Q&A with WHO: Cholera vaccine stockpile - a new tool to avoid needless suffering

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The World Health Organization (WHO) has activated for the first time a new cholera vaccine emergency stockpile to protect hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict in South Sudan and living in temporary camps.

Although there is currently no outbreak of cholera - an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water - the risk is high due to poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding, the WHO said.

With WHO coordinating the campaign, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Feb. 22 started vaccinations for 94,000 people in Minkaman camp in Awerial county, and the humanitarian organisation Medair was to vaccinate an additional 43,000 in camps in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.

Two oral doses of the cholera vaccine are required for an individual to be protected. The campaign begins with an initial round of vaccinations followed after a required 14-day interval by a second round. 

William Perea, the WHO’s coordinator for the control of epidemic diseases, spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Geneva about the emergency stockpile - which is managed by WHO, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), MSF and UNICEF - as a tool to fight cholera.

Q: What is the cholera vaccine and the emergency stockpile?

A: The cholera vaccine has been around for a while. The first once was licensed in 1991.

What we are trying to do with the emergency stockpile is say… let’s create a stockpile that will allow access to countries that would have the need to use the vaccine. We had to put some conditions and criteria around the stockpile, otherwise it’s not manageable.

We have already more than 15 years of experience with emergency stockpiles of vaccines (for diseases) like meningitis and yellow fever. We used that experience that has proved effective to make vaccines available to countries that would not otherwise have access.

Q: Why is this vaccine not used more widely?

A: One of the main reasons for not using the vaccine is (some humanitarian aid sectors say) this vaccine will divert resources, and the problem with cholera is something that can be fixed with water and sanitation measures, and we shouldn’t use money on vaccines to control disease.

We at WHO… think it’s worth trying and seeing whether or not we can count on this tool and integrate it into a larger palate of control measures.

Q: When was the cholera stockpile set up?

We convened a meeting in 2012, and decided to establish this stockpile. By June, we were able to raise enough funds to establish a 2 million-dose stockpile. In July, we talked to manufacturers and started getting the vaccines around the last quarter of 2013.

We still don’t have the 2 million yet, because the manufacturers have not been able to produce the 2 million right away. We have around 1.5 million, and this is the first time we are using it.

Q: Where is the stockpile kept?

A: It’s kept at the manufacturing level (in India). We tried many things with (the vaccine stockpiles for) meningitis and yellow fever. We decided not to have a physical stockpile anywhere because of practical issues and issues with shelf life. We pre-pay for the vaccine, we set up procurement and logistics for transport and shipping in as short a time as possible.

Q: How much does this cost - both the vaccine as well as overall logistics?

A: The Shancol vaccine is around $1.80 a dose. Dukoral is a bit more expensive, around $4 to $5. Both vaccines are given in two-dose course.

The operational costs are related to shipping vaccines to the country, and making sure the vaccine is delivered to the people… between $1 to $2 additional per person, to make sure the vaccine is in the mouth of the people.

This is one of the things we need to document very well, but the experience we have is that operational cost really varies a lot. It can go from less than $1 up to $6.

Q: Where could the stockpile be useful?

A: The guideline for the vaccination is that it is for use in emergency situations, rather than prevention in cholera endemic populations.

However - again because this is the previous experience we have with yellow fever - if we know every year the vaccine has not been used for response to outbreaks because it was not requested or there was no need… our intention is to propose (the remaining vaccines) for preventive vaccination, to use them before expiration.

In WHO, we need to remind the world that for Latin America to control and eliminate cholera from the continent in the 1990s, we didn’t need the vaccine.

There are other things that can and should be done to control cholera, but… in situations where we know water and sanitation improvements will take longer and be difficult, (we can) try to use a tool that will help avoid needless suffering.

In camps in Iraq, or in Mexico where there have been outbreaks, they can control them without the vaccine because they have medical and WASH infrastructure and strong programmes that can deal with that without the use of the vaccine.

