Anthrax – the bug that keeps on giving

So, in addition to all the other problems that Zimbabwe faces, which are too many, too varied and far too well-documented to even think about listing here, and following hot on the heels of the recent cholera outbreaks, anthrax has now reared its ugly head.

Anthrax can kill when infected meat is touched, or eaten or when infected spores are inhaled. A quarantine zone has been declared in the affected areas of Matebeleland North, but because of the desperate hunger in the region some families are still eating infected meat. Traders have also been seen taking potentially infected carcasses out of the restricted zones to trade in Victoria Falls, which risks the disease spreading across Zimbabwe and even over the border into neighbouring Zambia. 

An emergency assessment by the Save the Children and the Ministry of Health found 32 cases of human anthrax in Binga district. Anthrax infections have also killed 160 livestock, as well as two elephants, 70 hippo and 50 buffalo. But with symptoms lying dormant for up to 21 days or more and no communications in the region, the death toll could already be higher.

In all likelihood, this outbreak is due to the breakdown in veterinary services and the routine vaccination of livestock – a similar effect was seen with diphtheria in the independent states formed when the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990’s. And while the lack of vaccination is probably the main reason behind this new threat to Zim and its people, it is ably assisted by a general lack of medical resources including antibiotics, a shortage of food and no decent communication network throughout the country.

This isn’t Zimbabwe’s first anthrax outbreak. In fact, the country holds the dubious record of the largest ever human anthrax outbreak, which occurred during the civil war in 1979/80, with close on 11,000 human cases and 182 deaths. The spores of Bacillus anthracis from that episode almost 30 years ago are the little buggers responsible for this new outbreak. What I didn’t know until recently was that there is evidence, albeit nothing concrete, that the 79/80 outbreak was probably caused by deliberate release (i.e. biowarfare) as part of the bitter conflict which was taking place at that time.
Much like landmines once the war is over, the spores don’t just disappear once the epidemic has passed. Vaccination of livestock has kept the disease at bay since independence, but the spores have just been hanging around, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
Thanks to Mr Mugabe, it’s now turned into a talent contest for bugs. Pop Die-dol. Strictly Come Dying. Whatever. I’m not sure Zimbabwe can take any more. Microbiologically, it’s pretty interesting though.

UPDATE: Nice piece by Rowan Philp in the Sunday Times on what life is actually like in Zim right now.

Telegraph confusion

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, The Telegraph newspaper (more specifically, hack Francisca Kellett) has helpfully put together a list of the twenty most dangerous places on earth to visit. And there, right behind Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya and just missing out on a medal is our dear own South Africa, although, as Kellett admits, seemingly almost with an air of disappointment:

 …most visits to the country are trouble-free.

which doesn’t sound ever so dangerous, now does it?
South Africa beats some tough competition to finish so high up the list though, including the DRC, Sudan and world homocide leader, Columbia. Iran is apparently fine, while Somalia doesn’t even warrant a mention, so I assume it’s safe to go there too. I wouldn’t advise arriving by boat though.

Indeed, it seems that something of a dichotomy exists within the ranks of The Telegraph, since it was less than 6 months ago that they were giving away 90 tickets to travel to South Africa. And it was less than 6 days ago that Cape Town, in… er… South Africa won the award for Readers’ Favourite World City from… er… The Telegraph. Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

Look further into the Telegraph’s extensive Travel section and you will find Jeremy Vine‘s verdict of Cape Town:

I realised it was the perfect place to be in the middle of the British winter: you leave a damp, grey Britain, and 12 hours later you’re in a sunny Cape Town. Fantastic!

Or Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ “Heaven on earth“:

I have an abiding love for the area – known as Cape Province when I was a boy – and I go back as often as possible. All in all, the Western Cape is just a fabulous part of the world and will always have a special place in my heart.

All of which makes Kellett’s rating of 4th most dangerous place on the planet seem slightly lonely, slightly foolish, slightly… well… bewildering, really.

I could stop there, but – hey, they don’t – so neither will I.

  • Novelist John Fullerton loves Cape Town for its laid-back atmosphere, beautiful setting and rich mix of cultures.
  • Douglas Rogers returns to South Africa’s Karoo to find it transformed into a hip new tourist destination.
  • Katie Derham: South Africa. You’ve got to go there. The beaches, the food, the vineyards, the animals.
  • When you’ve done the Big Five, hunt for mementos in Cape Town’s great craft shops, says Lisa Grainger.
  • Ant’s Nest, a private game reserve three hours north of Johannesburg, is the perfect place to stay with a child, writes Clover Stroud.

I’m not denying that SA has a crime problem – that would be simply foolish. However, I don’t think that it rates as being more dangerous for a tourist than, for example, Iran or Somalia. 

Francisca Kellett knows better, of course. Her winter break this year will be in safe and sunny Mogadishu.

SA’s HIV policies revisited

Since Thabo Mbeki’s resignation and the big cabinet clearout in honour of my birthday in September (who can even guess what the ANC may get me next year?), we have been blessed with a new Minister of Heath, Barbara Hogan. Babs (as she may or may not be known to her friends) has paradoxically inherited one of the easiest and most difficult jobs on the planet.  
Easiest because there’s absolutely no way she could do a worse job that her predecessor. Like managing England after Steve McClaren; becoming PM after Gordon Brown; presenting You’ve Been Framed after Lisa Riley.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was just rotten – perhaps almost as bad as Riley. Indeed, it has since been suggested that her (Manto, not Riley) and Mbeki’s outrageous denial of the link between HIV and AIDS and their subsequent (lack of) policies were responsible for the deaths of 330,000 people between 2000 and 2005. Barbara is going to have to be pretty ropey to even come close to matching that unfortunate legacy.

