July 29, 2008
Austria is a highly developed, stable democracy with a modern economy.
Tourism is an important pillar of the Austrian economy and facilities are widely availab
Read the Department of State Background Notes on Austria for additional information, or see the information at the Austrian National Tourist Office web site, http://www.austria.info.
A valid passport is required. U.S. citizens can stay without a visa for tourist/business for up to 90 days in each six-month period. That 90-day period begins when you enter any of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.
Although European Union regulations require that non-EU visitors obtain a stamp in their passports upon initial entry to a Schengen country, many borders are not staffed with officers carrying out this function.
If an American citizen wishes to ensure that his or her entry is properly documented, it may be necessary to request a stamp at an official point of entry.
Under local law, travelers without a stamp in their passports may be questioned and asked to document the length of their stay in Schengen countries at the time of departure or at any other point during their visit, and could face possible fines or other repercussions if unable to do so.
There are no vaccination requirements for international travelers.
Visit the Embassy of Austria web site at http://www.austria.org/ for the most current visa information. There are four Austrian Consulates General in the United States. As each one serves clients from a particular region, please contact the appropriate office for assistance. If you reside outside the U.S. please contact the responsible Austrian Embassy or Consulate in your country of residence.
A list of Austrian Embassies/Consulates is available at http://www.bmeia.gv.at/aussenministerium/buergerservice/oesterreichische-vertretungen.html.
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:
Austria remains largely free of terrorist incidents. However, like other countries in the Schengen area, Austria’s open borders with its Western European neighbors allow the possibility of terrorist groups entering/exiting the country with anonymity. Americans are reminded to remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and to exercise caution.
Austrian intelligence experts have registered increased radicalization of immigrant Muslim individuals and of small conspiratorial groups, as well as intensified use of the Internet as a propaganda and communications platform. Despite some terrorism-related incidents in 2007 directed against individual Austrian nationals or the Government of Austria, authorities overall believe the likelihood of terrorist attacks in Austria remains relatively low; the State Department rates Austria as a “Medium” threat for transnational terrorism.
Every year, a number of avalanche deaths occur in Austria's alpine regions. Many occur when skiers/snowboarders stray from the designated ski slopes. Leaving the designated slopes to ski off-piste may pose serious risks and may delay rescue attempts in case of emergency. Skiers/snowboarders should monitor weather and terrain conditions, and use the available avalanche rescue equipment. Avalanche beepers (transceivers) are the most common rescue devices and, when properly used, provide the fastest way of locating an avalanche victim, usually enabling authorities to begin rescue operations within minutes.
For the latest security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State’s, 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 pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad.
Austria has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, and violent crime is rare. However, crimes involving theft of personal property have increased in recent years.
As such, most crimes involving Americans are crimes of opportunity involving theft of personal belongings. Travelers are also targets of pickpockets who operate where tourists tend to gather. Some of the spots where such crimes are most frequently reported include Vienna’s two largest train stations, the plaza around St. Stephan’s Cathedral and the nearby pedestrian shopping areas (in Vienna’s First District).
There has been an increase in thefts and pick-pocketing on public transportation lines, especially on those lines coming into and out from the city center. U.S. citizens are advised to secure personal belongings and always take precautions while on public transportation and in public places such as cafes and tourist areas. Many citizens have had to disrupt travel plans while awaiting replacements for lost and stolen passports since emergency passports are generally only authorized in rare circumstances such as critical medical emergencies.
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.
Information on the Austrian crime victim compensation program can be found on the U.S. Embassy web site at http://vienna.usembassy.gov/en/embassy/cons/compens.htm.
The local equivalent to the 911 emergency line in Austria is 133.See our information on Victims of Crime.
MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION:
There are an adequate number of hospitals available in Austria. Local hospitals will not settle their accounts directly with American insurance companies. The patient is obliged to pay the bill to the local hospital and later claim a refund from his/her insurance carrier in the United States. MEDICARE payments are not available outside the United States.
The Austrian Medicine Import Act generally prohibits the import of prescription drugs into Austria, with two exceptions:
A) Travelers residing outside the European Union are allowed to carry with them (as part of their personal luggage) drugs and medicines, but only the quantity that an individual having a health problem might normally carry; and,
B) Travelers while staying in Austria may receive drugs and medicines for their personal use by mail. The quantity is limited to the length of their stay in Austria and must never exceed three packages.
Generally, it is recommended that travelers have either a prescription or written statement from their personal physician that the medicines are being used under a doctor's direction and are necessary for their physical wellbeing while traveling.
Public health conditions in Austria are excellent. The level of community sanitation in Vienna meets or exceeds that of most large American cities. Disease incidence and type are similar to that seen in the major cities of Western Europe and the United States. At the present time, air pollution is not a major health problem in Vienna.
