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With no rebel surrender, UN mission in DR Congo readies military operations

INTERNATIONAL – With the deadline for the unconditional surrender of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) having passed on 2 January, and no significant additional surrenders of FDLR combatants registered since June, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is working to address the situation, a UN spokesperson said today.

He said the Mission would work with regional and international stakeholders including the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which established the deadline for the FDLR’s surrender, as well as with national partners.

“The Congolese Army will play an essential role in operations against the FDLR. The UN Mission and the Congolese Army have developed a joint military plan for operations against the FDLR,” said UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric at a press briefing in New York.

“Shaping operations have already commenced. MONUSCO has pre-positioned its troops and enablers to support offensive operations against the FDLR in keeping with its mandate,” he added.

Earlier today, MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler updated the Security Council via video-conference on the FDLR and on the general security situation in the country, reporting the arrest of the Force de Résistance Patriotique de l’Ituri (FRPI) leader, Cobra Matata in Délé, on 2 January.

He also pointed to support given by MONUSCO to the Congolese Army during an attack against Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces rebels in North Kivu on 3 January, which killed five rebels and captured two others.

The six-month grace period for the full and unconditional surrender of the FDLR expired Friday. At that time, the UN and its partners urged that “all necessary measures” be taken to disarm the rebels, who have had a “long history of heinous crimes” in the DRC.

In anews releaseissued Friday, a team of international envoys that included Mr. Kobler and the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Said Djinnit noted with concern that the FDLR has not met this deadline.

“Instead, the FDLR has used this six-month grace period to continue to commit human rights abuses against innocent people in eastern DRC, recruit combatants, and champion its illegitimate political agenda,” said the news release.

“Ending the threat of the FDLR is not just a DRC responsibility; it is a regional and international responsibility. We all have a deep commitment to ensuring accountability for those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide,” the release continued.

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EBOLA: This is a global crisis. We have no Plan B and Should not be Complacent

INTERNATIONAL/WEST AFRICA – The newly appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, arrived this morning, Saturday, January 3rd, 2015 in Accra, Ghana, where he officially begins his duties next week as head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER).

Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed will be taking over for Mr. Anthony Banbury.

Speaking with UNMEER staff at a town hall meeting on January 3, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed praised their achievements but also noted the challenges in battling the deadly outbreak.

“This is a global crisis. We definitely have a difficult time ahead of us, but we can achieve it,” Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed said. “We have no plan B, we have to get rid of this virus. This is within our reach, but we should not be complacent.”

According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) figures, there are 20,206 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola and 7,905 reported deaths.

“We need to keep going until we don't have even one case, because even one case is too many,” he said. “The work ahead remains very hard but we really have no other choice.”

Outgoing Head Anthony Banbury welcomed Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, saying, “Even while we face a lot of hard work in the days, weeks and months ahead, it's important to pause and think back to where we were when we started. There were predictions that there would be 1.4 million cases by now.”

Ould Cheikh Ahmed will be visiting Liberia and Sierra Leone next week, then Guinea shortly after, to reinforce UNMEER's strategic priorities and see first-hand the Ebola response. He will be accompanied by UN Special Envoy on Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro.

According to UNMEER, the three affected countries now have sufficient capacity to isolate and treat 100 percent of confirmed Ebola patients and enough burial teams to ensure safe and dignified burials for 100 percent of all deaths due to Ebola.

Before his new appointment, Ould Cheikh Ahmed served as Deputy Special Representative and Deputy Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

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EBOLA: 1.4 Million Cases Does Not Materialize. Current figures of infections are over 20,000 up to January 2015

INTERNATIONAL – Delivering his final press conference as head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), Anthony Banbury today pointed to significant progress in tackling the outbreak since he was appointed in September last year, while stressing that zero cases is the only acceptable outcome in the “big battle” with the disease.

“It’s important to remember where we were when we started,” Mr. Banbury told journalists in Accra, Ghana, where the Mission is headquartered. “At the time, there were predictions of up to 1.4 million cases of Ebola by the start of the year…Here we are in January and we have a total of around 20,000 cases instead of 1.4 million. That’s 1.4 per cent of what was being projected as a possibility by credible scientists back in September.”

