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Laos

Laos - US Consular Information Sheet
March 27, 2008
COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos) is a poor, developing country ruled by an authoritarian, Communist, one-party government. Political power is centralized in the
Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Services and facilities for tourists are adequate in the capital, Vientiane, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, but are extremely limited in other parts of the country. Read the Department of State Background Notes on Laos for additional information.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS:
A passport and visa are required. The Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that visas can be issued upon arrival in Laos to U.S. citizen tourists with two passport-size photographs and $35 at the following ports of entry: Wattay Airport, Vientiane; Friendship Bridge, Vientiane, Pakse and Luang Prabang Airports; Boten-Bohan and Vangtao-Chong Mek. Persons who obtain entry visas prior to their arrival in Laos may also enter at the following international entry points: Huaixay, Khammouane-Nakhonphanom, Savannakhet-Mukdahan, Daensayanh-Laobao, Namphao-Kaopae, and Namkan. Foreign tourists are generally admitted to Laos for 30 days. The Department of Immigration in Vientiane will extend 30-day tourist visas up to an additional 60 days for a fee of $2 per day. Foreigners who overstay their visas in Laos risk arrest and upon departure will be fined $10 for each day of overstay.
The Lao government requires payment of visa fees and fines in U.S. dollars. Thai baht and Lao kip may sometimes be accepted for the fees, but at unfavorable exchange rates.

Foreign tourists who wish to obtain a visa in advance may contact a Lao embassy or consulate. In the United States, visas and further information about Lao entry requirements can be obtained directly from the Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2222 S St. NW, Washington DC 20008, tel: 202-332-6416, fax: 202-332-4923.

Business visas can only be arranged in advance; a company or individual “sponsor” must contact the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Vientiane and request a visa for the traveler by offering a “guarantee.” Once this request is approved by the MFA, the approval will be communicated to the Lao Embassy in Washington, DC and the U.S. traveler may then apply for the business visa. This process normally takes 1-3 months. After the traveler’s arrival, these visas can usually be extended for one month.

U.S. citizens should not attempt to enter Laos without valid travel documents or outside of official ports of entry. Travelers should not cross the border between Laos and Thailand along the Mekong River except at official immigration check crossings. Unscrupulous travel agents have sold U.S.-citizen travelers false Lao visas, which have resulted in those travelers being denied entry into Laos. Persons attempting to enter Laos outside of official ports of entry risk arrest or other serious consequences.
Immigration offices at some of the less-used land border crossing points are not well marked. Travelers should make sure that they complete immigration and customs formalities when they enter Laos. Travelers who enter Laos without completing these formalities may be subject to fine, detention, imprisonment, and/or deportation.

In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated procedures at entry/exit points. These often include requiring documentary evidence of relationship, such as the child’s birth certificate, and permission for the child's travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian not present. Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/departure.

At Wattay Airport (Vientiane), Pakse Airport and the Luang Prabang Airport, there is an international airport departure tax of US$10. This tax may be included in the price of the airline ticket, depending on the carrier.
At the Friendship Bridge (Vientiane, Laos - Nong Khai, Thailand border crossing) there is an overtime fee after 4:00 pm weekdays and during weekends. Visit the web site of the Embassy of Laos in the Untied States at: http://www.laoembassy.com for the more visa information.

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:
In recent years (2003-2005), there were periodic incidents of attacks on buses and other vehicles that killed 22 people; small bombings in public places; and other incidents of violence by anti-government forces. In 2007, the Embassy received reports from multiple sources of sporadic fighting between Lao Government forces and unidentified opponents in the area of Vang Vieng in northern Vientiane Province and in Bokeo Province. The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Laos exercise caution in public places and be alert to their surroundings, since the locations of future violent incidents are unpredictable.
Travelers are advised to be cautious when traveling the roads of Laos and to check with local authorities, transport companies, other travelers, and/or the Embassy regarding any recent developments prior to travel. Road obstacles such as changes in surface conditions due to the weather occur frequently.

The Lao Government security forces often stop and check all transport on main roads. Travelers should comply with requests to stop at checkpoints and roadblocks.
U.S. citizens, especially those considering travel outside urban centers, are advised to contact relevant Lao government offices, such as Lao Immigration Police Headquarters in Vientiane, the Lao Tourist Police, local police and customs offices, or contact the U.S. Embassy for the most current security information. To avoid trouble with the authorities, U.S. citizens traveling outside of normal tourist areas or contemplating any unusual activity (including, but not limited to, engaging in business, extensive photography, or scientific research of any kind) should consider seeking advance permission from the Village Chief, District Head, Provincial Governor, or National Tourism Authority, as appropriate.

More than 100 casualties per year are caused by the large amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos left over from the Indochina War. Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Saravane, Khammouane, Sekong, Champassak, Houaphan, Attapeu, and Luang Prabang Provinces and parts of Vientiane Province are severely contaminated by UXO. In addition, numerous mine fields are left over from the war, including mine fields along Route 7 (from Route 13 to the Vietnam border), Route 9 (Savannakhet to the Vietnam border), and Route 20 (Pakse to Saravane). While traveling in Laos, U.S. citizens should never pick up unknown metal objects and should avoid traveling off of well-used roads, tracks and paths.

U.S. citizens considering travel by air, road or river within Laos are advised to carefully evaluate the relative risks of the three modes of transport (see sections on Aviation Safety Oversight, Traffic Safety, and River Travel below). Travelers should also exercise caution if contemplating swimming in rivers in Laos. Currents can be deceptive and strong.

The whereabouts of three Hmong-American men who went missing in August 2007 after reportedly going on a business trip to Xieng Khouang Province remains unknown. The Government of Laos stated that the three departed Laos, but none of the three has contacted family members in the U.S. since they were last seen in 2007.

U.S. citizens are also advised to exercise caution in remote areas along the Lao border with Burma. Bandits, drug traffickers, and other people pursuing illegal activities operate in these border areas, as do armed insurgent groups opposed to the government of Burma.
Travelers should be aware that from 2004 to 2006, seven Lao- and Hmong-American citizens have been murdered in northern and northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos.
During the same period, a number of non-Americans with ties to Laos have also been murdered in this region of Thailand. In addition, in March 2006 a Hmong-American disappeared from his residence in Chiang Mai along with seven other individuals. In most of these cases, no arrests have been made.
If U.S. citizens, particularly Lao-Americans or Hmong-Americans, must travel to these areas, they should exercise caution and remain vigilant with regard to their personal security. It is also recommended that persons wishing to travel to border areas check first with the Thai Police and the U.S. Consulate General in Chiang Mai or the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok or the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane.
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 pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad.
CRIME:
While Laos generally has a low rate of violent crime, it is not immune from crime. While in Laos, Americans should remain aware of their surroundings and exercise appropriate security precautions. With the introduction of methamphetamines and other illicit drugs, thefts and assaults in Vientiane have increased and some have turned violent.
Bag-snatching is increasingly frequent and sexual assaults have also occurred. Residential burglary is commonplace. Expatriates attempting to report burglaries in progress to the police often find that police telephones are not answered or they are informed that the police are not authorized to respond to criminal activity at night or that they have no transportation. U.S. citizens who move to Vientiane are encouraged to contact the U.S. Embassy for security advice.