The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Austria.
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.
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.
Any person, regardless of citizenship, who wants to take up residence in Austria, must be covered by some health insurance plan that covers full medical treatment in Austria. American citizens interested in joining the health insurance plan under the Austrian system should apply to the Health Insurance Agency (Gebietskrankenkasse) in the province (Bundesland) where they reside.
Further information may be obtained from the appropriate “Gebietskrankenkasse” http://www.sozialversicherung.at/portal/index.html?ctrl:cmd=render&ctrl:window=esvportal.channel_content.cmsWindow&p_menuid=955&p_tabid=6&p_pubid=687.
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 Austria is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Road conditions in Austria are generally excellent. During the winter, however, roads in alpine areas may become dangerous due to snowfall, ice, or avalanches. Some mountain roads may be closed for extended periods and tire chains are often required. Drivers should exercise caution during the heavily traveled vacation periods (December-February, Easter, July-August). Extra caution is recommended when driving through autobahn construction zones, particularly on the A-1 East/West Autobahn. Reduced lanes and two-way traffic in these zones have resulted in several deadly accidents in recent years. Traffic information and road conditions are broadcast on the English language channel fm4, located between 91 and 105 FM depending on the locale.
A U.S. driver’s license alone is not sufficient to drive in Austria. The U.S. driver’s license must be accompanied by an international driver’s permit (obtainable in the U.S. from American Automobile Association and the American Automobile Touring Alliance) or by an official translation of the U.S. driver’s license, which can be obtained at one of the Austrian automobile clubs (OEAMTC or ARBOE). This arrangement is only acceptable for the first six months of driving in Austria, after which all drivers must obtain an Austrian license.
Austria requires all vehicles using the autobahn to display an “Autobahn Vignette” highway tax sticker on the inside of the vehicle’s windshield. The sticker may be purchased at border crossings, gas stations in Austria, and small “Tabak” shops located in Austrian towns. Fines for failing to display a valid autobahn vignette on the windshield of your car are usually around $120.
Austrian autobahns have a maximum speed limit of 130 km/hr, although drivers often drive much faster and pass aggressively. The use of hand-held cell phones while driving is prohibited. Turning right on red is also prohibited throughout Austria. The legal limit for blood alcohol content in Austria is .05 percent and penalties for driving under the influence tend to be stricter than in many U.S. states.
Tourists driving rented vehicles should pay close attention to the provisions of their rental contract. Many contracts prohibit drivers from taking rented vehicles into eastern European countries. Drivers attempting to enter countries listed as “prohibited” on the car rental contract may be arrested, fined, and/or charged with attempted auto theft. Austrian police are authorized to hold the rented vehicle for the car rental company.
Emergency roadside help and information may be reached by dialing 123 or 120 for vehicle assistance and towing services (Austrian automobile clubs), 122 for the fire department, 133 for police, and 144 for ambulance.
The European emergency line is 112.
Austrian Federal Railroads (Österreichische Bundesbahnen) offer excellent railroad service to all major towns of the country and also direct connections with all major cities in Europe. Trains are well maintained and fares are reasonable. There is also an extensive network of bus lines operated by the Austrian Postal Service (Österreichische Post). All major cities also offer excellent public transportation services.
Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information. Visit the web-site of Austria’s national tourist office (Österreich Werbung) at http://www.austria.info and the national authority responsible for road safety (Kuratorium für Verkehrssicherheit) at http://www.kfv.at/.
AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Austria’s Civil Aviation Authority as being in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of Austria’s air carrier operations.
For more information, travelers may visit the FAA’s web site at: http://www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa.
Travelers using U.S. issued debit cards in Austrian Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) may encounter problems. If the request for cash is rejected, travelers should check their accounts immediately to see whether the money was in fact debited from their account. If this is the case, they should notify their banking institution immediately. Prompt action may result in a refund of the debited amount. Receipts should always be requested and kept for verification with your home bank.
Please see our Customs Information.
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 Austrian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned.
Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Austria 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.
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 Austria are encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department’s travel registration web site so that they can obtain updated information on travel and security within Austria.
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 Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy is located at Parkring 12a, tel. +43- 1-31339-7535, fax: +43-1-5125835, web site: http://vienna.usembassy.gov/en/index.html
This replaces the Country Specific Information sheet for Austria dated January 23, 2008, without substantive changes.
Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS
Vienna, Nov 18, 2019 (AFP) - A man died on Monday in a landslide that destroyed much of his home in southern Austria, which has been hit by heavy rainfall and snow affecting transport and electricity. The retiree was behind his house in Carinthia state when part of the hill above it slid off, killing the 79-year-old, police said. Earlier Monday, two women were rescued from the rubble of two houses after another landslide, this one in the spa town of Bad Gastein in Salzburg state. Salzburg, Tyrol and Carinthia states have all seen heavy rain and snowfall since last week, leading to power cuts in thousands of homes. Many roads and railway lines have also been cut, and several schools in these areas remained closed on Monday.
Vienna, Aug 27, 2019 (AFP) - An Austrian court has ruled that a German hiker who was trampled to death by cows was partly to blame for the accident in a case which has sparked national debate. A lower court ordered the cows' owner in February to pay the woman's family 180,000 euros ($200,000) plus a monthly pension of 1,500 euros.
The verdict was seen as potentially harmful for agriculture and tourism in the Alpine country known for its picturesque mountains and cows grazing freely on their slopes in the summer. A higher court however ruled that the 45-year-old who was hiking with her dog bore 50 percent of the blame as she needed to be aware of the risks cows, especially those with calves, posed when confronted by dogs, a court official said Tuesday. She also did not heed warning signs to keep a distance from the herd. The farmer in turn had known his cows with calves to be aggressive and should have fenced off part of his pasture, the official said. The decision means the compensation will also be cut by half. Both parties can appeal the verdict.
The incident took place in July 2014 in the Pinnistal Valley in Tyrol when a herd of cows suddenly surrounded the hiker and trampled her. She died of her injuries at the scene. Her husband and son had accused the farmer of negligence, while the farmer insisted he had put up warning signs on the pasture. The February ruling led to Tyrol's farmers describing it as a threat to their livelihood and threating to close off their lands to hikers. Following the outcry, the government published a "code of conduct" for hikers. The guidelines include keeping a distance from cows and walking dogs on a short lead but unleashing them in case of attack.
Vienna, July 2, 2019 (AFP) - Smoking in Austrian bars and restaurants will be banned as of November following a vote in parliament on Tuesday, after years of protracted debate on the issue. Only MPs from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) voted against the ban, which looks set to finally rid Austria of its status as the "ashtray of Europe".
The FPOe -- whose former leader Heinz-Christian Strache is himself a keen smoker -- had stymied a previous attempt to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants when it entered government in December 2017. That prompted a backlash from large sections of the public and the Austrian medical association, which organised a petition in favour of the ban signed by almost 900,000 people, or around 14 percent of voters.
However, in May the FPOe left government under the shadow of a corruption scandal implicating Strache, paving the way for the smoking ban to come back before parliament. "We are going to protect the health of hundreds of thousands of Austrians and prolong their lives," Pamela Rendi-Wagner, head of the main opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) -- and herself a doctor -- said after the vote.
Austria is currently led by a technocratic government after the so-called "Ibiza-gate" corruption scandal brought down the coalition between the FPOe and the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) and triggered early elections to be scheduled for September. The scandal emerged when footage in May showed Strache in a luxury villa on the island of Ibiza appearing to offer public contracts to a fake Russian backer in an elaborate sting operation, forcing him to step down from all his posts.
Austria was one of the last European countries where smoking was still permitted in bars and restaurants, despite calls for bans dating back more than a decade. Up until now, smoking has been legal in such establishments as long as it was done in a separate area -- although this rule was not always rigidly implemented. No separate area was necessary in establishments smaller than 50 square metres (540 square feet) if the owner was happy to allow smoking on the premises. However, a growing number of restaurants and cafes had already banned smoking of their own accord.
Vienna, April 10, 2019 (AFP) - The Austrian city of Klagenfurt indefinitely suspended its bus services Wednesday after a case of measles was detected in one of the drivers. "All bus traffic is suspended until further notice in order to prevent infection," the city's KMG public transport operator announced.
The company runs all public transport in the southern city of 100,000 inhabitants, which is also the state capital of Carinthia. It took the unusual measure after it was revealed that one driver had been diagnosed with measles on 3 April. Since then two further suspected cases have been reported. KMG said it was working to establish "the vaccination status of all drivers" before authorising bus services to restart and was embarking on a deep clean of its vehicles.
The resurgence of measles, a once-eradicated and highly-contagious disease, is linked to a growing anti-vaccine movement in richer nations -- which the World Health Organization has identified as a major global health threat. On Tuesday, New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of the city, ordering all residents of certain districts in Brooklyn to be vaccinated to fight a measles outbreak concentrated in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
By Sophie MAKRIS
Vienna, March 3, 2019 (AFP) - It looks like a scene from the halcyon days of the railways: travellers finding their sleeper berth, turning on the reading light and stowing their cases under the bed. But it's still a common nightly ritual at Vienna's main station, where overnight train routes have endured in the age of low-cost flights -- and are even expanding. From early evening onwards, the departures board at Vienna's "Hauptbahnhof" station becomes a roll call of destinations to whet the appetite of any globetrotter: Venice, Rome, Zurich, Berlin, Warsaw... It's an unusual sight in a continent where budget airlines and faster trains have become the norm and led to the closure of many slower overnight routes.