As Mr. Banbury prepares to hand over the reins of UNMEER to Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed on Saturday, he was able to point to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report on the epidemic, which counted 20,206 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola and 7,905 reported deaths.

His last trip to review progress in the three most affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone revealed an increased number of isolation beds in all three countries, with two beds per patient in Guinea, 3.5 in Sierra Leone, and 14 in Liberia.

With support from UNMEER and other partners, all three countries also have capacity sufficient to isolate and treat 100 per cent of confirmed Ebola patients and enough burial teams to ensure safe and dignified burials for 100 per cent of all deaths due to the disease.

Despite the progress, Mr. Banbury said several challenges remain, including the geographical dispersion of Ebola. There was also a need to change community behaviours and reduce resistance to the massive interventions attempted.

“We are engaged in a big battle with this disease,” he said. “It’s an insidious, invasive disease that attacks people through acts of caring and kindness…It’s going to be extremely hard for us to bring it down to zero but that is what we will do. That is the only acceptable outcome.”

According to Mr. Banbury, setting such ambitious targets is an “obligation” in order to bring the crisis to an end as quickly as possible. To achieve it, he said effective community engagement would be essential and underlined the need to maintain vigilance and commitment as the number of cases continues to drop.

“It’s a bit like putting seatbelts in cars,” he said. “If you have seatbelts in cars you can save a lot of lives, but only if people use those seatbelts.”

Stressing the “heavy responsibility” on the UN, he said that working with affected communities was a privilege.

UNMEER announced that Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed will be visiting the affected countries next week to reinforce the Mission’s strategic priorities. Before his new appointment, the Mauritanian national was Deputy Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.

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Latest incidents show need for European action to protect migrants at sea

INTERNATIONAL – A senior United Nations refugee official today stressed the need for urgent action by European nations to protect migrants at sea following recent incidents involving hundreds of people stranded in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach the continent.

Vincent Cochetel, Europe Bureau Director for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in a statement that the arrival in Italy today of a cargo ship carrying some 450 migrants is part of “an ongoing and worrying situation” that European Governments can no longer ignore.

According to media reports, nearly 800 migrants were rescued from another ship found abandoned without any crew earlier in the week.

The use of ships of such size marked a new trend, Mr. Cochetel noted, while underlining the need for urgent and concerted European action in the Mediterranean Sea, along with more efforts to rescue people at sea and stepped-up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages.

“Without safer ways for refugees to find safety in Europe, we won’t be able to reduce the multiple risks and dangers posed by these movements at sea,” he said. “UNHCR thanks the Italian authorities for their response to these latest incidents, despite the phasing down of the Mare Nostrum operation.”

He emphasized his concerns about the ending of that operation despite the absence of a similar European search-and-rescue operation to replace it.

“This will undoubtedly increase the risk for those trying to find safety in Europe,” he said.

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Wisdom of the heart to recognise the image of God in the sick

VATICAN CITY (VIS) – The Pope's message for the 23rd World Day of the Sick 2015 begins with a phrase from the Book of Job: “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame”, explained from the perspective of “sapientia cordis”, the wisdom of the heart that “is not theoretical, abstract knowledge, the product of reasoning”, Pope Francis remarked, but rather “a way of seeing things infused by the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of those who are sensitive to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters and who can see in them the image of God”.

World Day of the Sick, instituted by St. John Paul II in 1992, is held on 11 February, feast day of the Virgin of Lourdes. The full text of the Message is published below:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters,

On this, the twenty-third World Day of the Sick, begun by Saint John Paul II, I turn to all of you who are burdened by illness and are united in various ways to the flesh of the suffering Christ, as well as to you, professionals and volunteers in the field of health care.

This year’s theme invites us to reflect on a phrase from the Book of Job: 'I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame'. I would like to consider this phrase from the perspective of 'sapientia cordis' – the wisdom of the heart.