Travelers in Vientiane should exercise caution, particularly after dark, at roadside restaurants and stalls near the banks of the Mekong River. Foreigners are often the victims of purse snatchings while sitting down to eat or while riding bicycles or motorcycles in this area. To help ensure the security of valuables and documents carried on their person, travelers may wish to carry them in bags that cannot be easily stolen. U.S. citizens traveling to Vang Vieng should be aware that some tourists have been robbed and assaulted while walking alone to the caves on the far side of the Nam Song River.
Camping at night anywhere except in authorized campgrounds in national parks is dangerous.
Many restaurants in popular tourist locations in the Vang Vieng area offer menu items, particularly “pizzas,” “shakes” or “teas” which may contain unknown substances or opiates. These products are often advertised as “happy” or “special” items. These unknown foods and drinks can be dangerous, causing illness and death.

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 facilities and services in Laos are limited and do not meet Western standards. In Vientiane, U.S. citizens may wish to contact the Primary Care Center also known as the Centre medical de L’Ambassade de France (CMAF), which is supported by the French Embassy.
The CMAF is located on Khou Vieng Road across the street from the Green Park Hotel, Tel. +856-21-214-150, or +856-20-558-4617, email: cmafloa@gmail.com.
U.S. citizens in Laos often seek medical care in Thailand. The Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane, Laos, to Nong Khai, Thailand, is open daily 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Officials generally will allow travelers to cross after hours in cases of medical emergency. AEK International Hospital (tel: 66-42-342-555) and North Eastern Wattana General Hospital, both in Udorn, Thailand (tel: 66-1-833-4262) have English-speaking staff accustomed to dealing with foreign patients. Nong Khai Wattana Hospital in Nong Khai, Thailand (tel: 66-1-833-4262) can handle most simple medical procedures. Ambulances for both AEK International Hospital and Nong Khai Wattana Hospital have permission to cross the Friendship Bridge to collect patients from Vientiane. In Vientiane, the Setthatirat Hospital ambulance (tel: 021-413-720) can take patients to Thailand. The Department of State assumes no responsibility for the professional ability or reputation of these hospitals.

Avian Influenza:
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and Lao authorities have confirmed the presence in Laos of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, commonly known as “bird flu.” In 2007, two Lao nationals died after contracting the H4N1 virus. Travelers to Laos and other countries affected by the virus are cautioned to avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live food markets, and any surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals. In addition, the CDC and WHO recommend eating only fully cooked poultry and eggs. The Lao government’s avian influenza hotline may be reached by calling 166 from anywhere in Laos.
This hotline may be used to report suspected cases of avian influenza in animals or humans, or to obtain information on areas in Laos where avian influenza may have been recently detected.
Operators speak Lao and English.
For the most current information and links on avian influenza in Laos, see the State Department’s Avian Influenza Fact Sheet or visit the website of the U.S. Embassy in Laos.

There is a problem with counterfeit pharmaceuticals throughout Southeast Asia. American citizens should be aware of this problem and purchase pharmaceuticals only through the most reputable pharmacies with a physician’s prescription.

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 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 Laos is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

The number of road accidents and fatalities in Laos has risen sharply in the last decade as the number of motor vehicles has increased. U.S. citizens involved in traffic accidents have been barred from leaving Laos before paying compensation for property damage or injuries, regardless of who was at fault.
A driver involved in a traffic accident should remain at the scene and attempt to contact the police or wait for them to arrive to prepare an accident report.
If renting a car or motorcycle, contact the rental company and its insurance agent.
If there is major damage, injury or death, contact the Consular Section or Embassy Duty Officer.

Traffic in Laos is chaotic and road conditions are very rough. Few roads have lane markings. Where lane markings, road signs, and stoplights do exist, they are widely ignored. Many drivers are unlicensed, inexperienced and uninsured. Driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs is not uncommon, and penalties for such offenses may not be enforced. Theoretically, traffic moves on the right, but vehicles use all parts of the road. Motorcyclists pay little or no heed to cars. Motorcycles carry as many as five people, greatly impeding the drivers' ability to react to traffic. The evening hours are particularly dangerous. Road construction sites are poorly marked, appear with no advance warning, and can be difficult to see at night. Roads are poorly lit, many vehicles have no operating lights, few bicycles have reflectors, and trucks without reflectors commonly park on unlit roads.

Public transportation is unreliable and is limited after sunset. The most common form of public transport is three-wheeled, open-sided taxis called "tuk-tuks.” Automobile taxis or cars for hire are available at the airport, the Friendship Bridge, and most major hotels, and near the Morning Market in Vientiane. Tuk-tuks and taxis are frequently in poor repair, and drivers generally speak little or no English. Inter-city transport is provided by buses, pickups, and trucks, which are also often in poor repair.

Emergency services in Laos are either unreliable or non-existent. Lao road traffic regulations require any driver coming upon a road accident to assist in transporting injured persons to a hospital. Emergency telephone numbers in Vientiane are Fire: 190, Ambulance: 195 or 021-413-720, Traffic Police: 191, Tourist Police: 021-251-128 (only for incidents involving tourists). 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 Laos, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the Lao Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards. For more information, travelers may visit the FAA’s web site at http://www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa.

SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES:
TRAVEL OF FOREIGNERS WITHIN LAOS:
The Lao tourist police have informed foreign tourists that a licensed Lao tour guide must accompany any group of more than 5 foreign tourists; however, this regulation does not appear to be strictly enforced.
The authorities may restrict travel in rural areas outside of popular tourist destinations. Restricted areas may not be marked or even widely known by local citizens. If traveling without a reputable tour guide who is aware of local conditions, travelers should consult with local authorities before entering remote areas away from obvious tourist destinations.
Lao citizens who wish to have a foreign citizen -- including a family member -- stay in their home must obtain prior approval from the village chief. The foreigner may be held responsible if the Lao host has not secured prior permission for the visit. American citizens are strongly advised to ensure that such permission has been sought and granted before accepting offers to stay in Lao homes.
Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephones and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with the local authorities. See Section below on Photography and Other Restrictions.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH LAO CITIZENS:
Lao law prohibits sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law. Any foreigner who enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national risks being interrogated, detained, arrested, or fined. Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5000 on foreigners who enter into disapproved sexual relationships. The Lao party to the relationship may also be jailed without trial. Foreigners are not permitted to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms; police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.