But Austria's state railway company OeBB is looking to expand its network. It already runs 26 such routes, either on its own or in partnerships with other operators. In late 2016, OeBB bought the night train operation of its German counterpart Deutsche Bahn, which was looking to offload a department it judged insufficiently lucrative. Around 60 percent of DB's overnight routes were preserved, including a revamped Vienna-Berlin service which started a few months ago. Pointing to the "moderate growth" in passenger numbers -- more than 1.4 million used the services in 2018 -- OeBB has ordered 13 new trains equipped with state-of-the-art sleeper carriages.
- Eco-friendly -
It's no surprise then that Austria has become the poster child for rail enthusiasts, who say it provides an example of how overnight train travel can provide an alternative to air travel and even help in the fight against climate change. "With regard to the target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, night trains which run on renewable energy are an attractive alternative," according to Thomas Sauter-Servaes, transport expert at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.
But as with all those who have researched the sector, he admits that cross-border overnight rail travel can represent a logistical and financial challenge. The profits per passenger take a hit from the extra space that sleeper compartments require, on top of the higher labour costs for those who have to work on the trains overnight and money spent on laundry. And that's before you take into account the hefty fees sometimes charged by other network owners for use of the rails, the technical difficulty of decoupling and then re-attaching carriages, and navigating the myriad of different rules a train has to adhere to over a long journey.
Sauter-Servaes points out that international air transport has a big commercial advantage in being exempt from VAT and fuel taxes. Among those preparing to board at Vienna station to spend a night on the rails on a recent evening, some told AFP they had chosen a night train with the environment in mind. "It's a small gesture, and it won't stop me taking the plane for my holiday in Madagascar this autumn, but it's better than nothing," said Austrian traveller Yvonne Kemper. David, a 42-year-old from Germany, said he was using the Hamburg service because he needed to get to Goettingen in Germany for a business trip -- a medium-sized town which, typically, is served by night trains but has no airport.
- An Austrian tradition -
OeBB spokesman Bernhard Rieder explained that Austria's attachment to night trains is down to "a tradition stemming from Austria's mountainous terrain, which limited the development of high-speed lines". He added that "the night train sector is distinct in that it can't function without strong cross-border cooperation." "Night trains are and will continue to be a niche market, but that doesn't mean a niche market can't be profitable." But Poul Kattler, from the pan-European "Back on Track" group which campaigns for more cross-border night trains, says the sector should be more ambitious. "If national railway companies were more aggressive in the market and the EU built a truly common rail policy, we could offer a real transport alternative and a very popular European project," he says.
India is bounded by the Himalayas in the north and extends 2000 miles southwards into the Indian Ocean, between the Bay of Bengal on the East and the Arabian Sea on the West. The cou
Most of the country is tropical or sub-tropical and subject to seasonal monsoon winds. This is especially true in the southwestern regions. * New Delhi There are three distinct seasons in New Delhi. Between mid-April to mid-July there is the hot dry season with dust storms. From mid-July to September there is a rainy season and a cooler season from October to March. * Bombay Bombay has a tropical climate and has an annual average temperature of about 270C. The hot humid season occurs in April and May. A monsoon occurs from June to September with about 70" of rainfall. A cool season extends from November to February when the temperatures can drop somewhat. * Calcutta Humidity remains high throughout most of the year. This is especially true between May to October when humidity levels of 90% are common. Most of the rainfall occurs during the monsoon season between June to October. * Madras The climate remains tropical throughout the year. December and January are relatively cool months and the heat increases rapidly from March to June. Premonsoon rains bring relief in July and the temperatures decrease slowly until the cooler season returns in November.
Safety & Security:
For most Irish travellers this will not be a major concern. However, the experience of travelling through any of the major cities is something many tourists will not forget. Taking care on Indian roads is a constantly essential activity. Parts of the country are unstable and recent earthquakes have led to disruptions to the transport infrastructure. As in many other countries travelling alone or late at night is unwise. In Kashmir tourists have been targeted and it is sensible to check you itinerary carefully before you travel throughout the country. In the northeastern part of the country (Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, and Meghalaya) there have been sporadic incidents of violence by ethnic insurgent groups, including the bombing of buses and trains reported.
General Health Issues
It is essential that travellers recognise that there is a higher risk to their health while travelling in India. These risks are mainly associated with malaria and food and water borne diseases but conditions like accidents, rabies, tuberculosis and cholera are also present in many regions.