1. This 'wisdom' is not theoretical, abstract knowledge, the product of reasoning. Rather, it is, as Saint James describes it in his Letter, 'pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity'. It is a way of seeing things infused by the Holy Spirit in the minds and the hearts of those who are sensitive to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters and who can see in them the image of God. So let us take up the prayer of the Psalmist: 'Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom'. This 'sapientia cordis', which is a gift of God, is a compendium of the fruits of the World Day of the Sick.

2. Wisdom of the heart means serving our brothers and sisters. Job’s words: 'I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame', point to the service which this just man, who enjoyed a certain authority and a position of importance amongst the elders of his city, offered to those in need. His moral grandeur found expression in the help he gave to the poor who sought his help and in his care for orphans and widows.

Today too, how many Christians show, not by their words but by lives rooted in a genuine faith, that they are 'eyes to the blind' and 'feet to the lame'! They are close to the sick in need of constant care and help in washing, dressing and eating. This service, especially when it is protracted, can become tiring and burdensome. It is relatively easy to help someone for a few days but it is difficult to look after a person for months or even years, in some cases when he or she is no longer capable of expressing gratitude. And yet, what a great path of sanctification this is! In those difficult moments we can rely in a special way on the closeness of the Lord, and we become a special means of support for the Church’s mission.

3. Wisdom of the heart means being with our brothers and sisters. Time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son, who 'came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'. Jesus himself said: 'I am among you as one who serves'.

With lively faith let us ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the grace to appreciate the value of our often unspoken willingness to spend time with these sisters and brothers who, thanks to our closeness and affection, feel more loved and comforted. How great a lie, on the other hand, lurks behind certain phrases which so insist on the importance of 'quality of life' that they make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!

4. Wisdom of the heart means going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters. Occasionally our world forgets the special value of time spent at the bedside of the sick, since we are in such a rush; caught up as we are in a frenzy of doing, of producing, we forget about giving ourselves freely, taking care of others, being responsible for others. Behind this attitude there is often a lukewarm faith which has forgotten the Lord’s words: 'You did it unto me’.

For this reason, I would like once again to stress 'the absolute priority of “going forth from ourselves toward our brothers and sisters” as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift'. The missionary nature of the Church is the wellspring of an 'effective charity and a compassion which understands, assists and promotes'.

5. Wisdom of the heart means showing solidarity with our brothers and sisters while not judging them. Charity takes time. Time to care for the sick and time to visit them. Time to be at their side like Job’s friends: 'And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great'. Yet Job’s friends harboured a judgement against him: they thought that Job’s misfortune was a punishment from God for his sins. True charity is a sharing which does not judge, which does not demand the conversion of others; it is free of that false humility which, deep down, seeks praise and is self-satisfied about whatever good it does.

Job’s experience of suffering finds its genuine response only in the cross of Jesus, the supreme act of God’s solidarity with us, completely free and abounding in mercy. This response of love to the drama of human pain, especially innocent suffering, remains for ever impressed on the body of the risen Christ; his glorious wounds are a scandal for faith but also the proof of faith.

Even when illness, loneliness and inability make it hard for us to reach out to others, the experience of suffering can become a privileged means of transmitting grace and a source for gaining and growing in “sapientia cordis”. We come to understand how Job, at the end of his experience, could say to God: 'I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you'. People immersed in the mystery of suffering and pain, when they accept these in faith, can themselves become living witnesses of a faith capable of embracing suffering, even without being able to understand its full meaning.

6. I entrust this World Day of the Sick to the maternal protection of Mary, who conceived and gave birth to Wisdom incarnate: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

O Mary, Seat of Wisdom, intercede as our Mother for all the sick and for those who care for them! Grant that, through our service of our suffering neighbours, and through the experience of suffering itself, we may receive and cultivate true wisdom of heart!

With this prayer for all of you, I impart my Apostolic Blessing”.

