Most nations to miss UN target on chronic diseases: Study

MORE than half of all countries will likely fail to hit the UN target of reducing premature deaths from a quartet of chronic diseases by a third before 2030, researchers said Friday.

Cancers, heart and blood vessel disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease combined to kill 12.5 million people aged 30 to 70 worldwide in 2016, they reported in a major study.

“The bottom line is this: A set of commitments were made, and most countries are not going to meet them,” lead author Majid Ezzati, a professor at Imperial School London’s School of Public Health, told AFP.

Only 35 nations are on track to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal 3.4 – launched in 2015 – for women, and even less for men, the study revealed.

“International donors and national governments are doing too little to reduce deaths from non-communicable diseases,” Ezzati said.

The good news, he added, is that most countries are at least moving in the right direction.

But around 20 states – 15 for women, 24 for men – are either stagnating or backsliding.

That select group of failure includes only one wealthy nation: the United States.

A much-noted study last year in the American Journal of Public Health showed that the rise in premature deaths was especially sharp among white, rural Americans, described by the authors as gripped by an “epidemic of despair”.

“It comes down to weak public health, weak health care system, high levels of inequality,” Ezzati said.

Weak public health

Across all age groups, non-communicable diseases kill more than 40 million people a year worldwide, accounting for seven in ten deaths.

Of these, 17 million are classified as “premature”, or before the age of 70.

“We are sleepwalking into a sick future because of severely inadequate progress on non-communicable diseases,” said Katie Dain from the NCD Alliance.

The “NCD Countdown 2030” report, published in The Lancet ahead of next week’s UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs in New York, “will assist in holding governments and donors accountable”, she added.

Ezzati rejected the notion that the UN goal may have been set too high.

“The fact that 30-odd countries are very much on track, and another 40 or 50 – depending on the gender – are close, means that it is very doable,” he said by phone.

Declining tobacco and alcohol use, low blood pressure, a good public health care system, low levels of inequality – countries not doing so well in meeting the UN target are likely to fail in a couple of these things, Ezzati said.

Only four countries – South Korea, Japan, Switzerland and Australia – ranked among the top ten for lowest NCD mortality rates for both men and women.

China not on track

Spain, Singapore, Portugal, Italy, Finland and France rounded out the good health podium for women.

For men, the other countries were Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Bahrain, Canada and New Zealand.

The United States ranked 53rd for men, and 44th for women, with Chinese men and women placed 80th and 76th, respectively.

China is not on track to meet the goal but its NCD rates are declining, even as levels of obesity and high blood pressure are on the rise, the study revealed.

Smoking rates have stabilised but remain high, especially for men. Tobacco use claims one million lives in China every year.

“China has the ability to do a lot when it comes to managing tobacco and alcohol, with both largely state-owned industries,” Ezzati noted.

“They are also wealthy enough so that hypertension treatment should be trivial.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, non-communicable diseases account for a smaller share of deaths than infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

But their NCD mortality rates are still much higher than in most middle-income and rich countries, and should not be neglected, the authors said.

“By any standard, it would be inappropriate and non-strategic to not incorporate NCDs in the strengthening of the overall health care system,” Ezzati said.

“We should say to the donor and aid agencies: ‘Focus on the overall health system rather than disease by disease’.” — AFP

Health talks at Prince Court Medical Centre

LOOK no further to be in-the-know on childhood cancer and heart health as Prince Court Medical Centre presents a series of talks in conjunction with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and World Heart Day.

Cancer and the child patient

Although being diagnosed with cancer can be emotionally disturbing at any age, it is worse when the victim is a child. To understand and engage in the fight against childhood cancer, attend the talks on Sept 22 from 9.30am to 2pm.

