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Albania

Albania US Consular Information Sheet November 04, 2008

 COUNTRY DESCRIPTION

Albania is a parliamentary democracy that is transforming its economy into a market-oriented system. Albania's per capita income is among the lowest in Eu

ope, but economic conditions in the country are steadily improving. Tourist facilities are not highly developed in much of the country, and though Albania's economic integration into European Union markets is slowly underway, many of the goods and services taken for granted in other European countries are not yet available. Hotel accommodations are limited outside of major cities. Read the Department of State Background Notes on Albania for additional information.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS

 A passport is required. All travelers entering or exiting Albania must have six months or more validity on their passport. Customs officers strictly enforce this law. U.S. citizens do not require a visa prior to entering Albania, but those traveling without a visa will be charged a fee for an entry stamp at the point of entry, which is valid for a stay of up to 90 days. This fee is currently 10 Euros, or the equivalent in any easily convertible currency, including U.S. dollars. Travelers without a visa who intend to stay in Albania for more than 90 days should be aware that Albanian law allows a traveler without a visa to remain in Albania for 90 days only within a specific 180-day period. That 180-day period is defined from the first day of entry. For example, a traveler entering without a visa on January 1 may remain in Albania for 90 days total during the period of time between January 1 and June 28. Departing Albania during this time period does not "restart the clock." Travelers attempting to reenter Albania without a visa and within 180 days of a previous entry and after an aggregate stay of 90 days may be denied entry. For stays exceeding 90 days within a 180-day period, those interested must apply for a Residency Permit at the police station with jurisdiction over the city of residence. Information on how to apply for a residency permit is available on the Embassy of Albania web site at http://www.embassyofalbania.org/. There is also a departure fee of ten Euros, or the equivalent in any easily convertible currency, including U.S. dollars. Visit the Embassy of Albania web site at http://www.embassyofalbania.org/consular.html#visa for the most current visa information. Dual Nationality: The Albanian government considers any person in Albania of Albanian parents to be an Albanian citizen. In addition to being subject to all Albanian laws affecting U.S. citizens, dual nationals may be subject to Albanian laws that impose special obligations. Male Albanian citizens are subject to compulsory military service regulations. If such persons are found guilty of draft evasion in Albania, they are subject to prosecution by the Albanian court. Those who might be affected should inquire at an Albanian Embassy or Consulate outside Albania regarding their status before traveling. In some instances, dual nationality may hamper U.S. Government efforts to provide protection abroad. Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our web site. For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information sheet.

SAFETY AND SECURITY

Although the overall security situation in Albania has improved in recent years, organized criminal activity continues to operate in all regions, and corruption is pervasive. US Government employees need permission to travel to the northern administrative districts of Shkoder, Malesi E Madhe and Tropoje (with the exception of the route along the national road to Montenegro and the city of Shkoder) and to the southern town of Lazarat, with such travel restricted to secure vehicles with escort. Travel restrictions for U.S. Government employees have been lifted for overnight stays in the city of Shkoder. In most cases, police assistance and protection is limited. A high level of security awareness should be maintained at all times. Photographing anything that authorities regard as being of military or security interest may cause travelers problems. All gatherings of large crowds should be avoided, particularly those involving political causes or striking workers. For the latest security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs’ web site at http://travel.state.gov, where the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts, as well as the Worldwide Caution, can be found. Up-to-date information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada, or for callers outside the U.S. and Canada, a regular toll-line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays). The Department of State urges American citizens to take responsibility for their own personal security while traveling overseas. For general information about appropriate measures travelers can take to protect themselves in an overseas environment, see the Department of State’s A Safe Trip Abroad.

CRIME

In the latest State Department assessment, Albania’s crime rating is “medium.” Crime against foreigners is rare in Albania, as targeting foreigners is often viewed as too risky. Visitors should maintain the same personal security awareness that they would in any metropolitan U.S. city. Caution should be exercised in bars in Tirana where violent incidents, some involving the use of firearms, have occurred in the past, particularly in the early morning hours. Within the last years there have been fewer cases of carjacking compared with previous years. Anyone who is carjacked should surrender the vehicle without resistance. Armed crime continues to be more common in northern and northwestern Albania than in the rest of the country. Street crime is fairly common in Albania, particularly at night. Criminals do not seem to deliberately target U.S. citizens or other foreigners, but do seek targets of opportunity, and select those who appear to have anything of value. Vehicle theft is still one of the biggest problems in Albania. Pick-pocketing is widespread; U.S. citizens have reported the theft of their passports by pick-pockets. INFORMATION FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME: The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting to local police, please contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance. The Embassy/Consulate staff can, for example, assist you to find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends and explain how funds could be transferred. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed. The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line is 129, though coverage is inconsistent at best. See our information on Victims of Crime.

MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION

Medical facilities and capabilities in Albania are limited beyond rudimentary first aid treatment. Emergency and major medical care requiring surgery and hospital care is inadequate due to lack of specialists, diagnostic aids, medical supplies, and prescription drugs. Travelers with previously diagnosed medical conditions may wish to consult their physicians before travel. As prescription drugs may be unavailable locally, travelers may also wish to bring extra supplies of required medications. Recent electricity shortages have resulted in sporadic blackouts throughout the country, which can affect food storage capabilities of restaurants and shops. While some restaurants and food stores have generators to properly store food, travelers should take care that food is cooked thoroughly to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. Water in Albania is not potable. Visitors should plan to purchase bottled water or drinks while in country. The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Albania. Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC’s web site at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/default.aspx. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad consult the World Health Organization’s (WHO) web site at http://www.who.int/en. Further health information for travelers is available at http://www.who.int/ith/en

MEDICAL INSURANCE

The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation. Please see our information on medical insurance overseas.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Albania is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance. Major roads in Albania are often in very poor condition. Traveling by road throughout Albania is the most dangerous activity for locals and tourists. Vehicle accidents are the major cause of death, according to police statistics. Electricity shortages have resulted in sporadic blackouts throughout the country that can happen any hour of the day or night. Such outages affect traffic signals and street lights, making driving increasingly treacherous at any time of day. Travel at night outside the main urban areas is dangerous and should be avoided due to deplorable road conditions. During the winter months, travelers may encounter dangerous snow and icy conditions on the roads throughout mountainous regions in northern Albania. Buses travel between most major cities almost exclusively during the day, but they are often unreliable and uncomfortable. Many travelers looking for public transport prefer to use privately owned vans, which function as an alternate system of bus routes and operate almost entirely without schedules or set fares. Please note that many of these privately owned vans may not have official permission to operate a bus service and may not adhere to accepted safety and maintenance standards. Persons wishing to use privately owned vans should exercise caution. There are no commercial domestic flights and few rail connections. Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information. Visit the website of the country’s national tourist office at www.albaniantourism.com.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT

As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Albania, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed Albania's Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards. For further information, travelers may visit the FAA's web site at http://www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: Albania's customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Albania of some items. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Albania in Washington, D.C. or one of Albania's Consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements. As noted previously, the Albanian government considers any person in Albania of Albanian parents to be an Albanian citizen. In addition to being subject to all Albanian laws affecting U.S. citizens, dual nationals may be subject to Albanian laws that impose special obligations. Male Albanian citizens are subject to compulsory military service regulations. See our information pertaining to dual nationality. Albania is a cash economy. Credit cards and travelers checks are not generally accepted, except at the major new hotels in Tirana and some international airline offices. Travelers' checks can be changed at banks in larger towns. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) are available in most cities. Please see our Customs Information CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Albania’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Albania are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States. Please see our information on Criminal Penalties. Under Albanian law, police can detain any individual for up to 10 hours without filing formal charges. U.S. citizens are encouraged to carry a copy of their U.S. passports with them at all times to show proof of identity and U.S. citizenship if questioned by local officials.

CHILDREN'S ISSUES

For information see our Office of Children’s Issues web pages on intercountry adoption and international parental child abduction.

REGISTRATION / EMBASSY LOCATION

 Americans living or traveling in Albania are encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department’s travel registration web site and to obtain updated information on travel and security within Albania. Americans without Internet access may register directly with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. By registering, American citizens make it easier for the Embassy or Consulate to contact them in case of emergency. The U.S. Embassy is located at Rruga Elbasanit 103, tel. (355)(4) 2247285; fax (355)(4) 2232222. The U.S. Embassy web site is http://tirana.usembassy.gov/ * * * This replaces the Consular Information Sheet dated June 10, 2008, to update sections on Entry and Exit Requirements, Medical Facilities and Health Information, and Traffic Safety and Road Conditions.

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Thu, 7 May 2020 13:53:07 +0200 (METDST)
By Briseida MEMA

Tirana, May 7, 2020 (AFP) - Ever since the coronavirus reared its head in Albania in early March, infectious disease specialist Nevila Gjermeni has been on the frontline.   That means she hasn't seen her children for two months -- a painful separation she hopes will soon be coming to an end as officials prepare to ease restrictions.   "Each of us has a family," the 38-year-old, pausing to fight back tears, said of colleagues who are urging the public to stay vigilant about health precautions.

Albania was quick to lock down and has so far avoided the devastation seen in places like Italy, which lies just across the Adriatic sea.   Some 30 people have died and fewer than 1,000 are known to be infected.   But as the country now slowly eases its sweeping restrictions, exhausted doctors fear a fresh inundation of infections in their hospital wards.   "We won the first battle but we are still at war," said Loreta Bici, a cardiologist working at a Tirana hospital that treats the most serious patients.   Like elsewhere in the world, the physical and emotional toll has been punishing for medical staff working around the clock.

In the Tirana hospitals converted into coronavirus centres -- now known as Covid 1 and Covid 2 -- doctors and nurses in hazmat suits and other cumbersome protective gear have spent their waking hours trying to care for patients who are lonely and afraid.   "You're all covered up, (the patient) can't see your eyes, he tries to recognise your voice, who you are, who is helping him," Najada Como, an infectious disease expert in charge of Covid 1, told AFP as her voice shook with emotion.

- First words, birthdays -
Many hospital staff have also been robbed of their emotional support systems.   Since March,  Gjermeni and her husband Arber, a resuscitation doctor in another department, have only been able to see their 15-month-old daughter Hana and 10-year-old son Bjorn over video chats.   Their toddler "is at the age where she's exploring faces" and it's impossible to tell her that she shouldn't touch, said Gjermeni.

The doctor also fears infecting her frail parents, who are looking after the children.   Important milestones have already been missed, such as Hana's first steps and attempt at words.   The parents were also unable to be with their son on his birthday, Gjermeni said through tears.   Other medical staff have feared for their own lives.

Adelina Dragoti, the 48-year-old head nurse at Covid 2, came down with the virus herself.   But she was back to work after four weeks.   "It is a true joy when we manage to save a life, when the patient wakes up, looks at you and says: 'I owe you my life,'" she told AFP of the rare bright moments inside the wards.   "I cannot forget these words."
Date: Mon, 20 Apr 2020 11:58:19 +0200 (METDST)

Tirana, April 20, 2020 (AFP) - Albania will allow some businesses to reopen Monday to ease to the economic pain of a coronavirus clampdown that has wiped out tens of thousands of jobs in the Balkan state.   Firms in the agriculture, fishing, mineral, oil and textile sectors are among those permitted to reboot activity once they have received a certificate from the health ministry, according to a list published on the government's website.

Hotels that meet all required hygiene conditions will also be allowed to open their doors, though venues like bars, restaurants and beauty salons remain shuttered.   Under the new relaxed rules, businesses must also respect a nightly 5:30 pm (1530GMT) curfew and "strictly" enforce social distancing measures for employees, who must wear protective gear, the government said.   Albania was quick to shut down public and economic life after its first cases of the virus emerged on March 9.

Since then nearly all businesses except for food shops and pharmacies have gone dark while residents are only allowed outsided with authorisation.    According to government figures, the tight lockdown appears to have staved off a major outbreak, with almost 600 known infections and 26 deaths from the virus in the country of 2.8 million.   But the economic costs have piled up, as some 50,000 Albanians -- around four percent of the official workforce -- have lost their jobs, according to Ministry  Economy.   A series of relief efforts are also costing the government some 540 millions euros.
Date: Tue, 26 Nov 2019 09:28:12 +0100 (MET)
By Briseida MEMA

Tirana, Nov 26, 2019 (AFP) - Six people died and some 150 were injured in Albania after the strongest earthquake in decades rocked the Balkan country early Tuesday, destroying buildings and burying victims in rubble.

The epicentre of the 6.4 magnitude quake was about 34 kilometres (about 20 miles) northwest of the capital Tirana, at a depth of 10 km, according to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre.   "We have victims," Prime Minister Edi Rama wrote on Twitter. "We are working to do everything possible in the affected areas."   The quake struck at 3:54 am local time (0254 GMT) and sent panicked residents running out onto the streets of Tirana, with people huddling in the open, an AFP correspondent said.