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Seven ships in Port on New Year's Eve, Over 14,000 Cruise Passengers

PORT ST. MAARTEN – Cruise destination St. Maarten ended the year 2014 by receiving over two million cruise passengers for that year.  This milestone was reached on New Year’s Eve which saw seven ships in port bringing over 14,000 cruise passengers on December 31st, 2014 to the island.

Four ships were moored alongside cruise pier one and another two vessels at cruise pier two and one anchored in Great Bay.

The vessels in port on that day were: Albatros (536 cruise passengers approximately), Celebrity Reflection (3,046), Oasis of the Seas (5,400), Prinsendam (790), Seven Seas Navigator (490), Thomson Celebration (1,254) and Ventura (3,100).

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Most intense Ebola transmission in West Africa reported in western Sierra Leone

INTERNATIONAL – The number of Ebola cases is fluctuating in Guinea, decreasing in Liberia and showing signs the increase has slowed in Sierra Leone, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reported today, December 31, 2014 as the UN development agency said it is helping the Liberian Government build border posts to cut the cross-border spread of infection in West Africa.

“Infections in Liberia’s Eastern border region have spiked recently as tight-knit cross-border communities spread the disease across the often porous border,” the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in apress release, adding that 49 new Ebola cases had been recorded in the border county of Grand Cape Mount in December, including 12 in the past four days.

UNDP Director for Liberia, Kamil Kamaluddeen, was quoted as saying that “the official border crossings from Sierra Leone into Grand Cape Mount are all patrolled, however, there are a number of places where it's possible to cross without detection.”

Motorbikes, tents, communications equipment and personal protective equipment will be also be provided for eight border crossings in remote areas bordering Sierra Leone, which will allow immigration as well as health workers to operate at the border, according to the development agency.

The outgoing head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), Anthony Banbury, has acknowledged the difficulty in getting response workers to some of the remote areas, but noted the importance being present out in the districts. Mr. Banbury’s tour of duty ends on January 3, 2015 and he will be succeeded by Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania as the head of UNMEER.

WHO, in itslatest updateissued today Wednesday, December 31, 2014, said the number of Ebola cases was fluctuating in Guinea and decreasing in Liberia, although Liberia reported more cases in the week ending 28 December than in the previous week.

WHO also said there are signs that the increase in incidence has slowed in Sierra Leone. “However,” it noted, “the west of the country is still experiencing the most intense transmission of all affected countries.”

To date, Ebola has affected more than 20,000 people with over 7,800 deaths, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“Interventions in the three countries continue to progress in line with the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response aim to conduct 100% of burials safely and with dignity, and to isolate and treat 100 per cent of EVD [Ebola Virus Disease] cases by 1 January, 2015,”according to WHO.

A total of 678 health-care workers are known to have been infected with Ebola up to the end of 28 December 2014, according to WHO, 382 of whom have died. The total case count includes 2 healthcare workers in Mali, 11 in Nigeria, 1 infected in Spain while treating an Ebola-positive patient, 1 in the United Kingdom who became infected in Sierra Leone, and 3 in the United States including 1 infected in Guinea, and 2 others infected during the care of a patient in Texas.

WHO also reported that the so-called Western Area Surge – an operation by the Government of Sierra Leone, WHO and UN partners – is intensifying efforts to curb the disease in the western parts of the country, particularly Freetown and neighbouring areas, to break chains of transmission, identify cases for early isolation and treatment, and conduct safe burials.

UNMEER said that in support of the Western Area Surge, USAID airlifted two urgently needed ambulances from Monrovia to Freetown, and the World Food Programme (WFP) has taken a series of measures to strengthen the capacities of its forward logistics bases.

The UN Mission also reported that the logistics commission of the National Ebola Response Cell of Guinea has said it needed more than 4,300 thermometers, including the thermo-flash, no-contact variety for medical facilities country-wide, as well as some 5.6 million pairs of surgical gloves for all health facilities.

In Guinea, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) handed over 10 ambulances to national authorities for the fight against Ebola, and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) more than $1 million worth of materials, including kits for Ebola survivors and pregnant women, as well as hand washing kits for maternity and youth centres. The donation also included 222 bikes and 36 motorcycles to facilitate contact tracing in affected communities.