Food Borne Disease
A vegetarian diet is common throughout the country. Frequently the care taken with food preparation will be below standards usually seen in Western Europe. Work surfaces may be contaminated and food handlers may themselves infect the food before it is served. Cold foods should be avoided, where possible, and travellers should only consume hot food which has been freshly prepared. Stir fries may not reach sufficient cooking temperatures and need to be treated with great care. Shell fish and lettuce should always be avoided as they are one of the main ways food borne diseases are transmitted.
Water Borne Disease
Tap water should NOT be used for drinking or brushing teeth unless the smell of chlorine is obvious. Don’t use water from a jug in the hotel bedroom for anything except general washing. Sealed mineral water bought from your hotel should be used for all consumption and for brushing teeth.
Malaria is usually transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. This may occur throughout India, including all the major cities. The highest risk time is during the monsoon season (May to October approximately) but there is risk throughout the year. Travellers should take care against mosquito bites and maintain their prophylactic tablets during their time in India and also for a further four weeks after leaving the country.
This viral disease is transmitted by any infected warm-blooded animal. Dogs, cats, monkeys etc are frequently involved. Travellers should avoid all contact with animals and any bite (lick or scratch) should be treated by immediately washing out the area, applying an antiseptic and then seeking urgent medical attention. India reports many thousand deaths each year from this dreadful disease.
Most short term travellers should consider vaccination cover against Poliomyelitis, Typhoid, Tetanus and Hepatitis A. Malaria tablets will also be required. For longer trips please contact the Tropical Bureau at the numbers below.
Other Health Information
A full range of information on healthy travelling overseas can be obtained from the educational department of the Tropical Medical Bureau.
Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS
World Travel News Headlines
Damascus, Feb 20, 2020 (AFP) - A bomb explosion wounded two people in Damascus Thursday, the state news agency reported, the latest of several such attacks in the Syrian capital. "An explosive device planted on a pickup truck went off in the Marjeh area" in central Damascus, SANA said, adding that two civilians were wounded by the blast.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the device was a "sticky bomb" planted on a military vehicle, although it was not immediately clear what the target was. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, nor for a similar explosion that wounded five people in another neighbourhood of Damascus on Tuesday. The Syrian capital was routinely targeted by major car bomb attacks in the course of the nine-year-old conflict but blasts have been less frequent since regime forces reclaimed full control of the Damascus region in 2018.
By Laurent Thomet, with Miwa Suzuki in Tokyo
Beijing, Feb 20, 2020 (AFP) - China on Thursday touted a big drop in new virus infections as proof its epidemic control efforts are working, but the toll grew abroad with deaths in Japan and South Korea. Fatalities in China hit 2,118 as 114 more people died, but health officials reported the lowest number of new cases in nearly a month, including in hardest-hit Hubei province.
More than 74,000 people have been infected by the new coronavirus in China, and hundreds more in over 25 countries. The number of deaths outside mainland China climbed to 11. Japan's toll rose to three as a man and a woman in their 80s who had been aboard a quarantined cruise ship died, while fears there mounted about other passengers who disembarked the Diamond Princess after testing negative.
South Korea reported its first death, and the number of infections in the country nearly doubled Thursday to 104 -- including 15 at a hospital in Cheongdo county. The mayor of Daegu -- South Korea's fourth-largest, with 2.5 million people -- advised residents to stay indoors, while commanders at a major US military base in the area restricted access. Iran reported two deaths on Wednesday, the first in the Middle East. Deaths have previously been confirmed in France, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Chinese officials say their drastic containment efforts, including quarantining tens of millions of people in Hubei and restricting movements in cities nationwide, have started to pay off. "Results show that our control efforts are working," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a special meeting on the virus with Southeast Asian counterparts in Laos, citing the latest data. Wang said the situation was "significantly improving" in Hubei and Wuhan, but an official in a central government team dealing with the epidemic said it was still "very severe".
- 'Not turning point' -
Although more than 600 new infections were reported in Hubei's capital Wuhan, it was the lowest daily tally since late January and well down from the 1,749 new cases the day before. The national figure has now fallen for three straight days. Chinese authorities placed the city of 11 million under quarantine on January 23 and quickly locked down the rest of the province in the days that followed.
Wuhan authorities this week carried out a three-day, door-to-door check on residents, with the local Communist Party chief warning that officials would be "held accountable" if any infections were missed. Cities far from the epicentre have limited the number of people who can leave their homes for groceries, while rural villages have sealed off access to outsiders. Richard Brennan, a World Health Organization official, said in Cairo that China was making "tremendous progress" and "trends are very encouraging, but we are not at a turning point yet".