Foreign citizens intending to marry Lao nationals are required by Lao law to obtain prior permission from the Lao Government. The formal application process can take as long as a year. American citizens may obtain information about these requirements from the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. The Lao Government will not issue a marriage certificate unless the correct procedures are followed. Any attempt to circumvent Lao regulations may result in arrest, imprisonment, a fine of $500-$5000, and deportation. A foreigner who cohabits with or enters into a close relationship with a Lao national may be accused by Lao authorities of entering into an illegal marriage and be subject to these same penalties.
A foreign citizen who wishes to become engaged to a Lao national is required to obtain prior permission from the chief of the village where the Lao national resides. Failure to obtain prior permission can result in a fine of $500-$5000. Lao police may impose a large fine on a foreign citizen a few days after he or she holds an engagement ceremony with a Lao citizen based on the suspicion that the couple subsequently had sexual relations out of wedlock.

MARRIAGE:
A Lao Prime Ministerial decree requires that marriages of Lao citizens abroad be registered with Lao embassies in order to be legal in Laos. If an American citizen marries a Lao citizen in the U.S. and then the couple comes to Laos, the American could be subject to penalties under the Lao law governing sexual relationships (above) if the marriage has not been registered beforehand with a Lao Embassy.

RELIGIOUS WORKERS:
Religious proselytizing or distributing religious material is strictly prohibited. Foreigners caught distributing religious material may be arrested or deported. The Government of Laos restricts the importation of religious texts and artifacts. While Lao law allows freedom of religion, the Government registers and controls all associations, including religious groups. Meetings, even in private homes, must be registered and those held outside of established locations may be broken up and the participants arrested.

RIVER TRAVEL:
River travel is common in Laos, but safety conditions do not conform to U.S. standards. In particular, travel by speedboat (local term “fast boat”) is dangerous and should be avoided, particularly during the dry season, which generally occurs from December through April. Travel on or across the Mekong River along the Thai border should be avoided at night. Lao militia forces have shot at boats on the Mekong after dark. Several people have drowned during the rainy season while inner-tubing or swimming in the Nam Song River near Vang Vieng.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND OTHER RESTRICTIONS:
Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest — including bridges, airfields, military installations, government buildings, or government vehicles — may result in problems with authorities, including detention or arrest and confiscation of the camera. Tourists should be cautious when traveling near military bases and strictly observe signs delineating the military base areas. Military personnel have detained and questioned foreigners who have unknowingly passed by unmarked military facilities.
Because of the prohibition on religious proselytizing, travelers should use caution when taking photographs or videotaping non-Buddhist religious services. If attending public services or religious gatherings, foreigners should ask permission from the local police and civil authorities to photograph or videotape. See section above on Religious Workers. Local police may suspect persons using any kind of very sophisticated still or video camera equipment of being professional photographers or possibly photojournalists which may lead to questioning, detention, arrest or deportation by the police.

FINANCIAL TRANSACTIONS:
There are network-connected ATMs in Vientiane, including those operated by the Foreign Commercial Bank of Laos, also know as the Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur de Laos (BCEL). BCEL also has network-connected ATMS in Vang Vieng, and the Provincial capital cities, or “Muang”, of Luangnamtha, Oudomxay, Luangprabang, Khammouan, Savannakhet, and Champasak Provinces.
These machines are generally limited to withdrawals of the equivalent of about $100.00 in Lao kip only. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels and tourist-oriented businesses. Credit card cash advances and/or Western Union money transfers are available at banks in most provincial capitals and other tourist centers. While the government requires that prices be quoted in Lao kip, prices are often given in U.S. dollars or Thai baht, especially in tourist areas or at markets. The Lao Government requires payment in U.S. dollars for some taxes and fees, including visa fees and the airport departure tax.

CUSTOMS/CURRENCY REGULATIONS:
Lao customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Laos of items such as firearms, religious materials, antiquities, foreign currency, cameras and other items. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in Washington for specific information regarding customs requirements. (Please also see section on “Religious Workers” above). There are prohibitions against importing or exporting more than $2500 (U.S. dollar equivalent) of currency without authorization. Contact the Lao Embassy or Lao customs authorities for more details. In many countries around the world, counterfeit and pirated goods are widely available. Transactions involving such products are illegal and bringing them back to the United States may result in forfeitures and/or fines.
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 Lao laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Laos 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.

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 Laos 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 Laos. 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 on Rue Bartholonie (near Tat Dam), in Vientiane; from the U.S., mail may be addressed to U.S. Embassy Vientiane, Unit 8165, Box V, APO AP 96546; Telephone (856-21) 267-000, recorded emergency information for American citizens (856-21) 267-111; duty officer emergency cellular telephone (856-20) 550-2016; Embassy-wide fax number (856-21) 267-190; Consular Section e-mail: CONSLAO@state.gov, Embassy web site: http://laos.usembassy.gov/.
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This replaces the Country Specific Information for Laos dated September 5, 2007, to update sections on Entry/Exit Requirements, Safety and Security, Traffic Safety and Road Conditions, and Financial Transactions.

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Thu, 31 Oct 2019 09:40:50 +0100 (MET)

Loei, Thailand, Oct 31, 2019 (AFP) - The once-mighty Mekong river has been reduced to a thin, grubby neck of water in stretches of northern Thailand -- record lows blamed on drought and a recently completed dam far upstream.   The $4.47 billion Thai-owned Xayaburi hydro-electric power plant went into operation this week in Laos after years of warnings over the potential impact on fish flow, sediment and water levels on a river which feeds tens of millions.

Along parts of Thailand's northeastern border at Loei, the kilometre-wide (3,300-foot) river has shrivelled to a few dozen metres, with boulders and bedrock encasing muddy pools of water.   From above, the encroaching banks of Laos and Thailand are now a thread of water apart, restricting fishing grounds to a slim channel.   Fishermen blame a combination of this year's weak monsoon and the Xayaburi dam, around 300 kilometres (185 miles) to the north.   "I don't want any more dam construction," said fisherman Sup Aunkaew, who tossed a meagre catch into his boat, adding that the fish spawning habits have been "confused" by the unseasonally low water levels.   "But we can't really oppose their plans if they want to do it."