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Sint Maarten becoming a Resilient Island City of the Future

PHILIPSBURG - 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation (100RC), is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

With the New Year 2015 just around the corner, the people and Sint Maarten as a country needs some positive developments to look forward to in 2015. Things that we as a community can contribute in one way or the other based on a national effort with a vision for 2015.  We should not allow the New Year to open on a pessimistic note, but on a note of optimism, because the future is ours for us to shape accordingly.  We are an island of the future and we must build resilience in a changing world.

Sint Maarten people have shown resilience time and time again.  We are a unique and determined people.

Country Sint Maarten could be referred to as the ‘Island City of Sint Maarten’ since everything is located so densely together.  There are other countries in the world that are referred to as city-states, and our country could fit into the same category.

What is one of the things that we could look for too in starting to build in 2015?  What about becoming one of the 100 resilient cities pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation? (100RC)

100RC supports the adoption and incorporation of a view that includes not just the shocks, earthquakes, fires, floods, etc., but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis.  Some of these stresses include high unemployment, over taxation, inefficiencies, endemic violence, or chronic water and food shortages.

According to 100RC, by addressing both the shocks and the stresses, a city becomes more able to respond to adverse events, and is overall better able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad, to its entire population.

Cities in the 100RC network are provided with the resources necessary to develop a roadmap to resilience along four main pathways: 1. Financial and logistical guidance for establishing an innovative new position in ‘city’ government, a “Chief Resilience Officer,” who will lead the city’s resilience efforts; 2. Expert support for development of a robust resilience strategy; 3. Access to solutions, service providers, and partners from the private, public and Non-Governmental Organization (NGOs) sectors who can help them develop and implement their resilience strategies; and 4. Membership of a global network of member cities who ca learn from and help each other.

Through the aforementioned actions, 100RC aims not only to help individual cities become more resilient, but will facilitate the building of a global practice of resilience among governments, NGOs, the private sector, and individual citizens.

100RC began working with its first group of 32 cities in December 2013.  The first Caribbean country to be a part of 100RC is the city of Santiago de Los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, that was selected in 2013.

In 2014, the group received 330 applications from 94 countries for the second cohort.  35 new member cities were selected with San Juan, Puerto Rico being one of the selectee cities in the Caribbean. The next round of the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge is set to open in 2015.  Will we be up for it in 2015?

Selected cities receive funding to hire a Chief Resilience Officer; assistance in developing a resilience strategy; access to a platform of innovative private and public sector tools to help design and implement that strategy; and membership in the 100 Resilient Cities Network.  

The Rockefeller Foundation has committed US$100 million to the 100 Resilient Cities project with the 100 winners in the end becoming models for other cities around the world. 

Our country is surrounded by the deep blue Atlantic Ocean on one side the Caribbean Sea on the other.  Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as ours are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.  Global climate change is expected to increase natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and drought. 

In addition, to climate change, population growth and urban development are increasing the vulnerability of SIDS to natural disasters, particularly in urban and coastal areas.  Country Sint Maarten has seen and experienced most recently the damages caused by Hurricane Gonzalo in October and the inclement weather of heavy persistent rain that flooded homes in Philipsburg and surrounding environs back in November.

Country Sint Maarten has nothing to lose by becoming one of the 100 Resilient Cities Network in 2015, but more to gain. (Commentary - Roddy Heyliger)

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Today World Much Better Prepared to Mitigate Tsunami Disasters

INTERNATIONAL - It has been ten years since a massive tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean killing more than 200,000 people and devastating coastline communities from Indonesia to Somalia. Today, the world is much better prepared to mitigate such disasters, senior United Nations officials have declared.

“Ten years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the world has taken significant measures to make the world a safer place against disasters,” confirmed Margareta Wahlström, the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), in apress releaseissued on Boxing Day to mark the anniversary.

“We now have more efficient early warning systems and better evacuation procedures in place,” she added. “There is also greater understanding and awareness globally of the broad damage that disasters can inflict on our societies.”