- 'Chaotic' cruise quarantine -
While China has boasted progress in its fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, Japan's government has been criticised for the quarantine measures it placed on the Diamond Princess. The huge vessel moored in Yokohama is easily the biggest coronavirus cluster outside the Chinese epicentre, with 634 cases confirmed among passengers and crew. Another 13 people on board the ship were diagnosed with the virus Thursday, Japan's health ministry said. Still, passengers were disembarking after negative tests and having completed a 14-day quarantine period -- packing into yellow buses and leaving for stations and airports.
Questions were asked over the wisdom of allowing them to mingle in Japan's crowded cities. "Is it really safe to get off?" screamed a headline in the Nikkan Sports tabloid. The paper quoted one passenger who said he was tested on February 15, but only left four days later. "I thought I could be infected during the four days. I thought 'Is it really OK'?"
A specialist in infectious diseases at Kobe University slammed as "completely chaotic" the quarantine procedures on board in rare criticism from a Japanese academic. "The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of infection control," said Kentaro Iwata in videos he has since deleted.
South Korea, meanwhile, announced 51 new cases, with more than 40 in a cluster centred on the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult. The infections apparently came from a 61-year-old woman who first developed a fever on February 10 and attended at least four services before being diagnosed. Local media said she had twice refused to be tested for the coronavirus on the grounds she had not recently travelled abroad. Authorities were investigating whether she might have visited the hospital where a long-term patient contracted the virus and later died.
Some 15 other patients have now been found to have the virus. Shincheonji claims its founder, Lee Man-hee, has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgement. A man in his 60s tested positive for the coronavirus after dying Wednesday following symptoms of pneumonia, South Korean authorities said.
Lagos, Feb 20, 2020 (AFP) - An outbreak of Lassa in Nigeria has killed 103 people this year, health authorities said, as the first confirmed case was reported in the economic hub Lagos. "Cumulatively from week 1 to week 07, 2020, 103 deaths have been reported with a case fatality rate of 17.6%," said the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in its latest statistics on the virus released on Wednesday. The overall number of confirmed cases rose by 115 last week to a total of 586 across the country.
Separately, health authorities in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city with 20 million inhabitants, said an infected person was diagnosed there on February 17 and being treated in isolation in hospital. "Sixty-three people that may have been in contact with the patient and who may have been infected in the process have been identified and are being monitored," the state government wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Endemic to Nigeria, Lassa fever belongs to the same family as the Ebola and Marburg viruses, but is much less deadly. The disease is spread by contact with rat faeces or urine or the bodily fluids of an infected person. The majority of those infected do not show symptoms but the disease can go on to cause severe bleeding and organ failure in about 20 percent of cases.
An outbreak of Lassa fever killed some 170 people around Nigeria last year. The number of cases usually climbs around the start of the year linked to the dry season. While the overall number of confirmed cases and deaths is up this year on the same period in 2019, the mortality rate is lower. Twenty health workers across the country have been confirmed as contracting the disease so far in 2020. The virus takes its name from the town of Lassa in northern Nigeria, where it was first identified in 1969.
By Nicolas DELAUNAY
Les Mamelles, Seychelles, Feb 20, 2020 (AFP) - On a plain suburban street in Seychelles, far from the idyllic coastline and luxury resorts pampering honeymooners and paradise-seekers, heroin addicts queue anxiously for their daily dose of methadone. It is a scene few outsiders would associate with the tropical nirvana adrift in the Indian Ocean, and one rarely, if ever, glimpsed by tourists as they shuttle from the airport to five-star luxury on white-sand beaches.
But life for many Seychellois is far from picture perfect: the tiny archipelago nation is battling what officials say are the world's highest rates of heroin addiction. Nearly 5,000 people are hooked, government figures show, equivalent to nearly 0 percent of the national workforce -- a statistic that has startled the government into action.
In comparison, 0.4 percent of the global population consumed opioids in 2016, half of them in Asia, according to a United Nations report that puts Seychelles among the top consumers alongside producing countries such as Afghanistan. The Seychelles' heroin boom, which took off over the past decade, gripped young and old alike and cut across class lines. Among those queueing in the town of Les Mamelles for methadone -- a substitute narcotic used to wean users off heroin -- are parents with young children, an old man leaning on a cane and a taxi driver between shifts.
Graham Moustache, a 29-year-old father of two, described how the arrival of affordable and high-quality heroin in Seychelles swept up his entire family. "I have four brothers and two sisters, and we have all been heroin addicts at one point," he told AFP, tracing his fingers over the needle scars on his arms. "I've been to prison twice," he said, adding his mother had turned him in as "she didn't know what to do any more". "Sometimes, I didn't have enough to eat and I had to choose between eating and buying heroin. I chose heroin."