The panel of speakers include:

* Prince Court Medical Centre resident clinical oncologist Dr Muhammad Azrif Ahmad Annuar speaking on “Haematological Cancer – How will your Blood help Cancer Patients?”;

* Sessional paediatric (Haematology and Oncology) Dr Eni Juraida Abdul Rahman sharing on “Battling Cancer; The Fight for a Child’s Life”; and

* National Cancer Society Malaysia medical director Dr M. Murallitharan who will address “Supporting Children on their Cancer Journey; Trials and Tribulations”.

Heart health talks

Cardiologists from Prince Court Medical Centre will also deliver talks on making heart-healthy choices that can help reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease.

Take the opportunity to learn about “Cardiovascular Risk Factor & Coronary Artery Disease” from Dr Johan Rizwal Ismail; “Chest Pain – Causes and Management” from Prof Dr David Charles Cumberland; “Women and Heart Disease” from Dr Norazlina Mohd Yusof and “Frequently Asked Questions and Myths Debunked” by Dr Shanker Vinayagamoorthy.

These free talks will be delivered on Sept 29 from 9am to 2pm.

Those interested are encouraged to register to reserve a seat before Sept 25.

Call 03 2160 0000 ext 1369 (Armanda) or ext 1368 (Rosnah), or email for information or reservation.

1.4 billion risk disease from lack of exercise: WHO

MORE than 1.4 billion adults are putting themselves at heightened risk of deadly diseases by not getting enough exercise, doctors are warning, with global activity levels virtually unchanged in nearly two decades.

With richer nations enjoying an increasingly comfortable, sedentary lifestyle, a study by the World Health Organisation said a third of women and a quarter of men worldwide are in the firing line for killer conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer unless they up their physical activity.

“Insufficient physical activity is a leading risk factor for non-communicable diseases, and has a negative effect on mental health and quality of life,” said the study of world exercise levels published Wednesday by The Lancet Global Health Journal.

The WHO recommends each adult do at least 150 minutes “moderate-intensity” exercise – such as brisk walking, swimming or gentle cycling – each week, or 75 minutes “vigorous-intensity” activity – such as running or team sports.

The study tracked activity levels of 1.9 million people in 168 countries across the world during 2016.

Researchers found there had been no improvement in physical activity levels since 2001, despite numerous public health initiatives extolling the benefits of exercise.

More than a quarter of the world’s adults (1.4 billion people) were insufficiently active, according to the data.

“We definitely haven’t done enough” to encourage people to exercise, the WHO’s Regina Guthold, lead study author, told AFP.

“We have seen basically no progress.”

The study authors highlighted several worrying trends, including a stark divide in exercise rates between poor and rich nations, and between men and women.

Wealth, gender gaps

Levels of insufficient activity to guard off non-communicable killers, including dementia and cardiovascular diseases, are more than twice as high in high-income countries compared to developing nations.

Guthold said the link between the lifestyle in wealthier nations – more time indoors, longer office hours, more easily accessible high-calorie foods – and lower exercise levels, was part of a “clear pattern” of poorer health coming with urbanisation.

“As countries urbanise, people who used to be, say, farmers, and got a lot of physical activity through their work all of a sudden live in an urban environment where they might be without work or move to a sedentary job, so societies need to compensate,” she said.

In four countries – Kuwait, American Samoa, Saudi Arabia and Iraq – more than half of adults were classified as insufficiently active.

In Kuwait, an oil-flush gulf state where temperatures regularly top 45°C, a whopping two-thirds (67%) of adults weren’t exercising enough.

Melody Ding of the University of Sydney, who worked on the paper, said there were a variety of reasons why some countries were more active than others, including “biological, psychosocial, institutional, cultural and environmental barriers”.

“I consider one of the biggest barriers being our environment – physical activity has been engineered out of life, with desk-based jobs replacing labour jobs, lifts replacing stairs, cars replacing active travel,” she told AFP.

“Technological advancement has made our life more convenient but also less active.”

Women still lag behind men in nearly every region of the world, with the gender exercise gap highest in Bangladesh, Eritrea, India, Iraq and the Philippines, the study found.