The worst damage appeared to be around the coastal town of Durres. The quake was the strongest to hit this region since 1926, Albanian seismologist Rrapo Ormeni told local television.   Three bodies were pulled from the ruins of damaged buildings in the port town, where a three-story hotel collapsed and other buildings were damaged, according to the defence ministry.   The bodies of a man and a woman were uncovered in rubble in the nearby town of Thumane, the ministry said.

A man in his fifties died after he jumped out of his building in panic in the town of Kurbin, the defence ministry said.   Some 300 armed forces personnel have rushed to Durres and Thumane for rescue operations, where "there are people trapped under the ruins", defence ministry spokeswoman Albana Qahajaj said.

In Thumane, around a dozen rescuers used an excavator to dig through a mountain of debris in search of possible victims.   At least 150 people with injuries have sought first aid in Tirana and Durres, Health Minister Ogerta Manasterliu said.

- Trapped under rubble -
In Thumane, soldiers, rescuers and families were sifting through the rubble of a collapsed five-storey building as cries of people trapped under debris were heard, an AFP reporter said.   Thoma Nika, a 58-year-old who lived in the building, said there were at least six people under rubble.    Another man, Arben Allushi said with tears in his eyes, that his wife and niece missing after the building collapsed.

A man in Durres told local television that his daughter and niece were trapped in the rubble of a collapsed apartment building.    "I talked with my daughter and niece on the phone. They said they are well and are waiting for the rescue. I could not talk to my wife. There are other families, but I could not talk to them," the man said.

The tremors were felt across the Balkan region, from Sarajevo to Bosnia and even in the Serbian city of Novi Sad almost 700 kilometres away, according to reports in local media and on social networks.   It was followed by several aftershocks, including one of 5.3 magnitude, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre said. It was described by authorities as the strongest earthquake in the last 20-30 years.   The Balkans is an area prone to seismic activity and earthquakes are frequent.
Date: Sat, 21 Sep 2019 20:39:17 +0200 (METDST)

Tirana, Sept 21, 2019 (AFP) - Albania was rattled by its strongest earthquake in decades Saturday, officials said, sending people fleeing into the streets in several cities, damaging buildings and triggering power cuts in the capital.   The epicentre of the shallow 5.6-magnitude quake, was near Durres, less than 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of the capital Tirana, according to the US Geological Survey.

Albania's defence ministry said it was the "strongest earthquake in the country in the last 20 to 30 years".   "There are no deaths," defence ministry spokeswoman Albana Qajaj said.   Some 80 people sought medical help in both Tirana and Durres, 21 of whom were hospitalised due to injuries caused by falling objects or parts of walls as well as for panic attacks, Health Minister Ogerta Manasterilu said.   Qajaj told AFP that houses and buildings in Tirana had been damaged but were still standing and that the ministry was accessing damage in other towns and villages.   Prime Minister Edi Rama cancelled his scheduled trip to the United States following the quake, which cut electricity and telephone lines in Tirana and a number of other towns and villages.

Many people remained outside their homes for several hours in the capital, fearful of aftershocks.   "I fear to return because such a strong earthquake could be followed with others," Drita Lohja, a resident in her fifties, told AFP.    Falling debris pulverised parked cars in parts of the city.   AFP reporters and witnesses saw windows broken and deep fissures in the facades of buildings in Durres, as well as in the capital.   Media reported that a large building in Tirana was seriously damaged and that residents were being evacuated.   A University of Tirana building was also damaged, witnesses said.

According to local media reports, at least two people were lightly injured and a dozen houses collapsed in the village of Helmes, 10 kilometres from Tirana.   Two other earthquakes followed the strong one that occurred at around 4:00 pm (1400 GMT) and was felt in neighbouring Montenegro and Italy, but also on the Greek island of Corfu according to some Twitter users.
Date: Fri, 9 Mar 2018 16:28:50 +0100

Tirana, March 9, 2018 (AFP) - The military has been deployed in northern Albania to help hundreds of people trapped by floods following heavy rainfall, authorities said on Friday.   More than 9,230 hectares (22,800 acres) of agricultural land is underwater in the Shkodra region, including villages where the only means of transport is by boat, the defence ministry said.

Army personnel are evacuating residents and securing food supplies in the affected areas, 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the capital, Tirana.   The torrential rain in recent days has caused landslides damaging dozens of homes and flooding roads, said the transport ministry.   The rain has also forced the Albanian authorities to release excess water from a hydroelectric plant, which has added to the flooding in northern areas of the country.   Weather forecasters say the rain is likely to ease from Saturday.
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United States of America

FCO - UK information on the United States
Updated: 25 July 2002

SUMMARY
Most visits to the United States are trouble-free. However, visitors should continue to be vigilant about their personal security.

SAFETY AND SECURITY<
R />Travellers to the United States should use common sense and take basic precautions.

If staying in a hotel, do not leave your door open at any time.

Do not wear ostentatious jewellery and avoid walking in obviously run down areas.
If arriving at night, take a taxi to your hotel and collect your hire car the next day.
If departing on an evening flight avoid leaving luggage and souvenirs in view in your hire car during the day. Thieves are targeting these vehicles and stealing the contents.
Drive on main highways and use well-lit car parks.

Do not stop if your car is bumped from behind. Instead, indicate to the other driver to follow you to the nearest public area and call for police assistance.
Do not sleep in your car on the roadside or in rest areas.
LOCAL LAWS AND CUSTOMS
Travellers wishing to visit Canada during their stay should contact the Canadian Consulate and US Immigration and Naturalisation Service for entry clearance requirements. If travellers have 90 day visa waiver for US, they should not wait until the end of their stay to travel between US and Canada. Travellers must not overstay past expiration date of their visa as they may risk being denied entry in either country or be deported. Travellers need to carry passports, round trip airline tickets showing their confirmed departure for return from US or Canada to country of origin, and they may need to show proof of sufficient funds to cover their stay.

Travellers should be aware that the age of consent varies from state to state in the US, as does the age at which someone may legally buy and consume alcohol.
ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
Foot and Mouth Disease:
Travellers are prohibited from carrying into the US any agricultural products, particularly animal products – including dairy products – that could spread FMD. (Some hard cheeses and canned meats are permitted. If you are in any doubt, you must check with a US customs or US Department of Agriculture (USDA) official immediately on arrival in the airport terminal). Passengers are required to tick the appropriate box on the US Customs declaration form if they have recently visited a zoo, or been on a farm or in contact with livestock. Passengers are specifically required to identify any farm contacts to US Customs and USDA officials. All luggage is subject to inspection. Penalties for not declaring farm visits or prohibited items can run to $1,000.

All US ports of entry and airports are on heightened alert to ensure that passengers, luggage and cargo are checked as appropriate. This includes placing additional inspectors and dog teams at airports to check incoming flights and passengers.

USDA are saying that soiled shoes, clothing or luggage will be disinfected on arrival. Food products and any other items suspected of potentially carrying the FMD virus will be confiscated and destroyed.
HEALTH
Medical treatment can be very expensive; there are no special arrangements for British visitors. The British Embassy and Consulates-General cannot assist with medical expenses.

Travellers who are HIV-positive
Travellers to the United States who are HIV-positive are not eligible, under current United States visa law, to travel visa free under the Visa Waiver Programme. They are required to apply for a visa and a waiver of the ineligibility before travelling. US immigration authorities state applicants’ details will remain confidential and an applicant’s HIV status will not/not be declared on their passport. For more details contact the US Embassy in London.
GENERAL
Comprehensive travel and medical insurance is essential.
NATURAL DISASTERS
Visitors to the United States will be aware of reports of large-scale wild and forest fires throughout the country. Those travelling to affected areas should be particularly vigilant and pay attention to advice from local authorities and press and radio announcements about personal safety and how to avoid starting fires. Further information can be obtained from the National Interagency Fire Centre, 3833 S. Development Avenue, Boise, Idaho, 83705-5354; tel: +1 208 387 5512; Website: www.nifc.gov

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Sun, 17 May 2020 07:50:53 +0200 (METDST)

Los Angeles, May 17, 2020 (AFP) - Eleven firefighters were injured, three of them critically, in downtown Los Angeles when a fire in a commercial smoke shop sparked a major explosion and spread to nearby structures on Saturday evening, officials said.

Crews had entered the building to battle what was initially thought to be a minor blaze when they noticed that the smoke pressure was escalating and decided to evacuate, Los Angeles Fire Department chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters.   He said the blast occurred as the firefighters were leaving the building from the roof and the ground floor.   "A witness account is that our firefighters came down the aerial ladder from the roof with their turnout coats on fire," Terrazas said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said three firefighters had critical but not life-threatening injuries and another had serious injuries, while the remainder had varying degrees of burns.    "There are no symptoms of blast injuries but there's potential evidence of chemical inhalation," Garcetti said.   "Good news is, everybody's gonna make it," he added.   Terrazas said firefighters saw butane canisters inside the building and outside on the street but it was unclear what caused the blaze.   "Everything is under investigation by our arson team, all I can say at this point is that the cause is under investigation," he said.

Some 230 responders battled the blaze as it spread to other buildings in the area before it was extinguished around two hours after it began.    Fire officials said the building where the blast occurred housed a business -- Smoke Totes Wholesale Distribution -- that sold smoking and vaping paraphernalia and supplied other businesses that make butane honey oil, a highly flammable resin used for inhaling marijuana.   Several storefronts in the area were blackened by the force of the blast while one fire truck had a scorched roof and was covered with debris.   Thick smoke from the blaze was visible from miles away.
Date: Wed, 6 May 2020 21:48:30 +0200 (METDST)
By Catherine TRIOMPHE

New York, May 6, 2020 (AFP) - For the first time since 1904, New York's famed subway has halted its all-night service as the coronavirus outbreak brings "the city that never sleeps" to its knees.   The closures from 1:00 am to 5:00 am are aimed at eliminating traces of the potentially fatal virus from the subway's 6,500 wagons -- using every cleaning technique from basic sanitizer to ultra-violet lamps.   Authorities say conditions in New York -- the epicenter of the pandemic, with more than 19,000 confirmed or probable deaths -- are slowly improving, but that it's too soon to relax confinement measures.

For Gary Dennis, a New York tour guide in love with his city, its 424 subway stations and their gray carriages -- clunky and loud but as iconic as the Statue of Liberty or the bright yellow taxis -- the state of the transit system is a thermometer for the health of the metropolis.   Dennis, a 59-year-old who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, said the city's decision to shutter service overnight left him "upset."   "This is a 24-hour town," he told AFP. "It's not designed to be empty, it's designed to be crowded."   "Without the subway, this town would die."   Mayor Bill de Blasio also describes the complex train system that snakes through the city as a "lifeline" that keeps New York's 8.6 million residents chugging along.

Since the pandemic hit the city, ridership has plummeted by more than 90 percent, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that manages the network, to less than 500,000 passengers a day.   Normally some 5.5 million people take the subway every day.   With many white-collar workers logging into the office from home, most riders are now "essential" workers -- some 800,000 employees of hospitals, supermarkets, repair personnel and delivery workers, many of them black or Latino, some undocumented migrants.   And controversy has grown over homeless people seeking overnight shelter in train cars. The city hopes closure will encourage them to find alternative shelter, but many advocacy groups have warned it will worsen the homeless crisis.

- 'Giant vectors of this virus' -
Witnessing the deserted subway stations leaves Will Ramos, a plumber and handyman, mourning the loss of "culture within the stations."   "You meet a lot of talent down here," the 33-year-old said at the Union Square station, one of the network's largest.   But the pandemic has transformed the underground into "giant vectors of this virus," in the words of conductor Sujatha Gidla, who contracted the COVID-19 illness.   In a scathing open letter published this week in The New York Times, Gidla denounced precautions taken to protect MTA workers as too little too late, saying "essential" staff were treated as "expendable."   According to the MTA's president Patrick Foye, 109 of 50,000 workers have died after contracting the virus.

The subway system -- much of it devastated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 -- was already undergoing costly renovations, a project deemed urgent after years of negligence.   Now experts estimate the transit authority could lose $4-8 billion due to the pandemic.    Both the city and state of New York have seen tax revenues in free fall as the economy stalls and unemployment soars -- and few expect Donald Trump's White House to take pity on the transportation system of his home city.   "The funding challenge will be huge," said Bruce Schaller, the former deputy commissionner for traffic and planning at city's transportation department.   "It is very daunting."

But the public transit consultant doesn't doubt the subway will weather the storm.   In the 1970s the transportation network was in dire condition, wracked with crime. But Schaller says the city is far from that situation, when the city "as a whole was badly ailing."   Today, the question is "not about the longer-term vitality" for the subway, but about getting through the pandemic, he said.   And emerging is vital, according to Schaller: "The fundamental assumption in New  York is that you have mass transit."
Date: Wed, 6 May 2020 02:52:31 +0200 (METDST)

Washington, May 6, 2020 (AFP) - The US coronavirus death toll climbed by 2,333 in the past 24 hours, a tally by Johns Hopkins University showed Tuesday, more than twice as many as the day before.    The Baltimore-based university said as of 8:30 pm (0030 GMT Wednesday) that the country had suffered a total of 71,022 deaths.    On Monday, the United States recorded its lowest daily balance in a month, with 1,015 fatalities.
Date: Tue, 5 May 2020 21:58:05 +0200 (METDST)
By Cyril JULIEN

Washington, May 5, 2020 (AFP) - Despite more than a month of stay-at-home orders, the Washington region has become a coronavirus hotspot -- and the African-American and Latino populations of the US capital have been particularly hard hit.   Washington and the neighbouring states of Maryland and Virginia now have more than 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and there have been some 2,300 deaths.   Maryland Governor Larry Hogan predicted in early April that the area would see the next major outbreak and was about two weeks behind New York, the epicentre of the pandemic in the United States.