- Soaring addiction -
The rise of new trafficking routes through East Africa in the late 2000s, coupled with porous borders and relatively high purchasing power among Seychellois, flooded the paradisal islands with heroin. The average salary in the archipelago is $420 (390) -- high compared to other African nations. The World Bank considers the Seychelles the only high-income country on the continent, thanks to the growing tourism industry. But around 40 percent of the population still lives in poverty.
By 2011, around 1,200 people were addicted, prompting a punitive crackdown. "We did not make a difference between the victim and the trafficker," said Patrick Herminie, director of the state-run Agency for Drug Abuse Prevention and Rehabilitation (APDAR). By 2017, addiction had risen four-fold, placing Seychelles among the world's most drug-dependent nations. The government, realising its war on drugs had failed, changed tack and declared a public health emergency. "The magnitude of the problem is simply because we reacted a bit late," Herminie said.
Money has poured into combating the scourge, with state funds for drug prevention and rehabilitation programmes soaring to 75 million Seychelles rupees ($5.5 million) in 2020 -- almost 10 times the 2016 budget. APDAR, a specialist drug agency created in 2017 to tackle the problem, employs four times as many staff as the body that preceded it. A state-run methadone programme has reached 2,500 people, with medical follow-ups helping to track their progress. But the free availability of methadone has also prompted drug dealers to lower their prices.
Mobile clinics drive around offering methadone to addicts and providing free health checks and advice. "I've been clean for more than a year. I found a job as a fisherman, and I can see my two kids," said Moustache proudly, as he queued at the white methadone van staffed with healthcare workers. Others have struggled to stay the course. "Methadone helps me a lot, but it's difficult not to take heroin at all," said Gisele Moumou, an emaciated 32-year-old addict, drawing ragged breaths and sweating as she waits for her small cup of methadone.
- Stopping the scourge -
Schoolchildren are being taught about the damage done by drugs through awareness campaigns and billboards in classrooms. But there is much work to be done, especially among children from families affected by drug use, says Noellie Gonthier from CARE, a local harm-reduction charity. "Sometimes, four- or five-year-olds at school mimic injecting heroin," she said. "Our challenge is to make them understand that what they consider normal -- because of their family context -- actually isn't at all." On Mahe, a small, mountainous island with lush vegetation, most of the population lives near the water. Life is quiet here, without traffic, and the streets are mostly clean.
Poverty is largely hidden, concentrated in a few neighbourhoods behind faded walls or in the hills. So why do so many Seychellois take drugs? The authorities admit they haven't quite figured it out, but say it appears that while poverty does not quite allow people to live well, it allows them enough money to buy drugs to forget their woes. "The root of the cause, we're still working on it," said Herminie. Early studies show that health and social problems associated with heroin use have declined since the government switched its response from punishment to prevention, officials say.
Crime has nearly halved and annual cases of new hepatitis C infections have fallen 60 percent. Youth unemployment, meanwhile, has shrunk from 6.5 percent to 2.1 percent in recent years. One recovering addict, a taxi driver who did not want to be named, offered a bleak assessment as he waited for his daily methadone in an empty car park in Les Mamelles. "We're a small island in the middle of the ocean. What else is there to do here?" he said.
By Michael O'HAGAN
Otuke, Uganda, Feb 19, 2020 (AFP) - Under a warm morning sun scores of weary soldiers stare as millions of yellow locusts rise into the northern Ugandan sky, despite hours spent spraying vegetation with chemicals in an attempt to kill them. From the tops of shea trees, fields of pea plants and tall grass savanna, the insects rise in a hypnotic murmuration, disappearing quickly to wreak devastation elsewhere. The soldiers and agricultural officers will now have to hunt the elusive fast-moving swarms -- a sign of the challenge facing nine east African countries now battling huge swarms of hungry desert locusts.
They arrived in conflict-torn South Sudan this week, with concerns already high of a humanitarian crisis in a region where 12 million are going hungry, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "One swarm of 40 to 80 million can consume food" for over 35,000 people in a day, Priya Gujadhur, a senior FAO official in Uganda, told AFP.
In Atira -- a remote village of grass-thatched huts in northern Uganda -- some 160 soldiers wearing protective plastic overalls, masks and goggles sprayed trees and plants with pesticide from before dawn in a bid to kill the resting insects. But even after hours of work they were mostly able to reach only lower parts of the vegetation. Major General Kavuma sits in the shade of a Neem Tree alongside civilian officials as locusts sprayed with pesticide earlier that morning fall around them, convulsing as they die. An intense chemical smell hangs in the air.