This is not the situation in South Sudan, where the WASH situation is so poor and healthcare limited - an outbreak would be catastrophic.

It’s not like yellow fever - if you don’t vaccinate, you don’t protect people, period. You have to vaccinate (with yellow fever), measles is the same. With cholera, it’s different.


Thai businesses rue political gridlock as economy falters

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Bangkok’s middle classes have been at the heart of a three-month protest movement to topple Thailand’s government, but as the strife drags on and the economy wilts the capital’s business owners are starting to feel the pain.

While the most committed say they are prepared to swallow the losses for as long as it takes, others say it is time for the protests to stop. No one is willing to bet on negotiations to end the political stalemate any time soon.

"I just want these protests to end," said Pornthep Chaisri, manager of Indie’s Kitchen restaurant in the Silom business district near one big protest camp, which has seen customer numbers fall by around 80 percent.

"It’s not good for business, or for the safety of those of us working in this zone. Some of my employees have to walk 5 km to get to work because buses can’t get in here."

The protesters want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down and an unelected “people’s council” to push through unspecified political reforms. To achieve that they have blockaded big intersections in the capital and forced ministries and state agencies to close.

Yingluck called a snap election but voting was disrupted on Feb. 2 and she looks likely to head a caretaker administration for many weeks yet, unable to take policy decisions and needing permission from the Election Commission for much spending.

"We’re trying to find a channel for dialogue but we’re not talking to the protesters or the government," said Payungsak Chartsutthipol, head of the Federation of Thai Industries, one of several business groups that have tried to mediate.

He said his organisation might appeal directly to the Election Commission to get certain budgets approved.

"The impact on business is not just in the protest areas now. It has spread much further. Merchants are being affected, and people can’t sell … Whether it’s hotels or small vendors, everyone is affected," Payungsak said.

A university survey released on Thursday showed consumer confidence, which reflects views on the economy, jobs and future income, fell to a 26-month low in January.

Thailand’s central bank slashed its growth forecast for this year to 3 percent last month and warned it could be lower as the unrest, which began in November, had affected consumption and investment.


In those areas where traffic has been blocked since a “shutdown” began on Jan. 13, shops and restaurants have lost from 50 to 80 percent of their business.

Chai Srivikorn, president of the Ratchaprasong Square Trade Association, home to upmarket malls and hotels, said daily retail sales in the area had fallen by 60 percent and hotel occupancy had dropped to 20 percent from 85-90 percent.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is popular in Silom, drawing cheering workers from their offices whenever his supporters march through, and some local business people back him.

"If my business fails and the government falls, too, then I’m willing to make the sacrifice," said the owner of a tea shop in the posh Dusit Thani hotel right opposite the protest camp, declining to be named. His business was empty and he was enjoying a smoke in the cigar shop next door.

Customers had dropped by almost three-quarters, but he shrugged off the losses. “It’s not such a huge impact that it would affect my business so much. This is just a hobby,” he said, waving his hand through the air dismissively.

In a nearby women’s clothing boutique, where sales have dropped by a half, Tanawan Khontanarak fumed at such indifference.

"Those people are rich, but we’re not rich. If my store is ruined, then I’ll die - not just me, my entire family," she said bitterly, pointing towards the protest stage.

"My suppliers tell me the same thing: ‘Be patient.’ But if I don’t have the money to pay them, will they be so patient with me? I don’t think so. They say, ‘When the government quits, things will be better,’ but I don’t think they will be." (Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)


Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar become “merchandise” in Thailand - HRW

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rohingya Muslims fleeing by boat to escape violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state have become “lucrative merchandise” for authorities and traffickers in Thailand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, as a fresh bout of bloodletting in the volatile state prompted demands for an investigation.

The U.S. and U.N. have urged Myanmar to investigate reports that security forces and Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya in Rakhine state’s Maungdaw township earlier this month. The government has denied there has been any mass killing.