Despite the closure of schools and non-essential businesses and a lockdown since the end of March, the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths has continued to rise in the region.   "We are a highly populated area with a high density," said Travis Gayles, chief of public health services in Maryland's Montgomery County, which borders Washington.   "We still have a high number of essential workers that have to go to work and are subject to exposure there," Gayles told AFP.   Montgomery County, to the north of the US capital, has about one million residents. As of Tuesday, it had 5,541 confirmed coronavirus cases and 292 deaths.

Maryland as a whole has reported around 26,400 cases and more than 1,300 deaths.   Many of the area's essential workers are African-American or Hispanic, and their infection and death rates are considerably higher than those of the white population.   "It is not uncommon that two families share a two-bedroom apartment," said Gayles.    "When one is positive, it spreads quickly, and it is much more difficult to isolate."   Other factors contributing to the high fatality rate among minorities are underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and a lack of insurance coverage.

- 'Social distancing fatigue' -
There have been more than 5,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington, which has a population of around 700,000, and 264 deaths.   African-Americans account for slightly less than half of the population of Washington -- but 80 percent of the virus deaths.   "This virus has not left the District," Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday. "We are where we thought we would be in having peak experiences during the month of May."

Amanda Castel, a professor in the epidemiology department at George Washington University, said the rise in the number of cases is due -- to some extent -- to increased testing capacity.   "People should not be alarmed that the numbers continue to go up," Castel told AFP, adding they should instead be "reassured that social distancing is working."   "There are more test kits and more testing sites," she said. "We are building capacities to test more individuals.   "It means we will identify more people who are positive," she said. "It's a good thing."

Castel said it was important to ensure that those who test positive "go into isolation and that their contacts are also screened for symptoms and put into quarantine."   She cautioned against the dangers of "social distancing fatigue."   "Over the weekend, there was a lot more movement," she said. "That's concerning -- people are tired."   Gayles said he was hopeful the region may be approaching the peak, although to "calculate the peak is tricky."   "I'm optimistic we are in the area of it," he said.

Several US states have already begun reopening despite not having met federal guidelines that call for a 14-day decline in the number of new virus cases before doing so.   Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, has said he may partially ease restrictions from May 15 -- a move not yet embraced by Hogan or Bowser.   "Guidance was clear for states to prepare to reopen -- a 14-day decline in cases, capacity for widespread testing, hospitals in place," Castel said.    "If you can't tick all the boxes, it makes it premature to reopen."   Virginia has reported around 19,500 COVID-19 cases and nearly 700 deaths.
Date: Tue, 5 May 2020 03:21:43 +0200 (METDST)

Los Angeles, May 5, 2020 (AFP) - Some retailers in California, including bookstores, flower shops and clothing stores, will be allowed to reopen for business at the end of the week, the state's governor announced on Monday.   "Millions of Californians answered the call to stay home and thanks to them, we are in a position to begin moving into our next stage of modifying our stay at home order," Governor Gavin Newsom said. "But make no mistake -- this virus isn't gone. It's still dangerous and poses a significant public health risk."

His announcement came following protests across the state last week to demand the lifting of restrictions that have kept the majority of Californians at home and crippled the state's economy, one of the largest in the world.   Under the second phase of the reopening process outlined by the governor, some retail stores can open on Friday for pickup only, while manufacturing and logistics businesses will also be able to get back to work.

Newsom said other sectors that fall into this second phase, such as offices and dine-in restaurants, will open at a later date.   The Democratic governor said that some counties can move quickly through Stage 2, but they must first prove that they meet the state's readiness criteria for hospital beds, testing kits and contact tracing.

Other counties in the Bay Area, which were the first in the country to order lockdowns and which have experienced a high rate of infection, will likely start lifting restrictions at a later date, Newsom said.   He said Stage 3 of lifting restrictions would begin in months and include the reopening of hair salons, nail bars, gyms and sports competitions without fans.

The final stage would amount to the lifting of all restrictions and allow for the opening of movie theatres and sporting events.   That stage, however, is not expected before a vaccine is discovered and made widely available.   California as of Monday had recorded nearly 55,000 cases of COVID-19 and 2,211 deaths.   Los Angeles County alone has recorded nearly 26,000 cases and 1,229 deaths.
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Afghanistan

Afghanistal US Consular Information Sheet March 03, 2009


COUNTRY DESCRIPTION:


Afghanistan has made significant progress since the Taliban were deposed in 2001, but still faces daunting challenges, including de

eating terrorists and insurgents, recovering from over three decades of civil strife, dealing with years of severe drought and rebuilding a shattered physical, economic and political infrastructure. Coalition and NATO forces under ISAF work in partnership with Afghan security forces to combat Taliban and al-Qa’ida elements who seek to terrorize the population and challenge the government. Violence in 2008 reached unprecedented levels, as both ISAF/Afghan forces and the Taliban initiated more battles than ever before. President Hamid Karzai was sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on December 7, 2004 and the Afghan Parliament was subsequently convened in late 2005. The government is working to develop a more effective police force, a more robust legal system, and sub-national institutions that work in partnership with traditional and local leaders to meet the needs of the population. The U.S. works closely with the international community to provide coordinated support for these efforts. An Afghanistan-hosted Peace Jirga with Pakistan resulted in a commitment to cooperate in combating terrorism, facilitate the return of Afghan refugees, and support regional economic activity. Read the Department of State Background Notes on Afghanistan for additional information.


ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS:


 A passport and valid visa are required to enter and exit Afghanistan. Afghan entry visas are not available at Kabul International Airport or any other ports of entry in Afghanistan. American citizens who arrive without a visa are subject to confiscation of their passport and face heavy fines and difficulties in retrieving their passport and obtaining a visa, as well as possible deportation from the country. Americans arriving in the country via military air usually have considerable difficulties if they choose to depart Afghanistan on commercial air, because their passports are not stamped to show that they entered the country legally. Those coming on military air should move quickly after arrival to legalize their status if there is any chance they will depart the country on anything other than military air. Visit the Embassy of Afghanistan web site at http://www.embassyofafghanistan.org for the most current visa information. The Consular office of the Embassy of Afghanistan is located at 2233 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 216, Washington, DC 20007, phone number 202-298-9125. Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our web site. For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information sheet.


SAFETY AND SECURITY:


The latest Travel Warning for Afghanistan emphasizes that the security situation remains critical for American citizens. The Taliban and associated insurgent groups, al-Qaida network terrorist organizations, and narco-traffickers oppose the strengthening of a democratic government. These groups aim to weaken or bring down the Government of Afghanistan and to drive Westerners out of the country. They do not hesitate to use violence, including targeting civilians. Terrorist activities may include, but are not limited to bombings -- including improvised explosive devices and car bombs -- assassinations, carjackings, rocket attacks, assaults and kidnappings. There were over 120 suicide attacks in 2008. There is an ongoing threat to attack and kidnap U.S. citizens and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) workers throughout the country. In 2008,, more than 30 NGO workers were killed (six foreigners) and at least 78 NGO staff members (seven foreigners) were abducted. Over 25 other foreign civilians, including journalists, were kidnapped. Kabul continues to experience suicide bombings against Afghan government personnel and installations, Afghan and coalition military assets, and international civilians. Riots -- sometimes violent -- have occurred in response to various political or other issues. Crime, including violent crime, remains a significant problem. Official Americans' use of the Kabul-Jalalabad, Kabul-Kandahar highways and other roads throughout the country is often restricted or completely curtailed because of security concerns. Insurgents continue to use roadside and car bombs to conduct attacks and abductions along major highways. Millions of unexploded land mines and other ordinance present a constant danger. The country faces a difficult period in the near term, and American citizens could be targeted or placed at risk by unpredictable local events. Americans should not come to Afghanistan unless they have made arrangements in advance to address security concerns. The absence of records for ownership of property, differing laws from various regimes and the chaos that comes from decades of civil strife have left property issues in great disorder. Afghan-Americans returning to Afghanistan to recover property, or Americans coming to the country to engage in business, have become involved in complicated real estate disputes and have faced threats of retaliatory action, including kidnapping for ransom and death. Large parts of Afghanistan are extremely isolated, with few roads, mostly in poor condition, irregular cell phone signals, and none of the basic physical infrastructure found in Kabul or the larger cities. Americans traveling in these areas who find themselves in trouble may not even have a way to communicate their difficulties to the outside world. For the latest security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs’ web site, where the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts, as well as the Worldwide Caution, can be found. Up-to-date information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or for callers outside the U.S. and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays). The Department of State urges American citizens to take responsibility for their own personal security while traveling overseas. For general information about appropriate measures travelers can take to protect themselves in an overseas environment, see the Department of State’s pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad.


CRIME:


 A large portion of the Afghan population is unemployed, and many among the unemployed have moved to urban areas. Basic services are rudimentary or non-existent. These factors may directly contribute to crime and lawlessness. Diplomats and international relief workers have reported incidents of robberies and household burglaries as well as kidnappings and assault. Any American citizen who enters Afghanistan should remain vigilant for possible banditry, including violent attacks.


INFORMATION FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME:


The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting to local police, please contact the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for assistance. The Embassy staff can, for example, assist you to find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends and explain how funds could be transferred. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to provide a list of attorneys if needed. The local equivalent to the "911" emergency line in Afghanistan is: 119 Please see our information on Victims of Crime, including possible victim compensation programs in the United States.


CRIMINAL PENALTIES:


While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Afghanistan’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. During the last several years, there have been incidents involving the arrest and/or detention of U.S. citizens. Arrested Americans have faced periods of detention—sometimes in difficult conditions—while awaiting trial. Penalties for possession or use of, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Afghanistan are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Another sensitive activity is proselytizing. Although the Afghan Constitution allows the free exercise of religion, proselytizing is often viewed as contrary to the beliefs of Islam and considered harmful to society. Proselytizing may lead to arrest and/or deportation. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States. Please see our information on Criminal Penalties.


SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES:


Because of the poor infrastructure in Afghanistan, access to banking facilities is limited and unreliable. Afghanistan's economy operates on a "cash-only" basis for most transactions. Credit card transactions are not available. International bank transfers are limited. Some ATM machines exist at Standard Charter Bank and Afghan International Bank (AIB) in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul, but some travelers have complained of difficulties using them. International communications are difficult. Local telephone networks do not operate reliably. Most people rely on satellite or cellular telephone communications even to make local calls. Cellular phone service is available locally in Kabul and some other cities, but can be unreliable. Injured or distressed foreigners could face long delays before being able to communicate their needs to family or colleagues outside of Afghanistan. Internet access through local service providers is limited. In addition to being subject to all Afghan laws, U.S. citizens who are also citizens of Afghanistan may also be subject to other laws that impose special obligations on Afghan citizens. U.S. citizens who are also Afghan nationals do not require visas for entry into Afghanistan. The Embassy of Afghanistan issues a letter confirming your nationality for entry into Afghanistan. However, you may wish to obtain a visa as some Afghan-Americans have experienced difficulties at land border crossings because they do not have a visa in their passport. For additional information on dual nationality in general, see the Consular Affairs home page for our dual nationality flyer. U.S. citizens are encouraged to carry a copy of their U.S. passport with them at all times, so that, if questioned by local officials, proof of identity and U.S. citizenship is readily available. As stated in the Travel Warning, consular assistance for American citizens in Afghanistan is limited. Islam provides the foundation of Afghanistan's customs, laws and practices. Foreign visitors -- men and women -- are expected to remain sensitive to the Islamic culture and not dress in a revealing or provocative manner, including the wearing of sleeveless shirts and blouses, halter-tops and shorts. Women in particular, especially when traveling outside of Kabul, may want to ensure that their tops have long sleeves and cover their collarbone and waistband, and that their pants/skirts cover their ankles. Almost all women in Afghanistan cover their hair in public; American women visitors should carry scarves for this purpose. Afghan customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Afghanistan of items such as firearms, alcoholic beverages, religious materials, antiquities, medications, and printed materials. American travelers have faced fines and/or confiscation of items considered antiquities upon exiting Afghanistan. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington for specific information regarding customs requirements. Travelers en route to Afghanistan may transit countries that have restrictions on firearms, including antique or display models. If you plan to take firearms or ammunition to another country, you should contact officials at that country's embassy and those that you will be transiting to learn about their regulations and fully comply with those regulations before traveling. Please consult http://www.customs.gov for information on importing firearms into the United States. Please see our Customs Information sheet.


MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION:


Well-equipped medical facilities are few and far between throughout Afghanistan. European and American medicines are available in limited quantities and may be expensive or difficult to locate. There is a shortage of basic medical supplies. Basic medicines manufactured in Iran, Pakistan, and India are available, but their reliability can be questionable. Several western-style private clinics have opened in Kabul: the DK-German Medical Diagnostic Center (www.medical-kabul.com), Acomet Family Hospital (www.afghancomet.com), and CURE International Hospital (ph. 079-883-830) offer a variety of basic and routine-type care; Americans seeking treatment should request American or Western health practitioners. Afghan public hospitals should be avoided. Individuals without government licenses or even medical degrees often operate private clinics; there is no public agency that monitors their operations. Travelers will not be able to find Western-trained medical personnel in most parts of the country outside of Kabul, although there are some international aid groups temporarily providing basic medical assistance in various cities and villages. For any medical treatment, payment is required in advance. Commercial medical evacuation capability from Afghanistan is limited and could take days to arrange. Even medevac companies that claim to service the world may not agree to come to Afghanistan. Those with medevac insurance should confirm with the insurance provider that it will be able to provide medevac assistance to this country. There have been outbreaks of Avian Influenza in poultry in Afghanistan, to include the areas of Nangahar, Laghman, and Wardak provinces, and in the city of Kabul, however, there have been no reported cases of the H5N1 virus in humans. Updates on the Avian Influenza situation in Afghanistan are published on the Embassy’s web site at http://kabul.usembassy.gov/information_for_travelers.html. For additional information on Avian Influenza, please refer to the Department of State's Avian Influenza Fact Sheet available at http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/health/health_1181.html Tuberculosis is an increasingly serious health concern in Afghanistan. For further information, please consult the CDC's Travel Notice on TB. http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/yellowBookCh4-TB.aspx| The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Afghanistan. However, if one has questions, please inquire directly with the Embassy of Afghanistan at http://www.embassyofafghanistan.org before you travel. Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC’s web site. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization’s (WHO) web site. Further health information for travelers is available from the WHO.


MEDICAL INSURANCE:


The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation. Please see our information on medical insurance overseas. TRAFFIC


SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS:


 While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Afghanistan is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance. All drivers face the potential danger of encountering improvised-explosive devices and land mines that may have been planted on or near roadways. An estimated 5-7 million landmines and large quantities of unexploded ordinance exist throughout the countryside and alongside roads, posing a danger to travelers. Robbery and kidnappings are also prevalent on highways outside of Kabul. The transportation system in Afghanistan is marginal, although the international community is constructing modern highways and provincial roads. Vehicles are poorly maintained, often overloaded, and traffic laws are not enforced. Vehicular traffic is chaotic and must contend with numerous pedestrians, bicyclists and animals. Many urban streets have large potholes and are not well lit. Rural roads are not paved. Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information.


AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT:


As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Afghanistan, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards. For more information, travelers may visit the FAA’s internet website at http://www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa. U.S. Government personnel are not authorized to travel on Ariana Afghan Airlines or any other airline falling under the oversight of the Government of Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority, owing to safety concerns; however, U.S. Government personnel are permitted to travel on international flights operated by airlines from countries whose civil aviation authorities meet international aviation safety standards for the oversight of their air carrier operations under the FAA’s International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program.


CHILDREN'S ISSUES:


 For information see our Office of Children’s Issues web pages on intercountry adoption and international parental child abduction. R


EGISTRATION / EMBASSY LOCATION:


Americans living or traveling in Afghanistan are encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy through the State Department’s travel registration web site and to obtain updated information on travel and security within Afghanistan. Americans without internet access may register directly with the U.S. Embassy. By registering, American citizens make it easier for the Embassy or Consulate to contact them in case of emergency. The U.S. Embassy is located in Kabul on Great Massoud (Airport) Road, local phone number 0700-108-001 or 0700-108-002, and for emergencies after hours 0700-201-908. The web site is http://kabul.usembassy.gov/ * * * * * This replaces the Country Specific Information dated June 16, 2008 to update sections on Country Description, Entry/Exit Requirements, Safety and Security, Information for Victims of Crime, Criminal Penalties, Special Circumstances, and Medical Facilities and Health Information.

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2020 09:04:26 +0200 (METDST)

Kabul, April 29, 2020 (AFP) - A suicide bomber killed at least three people and wounded 15 others after detonating explosives near a military outpost in Kabul on Wednesday, an official confirmed, in the first attack to rock the Afghan capital in weeks.    Interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian confirmed the toll, calling the blast "a crime by the enemy of Afghanistan against civilians during the month of Ramadan".   The attack appeared to target an Afghan special forces camp on the outskirts of Kabul, a security source told AFP.

No group has claimed responsibility for the incident, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said they were investigating whether their fighters were behind the attack.   The blast comes as violence has surged across Afghanistan, with the UN reporting earlier this week that attacks spiked in the country following the signing of a landmark US and Taliban agreement in late February that was supposed to lay the groundwork for a peace process.   Recent attacks have mostly been limited to rural areas and small towns. Under the US-Taliban deal, the insurgents have agreed not to attack cities.

The agreement established a framework for bringing to an end America's longest war following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime only for them to re-emerge and launch a deadly insurgency.   But planned talks between the Kabul government and Taliban have derailed in recent weeks.   Dozens of Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters have been dying almost daily with civilian casualties rising across the country as both sides ramp up operations.   Kabul has been spared most of the violence. However, a string of attacks targeting minority groups proves the capital remains vulnerable to militants.
Date: Mon, 24 Feb 2020 09:00:05 +0100 (MET)

Kabul, Feb 24, 2020 (AFP) - Afghanistan has detected its first novel coronavirus case, the country's health minister said Monday, a day after Kabul announced it would suspend air and ground travel to Iran, where 12 people have died from the outbreak.   "I announce the first positive coronavirus (case) in Herat," health minister Firozuddin Feroz told a press conference, calling on citizens to avoid travel to the western province which borders Iran.
Date: Sat 15 Feb 2020 2:34:10 PM AFT
Source: MENAFN, Afghanistan Times News report [edited]

At least 35 people including women and children have died in the past few weeks due to pneumonia outbreak in Badakhshan Province in the north-western mountainous area, the provincial health department confirmed.

Dr Noor Khawari, head of the provincial public health department, said [Sat 15 Feb 2020] that the people had died in the Wakhan district, a remote area surrounded by high and impassable mountains.

He said that 15 of the dead were children, calling malnutrition and cold weather as the main reasons for the fatalities. A medical team had been dispatched to Wakhan to prevent further outbreak of the disease, according to Dr Khawari.

The provincial council had earlier said that at least 10 people had lost their lives since an unknown disease had broken out in the Yomgan district [Badakhshan Province].

The report caused panic and concerns among the residents as coronavirus [infection, COVID-19] in China that borders Badakhshan takes the lives of people every day.

But the ministry of public health denied outbreak of any unknown disease in Badakhshan, saying that the recent deaths happened only due to pneumonia and pertussis (whooping cough) as well as malnutrition. Badakhshan is one of the provinces where seasonal diseases like pneumonia and whooping cough break out during winter. The diseases claim the lives of people in the remote areas behind high mountains as the roads connecting them to the provincial capital are blocked by heavy snowfalls.

The provincial health department has deployed medical teams to the borders with China and Tajikistan to examine those entering from the neighbouring states and to prevent coronavirus [infection, COVID-9].
===========================
[We are told in the news report above that at least 35 people, including 15 children, died in the past few weeks due to a "pneumonia" outbreak in Wakhan district, a remote area surrounded by high and impassable mountains, with a population of about 14 000 residents. Wakhan is a narrow strip about 350 km (220 mi) long and 13-65 km (8-40 mi) wide that extends from Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan in the west to Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China in the east, separating the Pamir Mountains and Tajikistan to the north and the Karakoram Mountains and Pakistan to the south  (<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wakhan_Corridor>).

A trade route through this valley has been used by travellers since antiquity
(<https://caravanistan.com/afghanistan/wakhan-corridor/>).

A map of this region can be found at

The local residents are concerned that the novel coronavirus infection, COVID-19, may be the cause of the outbreak of pneumonia in Wakhan district. There are about 70 500 total cases of COVID-19 in China, mainly concentrated in Hubei Province in Central China.

Although Xinjiang in Western China has reportedly 75 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1 death (assessed 16 Feb 2020 at 9:43 PM EST) (<https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6>), spread of COVID-19 to this very remote region in Afghanistan, that is easily cut off from the rest of the world especially in winter, seems unlikely. Also, 43% of deaths (15/35) occurred in children, which would be unusual for COVID-19. However, we are not told the clinical presentation of the illness, nor how a diagnosis of "pneumonia" was made in this undeveloped region. Other diagnoses, such as influenza, are also possible. More information from knowledgeable sources would be appreciated. - ProMED Mod.ML]

[Maps of Afghanistan:
Date: Wed 11 Dec 2019
Source: MENA FN [edited]

Officials in the Ministry of Public Health has said that 2 fresh positive cases of polio have been registered in southern Uruzgan [Oruzgan] and northern Baghlan provinces.

According to health officials, the families of the polio-affected children live in Dand-e-Ghori [Dahana-i-Ghori] and Khas Uruzgan districts, [respectively], and the areas were out of the government's control and deprived of medical facilities.

Dr. Abdul Qayum Khplwak, head of the medical institute for the southern part of Afghanistan, said that one of the 2 children has been deprived of polio vaccination in Khas Uruzgan district of the province. He said that despite tremendous efforts towards fighting polio, there are great obstacles against the implementation of the process.

"Until every child receives polio vaccination, our efforts would not reach a complete goal," he said, adding that "the fresh case in Uruzgan shows that southern provinces are facing serious polio threats."

Meanwhile, a local medical in charge for polio affairs in Baghlan, Marjan Rasikh, has put the age of the polio-affected child at 4 years old, saying that the case has marked the initial positive polio in the province.

Over 24 positive polio cases have been recorded from the beginning of 2019: more than 8 cases in Uruzgan, 5 in Helmand, 4 in Kandahar, 2 in Paktia, and 3 other cases in Badghis, Nangarhar, and Kunar provinces.

To prevent the positive cases of polio, the health officials said that anti-polio vaccination should be implemented across the country.
===================
[The addition of these 2 newly confirmed cases will increase the total number of cases reported from Afghanistan with dates of onset during 2019 to 24. There was a newly confirmed case from Kandahar reported in last week's GPEI (Global Polio Eradication Initiative) report with date of onset 10 Nov 2019.

Again, the common denominator in the occurrence of WPV1 (wild poliovirus type 1)-associated AFP (acute flaccid paralysis) cases (presumed to be WPV cases) and in cVDPV (circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus)-associated cases is the presence of a significant susceptible population, or, in other words, areas with suboptimal vaccination coverages.

A map of Afghanistan showing provinces can be found at
The HealthMap/ProMED-mail map of Afghanistan can be found at
Date: Mon 2 Dec 2019
Source: China.org.cn, Xinhua News Agency report [edited]

One fresh polio case had been detected in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, a local newspaper reported on [Mon 2 Dec 2019].

"With this new case, the total number of polio cases in 2019 reaches 22 in the country. The latest polio case has been reported from Kandahar city, capital of Kandahar province which permanently paralyzed an 18-month-old child," Daily Afghanistan-e-Ma reported.

The paper added that polio is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease.

"Most of the Afghan children affected by poliovirus this year [2019] are living in areas where kids do not have access to health facilities and regular anti-polio vaccination campaign. However, this time a child has been affected in a large city where anti-polio vaccination had been conducted repeatedly this year," the report said.

There is no cure for polio and the polio vaccine is the only safe and effective way to protect children.

The ongoing conflicts have been hindering the efforts to stamp out the infectious disease in the mountainous country.
===================
[The addition of 3 newly confirmed cases of polio (all 3 due to WPV1, as per End Polio Pakistan <https://www.endpolio.com.pk/polioin-pakistan/polio-cases-in-provinces>) in Pakistan and one newly confirmed case of polio in Afghanistan brings the total number of WPV1 associated cases with date of onset in 2019 to 116 (94 in Pakistan and 22 in Afghanistan). The key question here is whether Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the challenges in vaccinating the susceptible populations due to a variety of anti-vaccination impediments, will be able to interrupt transmission of the WPV1 in both countries simultaneously.

Maps of Afghanistan:
and <http://healthmap.org/promed/p/137>. - ProMED Mod.MPP]
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Virgin Islands

British Virgin Islands US Consular Information Sheet
April 03, 2006
COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: The British Virgin Islands (BVI) are a British overseas territory, part of the British West Indies, lying about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico. There are abo
t 50 islands in the BVI, many of them uninhabited. Tortola is the main island; other islands include Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and Anegada. Tourist facilities are widely available.
ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS: For tourist stays of up to six months, U.S. citizens need a valid U.S. passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship (original or certified birth certificate, Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of Citizenship as well as photo identification), onward or return tickets, and sufficient funds for their stay. Upon initial entry, no more than 60 days will be granted. At the end of 60 days, visitors must report to the Immigration Department's main office in Road Town for an extension. Extensions of up to 90 days are issued at the discretion of the Immigration Officer subsequent to an interview. For further information on travel to the British Virgin Islands, travelers should contact the BVI Department of Immigration at 1-284-494-3471. Visit the Embassy of the British Government web site at for the most current visa information.
See Entry and Exit Requirements for more information pertaining to dual nationality and the international child abduction . Please refer to our Customs Information to learn more about customs regulations.