“In these settings, women are often expected to be at home, take care of the children, manage the household and so sometimes don’t always have time to exercise,” said Guthold.

One bright spot on the global exercise map was southeast Asia, where women were equally as active as men in the only region where inactivity has decreased since 2001. — AFP

Old foe, cholera, returns to haunt Algeria

BOUFARIK, Algeria: Outside a hospital in Algeria, worried relatives arrive daily in a desperate bid to talk to those quarantined inside — the victims of the country’s first cholera outbreak in more than 20 years.

Cases began appearing in early Aug and two people have so far died, with scores hospitalised in Boufarik, about 20km south of Algiers.

Said, whose mother has been quarantined for 10 days, told AFP he is “tired and demoralised”.

“I want to visit my mother. But they do not allow me access”, he said.

Only suspected cholera admissions, confirmed cases and staff are allowed into Boufarik hospital’s infectious diseases department, where 91 people have been quarantined.

For others, access is “formally forbidden”, said manager Reda Daghbouche.

If they are fit enough to leave their beds, patients on the ground floor can talk to their loved ones through the windows.

Standing a metre (yard) or so in front of an open window with blue shutters, three women covered their mouths with veils or handkerchiefs, as they exchanged a few words with a relative.

And truck driver Fatah spoke through the bars of a locked door to his mother — one of 59 confirmed cases.

“Thank God, she is now on her two feet — when we brought her to the hospital she was in a serious condition, we thought we’d lose her”, he said.

Fatah has visited his mother every day for 12 days and “hopes for her release very soon”.

Suspect watermelons

Patients arriving at the hospital with acute watery diarrhoea and vomiting — key cholera symptoms — are immediately placed in isolation.

Samples are sent to the Pasteur Institute, the national body in charge of infectious diseases, to test for Vibrio cholerae bacteria.

Patients are rehydrated while they await results.

“Analysis takes from three to seven days”, said Daghbouche.

Those who test negative are sent home, while confirmed cases are kept in hospital until tests show the Vibrio bug has disappeared.

In the hospital yard, a 35-year-old man kicked his heels, not quite sure what to do with himself.

He told AFP he has been cured of cholera, after eight days in the hospital.

But around 10 of his relatives are still hospitalised, he added, declining to give his name.

Residents of Boufarik who live close to the hospital do not disguise their concern.

Many are poorly informed about cholera, which is transmitted through infected faecal matter, often via contaminated water or food.

A grocer told AFP he wears medical gloves in case “the banknotes are contaminated”.

While the authorities insist tap water has not been compromised, the cost of mineral water has soared.

And anti-bacterial gel has sold out locally.

Meanwhile, watermelons — allegedly the origin of the outbreak, since they absorb large quantities of untreated water — won’t sell for any price.

On Tuesday, 16 patients were allowed to go home from Boufarik hospital.

An elderly man jumped for joy, as he saw his daughter leave the isolation wing after 10 days inside.

He kissed the security guards who had stopped him from entering the wing.

The released patients ran to their relatives’ cars, desperate to leave.

Those who remain in quarantine are like “prisoners waiting to be pardoned”, said Fatah, disappointed that his mother remains inside. — AFP

Bees get hooked on harmful pesticide

PARIS: Bumblebees acquire a taste for food laced with a pesticide known to harm them, according to a study suggesting the chemicals pose an even greater threat to pollinators than previously thought.

In experiments, researchers showed that bees initially put off by sugar water containing neonicotinoids — the most widely-used class of insecticide worldwide — soon started seeking them out to the exclusion of untainted food.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Neonicotinoids, earlier research has shown, disrupt the ability of bees to reproduce and lower their resistance to disease.

“At first, it appeared that the bees did avoid the food containing the pesticide,” said lead author Andres Arce, a researcher at Imperial College London.

“However, as individual bees increasingly experience the treated food they develop a preference for it”.

Even when the position of their feeders was switched, the pollinators made a beeline for the one laced with insecticide.