- 'They surrounded me' -
Zakaria Sagal, a 73-year-old subsistence farmer was weeding his field in Lopei village some 120 kilometres (75 miles) away, preparing to plant maize and sorghum, when without warning a swarm of locusts descended around him. "From this side and this side and this side, they surrounded me," Sagal said, waving his arms in every direction. "We have not yet planted our crops but if they return at harvest time they will destroy everything. We are not at all prepared."
East Africa's regional expert group, the Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC), warned Tuesday that eggs laid across the migratory path will hatch in the next two months, and will continue breeding as the rainy season arrives in the region. This will coincide with the main cropping season and could cause "significant crop losses... and could potentially worsen the food security situation", ICPAC said in a statement.
- 'Panic mode' -
Since 2018 a long period of dry weather followed by a series of cyclones that dumped water on the region created "excessively ideal conditions" for locusts to breed, says Gujadhur. Nevertheless, governments in East Africa have been caught off guard and are currently in "panic mode" Gujadhur said. The locusts arrived in South Sudan this week after hitting Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Tanzania, Sudan and Uganda. Desert locusts take over on a dizzying scale.
One swarm in Kenya reached around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles) -- an area almost the size of Moscow -- meaning it could contain up to 200 billion locusts. "A swarm that size can consume food for 85 million people per day," said Gujadhur. Ugandan authorities are aware that subsequent waves of locusts may pose problems in the weeks to come, but in the meantime they are attempting to control the current generation.
Gujadhur is quick to praise the "quite strong and very quick" response from the Ugandan government but is concerned that while the army can provide valuable personnel, a military-led response may not be as effective as is necessary. "It needs to be the scientists and (agriculture officials) who take the lead about where the control operations need to be and how and when and what time," she said.
- 'They eat anything green' -
The soldiers have been working non-stop for two days, criss-crossing the plains on the few navigable roads, trying to keep up with the unpredictable swarms. Major General Kavuma recognises that the biggest threat is from the eggs which are yet to hatch but is confident the army will be able to control this enemy. "We have the chemicals to spray them, all we need is to map the places they have been landing and sleeping," he said. "In two weeks time we will come back and by that time they will have hatched and that will be the time to destroy them by praying."
Back in Lopei village, Elizabeth Namoe, 40, a shopkeeper in nearby Moroto had been visiting family when the swarm arrived. "When the locusts settle they eat anything green, the animals will die because they have nothing to feed on, then even the people (will suffer)," she said. "The children will be affected by hunger and famine since all life comes from all that is green. I fear so much."
Beijing, Feb 19, 2020 (AFP) - China's President Xi Jinping called Wednesday for greater protection of medical staff fighting the new coronavirus after the deaths of prominent doctors sparked national anger at the government's handling of the outbreak. At least seven medical workers have died from the virus, while 1,716 have been confirmed as infected, most at the epicentre of the epidemic in central Hubei province where hospitals have dealt with a huge influx of patients.
Staff have faced shortages of masks and protective bodysuits, with some even wearing makeshift suits and continuing to work despite showing respiratory symptoms, health workers have told AFP. Xi said China must "strengthen efforts to relieve the stress of medical workers, provide them with daily necessities, arrange time for their rest and give them encouragement", the official Xinhua news agency reported. Liu Zhiming, the director of Wuchang Hospital in Hubei's capital Wuhan, died Tuesday, more than a week after the death of whistleblowing ophthalmologist Li Wenliang in the same city prompted nationwide mourning and calls for political reforms.
- 'Majestic spirit' -
A paper published by China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention said an additional 1,300 health workers may have been infected but have yet to receive a diagnosis. Xi said China must ensure medical teams in Hubei and Wuhan "carry out work in a safe, orderly, coordinated, effective and swift manner", Xinhua reported. The deaths of frontline medical workers "reflected doctors' humane and majestic spirit", Xi said. The death toll from the virus jumped past 2,000 on Wednesday, while 74,185 cases of infection have been confirmed in mainland China.
Tehran, Feb 19, 2020 (AFP) - Two people in Iran tested positive Wednesday for the deadly new coronavirus, the health ministry said, in the Islamic republic's first cases of the disease. Kianoush Jahanpour, a ministry spokesman, said the cases were detected in the holy city of Qom, south of the Iranian capital. "In the past two days, some suspect cases of the new coronavirus were observed in Qom city," he said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
"Teams were dispatched after receiving the reports, and based on the existing protocols the suspect cases were isolated and tested," said Jahanpour. "Out of the samples sent, a laboratory tested two of them as positive for coronavirus just minutes ago and some of the other samples were type B influenza."
The health ministry spokesman said additional tests were being done on the two cases and final results would be announced "as soon as possible". The new coronavirus epidemic has killed more than 2,000 people in China and infected more than 74,000. It has spread to at least two dozen countries. The United Arab Emirates was the first country in the Middle East to report cases of coronavirus last month.