereotypes as lawful labels and normalizing humiliation and violence as authorized practices, such laws significantly compromise livelihoods, exclude people affected by leprosy from political and civic participation, and augment the State’s negligence towards this marginalized group”. 

Wrongful framing  

The root causes of this legal discriminatory framework are closely connected with the misdiagnosing of leprosy by early modern medicine as a highly contagious disease, according to the Special Rapporteur.  

Today, with multidrug therapy, the disease is curable and over the past 20 years, more than 16 million leprosy patients have been treated.  

“Strikingly, many of the existing discriminatory laws were enacted long after the discovery of a cure for leprosy in the 1950s”, said Ms. Cruz.  

“Some of these laws have been enacted even during the first decades of the 21st century…[and] span the Global North and Global South”. 

The UN expert urged as a matter of priority, for States to amend or abolish discriminatory legislation, policies and customs and to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. 

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work. 

Lebanon crisis robbing young people of their futures: UNICEF

These are some of the disturbing statistics contained in a new report published on Friday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), showing how the crisis is forcing young people to drop out of school and engage in ill-paid, irregular work just to survive and help feed their families.

The report also says that 31 per cent of young people are not in education, employment, or training. In fact, enrolment in educational institutions dropped from 60 per cent in 2020-2021, to just 43 per cent for the current academic year.

Hard choices

Unemployed youth in Lebanon are taking part in training programmes where they are paid a living wage while they learn.
Unemployed youth in Lebanon are taking part in training programmes where they are paid a living wage while they learn., by © UNICEF/Fouad Choufany

Speaking to UNICEF, Haneen, 17, said the money she and her family receive every month, is not enough for the expenses.

Inflation is so high, and incomes haven’t matched this. Every month we have to choose a priority – rent, medicines, food. But we can never have them all”, she said. 

According to UNICEF, unless action is taken to reverse current trends, decisions like these will have serious implications for future growth and social cohesion in the country. 

“Investments are needed to ensure financial concerns do not prevent them from getting the education and skills they need to eventually find decent work and contribute to the stability and prosperity of Lebanon”, said the agency representative in the country, Ettie Higgins. 

For Ms. Higgins, the crisis is already depriving adolescents and youth of the stability that is so important at their age.

“It should be a time for them to focus on their learning, their dreams, their future”, she explained. 

Irregular work

While more and more young people are forced to drop out of education, they often find themselves ill-equipped to compete for increasingly scarce jobs and frequently end up taking up low-paying work in the informal sector.

Children at school in Lebanon.
Children at school in Lebanon., by © UNICEF/Fouad Choufany

Working youth have an average monthly income of about 1,600,000 Lebanese pounds (LBP), equivalent to about $64 at the black-market rate.

For Syrian youth in Lebanon, this number is about half, equivalent to a daily income of around a $1 a day.

Seven in 10 were considered unemployed and without any source of income, not having generated any money to live over the week prior to the survey.

Lebanon’s crisis has also led to an increase in other negative coping mechanisms besides reducing education costs.

About 13 per cent of families sent children under 18, out to work. Almost one in two young people reduced expenses on health, and only six out of 10 received primary health care when they needed it.

Because of all this pressure, Hind, 22, told UNICEF that her outlook for the future here is bleak. 

For the first time in my life, I want to leave my country, I want to leave Lebanon”, she said. 

Yemen: Call for independent probe into deadly prison airstrikes

The remand prison was run by the Ansar Allah movement, also known as Houthis, who have been battling the internationally recognized government, which is backed by the coalition, for the past seven years. 

The facility was believed to be holding 1.300 pre-trial detainees, as well as 700 migrants, when it was hit on 21 January by three airstrikes in quick succession. 

‘Chaotic and desperate’ 

OHCHR Spokesperson Rupert Colville said staff from its Yemen office were in Sa’ada this week as part of an interagency mission, and the information they collected “paints a chaotic and desperate picture” in the wake of the airstrikes.  

“We are working to verify the civilian casualties but so far, we understand that some 91 detainees were killed, many when the upper floor of one building collapsed, and 236 others were injured,” Mr. Colville told journalists in Geneva.  

The most severely injured detainees were taken to Al Jomhori Hospital in the city, which was struggling to deal with the number of patients in need of urgent and life-saving treatment. 

Ensure independent probe 

The Saudi-led coalition on Thursday announced that it is investigating the airstrikes, according to media reports, and Mr. Colville said the message was reiterated on Friday morning. 

“We urge them to ensure that the investigation is in line with international standards and is transparent, independent and impartial, to establish why the prison was hit, to ensure individual accountability for any breaches of international humanitarian law, and to identify measures and procedures required to prevent such incidents in the future,” he said.  

“During the recent visit by our team this week, we saw no signs indicating that this site, formerly a barracks, continues to have a military function. And in light of this, we have asked the coalition to share their information with us.” 

Escalating conflict

Prior to the airstrikes, OHCHR had warned about the escalating conflict in Yemen. 

During 2021, the UN recorded just under 600 coalition airstrikes a month across Yemen, and 340 missile and drone attacks by Ansar Allah forces on Saudi Arabian territory. 