But on a (far) more serious note, South Africa is facing a massive crisis regarding HIV, exacerbated by those delays in implementing ARV drug rollout and adequate prevention policies since 1999. Hogan must now turn that around. Tomorrow – World AIDS Day – is her first big day and her plans have already been given the boost of £15million from the UK, something that was unthinkable under Mbeki and Manto:

On Monday, World Aids Day, she is to announce a return to the National Aids plan, dropped under Mr Mbeki’s rule, at a stadium event designed to mobilise the nation in the fight against the epidemic. The high-profile media campaign to raise awareness is planned, including persuading famous people to have themselves tested for HIV.

UK International Development minister Ivan Lewis said it was vital that Ms Hogan succeed in overturning myths about HIV/Aids. He said: “For too long, South Africa has been fighting Aids with its hands tied behind its back. Those ties have now been removed and the country has a fantastic opportunity to finally turn the tide in its struggle against this epidemic. Barbara Hogan has set a bold and exciting vision on HIV and Aids and that is why the UK is fully committed to working with her as she embarks on this new approach.”

Further good news in the fight against HIV is the Violari et al paper [PDF] mentioned in that BBC article, suggesting that early HIV diagnosis and implementation of antiretroviral therapy in neonates reduced early infant mortality by 76% and HIV progression by 75%. Startling.
One of the first tests of Hogan’s intentions and ability will be how quickly and effectively she is able to implement these sort of findings in her policies in order to start saving lives and redressing the appalling recent record of the SA Government on HIV.

Everyone is this country is affected in some way – directly or indirectly – by the scourge of HIV and AIDS. I think that because of that, together with the hope of a new dawn of availability of ARV drugs, HIV prevention, better education and care under Hogan, tomorrow will be probably the most marked and most optimistic recognition of World AIDS Day here in South Africa for many years.

Not blameless

The flyers for last night’s Cape Argus newspaper were still clinging to the streetlight poles in an act of abject defiance against the gusty south-easter as I crawled my way in to work this morning, decrying (amongst other stuff) another accident involving a city cyclist and a motor vehicle.
Once again, in this rather unfair duel between 1500 kilograms of car and 150 kilograms of bloke on bike, the latter seems to have come off rather badly. No surprises there.
The Argus has had a bit of a bee in its bonnet (as newspapers are wont to do) regarding these sort of incidents, which – once again – is no surprise since it is the co-sponsor of South Africa’s largest cycling event each year. This also explains their hugely one-sided approach to the whole issue. Because, let’s face it – cyclists are a menace anywhere in the world, but they have taken it to a whole new dimension on the streets of the Mother City – and most especially on the roads of the Cape Peninsular. I hesitate to use the word “tossers”, but only because it would upset my mum. (Be warned, Goblin’s mum doesn’t read her blog.)

Don’t get me wrong: I recognise that the deaths or injuries of these people is terrible. But simply blaming the car drivers completely misses the point. Cyclists are anything but blameless. No licences, no registration, no lights, no insurance and – in the vast majority of cases – absolutely no regard for the rules of the road or other road users. 
I almost killed one in Kalk Bay the other day when he decided to go straight on from the left hand turn lane (I was using said lane for the evidently unprecedented purpose of turning left).
Whose fault was that? But who would have got the blame? Ooh – I wonder.

But the Argus is completely blinkered, even giving us some unconnected background information on injured cyclist, Steve Ryan and his wife, Lara:

The couple are from Johannesburg, and moved to Cape Town in April. Ryan has participated in several cycle tours in Johannesburg and completed five Comrades Marathons.

So what? In fact, I have found that those individuals who have attained such dizzying heights of athletic achievement are often the worst offenders. Perhaps they think of themselves as superhuman or invincible. Or just too “special” to bother with that red traffic light. 
Not, of course, that I am suggesting Mr Ryan was in any way to blame for the accident he was involved in. I’m sure he was riding safely, respecting other road users, obeying traffic signals etc etc like all good cyclists do.

I’m not advocating the widespread slaughter of anyone on a bike, tempting as that may be. All I’m asking is for due consideration to be given to the possibility that in the event of an accident, the individual previously on two wheels may actually be at fault once (or twice) in a while. Given the standard of many of the cyclists on the road, it’s not that hard to imagine.

Chair man set to sue

The interwebs in South Africa was set ablaze last week by the unfortunate incident which befell the Chairperson of the Finance Portfolio Committee, Nhlanhla Nene, live on SABC2. To cut a not ever so long story short, the chair he was sitting upon (as you do) while being interviewed, collapsed. And his job title – Chairperson – geddit?
This has led to him being the laughing stock of South Africa, and, since the video has now had close on 500,000 views on YouTube – the world.

But this all happened last week and this whole story should be finished, gone, disappeared into the annals of internet history. And indeed, we would all have moved on if it weren’t for the actions of one man: Mr Nhlanhla Nene. He’s now threatening to sue the SABC for… well… “something” because of the embarrassment he has suffered. As 5fm’s Breakfast DJ Gareth Cliff mentioned this morning – with each serious comment Nene makes about the incident, the more comical it becomes. If only he could just laugh along with us… but no.

I wasn’t going to show you the video. It’s old news and while it is quite funny, there’s really only so much amusement that one can derive from a bloke falling off a chair on live TV.

But, since he wouldn’t let it lie:
Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you Nhlanhla Nene: a fat bloke with no sense of humour.

Heh heh – he fell off his chair. Again.