SAFETY AND SECURITY For the latest security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Internet web site, where the current Travel Warnings and Public Announcements , including the Worldwide Caution Public Announcement , can be found.

Up-to-date information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S., or for callers outside the U.S. and Canada, a regular toll-line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

The Department of State urges American citizens to take responsibility for their own personal security while traveling overseas. For general information about appropriate measures travelers can take to protect themselves in an overseas environment, see the Department of State's pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad .
CRIME: Thefts and armed robberies do occur in the BVI. Visitors should take common-sense precautions against petty crime. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash and use hotel safety deposit facilities to safeguard valuables and travel documents. Do not leave valuables unattended on the beach or in cars. Always lock up boats when going ashore.
INFORMATION FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME: The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting to local police, please contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance. The Embassy/Consulate staff can, for example, assist you to find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends and explain how funds could be transferred. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed.
See our information on Victims of Crime .
MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION: Medical care in the British Virgin Islands consists of a small general hospital with an emergency room staffed 24-hrs/day by physicians, several clinics on Tortola, and one clinic in Virgin Gorda. Ambulances staffed with paramedics serve both islands. There are no medical facilities on the other islands. A volunteer organization, Virgin Islands Search and Rescue (VISAR), responds 24-hrs/day to medical emergencies at sea or on outer islands. VISAR transports casualties to the nearest point for transfer to ambulance. To reach VISAR, dial SOS (767) or call on Marine Channel 16.
There is no hyperbaric chamber in the BVI. Patients requiring treatment for decompression illness are transferred to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Most sensitive medical cases are transferred to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC's internet site at . For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad consult the World Health Organization's (WHO) website at . Further health information for travelers is available at .
MEDICAL INSURANCE: The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation. Please see our information on medical insurance overseas
TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS: While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning the British Virgin Islands is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Vehicles drive on the left (the British side) with most steering wheels on the left (the "American" side). Road signs are limited and seatbelts are required by law. Drivers often fail to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, even at painted crosswalks. Speeding and reckless driving are fairly common in the BVI. Drivers can encounter nighttime drag racing on main thoroughfares and livestock on roads. Roads in Tortola's interior can be steep and extremely slippery when wet. Travelers planning to drive across the island should consider requesting four-wheel drive vehicles and should ensure that tires and brakes are in good operating condition on any rental vehicle. Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information, as well as the website of the BVI's national tourist office and national authority responsible for road safety at
.
AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of the British Virgin Islands as being in compliance with ICAO international aviation safety standards for oversight of BVI's air carrier operations. For more information, travelers may visit the FAA's Internet web site at .
CUSTOMS REGULATIONS: BVI customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from the British Virgin Islands of items such as drugs and firearms. Visitors to BVI carrying firearms must declare them upon entry into any port in the territory. Firearms must be bonded and are held by the proper authorities until time of departure. Contact BVI Customs & Immigration at 1-284-494-3475, the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Washington, D.C. or one of the UK's consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements. Please see our information on Customs Information .
CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating British Virgin Island laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in the BVI are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States. Please see our information on Criminal Penalties .
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: All Caribbean countries can be affected by hurricanes. The hurricane season normally runs from June to the end of November, but there have been hurricanes in December in recent years. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
CHILDREN'S ISSUES: For information on international adoption of children and international parental child abduction, see the Office of Children's Issues website.
REGISTRATION/EMBASSY AND CONSULATE LOCATIONS: Americans living or traveling in the British Virgin Islands are encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department's travel registration website , and to obtain updated information on travel and security within the BVI. Americans without Internet access may register directly with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. By registering, American citizens make it easier for the Embassy or Consulate to contact them in case of emergency. The nearest U.S. Embassy to the BVI is located in Bridgetown, Barbados. The Consular Section is located in the American Life Insurance Company (ALICO) Building, Cheapside, telephone 1-246-431-0225 or fax 1-246-431-0179, email ConsularBridge2@state.gov , or . The U.S. Consular Agent in Antigua, located at Jasmine court, St. John's, tel. 1-268-463-6531, is closer to the BVI and can also assist in some limited non-emergency cases, by previous appointment only.
****
This replaces the British Virgin Islands Consular Information Sheet dated April 26, 2005 to update all sections.

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Thu 19 Sep 2019
Source: Emerg Infect Dis [edited]

Citation:
Guendel I, Ekpo LL, Hinkle MK, Harrison CJ, Blaney DD, et al.: Melioidosis after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, St. Thomas/St. John District, US Virgin Islands, October 2017. Emerg Infect Dis. 2019; 25(10): 1952-1955. doi: 10.3201/eid2510.180959.

Melioidosis is caused by _Burkholderia pseudomallei_, a saprophytic, gram-negative bacillus endemic to tropical regions worldwide (1). Diagnosis is difficult because of wide-ranging clinical manifestations (2), and this bacterium is innately resistant to many antimicrobial drugs, making treatment options limited, complex, and lengthy (3). Infection occurs by percutaneous exposure, inhalation, or ingestion.

Melioidosis is rare in the USA, and cases are usually travel related (4,5). However, regional endemicity has been documented in Puerto Rico (6), and sporadic human cases have been reported in the Caribbean (5,7). In September 2017, the US Virgin Islands were affected by 2 category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria; widespread flooding continued for weeks. We describe the clinical manifestations, management, and outcome of post-hurricane melioidosis cases in 2 women in St. Thomas and St. John, US Virgin Islands.

The study
Despite major damage to the 2 hospitals in the territory during the 2 hurricanes, the Virgin Islands Department of Health (VIDOH) maintained surveillance at both emergency departments. Two isolates were recovered from each patient. Local specimen analysis for organism identification was performed by using the MicroScan WalkAway System (Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, <https://www.siemens-healthineers.com>). All isolates were confirmed as _B. pseudomallei_ at the CDC. Whole-genome sequencing and single-nucleotide polymorphism analysis were performed (National Center for Biotechnology Information, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov>. Genomes from a given patient were clonal to each other. However, representative genomes from both patients had differences (greater than 5600 single-nucleotide polymorphisms), indicating the presence of different strains in these infections. Genomic comparison with a reference panel indicated that the isolates were within the previously described Western Hemisphere clade and subclade associated with the Caribbean (8).

Patient 1 was an 80-year-old female resident of St. Thomas who had a history of cardiomyopathy and type II diabetes mellitus. She came to the emergency department (ED) at Schneider Regional Medical Center (St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands) because of shortness of breath (symptom onset 28 days after Hurricane Irma and 9 days after Hurricane Maria). Her symptoms were worsened orthopnea, increased abdominal girth, and edema, consistent with her symptoms at previous admissions. The patient was admitted for management of acute decompensated heart failure.

The patient had a temperature of 98.5 deg F [36.9 deg C]; diffuse pulmonary crackles; jugular venous distension; normal heart sounds; and bilateral, lower extremity pitting edema. Examination showed a focal area on the anterior left thigh that had a central, firm, warm, erythematous, tender, subcutaneous nodule about 2 cm [approximately 0.8 in] in diameter with a central fluctuant area and a small pinhole. Incision and drainage was performed, and a swab specimen of purulent drainage was sent for culture.

The patient was given intravenous clindamycin (600 mg every 8 h for 5 d) and was discharged while receiving oral clindamycin, but the treatment course was not completed. Cultured wound showed growth of _B. pseudomallei_ at 5 days. However, culture growth was not yet positive before patient discharge. The isolate was susceptible to trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (Table 1 [for Tables and Figure, see original URL - ProMED Mod.LL]).

Patient 1 returned to the ED 2 weeks later because of manifestations similar to those at the 1st visit. She was afebrile and admitted for diuresis. The left thigh lesion had progressed into a 2 cm [about 0.8 in], tender, shallow ulcer productive of purulent material surrounded by erythema and a focal area of induration (Figure). Laboratory data reflected a leukocyte count within reference ranges and mild renal insufficiency with estimated glomerular filtration rate of 40.47 mL/min (Table 2). A 2nd wound culture was collected, and the patient was given intravenous meropenem (1 g every 8 h). Culture was presumptively positive for _B. pseudomallei_ and _Serratia marcescens_ after 48 hours, confirmed after 8 days. Both isolates showed the same resistance pattern and were susceptible to meropenem and trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole: the MIC for meropenem was <1 microgram/mL (Table 2). Meropenem was continued for 8 days, and ulcer improvement was observed. The patient was discharged while receiving oral trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (800 mg/160 mg 2x/d) to complete maintenance therapy. The patient completed a 3-month course of trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole and achieved resolution.

Patient 2 was a 60-year-old female who had diabetes and was a resident of St. John. She was referred to the ED at Schneider Regional Medical Center by her primary care physician because of hyperglycemia, productive cough, and malaise for one week (symptom onset 46 days after Hurricane Irma and 33 days after Hurricane Maria). The patient was admitted to the intensive care unit because of community-acquired pneumonia.

The patient was lethargic and had a temperature of 101 deg F [38.3 deg C]; heart rate was 99 beats/min, respiratory rate 22 breaths/min, and blood pressure 142/81 mm Hg. Blood gas testing showed pO2 of 47.6 mm Hg with an oxygen saturation of 87.2% on 2-liter nasal cannula. A chest radiograph showed a left-sided mild infiltrate, and her leukocyte count was markedly increased (28 300 cells/mm3) (Table 2).

The patient was given intravenous ceftriaxone (1 g/d) and azithromycin (500 mg/d) after blood and sputum cultures were prepared. She required bilevel positive airway pressure but eventually required mechanical ventilation. The patient then became hypotensive and required norepinephrine to maintain a main arterial pressure greater than 65 mm Hg. Ceftriaxone was discontinued, and she was given intravenous piperacillin/tazobactam (3.375 g every 6 h). Trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole- and ceftazidime-sensitive _B. pseudomallei_ were identified from sputum culture after 72 hours (Table 1). Methicillin-sensitive _Staphylococcus aureus_ and _Candida glabrata_ were also identified. One of 2 blood cultures was positive for gram-negative rods. Piperacillin/tazobactam was discontinued, and the patient was given meropenem (1 g every 8 h).

The patient remained critically ill and was transferred to a tertiary-care hospital in the continental USA. She died in a long-term care facility during October 2018 without showing signs of neurologic improvement.

Isolates from both patients showed susceptibility to routinely tested antimicrobial drugs (10,11). Isolates from patient 1 showed resistance to ceftazidime during preliminary analysis (Table 1). However, broth microdilution confirmatory testing performed at CDC indicated ceftazidime susceptibility, highlighting the need for additional antimicrobial resistance confirmation.

Both patients were interviewed to determine travel history and possible exposure sources. Patient 1 traveled occasionally to the southeastern USA; her last travel date was 3 months before her illness. This patient reported flooding and water damage to her home from the hurricanes but did not report contact with flood waters. Patient 2 reported no travel history before the hurricanes.

VIDOH has investigated and confirmed a subsequent case-patient with pulmonary melioidosis in St. Thomas during December 2018 (I. Guendel et al., unpub. data). This case-patient reported no recent travel and might have had occupational exposure as a professional gardener. This person had 2 risk factors (type II diabetes mellitus and heavy use of alcohol).

Conclusions
Given regional occurrence, detection of melioidosis in the US Virgin Islands is not surprising. Furthermore, emergence of melioidosis after extreme weather events has been well documented, and cases were likely acquired locally from storm-related exposure to flooded soil, surface water runoff, or generation of coarse aerosols (12,13). Although detection of _B. pseudomallei_ has yet to be confirmed in the environment, it might be endemic to the US Virgin Islands, as in Puerto Rico.

In January 2018, melioidosis was listed as a reportable disease in the US Virgin Islands. Future actions include disease education efforts for physicians and laboratory staff because misdiagnosis is common (14). Awareness campaigns highlighting preventive measures for the public are necessary because risk factors are prevalent in the local population (e.g., diabetes and other chronic disease) and might be exacerbated under disaster settings (e.g., respiratory effects and open wounds). VIDOH has implemented rapid diagnostic testing by using Active Melioidosis Detect (InBios International, <https://inbios.com>) on suspected specimens for prompt on-island case identification while routine ED diagnostic cultures are performed (5). All confirmatory testing is conducted at CDC.

References
-------
On Request
======================
[This infection is found primarily in southeast Asia and the Northern Territory of Australia. Despite this, cases of melioidosis have been acquired in other parts of the world including the Americas. Flooding from the increasing number of severe tropical storms related to climate change is increasing.