So far this year, there have been 1,403 coalition airstrikes, and 39 cross-border attacks by the Houthis, mostly on Saudi Arabia but also on the United Arab Emirates.  

“As the fighting intensifies throughout Yemen, we remind parties to the conflict that international humanitarian law must be scrupulously respected during the conduct of hostilities,” said Mr. Colville. “This includes taking all feasible measures to verify that targets are indeed military objectives at the time they intend to strike.” 

Meanwhile, Yemeni Government forces continue to carry out a major counter-offensive against Ansar Allah in the strategic city of Marib, and in adjacent Shabwa governorate, resulting in more violence. 

The rebels launched a missile on Wednesday evening which hit a multi-lane road across from a military camp in Marib, which caused several casualties among soldiers gathered at the roadside. 

OHCHR has verified that three civilians, who were on the road at the same time, were killed, and nine others wounded. 

Release UN staff

The office has also renewed its demand that Ansar Allah immediately release two UN staff who have been “unacceptably detained” since early November in the capital, Sana’a. 

The staff members work for OHCHR and the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, respectively. 

Mr. Colville said no information has been provided as to the grounds or legal basis for their detention, and they have not had any communication with their families. 

UN envoy on ‘good offices mission’ to Burkina Faso

The visit by Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, was announced on Friday, just hours after regional bloc ECOWAS suspended the country from its membership. 

UN chief António Guterres continues to follow developments in Burkina Faso, his deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, told journalists in New York. 

Appeal for calm 

“The Secretary-General continues to call for calm, the release of President Kaboré and other officials that have been detained as well as for a return to constitutional order in Burkina Faso,” he said. 

The Secretary-General has taken note of the ECOWAS decision, and its plans to deploy a mission of regional chiefs of staff to Burkina Faso on Saturday, followed by a Ministerial delegation next week. 

Mr. Annadif will also join the Ministerial mission along with the President of the ECOWAS Commission and the Foreign Minister of Ghana.  

An ECOWAS summit is scheduled in Ghana’s capital, Accra, on 3 February, to further discuss the situation in Burkina Faso. 

On Friday, Mr. Annadif, took part in the special virtual summit on the crisis, organized by the 15-member bloc. 

He reiterated UN condemnation of unconstitutional changes of power and called for a swift and unconditional return to constitutional order, according to a tweet from his office. 

Northern Ethiopia: A record 9 million now need food assistance

Meanwhile, across all three conflict-affected regions of the north, more than nine million people now need humanitarian food assistance, the highest number so far, since conflict erupted in November 2020, between Government and rebel forces. 

According to the Tigray Emergency Food Security Assessment, 83 per cent of people are food insecure.

Families are exhausting all means to feed themselves, with three quarters of the population using extreme coping strategies to survive.

Diets are increasingly impoverished as food items become unavailable and families rely almost exclusively on cereals. At the same time, families are having to limit portion sizes and the number of meals, to make whatever food is available stretch further.

In terms of nutrition, 13 per cent of Tigrayan children under five, and half of all pregnant and breastfeeding women, are malnourished, leading to poor pregnancy outcomes, low-birth weight, stunting and increased maternal death.

Action now

For WFP’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa, Michael Dunford, the bleak assessment reconfirms that “what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now.” 

According to him, WFP is doing all it can to ensure convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines, but no convoy has reached Tigray since mid-December.

“If hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger”, he warned. 

In the neighbouring Amhara region, hunger has more than doubled in five months because the region bore the brunt of recent fighting between the Ethiopian Government’s military forces and Tigray forces.

In Afar province, the fighting has reportedly led to tens of thousands of men, women and children being displaced in the last few weeks. 

Deepening crisis

Across the three regions, more than 14 per cent of children under five and almost a third of pregnant and breastfeeding women are malnourished.

Recent health screening data shows malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28 per cent, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

Intensified conflict on the Tigray-Afar border in recent days is expected to force more communities from their homes and deeper into hunger.

Since November 2020, the crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection.
Since November 2020, the crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection. , by © UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

WFP estimates that on average, crisis-affected families in northern Ethiopia were getting less than 30 per cent of their caloric needs in the past months, pushing people deeper into crisis.

Constant humanitarian food assistance will be necessary throughout 2022, said the UN agency.


Since March, WFP has reached almost 4 million people across northern Ethiopia with food and nutrition assistance.

When access to Tigray improved during the summer months last year, humanitarian assistance from the agency and its partners kept starvation at bay for those who had been cut off from assistance, prior to May. 

With no access to Tigray currently, aid continues to be scaled up in areas of Amhara and Afar, which are accessible.

More than 523,000 people received food in Amhara in the past week, with some 3.2 million men, women and children, having been reached with food assistance since last October.

In Afar province, nearly 380,000 people have been reached in this current round of food distributions.

WFP’s northern Ethiopia response urgently requires $337 million to deliver assistance over the next six months and will begin running out of the capacity to purchase food from February.

Across the entire country, the agency has an unprecedented funding gap of $667 million to assist 12 million people. 

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