Neonicotinoids target nerve receptors in insects much in the way nicotine — the addictive ingredient in tobacco — does in humans and other mammals.

“Our findings … tick certain symptoms of addictive behaviour, which is intriguing given the addictive properties of nicotine on humans,” said lead researcher Richard Gill, also from Imperial.

Unlike contact pesticides, which remain on the plant surface, neonicotinoids are absorbed by seeds and transported to leaves, flowers, roots, and stems as the plant grows.

Several countries have banned forms of the insecticide, mainly due to its impact on Nature’s little helpers.

In the European Union, three neonicotinoid-based products will be off-limits in open fields starting on Dec 19. France has banned five chemical variants starting Saturday.

Canada recently announced it would phase out two neonicotinoids used on canola, corn, and soybean crops.

Widely used over the last two decades, neonicotinoids were designed to control sap-feeding insects such as aphids and root-feeding grubs.

In recent years, fears have been growing over the declining health of bees globally, and the possible role of neonicotinoids.

Pesticides have been blamed as a cause of colony collapse disorder, along with mites, viruses, and fungi, or some combination.

The United Nations warned last year that 40% of invertebrate pollinators — particularly bees and butterflies — risk global extinction. — AFP

Eye exam may predict Alzheimer’s

ADVANCES in eye exam technology could one day help doctors diagnose people with Alzheimer’s disease long before symptoms appear, researchers said Thursday.

Using equipment similar to the kind already available at most eye doctors’ offices, researchers detected signs of Alzheimer’s in a small sample of 30 people, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Opthalmology.

Those enrolled in the study – all in their mid-70s with no outward symptoms of Alzheimer’s – underwent PET scans or sampling of spinal fluid.

About half came back with elevated levels of the Alzheimer’s proteins amyloid or tau, suggesting they would eventually develop dementia.

In this group, researchers also found thinning in the retina, something that experts had previously seen in autopsies of people who died from Alzheimer’s disease.

“In the patients with elevated levels of amyloid or tau, we detected significant thinning in the center of the retina,” said co-principal investigator Rajendra Apte, professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“All of us have a small area devoid of blood vessels in the centre of our retinas that is responsible for our most precise vision. We found that this zone lacking blood vessels was significantly enlarged in people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.”

Experts say brain damage from Alzheimer’s disease can begin up to two decades before signs of memory loss appear.

Close to 50 million people are living with dementia around the globe, and the toll is expected to mount in the coming decades as the population ages.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and there is no cure. But earlier detection may make it possible for drug or lifestyle interventions that may stave off the disease.

Currently, doctors use PET scans and lumbar punctures to help diagnose Alzheimer’s – both expensive and invasive techniques.

The type of technology used in the JAMA study is called optical coherence tomography angiography (OCT-A).

It is commonly used to shine light into the eye so that a doctor can measure the thickness of the retina and optic nerve.

Researchers say the retina and central nervous system are interconnected, so changes in the brain can be reflected in the cells of the retina.

“This technique has great potential to become a screening tool that helps decide who should undergo more expensive and invasive testing for Alzheimer’s disease prior to the appearance of clinical symptoms,” said the study’s first author Bliss E. O’Bryhim, a resident physician in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

More work is needed to confirm that the technique works in larger populations, but researchers are hopeful that it could one day help screen people in their 40s and 50s. — AFP

China sacks regional officials as vaccine scandal mounts

BEIJING: China’s Communist Party has sacked a dozen provincial and local officials and vowed to punish a pharmaceutical firm over a vaccine scandal that inflamed public fears over the safety of domestically produced drugs.

The government has been struggling to shore up public confidence in the pharmaceutical sector following the revelation last month that a major Chinese manufacturer of rabies vaccines was found to have fabricated records and was ordered to cease production.

The government has said the suspect rabies vaccines did not enter the market but the case provoked unusually strong outrage online from consumers fed up with recurring product-safety scandals, particularly in the drug sector.