The world's worst recorded natural disaster hit the Asia Pacific region in December 2004, claiming the lives of 227,000 people and leaving the livelihoods of some 1.4 million survivors in tatters. While the immediate economic loss caused by the event was estimated at $9.9 billion, the tsunami has also inflicted long-term environmental and development harm as salt water contaminated the land, wiping out agriculture and damaging forests and ecosystems.

At the same time, the widespread devastation and sheer immensity of the disaster spurred the international community into immediate action. Just three weeks after the tsunami, countries united in Hyogo, Japan, to craft the Hyogo Framework for Action – the world's first comprehensive agreement on disaster reduction.

“Since the Indian Ocean tsunami and the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action in 2005, there have been substantial changes in the global thinking regarding disaster risk reduction issues,” Ms. Wahlström, who helped coordinate the international disaster response a decade ago and is currently in the tsunami-affected region to attend commemorative events, continued.

“The tsunami acted as a wake-up call and made us understand how vulnerable we are to hazards. We cannot avoid natural hazards, but we know enough to certainly prevent them from becoming disasters.”

A “major life-saving measure” to emerge from the tsunami tragedy, the UNISDR press release noted, was the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, which now provides alerts through three regional watch centres - in India, Indonesia and Australia - and via a network of 26 national tsunami information centres. In 2012, it disseminated early warnings within eight minutes of the Banda Aceh, Indonesia earthquake.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wahlström explained, another “great lesson” of the tsunami was that coastal urban areas should be built in “a more sustainable and responsible way,” ensuring that they are able to withstand the brunt of future hazards.

“We must become more intelligent and aware in managing the risks around the location of critical infrastructure in hazard prone areas, whether the threat comes from floods, storms, earthquakes, heat waves or something else.”

The Hyogo Framework for Action, which expires in 2015, will soon be replaced as countries gather next year in Sendai, Japan, to develop a new disaster-preparedness plan to complement global agreements on climate change and sustainable development goals while also enhancing effective early warning systems.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Government of India today, in fact, announced “a major new contribution” of $1 million to the ESCAP Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness in Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian Countries. The Asia Pacific region, according to the UN, continues to remain “highly vulnerable to coastal hazards.”

In apress releasewelcoming the boost in funding, Shamshad Akhtar, the Executive Secretary of ESCAP, said the cash injection would help strengthen early warning systems and ensure that those communities that remain vulnerable receive timely warning information in the event of a disaster.

The partnership highlights the new directional shift adopted by the international community as Member States increasingly pivot from reactive to proactive approaches, emphasizing anticipative, multi-hazard risk reduction with prevention and mitigation of natural disasters.

With 200 million people in Asia and the Pacific affected each year by a broad range of natural disasters between 2003 and 2013, and with the cost of those disasters averaging $34 billion each year between 2001 and 2010, the change in approach is essential.

Early disaster warning systems and clearly marked tsunami evacuation routes are evident in countries such as Thailand, which established a dedicated Government Department of National Disaster Prevention and Mitigation following the tsunami. In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, flood protection dykes have been built and there is a nationwide early warning system for flooding.

The 2004 tsunami has had an impact on the focus of UN development work in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Ten years on we have all learned lessons from the tsunami aid operation that have fundamentally altered the way we work,” Ted Chaiban, Director of Programmes of the UN Chilrden's Fund (UNICEF), affirmed in apress release. “We have prioritised helping countries hit by disasters such as the tsunami to build back better – constructing earthquake-resilient schools, introducing safer water supplies, ensuring schools prepare children for emergencies and improving legal and social measures to protect children.”

In the Philippines, UNICEF's education programme now includes emergency drills in schools that help prepare children for potential disasters, including the typhoons that regularly strike the country. Meanwhile, in Laos and other countries in the region, the UN agency installed disaster-resistant raised hand pumps in schools.

“UNICEF is determined that the legacy of the Indian Ocean tsunami must be more disaster-resilient societies for children – both in the region and around the world,” Mr. Chaiban concluded.