Landlocked and impoverished Laos has set its sights on becoming "the battery of Asia", with 44 operating hydro plants and 46 more under construction many on key tributaries of the Mekong, according to monitor International Rivers.  The Mekong River Commission (MRC), a body governing regional water diplomacy, said the water levels from June to October are the lowest in nearly 30 years.   In Nong Khai, which faces the Laos' capital Vientiane, the water dropped to around one metre (3.2 feet) on Tuesday, several times shallower than average, the MCR said.   Measurements across the river "are significantly below the minimum levels for this time of year and are expected to decreases further", it said in a statement to AFP.   "The concern is for the upcoming dry season."

- 'Death of a thousand cuts' -
Experts say the dam-building frenzy in China and Laos has compounded the drought.   "These are causing the Mekong to die a death of a thousand cuts," said Brian Eyler, author of "The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong".   He said the lower part of the river is at a "crisis point" until rains come again next year.   The Mekong, which rises on the Tibetan plateau and courses through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam -- sustains tens of millions of people along its banks through fishing and agriculture. 

The 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam was built by CKPower -- a subsidiary of the Thai builder and majority shareholder CH Karnchang -- which went ahead with construction despite protests in Thailand, which is buying most of the electricity.   As it began operations the company plastered Thai newspapers with advertising this week referring to the "greatness of the Mekong" and calling the dam "fish riendly".   It did not respond to several requests for comment but the company has trumpeted its commitment to clean, sustainable energy.   In July the dam operator denied tests on the mega-structure were responsible for the river drying up downstream in northeastern Thailand.
Date: Tue, 20 Aug 2019 05:21:07 +0200 (METDST)

Bangkok, Aug 20, 2019 (AFP) - At least 13 Chinese tourists were killed and dozens injured when their bus skidded off the road and plunged 30 metres into a ravine in Laos, a police officer said Tuesday.   The bus was carrying more than 40 Chinese nationals heading towards the tourist town of Luang Prabang when the accident occurred late on Monday.   "At this moment, 13 bodies have been recovered... while two are still missing," police officer Xaiyaphon Chitavong told AFP, blaming brake failure for the accident.   He added that 31 people were receiving medical treatment.    Chinese state media showed photos of rescuers wading through ankle-deep floodwaters.

Traffic accidents in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar are common, with safety regulations often flouted and law enforcement low.    The monsoon season from June to October also drenches rural roads with heavy rains creating slippery conditions.   Tourism to communist-run Laos has grown in recent years, and visitors from China increased by 13 percent in the first half of 2019 compared to the year before, according to the state-backed Vientiane Times.
Date: Sat, 28 Jul 2018 13:48:53 +0200

Attapeu , Laos, July 28, 2018 (AFP) - Rescuers battled thick mud and flood waters across a swathe of remote southern Laos to find survivors of a deadly dam burst that submerged entire villages, as an official suggested faulty construction may have led to the disaster.   The exact number of dead and missing from Monday's dam collapse remains a mystery because of the complexity of the rescue operation in an inaccessible area and the secretive reflexes of Laos's Communist authorities in the face of an unprecedented crisis.

"The search is very complicated, many areas cannot be accessed by cars or boats. Also we have limited modern equipment to bring to the field," deputy secretary of Attapeu province committee Meenaporn Chaichompoo told reporters Friday.   The head of the rescue mission Kumriang Authakaison said Saturday that eight people are confirmed dead, down from 27 reported by officials earlier this week. He added that 123 were confirmed missing.    But conflicting information swirled about how many remain unaccounted for after Chaichompoo said Friday "we can't find 1,126 people", without elaborating. 

Makeshift shelters are packed with thousands of people who fled their homes in panic with just a few hours' notice of the impending disaster, now spending their days on plastic mats waiting for news of missing neighbours.    All karaoke bars and entertainment venues were ordered tone down loud music and celebrations in the province as the nation mourned the calamity, the most devastating to hit Laos's contentious hydropower sector.

A stretch of land dozens of kilometres long and wide was submerged when the Xe-Namnoy dam collapsed after heavy rains.    Slowly retreating floodwaters have cut off access to villages and covered much of the area with thick, sticky mud.      "This is one of the worst (disasters) I've ever seen. Especially because we're not a very strong country in terms of rescue operations," a volunteer rescue worker told AFP, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media.

- Poor construction? -
Days into the treacherous search for survivors, questions are being raised about the quality of the construction of the $1.2 billion dam, a joint venture between South Korean, Laotian and Thai firms.    Operators said it burst after heavy rains in a country regularly battered by monsoons.

But Laos Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said poor design may have contributed to the accident, according to state media and Radio Free Asia.   "It might be construction technique that led to the collapse after it was affected by the rain," he told RFA in an interview broadcast Friday.    One of the Korean firms involved in the project, SK Engineering & Construction, said it was investigating the cause of the dam break and would donate $10 million in relief aid.   The accident has kicked up criticism of Laos' ambitious dam-building scheme as it bids to become a major power exporter, billing itself the "battery of Asia" with more than 50 projects set to o online by 2020.     The majority of energy generated in the tiny, landlocked country is sold to its neighbours, mostly to Thailand where much of it is sucked up in the sweaty, energy-hungry capital Bangkok.

Villagers have complained of being relocated -- sometimes repeatedly -- while river waters crucial for fishing and farming have been diverted, destroying livelihoods in one of Asia's poorest countries.    Downstream countries like Cambodia and Vietnam also fret that their waterways and fishing stocks could be damaged by the hydopower boom in Laos.    The accident has prompted fears over the safety of other dams in the country.   "Most of the dams are built by foreign companies and Laos authorities don't have expert knowledge and management to check for weaknesses or problems, that's our worry," villager Si Wonghajak told AFP.
Date: Thu, 26 Jul 2018 13:09:09 +0200

Attapeu , Laos, July 26, 2018 (AFP) - The torrent of water unleashed in a deadly Laos dam collapse has drained into Cambodia, forcing thousands to evacuate, as rescuers on Thursday battled monsoon rains to find scores of Laotians still missing after entire villages were washed away.   Twenty-seven people have been confirmed dead, with 131 still missing, after the Xe-Namnoy dam collapsed on Monday in a remote southern corner of Laos, leaving villagers with little time to escape.   It is an unprecedented accident to strike the hydropower industry in Laos, where the Communist government has dammed large sections of its myriad waterways to generate electricity that is mostly sold to its neighbours.