The CEO of the company in question, Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology in the northeast province of Jilin, has been arrested along with 14 other people in connection with the scandal.

The first political casualties fell on Thursday as a dozen officials were removed from office, including Jilin’s deputy governor Jin Yuhui, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Jin was in charge of monitoring the safety of food and pharmaceuticals.

The decision to sack him was made at a meeting of the ruling Communist Party’s elite seven-member standing committee, led by President Xi Jinping.

“Those who break the law and jeopardise public safety, notably in the matter of vaccines and medicines, should be severely punished,” Xinhua reported, citing the meeting’s conclusions.

The standing committee also asked for the resignations of three other officials: The vice chairman of a provincial committee, the mayor of Jilin’s capital, Changchun, and the deputy head of the State Administration for Market Regulation.

Another eight provincial and city officials were removed from office by the regional leadership.

The former deputy chief of the now defunct China Food and Drug Administration will be investigated by the party’s anti-graft agency, Xinhua said.

Another 35 non-centrally administered officials “will be held accountable”, the agency said without elaborating.

‘Reckless pursuit of profits’

China is regularly hit by scandals involving sub-par or toxic food, drugs and other products, despite repeated promises by the government to address the problem.

Since the latest case came to light, the authorities have announced a nationwide inspection of laboratories producing vaccines, but many Chinese parents say they no longer have confidence in the medicines administered to their children.

China’s cabinet, the State Council, held a meeting Thursday on the investigation into the latest case.

The company will face a fine and all of its “illegal profits” will be confiscated, the officials Xinhua news agency reported Friday.

“In its reckless pursuit of profits, the company committed unlawful acts of grave nature,” Xinhua said in its report on the meeting.

The case exposed supervision failures by local governments and regulatory agencies, it said.

“We must conduct thorough safety checks on vaccine production … and close all loopholes in the vaccine regulatory mechanism,” Premier Li Keqiang said at a meeting of China’s State Council, according to Xinhua.

“Efforts should be made to build public confidence in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines made in China,” Li said. — AFP

Reunited post-Aleppo battle, Syria medics mete out ‘hope’

AL GHANDURA, Syria: Her scarred hands wrapped in gloves, Malakeh Harbaliyya lifted an infant out of an incubator at a hospital in Syria’s rural north, holding him gently as he guzzled milk from a bottle.

Nearly two years ago, the nurse and her brave colleagues were scrambling to save premature babies from heavy regime bombardment of Aleppo city, before ultimately being forced to quit the facility altogether.

Now the same team of doctors has reunited to open Hope Hospital in northern parts of the province still outside regime control.

“I think of the children first before thinking of myself, because their lives are in our hands,” said 31-year-old Harbaliyya at the facility in rebel-held Al-Ghandura.

“Their tiny souls didn’t do anything to deserve this war”.

In November 2016, Harbaliyya was working in the only children’s hospital still operating in rebel parts of Aleppo city when an air strike slammed into the building.

In footage of the aftermath, Harbaliyya is seen scooping up a baby in a light pink blanket, then suddenly bursting into loud sobs.

Barely eight months later, after evacuating the city, a car bomb sent Harbaliyya herself into intensive care in neighbouring Turkey.

But she has pulled through, and the severe burns on her hands have today healed into a swirl of scars.

Her hair covered by a pink-coloured scarf and dressed in a top that reads “Girls for the Future,” Harbaliyya beamed as she lovingly pinched a frail infant’s cheeks.

“My colleagues at the Hope Hospital — the staff with me here — gave me the will to live,” she said.

‘Wherever we went’

In blue scrubs, Dr Hatem greeted his colleagues at the door before heading in to examine a girl squirming on a consultation bed from stomach pain.

The hallway features a large portrait of Mohammad Wassim Maaz, a beloved children’s doctor who died in an air strike on Aleppo city in April 2016.