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Number of babies born with HIV declined 78% in Latin America and the Caribbean, says new PAHO/WHO report

LATIN AMERICA/CARIBBEAN -  The number of babies born with HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean declined by 78% between 2001 and 2013, according to a new report from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The report, Elimination of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV and Congenital Syphilis in the Americas, takes stock of progress in the region's countries toward the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

Using data from PAHO, UNICEF and UNAIDS, the report estimates that 10,700 babies were born with HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2001. By 2013, the number had declined 78% to just over 2,300, representing around 5% of all babies born in the region to mothers with HIV. The countries and territories of Latin America and the Caribbean have set the collective goal of reducing that proportion to less than 2% by 2015. So far, nine countries and territories have reached that goal: Anguilla, Barbados, Canada, Cuba, Jamaica, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the United States.

"Ensuring that all children in the Americas are born HIV-free is possible, and countries have already made progress toward that goal," said Massimo Ghidinelli, chief of PAHO/WHO's HIV/AIDS, Sexually Transmitted Infections, and Hepatitis Unit. "We need a final push to ensure that 100% of pregnant women have access to sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV testing and antiretroviral treatment, which can save their lives and reduce the chances of transmitting the virus to their babies."

In 2013, 87% of the 11 million women who gave birth in Latin America and the Caribbean attended at least four prenatal visits, a benchmark for adequate prenatal care. An estimated 74% had access to HIV testing and counseling—up from 62% in 2010—and 93% of HIV-positive mothers-to-be received antiretroviral treatment, a significant increase over the 59% who received treatment in 2010 and only two percentage points short of the target for 2015.

"The region of the Americas has strong health systems, and many women are accessing prenatal care not just once but four times," said Chewe Luo, UNICEF's top expert on HIV. She cited the integration of HIV testing into health systems as another success story in the Americas, but said gaps remain in providing prenatal services for adolescent girls.

Progress toward elimination of congenital syphilis

The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean made more modest progress toward the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of syphilis, which can be prevented through early detection and treatment of affected women. Fifteen out of a total of 50 countries and territories in the region have achieved the goal of no more than one in 2,000 babies being born with syphilis, the target set for 2015.

Among women who received prenatal care in reporting countries, more than 80% were tested for syphilis. This level of coverage has been stable since 2011 but falls short of the target coverage rate of 95%.

Very few countries report data on the number of pregnant women who have syphilis and are receiving treatment. Among the countries that do, the proportion varies from 13% to 100%, with seven countries and territories reporting that 95% or more of pregnant women with syphilis received treatment in 2013.

The report notes that further progress in reducing mother-to-child transmission of syphilis will require improvements in early access to prenatal care, increased use of rapid syphilis testing—a simple procedure that can be performed on site—and better follow-up for women who test positive.

Ghidinelli said PAHO/WHO will redouble its efforts to mobilize resources to help countries eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

The report Elimination of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV and Congenital Syphilis in the Americas was presented last week during a panel discussion organized by PAHO/WHO as part of a series of activities for World AIDS Day. In addition to PAHO/WHO and UNICEF experts, representatives of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also participated.

Quick facts on mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis in Latin America and the Caribbean:

  • 2,324 babies were born with HIV in 2013
  • 10,700 babies were born with HIV in 2001
  • 52,000 children and adolescents aged 14 and under are living with HIV
  • 78% was the decline in the number of babies born with HIV from 2001 to 2013
  • 93% of pregnant women attended one prenatal visit in 2013
  • 87% of pregnant women attended four or more prenatal visits in 2013
  • 94% of births in 2013 were attended by skilled health personnel
  • 74% of pregnant women were tested and received counseling for HIV in 2013
  • 81% of pregnant women were tested for syphilis in 2013
  • 9 countries and territories have achieved the target for eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV
  • 15 countries and territories have achieved the target for eliminating congenital syphilis
  • 7 countries and territories have eliminated both diseases

*Source: Elimination of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV and Congenital Syphilis in the Americas, based on data from PAHO, UNICEF and UNAIDS

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