The search and rescue effort entered a third day Thursday, with China, Vietnam and Thailand sending in specialists, while villagers picked through their wrecked, mud-caked homes for possessions as the flood waters receded.   Carcasses of livestock floated in the knee-deep waters in a devastated village visited by AFP, as heavy rain pounded the area.   Thousands of villagers downstream in Cambodia have also been forced to flee as the water once held back by the dam flowed south.   "Water is still rising, so more people will be evacuated," Men Kong, a government spokesman in Cambodia's Stung Streng province, told AFP.   Cambodian soldiers ferried villagers and motorbikes from flooded zones on wooden boats, while supplies were handed out to some who found refuge on dry land.

In Laos, Chinese rescuers in life jackets and helmets joined local soldiers searching for the missing Thursday, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, while community volunteers pitched in with private boats to return to villages still submerged.   Residents recalled their terror as water rushed through their homes.   Tran Van Bien, 47, from Ban Mai village close to the ruined dam said he was told to evacuate just two hours before the dam burst on Monday evening, running to a neighbour's house with his family as his home quickly filled with water.   "We were on the roof of that house the whole night, cold and scared. At 4:00 am a wooden boat passed and we decided to send my wife and my kid out," he told AFP from a nearby town where he eventually found dry land.   "My wife tied our child to her body, saying if they died, they would die together rather than being alone."

- 'Insufficient warning' -
The $1.2 billion Xe-Namnoy dam, a joint venture between Laos, Thai and Korean companies, was still under construction in southern Attapeu province when it collapsed after heavy rains pounded the area earlier this week.   Two South Korean companies involved in the project's construction and operation said damage was reported a day before the auxiliary "Saddle D" dam collapsed.   However a timeline from operator Korea Western Power Co. obtained by AFP said 11 centimetres (four inches) of subsidence was spotted at the dam's centre as early as Friday.   The company told AFP it could not yet determine the cause of the collapse.   "It is too early to define whether it was a natural disaster or a manmade disaster," a spokesman told AFP Thursday.

Thailand issued new regulations for its hydro plant operators in Laos this week, ordering companies to report on dam conditions every week and communicate closely with residents.    "If a dam plans to release water they must coordinate with local officials to warn people and to prevent people from panic at least seven days (in advance)," Thailand's Energy and Mining Minister Khammany Inthirath announced Wednesday.   Southeastern Laos is frequently lashed by monsoon rains, and dam operators regularly release water from reservoirs in order to avoid overflow -- or collapse.   The 410 MW Xe-Namnoy project is one of more than 50 hydropower plans underway in Laos, which has billed itself as the "battery of Asia" in its ambitious bid to become a major power exporter in the region.

Laos has said it wants to double its power generation capacity to 28,000 MW by 2020 and has opened its doors to foreign investors -- mainly from China, Thailand and Vietnam -- to build dams across the country.   But the projects have come under fire from rights groups who say local communities are forcibly moved and lose key access to river waters for farming and fishing.   "This tragedy has compounded their suffering," International Rivers said in a statement Thursday.   "Communities were not given sufficient advanced warning to ensure their safety and that of their families. This event raises major questions about dam standards and dam safety in Laos."
22nd July 2017

- National. 7 Jun 2017. 1760 cases with 3 deaths from January-May 2017. Dengue fever cases recorded in the Lao capital city of Vientiane at a higher rate than other provinces in the country.

[Maps of Laos can be seen at
<http://healthmap.org/promed/p/146>. - ProMED Sr.Tech.Ed.MJ]
More ...

World Travel News Headlines

Date: Sun 3 Nov 2019
Source: Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) [edited]

Highlights
- In the reporting week 44 (28 Oct - 3 Nov 2019), 11 new confirmed** cases were reported from Ondo (6) and Edo (5) states with one new death from Edo state.
- From 1 Jan - 3 Nov 2019, a total of 4396 suspected* cases have been reported from 23 states. Of these, 754 were confirmed positive, 19 were probable, and 3623 were negative (not a case).
- Since the onset of the 2019 outbreak, there have been 158 deaths in confirmed cases. Case-fatality ratio in confirmed cases is 21%.
- A total of 23 states (Edo, Ondo, Bauchi, Nasarawa, Ebonyi, Plateau, Taraba, Adamawa, Gombe, Kaduna, Kwara, Benue, Rivers, Kogi, Enugu, Imo, Delta, Oyo, Kebbi, Cross River, Zamfara, Lagos, and Abia) have recorded at least one confirmed case across 86 local government areas [LGAs] - Figure 1.
- 93% of all confirmed cases are from Edo (38%), Ondo (31%), Ebonyi (7%), Bauchi (7%), Taraba (5%), and Plateau (5%) states - Figure 1.
- Predominant age group affected is 21-40 years (range: greater than one month to 98 years; median age: 34 years) - Figure 6.
- The male-to-female ratio for confirmed cases is 1:1 - Figure 6.
- In the reporting week 44, no new healthcare worker was affected. A total of 19 healthcare workers have been infected since the onset of the outbreak in 10 states: Edo (6), Ondo (4), Ebonyi (2), Enugu (1), Rivers (1), Bauchi (1), Benue (1), Delta (1), Plateau (1) and Kebbi (1) with 2 deaths in Enugu and Edo states.
- Nine patients are currently being managed at various treatment centres across the country: Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (ISTH) treatment Centre (7) and Federal Medical Centre, Owo (2).
- A total of 8400 contacts have been identified from 21 states. Of these, 356 (4.2%) are currently being followed up, 7967 (94.8%) have completed 21 days follow-up, while 12 (0.1%) were lost to follow-up. A total of 132 symptomatic contacts have been identified, of which 65 (49.2%) have tested positive.
- National Lassa fever multi-partner, multi-sectoral Technical Working Group (TWG) continues to coordinate response activities at all levels.

Figures [available at the source URL above]
-------------------------------------------
Figure 1 [map]. Randomised distribution of confirmed Lassa fever cases in Nigeria as at 3 Nov 2019.
Figure 2 [map]. LGAs with confirmed Lassa fever cases in Nigeria as at 3 Nov 2019.
Figure 3 [graph]. Epicurve of Lassa fever confirmed cases (754) in Nigeria - week 01-44, 2019.
Figure 4 [graph]. November 2019. Weekly trends of Lassa fever confirmed cases in Nigeria, 2016/week 01-2019/week 44.
Figure 5 [graph]. Confirmed Lassa fever cases in Nigeria with state-specific case-fatality rates (CFR) as at 3 Nov 2019.
Figure 6 [graph]. Age-sex distribution of confirmed Lassa fever cases in Nigeria as at 3 Nov 2019.