The number of dead has not been confirmed, but advocacy group Arakan Project put the death toll between 10 and 60, while a statement from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay put the figure at more than 40.

Pillay’s statement said the U.N. has received “credible information” about the violence in Du Chee Yar Tan village, which began on Jan. 9, when local Rakhine villagers attacked and killed eight Rohingya Muslim men. On Jan. 13, Rohingya villagers captured and killed a police sergeant, while later that evening, police and local Rakhine killed at least 40 Rohingya Muslim men, women and children, it said.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Friday it had treated 22 people who had apparently been wounded last week around the time of the reported massacre.

HRW said on Friday that it had received reports that police have “orally issued a blanket order permitting the arrest of all Rohingya men and boys over the age of 10 in the area.”

The incidents could not immediately be independently verified because the areas are off limits to journalists and the government strictly controls access by international aid groups.

Any deaths this week would add to the tally of at least 237 people killed in religious violence across Myanmar since June 2012, which has also displaced more than 140,000 people. Thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar aboard rickety boats, making perilous voyages across the Indian Ocean in the hope of reaching safety as refugees.

The exodus of Rohingya by sea has created a profitable enterprise for authorities and traffickers in neighbouring Thailand, HRW’s Thailand researcher Sunai Phasuk told a news conference in Bangkok.

He said Rohingya boats were intercepted, the migrants put in custody and deported “unofficially right into the hands of traffickers.”

“Throughout this process, there is a profit to be made by any agency involved. Rohingya have become lucrative merchandise for Thai officials guarding the border by sea and by land, and those in charge of enforcing immigration law all have benefited from the plight of the Rohingya,” Sunai said.

In-depth reports by Reuters and Thomson Reuters Foundation have detailed theapartheid tactics being used against the Rohingya, the resulting mass exodus by boat, as well as their falling prey to human traffickers in Thailand.

Human Rights Watch warned that sectarian violence in Rakhine had “metastasised” around Myanmar.  “In previously fairly stable areas, where Buddhist and Muslims coexisted for a very long time, you really saw organised but also spontaneous and organic anti-Islamic feeling,” Myanmar-based researcher David Mathieson said at the news conference in Bangkok.


Myanmar releases 96 former child soldiers, jails one for desertion

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Myanmar army has released 96 more former child soldiers as part of its effort to prevent and end underage military recruitment, the United Nations said, while news emerged of a former child soldier being sentenced to one year in prison for desertion.

The soldiers’ release on Saturday was the largest since the Myanmar military signed an action plan in June 2012 with a U.N.-led task force under which a total of 272 former child soldiers have now been freed.

However, the Irrawaddy Burmese news website reported on Wednesday that one former child soldier - recruited in 2009 at age 17 - was arrested in December and sentenced on Jan. 7 to one year in prison for deserting his unit.

Critics say the army’s efforts under the accord, reached with the task force comprising U.N. agencies and the NGOs World Vision and Save the Children, have been insufficient.

Human Rights Watch child rights expert Jo Becker said last May that a year into the action plan, “the Burmese military has failed to meet even the basic indicators of progress.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a report also issued last May that while underage recruitment continued, there appeared to be a steady decrease, with 172 verified cases in 2009, 134 in 2010, 123 in 2011, and 32 in 2012. Most recruits were 14 to 17 years old, but some were as young as 10.

“Recruiters continued to target working and unaccompanied children at workplaces, bus and train stations, ferry terminals and markets and in the streets, and orphans and non-working children in home villages and wards,” the report said.

Non-state armed groups similarly recruit and use children, the United Nations said, and it urged the seven listed non-state armed groups also to sign up to their own action plan with the task force.

In an email interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Bertrand Bainvel, the UNICEF representative in Yangon and co-chair of the task force, responded to questions about the child soldiers released. Here are excerpts of his responses.

Q: How were these child soldiers discovered?