Melioidosis is a disease of the rainy season in its endemic areas. It mainly affects people who have direct contact with soil and water. Many have an underlying predisposing condition such as diabetes (most common risk factor), renal disease, cirrhosis, thalassemia, alcohol dependence, immunosuppressive therapy, chronic obstructive lung disease, cystic fibrosis, and excess kava consumption (kava is an herbal member of the pepper family that can be associated with chronic liver disease).

Melioidosis may present at any age but peaks in the 4th and 5th decades of life, affecting men more than women. In addition, although severe fulminating infection can and does occur in healthy individuals, severe disease and fatalities are much less common in those without risk factors.

The most commonly recognized presentation of melioidosis is pneumonia, associated with high fever, significant muscle aches, and chest pain, and -- although the cough can be nonproductive -- respiratory secretions can be purulent, significant in quantity, and associated with on-and-off bright red blood. The lung infection can be rapidly fatal -- with bacteremia and shock -- or somewhat more indolent.

Acute melioidosis septicaemia is the most severe complication of the infection. It presents as a typical sepsis syndrome with hypotension, high cardiac output, and low systemic vascular resistance. In many cases, a primary focus in the soft tissues or lung can be found. The syndrome, usually in patients with risk factor comorbidities, is characteristically associated with multiple abscesses involving the cutaneous tissues, lung, liver, and spleen, and a very high mortality rate of 80-95%. With prompt optimal therapy, the case fatality rate can be decreased to 40-50%.

The melioidosis bacillus is intrinsically insensitive to many antimicrobials, and in fact, bioterrorism strains may be engineered to be even more resistant. _Burkholderia pseudomallei_ is usually inhibited by tetracyclines, chloramphenicol, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (SXT), antipseudomonal penicillins, carbapenems, ceftazidime, and amoxicillin/clavulanate or ampicillin/sulbactam. Ceftriaxone and cefotaxime have good in vitro activity but poor efficacy, and cefepime did not appear, as well, to be equivalent to ceftazidime in a mouse model. The unusual antimicrobial profile of resistance to colistin and polymyxin B and the aminoglycosides but sensitivity to amoxicillin/clavulanate is a useful tool to consider in treatment of infection with the organism.

The randomized and quasi-randomized trials comparing melioidosis treatment have been reviewed, and it was found that the formerly standard therapy of chloramphenicol, doxycycline, and SXT combination had a higher mortality rate than therapy with ceftazidime, imipenem/cilastatin, or amoxicillin/clavulanate (or ampicillin/sulbactam). The betalactam-betalactamase inhibitor therapy, however, seemed to have a higher failure rate.

Source: Tolaney P, Lutwick LI: Melioidosis. In: Lutwick LI, Lutwick SM (eds). Bioterror: the Weaponization of Infectious Diseases. Totowa NJ: Humana Press, 2008. pp 145-58. - ProMED Mod.LL]

[HealthMap/ProMED-mail map:
US Virgin Islands: <http://healthmap.org/promed/p/479>]
Date: Fri 31 Jan 2014
Source NBC News [edited]

The Explorer of the Seas outbreak was caused by norovirus, one of the worst outbreaks in 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. The Explorer of the Seas cruise ship returned to port after hundreds of passengers became ill. Federal health officials confirmed on Friday [31 Jan 2014] that norovirus was the culprit that sickened nearly 700 people on a cruise ship this week, and said it was one of the biggest norovirus outbreaks in 20 years. But the source of the outbreak on the Royal Caribbean ship Explorer of the Seas, which returned early to New Jersey on Wednesday [29 Jan 2014], may never be known, CDC said: "CDC has been investigating the outbreak since last Sunday [26 Jan 2014] but no particular source has been identified and it's quite possible a source won't be identified."

The report comes after passengers streamed off the Caribbean Princess on Friday morning [31 Jan 2014], the 2nd cruise cut short this week amid reports of illness on board. The ship, operated by Princess Cruises, returned to Houston [Texas] a day early with a confirmed outbreak of norovirus. "The ship was forced to return to Houston one day early because we were informed that dense fog was expected to close the port for much of the weekend," the company said in a statement. "The ship did not return early because of the increased incidence of norovirus on board, despite some media reports."

At least 178 people on board became ill during the cruise, according to the cruise line and CDC. Sick patients were quarantined to their rooms, and other passengers said they no longer had access to buffet tongs as crew members handed out hand sanitiser. CDC health officials met the Caribbean Princess at the Bayport Cruise Terminal in Pasadena, Texas. The vessel launched on a 7-day cruise to the western Caribbean on [25 Jan 2014] and had been scheduled to return on Saturday [1 Feb 2014]. Princess Cruises said the outbreak was over by the time the ship returned to Houston. "As a result of our actions, case numbers declined significantly and by the end of the cruise there were no passengers with active symptoms," the company said. "Over the course of the cruise 178 passengers (5.7 per cent) and 11 crew (1 per cent) reported ill to the Medical Center."

CDC officials also helped Royal Caribbean clean up the Explorer of the Seas, and said it had been approved to go back out again with a new batch of passengers Friday afternoon [31 Jan 2014]. Royal Caribbean officials say they cleaned the ship, which carried more than 3000 passengers, 3 times. It's the 3rd cruise ship outbreak to occur this year [2014]. A Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Norwegian Star, reported that 130 passengers and 12 crew members became ill on 2-week cruise that launched [5 Jan 2014] from Miami.

About 20 million passengers take cruises in the US each year, fuelling a USD 37.8 billion annual industry, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. There were 9 vessel outbreaks in 2013 and 16 in 2012, according to the CDC. Norovirus is a common culprit in outbreaks on cruise ships, in nursing homes, and other confined places. It is a fast-moving gut bug typically spread by infected people or contaminated food or water. Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the US, resulting in about 21 million illnesses, between 56 000 and 71 000 hospitalizations and as many as 800 deaths, CDC says.

The virus lingers on surfaces and spreads very easily. Thorough hand washing with hot water and soap and meticulous environmental cleaning can help stop the spread. CDC says it's the season for norovirus. "Norovirus outbreaks wit high attack rates are common during this time of year," the agency said. "Most outbreaks occur between January and April."   [byline: Maggie Fox]
*****
Date: Wed 29 Jan 2014
Source: NBC News [edited]

Beleaguered passengers finally fled a Royal Caribbean cruise ship on Wednesday [29 Jan 2014] after a 10-day vacation cut short by a nasty gut bug that sickened nearly 700 people. One woman aboard the Explorer of the Seas yelled, "We made it!" as the ship docked in Bayonne [New Jersey], 2 days ahead of schedule. Other passengers stood on deck wrapped in blankets to watch the ship pull in. One person was removed from the Explorer of the Seas on a stretcher and taken away by ambulance. Others walked under their own power after the vessel arrived. Several passengers recounted a week full of tension and drama, but also professionalism and care from the cruise line crew.

Still, the ordeal on the 1020-foot ship -- whose relaxing voyage to the US Virgin Islands was thwarted by suspected norovirus -- may linger a little longer for people still showing signs of the fast-moving infection, health officials said. "We have passengers who are still exhibiting active disease," said Burnadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who are still sick may be too ill to travel home -- and too contagious to use public transportation like trains and buses, health experts say. Royal Caribbean officials said Wednesday [29 Jan 2014] that they'd pay for hotels or make sure that ill passengers get additional medical care. "Should a guest feel sick enough that they want to go to the hospital, we will arrange for transportation," Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said in an email. "We will work with the small number of guests that still feel ill to make them as comfortable as possible."

At least 630 of the ship's 3071 passengers and at least 54 of the 1166 crew members came down with diarrhea and vomiting -- classic signs of norovirus. Most of the cases occurred early in the cruise, which left New Jersey on [21 Jan 2014], and many passengers had already recovered. It's hard to say that the outbreak was the worst on record because of inconsistencies in record-keeping. But it's a bad one, Burden said. "It would be fair to say this is one of the largest numbers in the last 20 years or so," she said. One of the closest outbreaks to compare occurred in 2006, when a Carnival Cruise ship, the Carnival Liberty, was hit with an outbreak of norovirus that sickened 679 passengers and crew on a November trip to the US Virgin Islands.

CDC officials have not confirmed that norovirus is the culprit on the Explorer of the Seas, though it's a common cause of illness on cruise ships. Officials said testing was delayed by a treacherous winter snowstorm that closed the agency's Atlanta headquarters and results aren't expected until Friday [31 Jan 2014]. But if it is the germ, it's highly contagious for the one to 2 days when people are actively sick -- and for a few days afterward. The virus actually lingers in people's stool for 2 weeks or more, according to the CDC. That means that anyone who fell ill -- and those who were around them -- should pay extra attention to washing their hands and other kinds of cleanliness, said Dr Ruth Lynfield, outgoing head of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Cleanliness will be the key for the cruise line, too. Officials said they plan another scrub, a so-called "barrier sanitation" program to ensure that any remaining traces of illness are removed from the ship. Norovirus is a notoriously difficult bug to eradicate, health experts say. "It will be the 3rd aggressive sanitizing procedure the ship has undertaken since we became aware of the issue, and will additionally provide a window of more than 24 hours where there are no persons aboard the ship," officials said in a statement.   [byline: JoNel Aleccia]
******
Date: Fri 31 Jan 2014
Source: CDC, National Center for Environmental Health, Division of
Emergency and Environmental Health Services, Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) [edited]

Cruise ship: Explorer of the Seas -- voyage dates: 21-31 Jan 2014
-----------------------------------------------------------------
- number of passengers who reported being ill during the voyage out of total number of passengers onboard: 634 of 3071 (20.6 per cent)
- number of crew who reported being ill during the voyage out of total number of crew onboard: 55 of 1166 (4.7 per cent)
- predominant symptoms: vomiting, diarrhea
- Causative agent: Norovirus

Actions: in response to the outbreak, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and the crew aboard the ship took the following actions:
- increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures according to their outbreak prevention and response plan;
- making announcements to both notify onboard passengers of the outbreak and encourage case reporting;
- collecting stool specimens from ill passengers and crew for submission to the CDC lab;
- making multiple daily reports of gastrointestinal illness cases to the VSP [Vessel Sanitation Program];
- preparing additional crew members to join the ship mid-voyage to assist with case management and intensified sanitation procedures;
- consulting with CDC on plans for: passenger notification procedures and the planned delayed embarkation schedule in Bayonne, NJ on [31 Jan 2014], and disembarkation plans for active cases, terminal, and transport infection control procedures.

One CDC Vessel Sanitation Program epidemiologist, one contract epidemiologist, and one VSP environmental health officer boarded the ship in St Thomas, [US Virgin Islands] and are sailing on the ship as it travels back to port in New Jersey. This team is conducting an epidemiologic investigation, environmental health assessment, and evaluating the outbreak and response activities on board. One additional CDC Vessel Sanitation Program environmental health officer will board the ship upon arrival on [29 Jan 2014] to assist with the evaluation of the disinfection process. The team will continue the investigation and evaluation on the ship thru the boarding of new passengers for the next voyage. 5 clinical specimens were shipped to the CDC lab for testing on [26 Jan 2014].
**************************
Date: Fri 31 Jan 2014
Source: CDC, National Center for Environmental Health, Division of
Emergency and Environmental Health Services, Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) [edited]

Cruise ship: Caribbean Princess -- voyage dates: 25 Jan-1 Feb 2014
------------------------------------------------------------------
- number of passengers who reported being ill during the voyage out of total number of passengers onboard: 181 of 3102 (5.8 per cent)
- number of crew who reported being ill during the voyage out of total number of crew onboard: 11 of 1148 (0.96 per cent)
- predominant symptoms: vomiting, diarrhea
- causative agent: Norovirus

Actions: in response to the outbreak, Princess Cruise Lines and the crew aboard the ship took the following actions:
- increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures according to their outbreak prevention and response plan;
- making announcements to both notify onboard passengers of the outbreak and encourage case reporting;
- collecting stool specimens from ill passengers and crew for submission to the CDC lab. Samples tested with the vessel's onboard rapid norovirus test were positive for norovirus. The specimens will be sent to the CDC lab for confirmatory analysis;
- making multiple daily reports of gastrointestinal illness cases to the VSP;
- consulting with CDC on plans for: passenger notification procedures and the planned delayed embarkation schedule in Houston, TX on [1 Feb 2014], and disembarkation plans for active cases, and terminal and transport infection control procedures.

Two CDC Vessel Sanitation Program environmental health officers will board the ship in Houston, TX on [31 Jan and 1 Feb 2014] to conduct an epidemiologic investigation, environmental health assessment, and evaluate the outbreak and response activities. Specimens are being collected and will be sent to the CDC lab for testing.
=====================
[ProMED-mail does not normally report outbreaks of norovirus-related gastroenteritis because of their ubiquity during the winter months. (Hence the alternate designation 'winter vomiting bug'). Norovirus infection is very contagious and can be contracted from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes acute gastroenteritis with stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and vomiting. Anyone can be infected with norovirus and acquire norovirus illness repeatedly throughout life. Norovirus is the commonest cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Each year, it causes 19-21 million cases and contributes to 56 000-71 000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths. Norovirus is also the commonest cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States. There's no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection and no drug to treat it.