Later that year, after the city’s Children’s Hospital was knocked out of action and as a regime victory loomed, Hatem and his colleagues formulated a plan.

With government troops closing in, the staff knew they would soon be evacuated from Aleppo and wanted to stay together, said the 32-year-old doctor, also the hospital’s director.

“Wherever we went, we wanted to set up a children’s hospital,” said Hatem, preferring not to give his surname.

In under a month, a crowd-funding campaign by the Turkey-based Independent Doctors Association and Britain’s CanDo charity gathered enough donations from around the world to rehabilitate and run a new hospital for a whole year.

“We would never have imagined that we could find the whole amount in just three weeks,” Hatem said.

With equipment brought from Britain via neighbouring Turkey, they opened the Hope Hospital in April 2017 in the previously underserved Al-Ghandura district.

“There was not a single dispensary or anything to do with medicine in the whole area,” said Hatem, who criss-crossed parts of the province still under rebel control looking for a good location.

Slowly, the facility grew into a fully-fledged children’s hospital complete with nine baby incubators, a malnutrition clinic, a well-equipped lab and emergency services.

‘Something extraordinary’

After having to refer many women to another hospital, they added an obstetrics and gynaecology section too.

“The team is mostly the same as the one in Aleppo but, because of the bigger workload here and the higher turnout, we had to increase staff,” said Hatem.

As the only specialised facility for miles, his clinic set amidst tall pine trees receives 8,500 to 9,500 cases a month.

“The Hope Hospital really is a point of hope,” he said.

“It allowed the staff from Aleppo to feel that there is still humanity left in the world,” Hatem said of the donations that brought the facility to life.

But funds have started to run out and another crowd-funding campaign failed to meet its target.

Now, staff hope to sign a contract with the UN’s children agency (Unicef) to help run the facility for six more months.

Hospital manager Riyadh Najjar, 31, said the hospital is providing services to many in need.

“It’s anguishing to leave your city, but here you have the opportunity to serve people,” he said, dressed in trousers and a white t-shirt.

Beyond the district’s original inhabitants, Najjar said the hospital also serves many Syrians displaced from other parts of the country by the seven-year war.

Like the hospital staff, patients come from Aleppo city, but also the central province of Homs and northern province of Raqa.

“It’s something extraordinary to be able to offer them medical services and help them,” said Najjar. — AFP

Cambodia seizes record ecstasy haul hidden in pet food boxes

PHNOM PENH: Cambodian authorities seized nearly 100kg of ecstasy hidden in pet food shipments from Germany, police said Monday, after charging a Chinese national in connection with the record haul.

The suspect, identified as Yao Zeye, was arrested on Aug 7 after coming to the Phnom Penh central post office to pick up the boxes, said National Anti-Drugs Authority deputy secretary-general Mok Chito.

In total 98kg of MDMA pills — better known as ecstasy — were discovered in the shipment, which was intended for distribution locally and in Vietnam.

“This is the biggest bust of ecstasy” in Cambodia, Chito told AFP, adding that one pill of the party drug sold for between US$20, (RM81) and US$80 and the total haul was worth “millions” of dollars.

Yao Zeye was charged over the weekend with drug trafficking and faces up to life imprisonment if convicted, as police look into possible accomplices.

Cambodia has taken a hard line on drugs in recent years in response to smugglers turning to the country as a transit point, particularly for heroin and methampetamine.

Heavy sentences are passed down for drug trafficking, with hundreds arrested including senior officials and foreigners.

In June a court jailed a Belgian man for life after he was found guilty of smuggling a kilogram of cocaine into the kingdom through a suitcase.

The same month authorities in a separate case seized 120kg of crystal methamphetamine smuggled in from Laos.

The kingdom has also cracked down on safrole oil, an ingredient in cosmetics that can be used as a precursor in making ecstasy.

The oil is derived from the rare M’rea Prov Phnom tree in Cambodia’s protected forests and production of it was banned in 2007. — AFP