A: Some of the discharged children have been identified by the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) themselves, by the battalions and training schools, through the review of their own records and through the self-identification of children in the army.

Some children have also been reported by families and communities to the ILO (U.N. International Labour Organization) complaints mechanism.

Other children have been identified through a CTFMR (Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting on grave child rights violations).

Q: How were they forced or lured into soldiering?

A: Some children joined the armed forces while others have been forced or deceived into joining.

Some children have been deceived into joining the armed forces, indicating they were enticed by individual soldiers or by civilian brokers with the promise of jobs and a good salary, and then forced to enlist. In some cases, underage recruits indicated they only became aware of their official recruitment after receiving uniforms or being sent to training school.

Families are sometimes unaware that there are restrictions on children serving in the armed forces. In response to this, the joint action plan also focuses on prevention of recruitment and awareness-raising across the public at large.

Q: How many children are still being used by the Tatmadaw? Are children still being recruited, and is this a problem from the central government level, or more in the provinces, where perhaps policies have yet to reach?

A: No verifiable data exists on the number of children recruited by the Tatmadaw. However, we know that from 2004 to December 2013, 760 children have been demobilised from the Tatmadaw and over 400 provided with reintegration support back into their communities.

Instructions and directives have been given from central level to stop the recruitment of children in the Tatmadaw but challenges may still occasionally arise on the implementation level.

The public can report the recruitment of children through a CTFMR-operated hotline, 09421166701 or 09421166702, from 7 am to 10 pm. A call back service is provided for broken calls and missed calls outside these hours.


Authorities detain two men suspected of trafficking 16-year-old girl in typhoon-hit Philippines

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Philippine social welfare authorities earlier this week detained two men trying to fly out of typhoon-devastated Tacloban city with an unrelated 16-year-old girl, a U.N. spokeswoman said, raising concerns about the trafficking of minors in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster.

U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the incident - the first such detected by authorities since Typhoon Haiyan hammered the central Philippines on Nov. 8 - was not a clear-cut case of trafficking.

A Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) official at the Tacloban airport Migration Outflow Desk on Monday spotted “a 16-year-old girl travelling with two adult men she did not seem to be related to,” Tan said.

DWSD officials, registering displaced people travelling to Manila, saw that the girl’s family name differed from those of her companions on the forms they filled in.

“When the names of the trio didn’t match, DSWD brought the girl aside for further questions. She admitted she did not really know the men, who offered to take her to her parents in Manila,” Tan wrote by email late Wednesday night from Tacloban. “But from what I hear, her story has been quite inconsistent so the authorities don’t have the full picture yet.”

Tan, who confirmed the details with the DSWD official on Thursday morning, said the girl was in the DSWD’s care, and police were investigating the case. It was not clear if the men were still in detention, Tan said.


Child protection agencies commonly warn that after disasters or during emergencies, children are at elevated risk of trafficking, exploitation and abuse, especially if they have lost their parents.

After fighting between government forces and separatists displaced more than 100,000 in the southern Philippines, a 6-year-old girl was raped in September at an overcrowded evacuation centre in Zamboanga - a city known to be a human trafficking route.

“After disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami that affected Indonesia and Sri Lanka, many children who had lost or been separated from their families were trafficked and forced to work, provide sexual services or beg on the streets,” Emily Pasnak-Lapchick, a fellow with the End Trafficking project at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, wrote on the agency’s website.

“It is estimated that thousands of children were trafficked in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. With a large youth population spread over more than 7,000 islands, the situation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan has the potential to be even worse.”

Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 5,500 people and displaced 4 million, of whom UNICEF estimates 1.8 million are children.

Guidelines to ensure children do not become victims of trafficking include the following:

  • Conduct a rapid assessment of the situation of children.
  • Prevent the separation of children from caregivers and facilitate the identification, registration and medical screening of separated children, particularly those under five years of age and adolescent girls.
  • Ensure that family-tracing systems are implemented.
  • Provide interim care for separated children until they are reunited with their families, placed in foster care, or other long-term care arrangements have been made.
  • Ensure that children who are travelling during emergencies are with their parents or other primary caregivers. The government can put a temporary moratorium on the adoption of children until all children can be properly identified and the process of family tracing is completed.