Norovirus illness is usually not serious. Most people get better in 1 to 3 days. But norovirus illness can be serious in young children, the elderly, and people with other health conditions. It can lead to severe dehydration, hospitalisation but rarely death. Most outbreaks of norovirus illness happen when infected people spread the virus to others. But, norovirus can also spread by consumption of contaminated food or water and by touching contaminated surfaces.

Health care facilities, including nursing homes and hospitals, are the most commonly reported places for norovirus outbreaks in the United States. Over half of all norovirus outbreaks reported in the United States occur in long-term care facilities. Outbreaks of norovirus illness appear to be occurring more frequently in cruise ships and similar environments. - ProMed Mod.CP]

[A HealthMap/ProMED-mail map can be accessed at:
<http://healthmap.org/r/8vcv>.]
Date: Tue 13 Dec 2011
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News [edited]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] has linked 5 past cases of Legionnaires' disease -- reported between March 2010 and August 2011 -- with stays at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef and Morning Star Beach Resort and Marriott's Frenchman's Cove [in Saint Thomas], prompting remediation work to the resorts' water systems. The VI [Virgin Islands] Health Department has been "working closely" with a team of CDC specialists to monitor the remediation efforts at the resorts, after an investigation into the 5 past cases, according to a statement the Health Department released Monday [12 Dec 2012].

The illness was found in stateside residents who had been guests at the resorts, said Health Department spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster. They required hospitalization but have since recovered, she said. There have been no reports of employees affected at either site, according to the Health Department statement.

The statement indicates that Frenchman's Reef and Morningstar Beach Resort has hired a consultant who led a cleaning project of the affected areas and treated the water system. Test results show no existence of _Legionella_ bacteria, although the Health Department statement said the test results have not yet been evaluated independently by the CDC.

The Health [Department] had asked the resorts to notify those who could potentially be affected by the bacteria: guests and employees, Bedminster said. The properties asked for an extension on a deadline that had been set, and it was granted, but the deadlines passed last week [week of 5 Dec 2011] without the notification to guests and employees going out, Bedminster said. She did not know if, after the deadline, the properties had made the requested notifications, she said.

The hotel provided The Daily News with a written statement that did not address guest notification: "Marriott takes hotel hygiene and cleanliness very seriously. As soon as we were notified of the possibility of the presence of _Legionella_ bacteria we immediately began to work with the USVI Department of Health (DOH) to address the situation. The Frenchman's Reef and Morning Star Beach Resorts hired a consultant who led a cleaning project of affected areas and the treatment of the water system. The latest test results taken after the implementation of these measures show no existence of _Legionella_ bacteria in the samples tested. We have complied with the recommendations provided by the DOH, and we have successfully addressed the issue at the resort. The DOH has allowed the hotel to remain fully open for business and welcome our guests."

The Daily News spoke with Marriott Frenchman's Reef and Morning Star Beach Resort General Manager Jose Gonzalez Espinosa by phone and asked for comment on the Health Department's assertion that the resort did not make the notifications it was supposed to make by the deadline. Gonzalez would not answer the questions unless they were in writing. The Daily News has a policy against submitting questions in writing because written Q and A stifles and slows follow-up and response. The resort underwent a major renovation during the summer, closing 3 May 2011 and reopening on 6 Oct 2011.

Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia caused by the _Legionella_ bacteria, which live in warm water supplies, said Dr Lauri Hicks, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC. The bacteria that cause the disease do not pass from person to person. "It really requires exposure to water aerosol that contains _Legionella_," she said, Exposure may occur from showering or with time spent in a whirlpool or hot tub where the bacteria that lead to Legionnaires' disease are present, Hicks said.

Only a fraction of people -- typically those with certain risk factors, such as compromised immune systems -- exposed to the bacteria become ill, she said.

According to the Health Department statement, from 2000 through 2009, a total of 22 418 cases of legionellosis were reported to CDC from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The CDC informed the Health Department in October [2011] of the 5 Legionnaires' disease cases among past guests at the resorts, and the Health Department asked for the agency's help in investigating. From 18 to 22 Oct 2011, CDC specialists conducted testing, and the properties were alerted about the possible _Legionella_ contamination, Bedminster said. On 3 Nov 2011, the Health Department notified each property of the CDC's conclusive findings and ordered them to immediately work on their water systems, including cleansing, superheating, chlorinating, and hiring a private consultant experienced in eliminating _Legionella_ from building water systems, according to the release. More than 6 weeks later, the Health Department notified the public with the statement it released Monday [12 Dec 2011].

Bedminster said that there had been no delay -- and that remediation work began immediately. "We have worked in good faith with both the resorts during what I have said was a monitoring process. We had some agreed-upon deadlines that had not been met, so we had to let the public know," she said.

Bedminster said that Health Department officials had discussed the possibility of enforcement actions with the Department of Labor and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to get those deadlines met, but she did not know the outcome of the discussions. "Safeguarding the public's health, including that of employees and guests, from exposure and threats are of the utmost importance to the Department of Health," acting Health Commissioner Mercedes Dullum said in the prepared statement. "DOH will continue to monitor this situation with assistance from the CDC. People should not be discouraged from traveling to or within the US Virgin Islands."  [Byline: Joy Blackburn]
---------------------------------------------
Communicated by:
Denis Green
denis@gatesit.com.au
=======================
[The following has been extracted from the US CDC document Travel-Associated Legionnaires' Disease (<http://www.cdc.gov/legionella/faq.htm>):

"About 20-25 percent of all Legionnaires' disease reported to CDC is travel-associated. Legionnaires' disease is important to diagnose and to report because its identification implies the presence of an environmental source to which other susceptible individuals are likely to be exposed. Clusters of Legionnaires' disease associated with travel to hotels or aboard cruise ships are rarely detected by individual clinicians or health departments; travelers typically disperse from the source of infection before developing symptoms. Therefore, a travel history should be actively sought from patients with community-acquired pneumonia and _Legionella_ testing should be performed for those who have traveled in the 2 weeks before onset of symptoms.

"_Because of the multi-state nature of travel in the US, national-level surveillance is necessary to detect outbreaks of travel-associated Legionnaires' disease. CDC relies upon state and local health departments to conduct this surveillance. Surveillance through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) is still important for monitoring national trends; all cases should be reported through NNDSS."

"Because of the public health importance of timely reporting, inform CDC of travel-associated cases by emailing about the patient's movements in the 2-10 days before onset."

"Environmental sampling/testing should only be conducted after careful consideration of the epidemiologic evidence linking a case(s) to a particular location."

The following article is linked to the CDC document: Barbaree JM, et al: Protocol for Sampling Environmental Sites for Legionellae. Applied Environmental Microbiol 1987; 53(7): 1454-8 (<http://www.cdc.gov/legionella/files/sampling_protocol1987.pdf>): "Since legionellae not related to disease may be found in many of the sites sampled, an epidemiologic association with the probable source should be established before intervention methods, such as disinfection, are undertaken."

"Random sampling without an epidemiologic evaluation and comparing isolates from the environment and from patients could lead to false conclusions about sources of epidemic strains."

Potential environmental sampling sites for _Legionella_ spp that the CDC document suggests include: internal surfaces of faucets, aerators, and shower heads; and water from incoming water main, holding tanks and cisterns, water heater tanks, decorative fountains, irrigation equipment, fire sprinkler system (if recently used), whirlpools, and spas. Because _Legionella_ may be found in water supplies without linkage to any cases, the actual causative source should be demonstrated by matching the genotype of the environmental isolates with that of any clinical isolates to assure frequently costly corrective measures are carried out on the actual source (<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC86783/>; and <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730281/>).

The Virgin Islands are located in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, which form the border between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Politically, the eastern islands form the British Virgin Islands and the western ones form the United States Virgin Islands. The US Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Virgin_Islands >). They can be seen on the HealthMap/ProMED-mail interactive map at <http://healthmap.org/r/1xng>. - ProMed Mod.ML]
Date: Sat 18 Sep 2010
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News [edited]
<http://virginislandsdailynews.com/dengue-outbreak-confirmed-in-1.1018284>

After 19 cases of suspected dengue fever -- and at least one death -- reported in the St Thomas-St John District, the VI Health Department issued a statement Friday [17 Sep 2010] saying that the district is experiencing a dengue fever outbreak. According to the Health Department statement released [Fri 17 Sep 2010], 9 of the 19 suspected cases have been laboratory-confirmed as dengue fever in the St Thomas-St John District since June [2010]. On St Croix, there have been 4 suspected cases with no confirmed cases. There is no requirement in the territory that people with suspected dengue fever undergo testing to confirm whether or not they have the mosquito-borne virus, said Health Department epidemiologist Eugene Tull.

His experience with a 2005 outbreak on St Croix leads him to believe that the number of dengue cases this year [2010] is higher than reported, Tull said, adding that he is now receiving anecdotal information about more cases in the community. According to the release, the strain causing the current outbreak is [dengue virus] type 2, which was responsible for the 2005 outbreak on St Croix.
================
[An interactive HealthMap/ProMED-mail map showing the location of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean can be accessed at
<http://healthmap.org/r/01tp>. - ProMed Mod.TY]
Date: Fri 27 Aug 2010
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News [edited]
<http://virginislandsdailynews.com/news/dengue-fever-possible-cause-of-death-of-st-john-woman-1.977556>

A St John woman who was transferred last week [week of 16 Aug 2010] to a Miami hospital with possible dengue fever symptoms died there 20 Aug [2010] from complications, her husband said. VI [Virgin Islands] Health Department epidemiologist Eugene Tull said earlier this week [week of 23 Aug 2010] that he had no information about a possible death from dengue fever.

Health Department spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster said Thursday [26 Aug 2010] that the department was not aware of any deaths from the territory's dengue fever cases but had been investigating since receiving inquiries from reporters Monday [23 Aug 2010].

Tull said earlier this week that so far this year [2010], there have been 8 confirmed, laboratory positive cases of dengue fever in the territory, 3 probable cases with lab results pending, and 15 suspected cases. All of those were in the St Thomas/St John District, except for 2 of the suspected cases, which were on St Croix, he said. [Byline: Joy Blackburn]
=====================
[The attribution of the woman's death to dengue virus infection is speculative. ProMED-mail awaits confirmation (or not) as further information becomes available. It is clear, however, that locally acquired dengue virus infections are occurring there.

Maps showing the location of the US Virgin Islands can be accessed at <http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/carib.htm>. and the HealthMap/ProMED-mail interactive map at <http://healthmap.org/r/01tp> - ProMed Mod.TY]
More ...

World Travel News Headlines

Date: Tue, 26 May 2020 09:15:57 +0200 (METDST)

Riyadh, May 26, 2020 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia will end its nationwide coronavirus curfew from June 21, except in the holy city of Mecca, the interior ministry said Tuesday, after more than two months of stringent curbs.   Prayers will also be allowed to resume in all mosques outside Mecca from May 31, the ministry said in a series of measures announced on the official Saudi Press Agency.   The kingdom, which has reported the highest number of virus cases in the Gulf, imposed a full nationwide curfew during Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

The ministry said it will begin easing restrictions in a phased manner this week, with the curfew relaxed between 6 am and 3 pm between Thursday and Saturday.   From Sunday until June 20, the curfew will be further eased until 8 pm, the ministry added.   The kingdom will lift the lockdown entirely from June 21.   "Starting from Thursday, the kingdom will enter a new phase (in dealing with the pandemic) and will gradually return to normal based on the rules of social distancing," Health Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said on Monday.   Saudi Arabia has reported around 75,000 coronavirus infections and some 400 deaths from COVID-19.

In March, Saudi Arabia suspended the year-round "umrah" pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading in Islam's holiest cities.   That suspension will remain in place, the interior ministry said.   Authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year's hajj -- scheduled for late July -- but they have urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage.   Last year, some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from around the world to participate in the hajj, which Muslims are obliged to perform at least once during their lifetime.
Date: Tue, 26 May 2020 05:52:24 +0200 (METDST)

Santiago, May 26, 2020 (AFP) - Chile registered a new high for coronavirus cases on Monday, with nearly 5,000 infections in 24 hours, including two ministers in President Sebastian Pinera's government.   Health authorities announced 4,895 new infections in the South American country and 43 deaths.

Public Works Minister Alfredo Moreno and Energy Minister Juan Carlos Jobet said they were among those with the disease.   "I have been informed that the COVID-19 test I had a few days ago was positive," Moreno said on Twitter, adding that he had no symptoms so far.   The 63-year-old minister had placed himself in quarantine after one of his staff tested positive.  Jobet also tested positive after starting to quarantine preventatively on Saturday, "when he experienced mild symptoms, which could be associated with the disease," a statement from the Energy Ministry said.

The 44-year-old minister "has had no direct contact with President Sebastian Pinera or other cabinet members in recent days," the statement said, without specifying how he became infected.   Three other ministers, who had self-quarantined after being in contact with infected people, all tested negative and resumed work.