*Suspected case describes any individual presenting with one or more of the following: malaise, fever, headache, sore throat, cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, myalgia, chest pain, hearing loss, and either (a) history of contact with excreta or urine of rodents or (b) history of contact with a probably or confirmed Lassa fever case within a period of 21 days of onset of symptoms, or any person with inexplicable bleeding/hemorrhagia.
**Any suspected case with laboratory confirmation (positive IgM antibody, PCR, or virus isolation)
==================
[The 11 new confirmed and 4396 suspected cases indicate that Lassa fever (LF) virus transmission is continuing. Nigeria should be in the period of the year when fewer cases usually occur, as illustrated in the graph in Figure 3 (at the source URL above), but more cases are still occurring. There has been a peak in case numbers between weeks 1 and 11 (January-March) over the past 3 years and probably will be the case again next year (2020).

The number of confirmed deaths has increased by 2 to 158. Fortunately, there are no new healthcare workers infected during this reporting period, and the total number of infected healthcare workers remains at 19, a likely indication that effective barrier nursing and the use of personal protective equipment are being employed. This outbreak remains widespread so far in 2019, with confirmed cases occurring in 23 states, and the number of affected LGAs remains at 86. ProMED-mail readers may wish to see the maps and graphs (Figures 1-6) that are available at the source URL above.

Transmission of LF virus occurs when individuals are in contact with rodent reservoir host excreta or are within healthcare facilities. It would be interesting to know whether the prevalence of Lassa fever virus has been increasing in populations of rodent hosts in areas where human cases are occurring.

Images of the rodent reservoirs of Lassa fever virus:
_Mastomys natalensis_:
_Mastomys erythroleucus_ and _Hylomyscus pamfi_:

There is no mention in the plans above of public education for avoidance of contact with these rodents and their excreta. - ProMED Mod.TY]

[Maps of Nigeria:
Date: Thu 14 Nov 2019
From: Larry Lutwick <lutwick.larry@mayo.edu> [edited]

Over the past 5 days, our health care facility in northwest Wisconsin, USA, has seen 3 women hospitalized with _E coli_ O157 infection. All presented with significant abdominal pain without fever and watery diarrhoea which in 2 progressed to bloody diarrhoea. None of the 3 have manifested any evidence of haemolytic-uremic syndrome. Both of the women seen by the Infectious Diseases service stated that their diet contains a lot of salads.

We would appreciate any reports of upswings in the number of cases of this process in the upper Midwest USA or elsewhere.
--------------------------------------------
Larry Lutwick MD
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
=========================
[Although the classical source of enterohemorrhagic _E. coli_ infections is ground beef, fresh produce as in salad ingredients are also well represented as vehicles of transmission. ProMED would appreciate any further reports as the country health departments work on this as yet small outbreak. - ProMED Mod.LL]

[HealthMap/ProMED map available at:
Wisconsin, United States: <http://healthmap.org/promed/p/250>]
Date: Tue 12 Nov 2019
Source: Daily Times [edited]

[_Naegleria fowleri_] has claimed another life in Karachi on [Mon 11 Nov 2019]. This was the 16th death reported in the ongoing year [2019] because of the disease. According to details, a 28-year-old resident of New Karachi area was brought to a private clinic 4 days ago where he died of the disease during treatment.

According to the researchers, _Naegleria_ has a fatality rate of more than 98%. Infections can happen when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. It cannot be passed person-to-person.

The amoeba travels from the nasal membranes to the brain. Symptoms are initially very mild, including a headache, stiff neck, fever, and stomach pain. Death usually occurs 5 to 7 days after infection.

_N. fowleri_ is a microscopic amoeba, which is a single-celled living organism. It can cause a rare and devastating infection of the brain called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The amoeba is commonly found in warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, ponds, and canals.

Once the amoeba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes PAM (which destroys brain tissue) and is usually fatal. Infections usually occur when it is hot for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels.
====================
[Even though the weather has cooled considerably in northern parts of the country, Sindh province, which includes Karachi, continues to experience hot and humid climate which is conducive to the proliferation of the Naegleria parasite.

A public awareness message from the Government of Sindh Health Department can be seen at

Optimum chlorination is the key measure to prevent _Naegleria fowleri_ infection. In the absence of chlorination of the supply water in the city, residents need to clean water tanks and chlorinate water in the tanks. - ProMED Mod.UBA]

[HealthMap/ProMED map available at:
Date: Tue 12 Nov 2019
Source: Outbreak News Today [edited]

Moncton is a city of some 85,000 people in south-eastern New Brunswick, Canada. In a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) report today [12 Nov 2019], it is reported that a 3rd Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) case this year [2019] -- all 3 cases had cataract surgery at the Moncton Hospital.  In April [2019], Moncton Hospital reported the identification 2 separate cases where a patient with probable Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) had cataract surgery in the facility.

Dr Gordon Dow, division head of infectious diseases at the Moncton Hospital, said even he was shocked when another case of CJD was discovered.  "I think even though there's the overwhelming weight of evidence suggesting that we've had a cluster of sporadic cases, there is no need for public alarm," Dow said. "This is not an indication that there's been an outbreak of CJD."

Prion diseases are rare, fatal, degenerative brain disorders that are thought to occur worldwide in both humans and animals. They belong to the general category of brain diseases called proteinopathies, which also includes Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Although there are several forms of human prion disease, the most common is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).  Since January 1998, Canada has reported 1037 definitive and probable CJD cases and New Brunswick has seen 31 cases during this period.
Date: Mon 11 Nov 2019
Source: Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)

Mexico has become the 1st country in the world to receive validation from the World Health Organization (WHO) for eliminating dog-transmitted rabies as a public health problem. "Eliminating [dog-transmitted] rabies doesn't happen by accident," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "It takes political resolve, careful planning, and meticulous execution. I congratulate the Government of Mexico on this wonderful achievement and hope many other countries will follow its example."

Rabies causes 60,000 deaths each year, mainly in Asia and Africa. In Latin America and the Caribbean, new cases of rabies were reduced by more than 95 percent in humans and 98 percent in dogs since 1983.

"By eliminating human rabies transmitted by dogs, Mexico is showing the world that ending infectious diseases for the next generation is possible and is the right way forward," said PAHO Director, Carissa F Etienne.

Mexico's achievement
--------------------
In order to achieve elimination, the country has implemented a national strategy for the control and elimination of rabies. This includes free, mass vaccination campaigns for dogs, that have taken place since the 1990's with more than 80 percent coverage; continuous and effective surveillance; public awareness-raising campaigns; timely diagnosis; and the availability of post-exposure prophylaxis in the country's public health services.