After12 years of progress, a return to Taliban-style justice?

Author: Alisa Tang

An Afghan woman in a burka walks past a beauty salon in Kabul September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Afghanistan isdrafting a law that would punish convicted adulterers by stoning them to death, a troubling sign that human rights advances made since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 - especially for women and girls - may be crumbling.

Women for Afghan Women (WAW), one of the country’s largest women’s rights organisations , said stoning as a punishment for adultery was “archaic and inhumane”, and called on President Hamid Karzai to reject the proposal immediately.

It was a favourite Taliban tactic, a way of controlling the population by terrifying them into submission. As such, it presages a return to the Taliban years,” WAW wrote in a statement.

“This proposed revision is one example among several recent attempts to eradicate the hard-won rights of women and girls in Afghanistan in the 12 years since the fall of the Taliban. Such a reversal of progress is unacceptable. We will not stand for it.”

As foreign troops prepare for next year’s withdrawal, rights campaigners are wary of trouble ahead for women and girls.

The draft law would include stoning as the penalty for adultery if there were four witnesses.

Activist Manizha Naderi says women and the poor have the most to fear from this law. Women are often convicted on little or no evidence, while poor men lack the funds to bribe  their way out of accusations, said Naderi, the executive director of WAW. A woman and man can be accused, charged and convicted for merely being seen in public together.

Naderi responded on Wednesday to questions from Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

Did you think it possible that stoning adulterers to death would become law again?

It’s certainly possible with this conservative government. I really believe that the government is trying to appease the Taliban by introducing conservative anti-women laws. They are trying to be on the good side of the Taliban. Of course, we will fight this tooth and nail. We will not let this law pass.

What was your reaction when you learned about this?                                          

I was horrified, scared and angry.

Were you or any other women’s rights campaigners consulted about this?

No. These things - like the shelter regulations that came out a few years ago (when the government tried unsuccessfully to take over NGO shelters for women and restrict women’s movements to and from shelters) - are done in secrecy and then suddenly introduced to the public.

We fought and fought and we finally won. Now the shelter regulation is only a guideline on how to run a shelter.

We found out about this plan (on stonings for adultery) before it was put into law. This has given us an opportunity to advocate and make sure that it doesn’t happen.

What can you do to try to stop this becoming law?

We have to mobilise all civil society in Afghanistan so that together we can put pressure on the government to make sure it doesn’t happen.

We must make sure this news is widely covered in both national and international media. This way the Afghan government can’t pass this law in a hush-hush way. Everyone will know about it and this will prevent the government from passing it. It seems like they are already back-pedalling. They are now denying that this was ever the plan. They saw the response from everyone and are scared about the consequences.

We also have to meet President Karzai and urge him to put a stop to this immediately.

Is this law particularly bad for women, and if so, why?

This law shows that the government is slowly going back to Taliban-era justice. After 12 years of progress, we will NOT let this happen.

This law is especially bad for women. Right now, every day, women are convicted without enough evidence of adultery. Most of the time, the men go free because they bribe their way out. In our shelters, we have many women who were convicted and imprisoned for adultery.

Are there cases of women wrongly accused - and punished - for adultery? What about men?

We have had cases of women who were convicted of adultery and later found innocent.

One particular case, a woman about 27 years old, spent two years in prison for adultery. After two years, she was released to us because her family didn’t want her. After about one year, she got married to someone we had introduced her to. The morning after the wedding, her husband came to our office and told us that his wife was a virgin.

This woman had spent two years in prison for no reason.

We also have cases of women who were raped and convicted of adultery, but the rapist is not punished because he is either influential or rich and can pay his way out.