Chile suffered a surge in infections last week, prompting the government to order the lockdown of Santiago.   The capital is the main focus of the pandemic in Chile, with 90 percent of the country's 74,000 cases.   Last week, the Senate was closed after three senators tested positive for the coronavirus. Sessions were held by video conference.
Date: Tue, 26 May 2020 01:15:01 +0200 (METDST)

Quito, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - Demonstrators defied coronavirus restrictions to march in cities across Ecuador on Monday in protest against President Lenin Moreno's drastic economic measures to tackle the crisis.   Moreno last week announced public spending cuts including the closure of state companies and embassies around the world, but trade unions Monday said workers were paying a disproportionate price compared to Ecuador's elite.   "This protest is because the government is firing workers to avoid making the rich pay," Mecias Tatamuez, head of the county's largest union, the Unitary Front of Workers (FUT), told reporters at a march in Quito.

Around 2,000 people marched in the capital, waving flags and banners and shouting anti-government slogans.   The protesters wore masks and respected distancing measures recommended against the spread of the coronavirus that has caused at least 3,200 deaths in the country, making it South America's worst hit nation per capita. Authorities say more than 2,000 further deaths are likely linked to the virus.

Demonstrations took place in several other cities, including Guayaquil, the epicentre of Ecuador's health crisis, where union leaders said hundreds marched through the city.   Moreno ordered the closure of Ecuadoran embassies, a reduction in diplomatic staff and scrapped seven state companies as part of measures designed to save some $4 billion.    He also announced the liquidation of the TAME airline, which has lost more than $400 million over the last five years.

The government says the pandemic has so far cost the economy at least $8 billion.   Public sector working hours have been cut by 25 percent, with an accompanying 16 percent pay cut.   Moreno said on Sunday that 150,000 people had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus.   Ecuador was struggling economically before the pandemic hit, due to high debt and its dependence on oil.   The IMF predicts that the economy will shrink by 6.3 percent this year, the sharpest drop of any country in South America.
Date: Mon, 25 May 2020 22:20:46 +0200 (METDST)

Dublin, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - Ireland recorded no new deaths from the coronavirus on Monday for the first time since March 21.   Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called it a "significant milestone", adding on Twitter: "This is a day of hope. We will prevail."

The announcement came one week after Ireland, which has suffered 1,606 deaths from 24,698 infections, began to ease lockdown measures that had been in place for nearly two months.   Ireland entered lockdown in late March, recording a peak of 77 deaths on a single day on April 20.   "In the last 24 hours we didn't have any deaths notified to us," chief medical officer Tony Holohan said at a daily press briefing.   He warned that the zero figure could be a result of a lag in reporting of deaths over the weekend, but he added: "It's part of the continued trend that we've seen in (the) reduction in the total number of deaths."

Ireland has announced a five-step plan to reopen the nation by August and took the first steps last Monday -- allowing outdoor employees to return to work, some shops to reopen and the resumption of  activities such as golf and tennis.   While the news of no fresh deaths was greeted as progress, officials remain concerned there will be a "second wave" as the lockdown is loosened.   "The number of new cases and reported deaths over the past week indicates that we have suppressed COVID-19 as a country," Holohan added in a statement.   "It will take another week to see any effect on disease incidence that might arise from the easing of measures."
Date: Mon, 25 May 2020 21:59:40 +0200 (METDST)

Luxembourg, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - Luxembourg will ease its coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday, reopening cafes and restaurants and allowing civil and religious ceremonies under strict conditions, the government announced.   The tiny country has so far registered only 3,993 COVID-19 cases, of which 110 have been fatal. Four people are in intensive care and shops were closed on March 18 to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told a news conference on Monday that eateries could reopen terraces with a maximum of four people at a single table.   Indoor dining in cafes and restaurants will resume on Friday, he said, with social distancing of 1.5 metres (five feet) between groups.   Marriages and funerals will also be allowed if the attendees wore face masks and kept two metres distance from each other.   Bettel however said cafes and restaurants would have to close at midnight.

Francois Koepp, the general secretary of the Horeca federation grouping hotels, restaurants and cafes, welcomed the announcement, saying the sector had "greatly suffered from the confinement".   He said it provided employment to some 21,000 people in this nation of 620,000 inhabitants.   Cinema theatres and gyms will open at the end of the week but children's parks will remain closed.   The government has pledged to give every citizen over 16 a voucher worth 50 euros ( $54) to spend in hotels to provide a boost to the sector.   The vouchers will also be given to some 200,000 cross border workers from Belgium, France and Germany.
Date: Mon, 25 May 2020 20:36:16 +0200 (METDST)

Prague, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - The Czech Republic and Slovakia will reopen their border this week for those travelling to the other country for up to 48 hours, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Monday.   "This will be possible without tests or quarantine" starting Wednesday, he added in a message posted on Twitter.   The Czech Republic and Slovakia formed a single country until 1993. Babis himself was born in the Slovak capital of Bratislava.

Both countries have fared well in the current pandemic, with Slovakia posting the lowest death toll per capita in the EU and the Czech Republic keeping its COVID-19 figures down as well.   The Czech government will also open border crossings with Austria and Germany on Tuesday but will still require negative COVID-19 tests from those entering the country.   "We have negotiated similar conditions on the other side of the border with our German and Austrian colleagues," Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said.   The interior ministry said blanket border checks would be replaced by random ones and added it would still not allow tourists into the country.

Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtech said the government was working on other measures to ease the travel restrictions adopted in mid-March.   "We would like to introduce them next week," he added.   Vojtech said EU citizens could now come to the Czech Republic "on business or to visit their family for a maximum of 72 hours if they submit a negative coronavirus test."

The country is also accessible to non-EU citizens who do seasonal jobs there, on condition they have tested negative.   Czech restaurants, bars, hotels, castles, zoos and swimming pools have been open since Monday, when the government lifted many anti-virus measures.   Czechs also no longer have to wear face masks outside their homes, except in shops and on public transport.
Date: Mon, 25 May 2020 17:45:38 +0200 (METDST)
By Shafiqul ALAM

Dhaka, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - Some 15,000 Rohingya refugees are now under coronavirus quarantine in Bangladesh's vast camps, officials said Monday, as the number of confirmed infections rose to 29.   Health experts have long warned that the virus could race through the cramped settlements, housing almost a million Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar, and officials had restricted movement to the area in April.

Despite this, the first cases in the camps were detected in mid-May.   "None of the infections are critical. Most hardly show any symptoms. Still we have brought them in isolation centres and quarantined their families," Toha Bhuiyan, a senior health official in the surrounding Cox's Bazar area told AFP.   He said narrow roads to three districts of the camps -- where the majority of the infections were detected -- have been blocked off by authorities.

The 15,000 Rohingya inside these so-called blocks faced further restrictions on their movement, he said.   It comes as charity workers expressed fears over being infected in the camps as they worked without adequate protection.   Two of the areas under isolation are in Kutupalong camp, home to roughly 600,000 Rohingya.   "We are trying to scale up testing as fast as possible to make sure that we can trace out all the infected people and their contacts," Bhuiyan said.

Seven isolation centres with the capacity to treat more than 700 COVID-19 patients have been prepared, he said.   Officials hope to have just under 2,000 ready by the end of May, he added.   Mahbubur Rahman, the chief health official of Cox's Bazar, said authorities hoped this week they would double the number of tests being performed daily from 188.   He said further entry restrictions have been imposed on the camp, with a 14 day quarantine in place for anyone visiting from Dhaka.   "We are very worried because the Rohingya camps are very densely populated. We suspect community transmission (of the virus) has already begun," Rahman told AFP.

- 'Very little awareness' -
Bangladesh on Monday notched up a record single-day spike in coronavirus cases, with 1,975 new infections, taking the toll to 35,585 cases and 501 deaths.   In early April authorities imposed a complete lockdown on Cox's Bazar district -- home to 3.4 million people including the refugees -- after a number of infections.

But a charity worker with one of the many aid organisations active in the camps said Monday he and many others were "very worried".   "Fear and panic has gripped aid workers because many of us were forced to work without much protection," he told AFP without wishing to be named.   "Social distancing is almost impossible in the camps. There is very little awareness about COVID-19 disease among the refugees, despite efforts by aid agencies."

The lack of information is exacerbated by local authorities having cut off access to the internet in September to combat, they said, drug traffickers and other criminals.   More than 740,000 Rohingya fled a brutal 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar to Cox's Bazar, where around 200,000 refugees were already living.
Date: Mon, 25 May 2020 15:25:38 +0200 (METDST)

Antananarivo, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - Madagascar's government has announced it will dispatch troops and doctors to an eastern town after several bodies were found in the streets and where two people died from the novel coronavirus.   Madagascar's cabinet held a special meeting on Sunday to discuss the situation in Toamasina, the country's second largest city.   The Indian Ocean island nation has registered 527 infections and two deaths, both in Toamasina.

Since Thursday, more than 120 new cases were confirmed, and several bodies were found in the city's streets though the cause of death was not clear.   "Doctors must carry out thorough examinations to see if these deaths are caused by another illness (...) or if they are really due to severe acute respiratory problems which is the critical form of COVID-19," Professor Hanta Marie Danielle Vololontiana, spokesperson for the government's virus taskforce, said in a national broadcast on Sunday.   The government will send 150 soldiers to reinforce Toamasina, maintain order and enforce measures against the coronavirus such as mask wearing and social distancing.

The cabinet also fired Toamasina's prefect without providing any explanation.    A team was also ordered to distribute a drink based on artemisia, a plant recognised as a treatment against malaria, which the Malagasy authorities claim cures COVID-19.    The potential benefits of this herbal tea, called Covid-Organics, have not been validated by any scientific study.    The cabinet has also announced an investigation into the death of a doctor in Toamasina. According to local press, the victim was hospitalised after contracting COVID-19 and was found dead hanged in his room on Sunday morning.
Date: Mon, 25 May 2020 09:20:17 +0200 (METDST)
By Bhuvan Bagga with Indranil Mukherjee in Mumbai

New Delhi, May 25, 2020 (AFP) - Domestic flights resumed in India on Monday even as coronavirus cases surge, while confusion about quarantine rules prompted jitters among passengers and the cancellation of dozens of planes.   India had halted all flights within the country, and departing and leaving for abroad, in late March as it sought to stop the spread of coronavirus with the world's largest lockdown.   But desperate to get Asia's third-largest economy moving again, the government announced last week that around 1,050 daily flights -- a third of the usual capacity -- would resume on Monday.

Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said strict rules would include mandatory mask-wearing and thermal screenings, although middle seats on the aircraft would not be kept empty.   The announcement reportedly caught airlines and state authorities off-guard, with several local governments announcing that passengers would have to go into quarantine for two weeks on arrival.   Maharashtra, the Indian state with the highest number of coronavirus cases, capped at 50 the number of departures and arrivals in and out of its capital Mumbai.

Airlines scrapped dozens of flights on Monday while hundreds of passengers cancelled their bookings, reports said.   The NDTV news channel said 82 flights to and from New Delhi had been cancelled and nine at Bangalore airport.   Other flights from cities including infection hotspots Mumbai and Chennai were struck off, many at short notice, reports said.   At Mumbai airport social distancing was forgotten as irate passengers harangued staff after their flights were cancelled at the last minute.

- 'Really scary' -
At New Delhi airport, hundreds of people anxious to get home but apprehensive about the risks queued from before dawn -- all wearing masks and standing at least one metre (three feet) apart.   Security personnel behind plastic screens verified check-in documents and that passengers had the government contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, on their phones.

"While I'm looking forward (to flying home), the idea of flying is really scary," student Gladia Laipubam told AFP as she stood in line.   "Anything can happen. It's very risky. I don't really know when I'll be able to come back to Delhi now. There is no clarity from the university too at this time."   One female airline employee wearing gloves, a mask and a protective face shield said she and many other colleagues felt "very nervous" about starting work again.   "Dealing with so many people at this time is so risky. I must have interacted with at least 200 people since this morning," she told AFP, not wishing to be named.

Cabin crew on the planes had to wear full protective suits with masks, plastic visors and blue rubber gloves, and many were also confused about the rules, the Press Trust of India reported.   "There is no clarity on whether I need to go into home quarantine for 14 days after returning to my base or show up for duty on Monday," one pilot told PTI.   New coronavirus cases in India crossed 6,000 for the third consecutive day on Sunday, surging to a record single-day spike of 6,767 infections.   The country has recorded almost 140,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths.   Singh has said that international flights could resume in June, although dozens of special flights have in recent weeks brought back some of the hundreds of thousands of Indians stuck abroad.
Date: Fri, 22 May 2020 11:02:28 +0200 (METDST)

Suva, Fiji, May 22, 2020 (AFP) - A huge fire at one of Suva's largest markets blanketed the Fijian capital in thick smoke before it was brought under control Friday, firefighters said.   The blaze engulfed the Suva Flea Market, a major tourist attraction near the waterfront, sending plumes of acrid black smoke into the air.   The National Fire Authority said an adjoining shop was also badly damaged but there were no reports of injuries.   "It's been stopped now and no one was injured but that's all we can say at the moment," a spokesman told AFP.   The said the cause of the fire was being investigated.