As a result, the country went from registering 60 cases of human rabies transmitted by dogs in 1990, to 3 cases in 1999, and zero cases in 2006. The last 2 cases occurred in 2 people from the State of Mexico, who were attacked in 2005 and presented symptoms in 2006.

The validation process
----------------------
WHO considers a country to be free of rabies after registering 2 years of zero transmission of rabies to humans. However, there was previously no process to verify the achievement of this goal, until this was developed by PAHO/WHO. Mexico became the 1st country in the world to begin this in December 2016.

The validation process was extensive and included the creation of a group of independent international experts established by PAHO/WHO. It also included the preparation, by Mexico, of an almost 300-page file containing all historical information about the situation of rabies in the country. PAHO and its specialized center in veterinary public health, PANAFTOSA, accompanied and supervised the implementation of the validation process throughout.

The group of experts carried out a mission to Mexico in September 2018 to review the file and verify the country complied with all WHO requirements. In September 2019, the group recommended the Director General of WHO and PAHO validate the elimination.

Moving forward
--------------
In order to sustain elimination, PAHO/WHO recommends continuing all rabies prevention, surveillance and control actions, particularly as rabies virus continues to circulate among wild animals such as bats.

PAHO collaborated with the countries of the Americas to eliminate rabies through technical cooperation, staff training, periodic meetings between those responsible for the issue in-country, and through the provision of recommendations on international standards. As of September 2019, there have been zero cases of rabies transmitted by dogs in humans in the Americas.

In addition to rabies, Mexico eliminated onchocerciasis in 2015 and trachoma in 2017, 3 of the more than 30 infectious diseases and related conditions that PAHO's new Communicable Disease Elimination Initiative in the Region of the Americas has set as a goal for elimination from the continent by 2030.
===================
[This is certainly an outstanding achievement and should be celebrated by all. It is also an example to other countries.  Of course, someone acquiring rabies from a bat would be outside of this situation. This WHO/PAHO validation specifically refers to rabies acquired from dog bites. This is a great milestone. Congratulations Mexico! - ProMED Mod.TG]

[HealthMap/ProMED-mail map of Mexico:
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2019 08:37:15 +0100 (MET)

Jakarta, Nov 18, 2019 (AFP) - An endangered Sumatran Tiger has mauled to death an Indonesian farmer and seriously injured a domestic tourist, a conservation official said Monday.   The fatal attack happened Sunday at the farmer's coffee plantation on Sumatra island where the 57-year-old wrestled with the big cat before it killed him, according to Genman Hasibuan, head of the South Sumatra conservation agency.   "The farmer was attacked while he was cutting a tree at his plantation," he told AFP on Monday.   The mauling came a day after the same tiger attacked a group of Indonesian tourists who were camping at a local tea plantation in South Sumatra's Mount Dempo region.

One of the tourists was rushed to hospital for wounds to his back after the cat stormed into his tent, Hasibuan said.   The animal, which remains loose in the protected-forest area, is believed to be one of just 15 critically endangered tigers in South Sumatra, which has seen five tiger attacks this year, including two fatal incidents, Hasibuan said.

Human-animal conflicts are common in the vast Southeast Asian archipelago, especially in areas where the clearing of rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations is destroying animals' habitats and bringing them into closer contact with people.   In March last year, a man was killed by a tiger in Sumatra's Riau province while several months earlier a tiger also killed a plantation worker in the area.   Sumatran tigers are considered critically endangered by protection group the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with 400 to 500 remaining in the wild.
Date: Fri, 15 Nov 2019 17:12:24 +0100 (MET)

Karachi, Nov 15, 2019 (AFP) - Pakistan has become the first country in the world to introduce a new typhoid vaccine, officials said Friday, as the country grapples with an ongoing outbreak of a drug-resistant strain of the potentially fatal disease.   The vaccine, approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), will be used during a two-week immunisation campaign in southern Sindh province.

Sindh is where most of Pakistan's 10,000 cases of typhoid have been documented since 2017.    "The two-week campaign beginning from today would target over 10 million children of nine months to 15 years of age," Azra Pechuho, the health minister in Sindh province, said in Karachi on Friday.   The new vaccines have been provided by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to the Pakistani government free of cost.

After the two-week campaign, it will be introduced into routine immunisations in Sindh, and in other areas of Pakistan in the coming years.   Pakistan spends a meagre amount of its national resources on public health and a majority of its population remains vulnerable to contagious diseases such as typhoid.   In 2017, 63 percent of the typhoid cases documented and 70 percent of the fatalities were children, according to a joint press release from the Pakistani government, WHO and Gavi.
Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2019 05:50:25 +0100 (MET)
By Abhaya SRIVASTAVA

New Delhi, Nov 16, 2019 (AFP) - A thick grey smog choked New Delhi for the fifth day Saturday, adding to a mounting pollution health crisis, but retired naval commander Anil Charan is one of the vast majority of the city's 20 million inhabitants who do not wear a mask.   Indian media is packed with warnings about the risk of premature death, lung cancer and particular danger to children from PM2.5 -- tiny particles that get into the bloodstream and vital organs -- carried in the smog.   But the smartly-dressed Charan was among shoppers in Delhi's upmarket Khan Market district browsing the luxury clothes and jewellery stores without a mask, seemingly oblivious to the risk.   Many are too poor to afford protection but others simply do not like the way a pollution mask looks.

Charan, wearing aviator sunglasses, said it did not fit his "rough and tough" image.   "I have been brought up in this kind of atmosphere, the smog and all, so I am kind of used to it. And being a naval officer I think if I wear a mask I will think I am a sissy," he said.   Doctors say face masks must be worn and air purifiers used at home and in offices.   There are a variety of masks to choose from. A basic cloth version can cost as little as 50 rupees (70 US cents) but the protection they offer is debatable.    More reputable types start from 2,500 rupees ($34) while some Khan Market stores charge more than 5,500 rupees ($75) for top of the range imported models.

- Bare-faced bravado -
The mask-look worried a lot of the Khan Market shoppers and diners however. Some said the danger had been overblown.   "I know I am risking my health but I am not very comfortable wearing them (masks)," said Ritancia Cardoz, who works for a private company.   "I don't find it appealing," she told AFP.   Lopa Diwan, on a visit to the capital from the provinces, said the Delhi air was "not as bad as it is being made out to be."   "So many people advised me not to go to Delhi because of the pollution but I don't think it's that bad. I don't see people dying," she said.

Pollution -- blamed on industrial and car emissions mixed with stubble fires on thousands of farms surrounding the city -- has been building up each winter for the past decade. The past five years have been particularly bad.   The toxic air cuts short the lives of one million people in India every year, according to government research published earlier this year.    Concentrations of the most harmful airborne pollutants in Delhi are regularly about 20 times the World Health Organisation safe limit. That rams home the city's reputation as the world's most polluted capital.   Some foreign companies and embassies now do not let families move to Delhi, or at least give strong warnings about the pollution.

The Delhi government has given out hundreds of thousands of masks to children and closed schools for four of the past five days. Construction is banned and cars can only go on the roads on alternate days.   But still only a tiny number of inhabitants follow medical advice when outside. Rickshaw drivers who earn about $7 a day on an average say they cannot afford masks.   Chand Babu, a car park attendant at Khan Market, said he could buy one of the cheaper masks but it was too much of a hassle to wear.   "I have to blow the whistle all the time so it's inconvenient."   Babu does worry, however, about his three children who also do not have masks. "They go outside to play. The problem is real, but what do we do, tell me?"
Date: Sun, 17 Nov 2019 14:28:44 +0100 (MET)
By Filippo MONTEFORTE with Charles ONIANS in Rome

Venice, Nov 17, 2019 (AFP) - Venice's St Mark's Square was closed on Sunday as the historic city suffered its  third major flooding in less than a week, while rain lashing the rest of Italy prompted warnings in Florence and Pisa.   Venice's latest "acqua alta", or high water, hit 150 centimetres (just under five feet) on Sunday, lower than Tuesday's 187 centimetres -- the highest level in half a century -- but still dangerous.   "The water has stopped rising," tweeted mayor Luigi Brugnaro, who has estimated damage so far from the invading salt water at over one billion euros (dollars).   "High of 150 centimetres... Venice is working to restart," Brugnaro said after the sea water swamped the already devastated city where authorities have declared a state of emergency.   To the south, Tuscany president Enrico Rossi tweeted a warning of a "flood wave" on the Arno and said boards were being installed on the swollen river's banks in Pisa "as a precautionary measure".

The Italian army tweeted photos of paratroopers helping to bolster river defences in Pisa, with authorities monitoring the same river in Florence after heavy rain made it rise dramatically overnight.   Arno flooding devastated Renaissance jewel Florence in 1966, killing around 100 people and destroying thousands of priceless works of art. Civil protection units in Florence advised citizens "not to stand near the Arno's riverbanks".   Firefighters tweeted footage of a hovercraft being deployed to rescue stranded citizens in southern Tuscany's Grossetano province.

- Brief respite -
The renewed threat from exceptionally high tides in Venice came after a brief respite on Saturday.   Emergency workers removed temporary walkways from St Mark's Square as the water started to rise on Sunday, with only police and soldiers visible at around midday.   The top tourist site had already been shut for several hours on Friday as strong storms and winds battered the region, leaving it submerged by sea surges.

Churches, shops and homes have also been inundated in the Renaissance city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.   A massive infrastructure project called MOSE has been under way since 2003 to protect the city, but the multi-billion euro project has been plagued by cost overruns, corruption scandals and delays.   "We weren't expecting the high waters to be so exceptionally high," said Guido Fulgenzi, who had planned to open his cafe on St Mark's square this week.   "We're paying the price" for the MOSE project not being completed, he said, sloshing around in his flooded kitchen and pointing to Tuesday's high water mark on the wall.   The crisis has prompted the government to release 20 million euros ($22 million) in funds to tackle the devastation.   Culture Minister Dario Franceschini has warned that the task of repairing the city, where more than 50 churches have suffered damage, will be huge.

- Hotel reservations cancelled -
Residents whose houses have been hit are eligible for up to 5,000 euros in immediate government aid, while restaurant and shop owners can receive up to 20,000 euros and apply for more later.   Most of the city's cash machines were no longer working, making life even more difficult for tourists and Venetians.   "We didn't expect there to be so much water, now we're soaked," said French tourist Magali Mariolou, visiting Venice for her wedding anniversary.   "We'll come back another year when it's a bit drier. The boots are heavy, they're full of water!"

Older residents who remember the infamous "acqua alta" of 1966, when the water rose to 1.94 metres, say they have not seen such frequent flooding before.   Hotels reported cancelled reservations, some as far ahead as December, following the widespread diffusion of images of Venice underwater.   Tuesday's high waters submerged around 80 percent of the city, officials said.   Many, including Venice's mayor, have blamed the disaster on global warming and warned that the country prone to natural disasters must wake up to the risks posed by ever more volatile seasons.   The Serenissima, as the floating city is called, is home to 50,000 residents but receives 36 million visitors each year.
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2019 06:41:11 +0100 (MET)

Wellington, Nov 18, 2019 (AFP) - Samoa finalised plans for a compulsory measles vaccination programme Monday, after declaring a state of emergency as a deadly epidemic sweeps the Pacific nation.   At least six fatalities, including five children, have been linked to the outbreak of the virus, which has also hit other island states such as Tonga and Fiji.   Samoa is the worst affected with more than 700 cases reported from across all areas of the country, prompting the government on Friday to invoke emergency powers.

Declaring a state of emergency, the government said plans for compulsory measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) immunisations would be published on Monday.   "MMR vaccinations for members of the public who have not yet received a vaccination injection is now a mandatory legal requirement for all of Samoa," it said.   A national emergency operations centre to coordinate the measles response in the nation of 200,000 people was opened on Monday, with children aged six months to 19 years and non-pregnant females aged 20-35 given priority.

However, no information was immediately available on how the vaccinations would be administered or whether those who were not immunised would face sanctions.   Children are the most vulnerable to measles, which typically causes a rash and fever but can also lead to brain damage and death.   Samoa has closed all schools, kindergartens and the country's only university in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.   New Zealand, which is experiencing its own measles outbreak in the Auckland region, will this week send 30 nurses, 10 doctors and 3,000 MMR doses to Samoa.

University of Auckland immunologist Helen Petousis-Harris said even though measles was already widespread, the mass rollout of vaccinations could help limit the number of cases and reduce the death count.   She said it was also important to boost Samoa's low levels of immunisation and help prevent future outbreaks.   "In Samoa, the proportion of people who are immune to measles is very, very low, one of the lowest in the world," she told AFP.   "So if they aren't able to improve that, this is going to happen again."   The country's vaccination programme was briefly suspended last year when two babies died shortly after being given the MMR vaccine.   Subsequent investigations found the problem was not the widely used vaccine but the fact that nurses had prepared it incorrectly.

Neighbouring Tonga last week announced government primary schools and kindergartens would be closed until later this month as the number of measles cases in the kingdom approaches 200.   Fiji has reported four cases but says they are contained to a township west of the capital Suva.