Most cases of adultery against women are false. There isn’t enough evidence. A man and a woman can be accused of adultery and put in prison just because they are seen in a public space together.

Men are also in prison for adultery. These are men who are poor and can’t pay a bribe. So either way it is the less fortunate who are convicted of this crime.


Do airdrops ensure survival of the fittest, not the neediest?

Author: Alisa Tang

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan rush to grab relief supplies as they are dropped by Philippine Air Forces helicopter at Barangay San Antonio, Basey Samar, on Nov. 25, 2013. Photo REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On Monday, more than two weeks after the monster typhoon tore through the central Philippines, a photographer colleague hopped into a helicopter with the Philippines military as they flew to remote areas, hovered a few metres above the ground and dropped water and USAID boxes to survivors waiting below.

The pictures show clearly that most of those who had rushed to the drop spot were young men and boys - able-bodied, strong.

Super Typhoon Haiyan pushed ashore a tsunami-like storm surge that uprooted trees, washed away entire villages, cut off roads and communications, and claimed more than 5,200 lives.

The latest report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that food, water and shelter are still “urgently required”, and that attention must be paid to “persons with special needs, including those with disabilities, elderly, single-headed households, and single women”.

“Affected communities have access to small food stocks but are increasingly concerned about the lack of food in the long term, with limited or no access to markets,” it says, adding that debris clearance remains a priority and more heavy equipment is needed to hasten the work.

Many reader comments on various news websites propose airdrops as the obvious way to get assistance to still hard-to-reach communities.

Yet humanitarian organisations say airdrops are expensive and inefficient and are a last resort, because once the life-saving aid hits the ground, it is pounced upon by the strongest and fittest and may not reach those most in need.

I asked some organisations with staff on the ground in the Philippines their opinion of airdrops. Here are their answers:

Ewan Watson, spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC)

“As a general rule, the ICRC does not air-drop aid.

“Firstly, we need to be on the ground to understand the basic needs of the population, so that we know exactly what aid to bring them. Then, we want to make sure our aid goes to those most in need, and that means targeting distributions at the neediest beneficiaries.

“For example, how would we ensure through airdrops that those who have difficulty moving due to age or disability (or for a socio-cultural reason) actually receive aid? There would certainly need to be a strong community mechanism in place to ensure air-dropped aid is redistributed to the most vulnerable.

“We work in close coordination with the local authorities and the beneficiary communities, but we prefer and always endeavour to distribute directly to individual beneficiary households, often with the help of the Philippine Red Cross in the case of the Haiyan response.

“This avoids the possibility of needy families being excluded and ensures that beneficiaries receive what they’re entitled to.”

Samir Wanmali, emergency coordinator for the U.N. World Food Programme’s (WFP) Typhoon Haiyan response

“WFP has clear guidelines for the organisation of airdrops: they should be planned in advance with a drop zone cleared and secured, staff prepared to collect and log dropped goods, and then to subsequently organise a distribution to beneficiaries who have been previously identified according to vulnerabilities and needs.

“WFP does use airdrops in operations where there is no other way to reach people in need – for example, in South Sudan in order to bring food supplies to an isolated refugee camp to which access roads were completely washed out by seasonal rains.

“However, due to the considerable cost and organisational requirements, it is not the first choice delivery mechanism.

“In the response to Typhoon Yolanda, WFP has not used airdrops, since alternative transport modalities by sea and road are available to get food to distribution points.”

Oxfam responds in a Typhoon Haiyan Q&A posted online:

“Oxfam’s experience is that aid airdrops … can very occasionally help but typically are hugely expensive and very limited in what they can deliver. Air-dropping aid does not guarantee food and other relief supplies reach the people most in need. In many cases it’s the strongest and fittest who get to the aid first and not the sick or injured who most need help and assistance.

“In a natural disaster such as this one, it’s not only food that’s needed but also sophisticated equipment such as clean water and sanitation systems weighing tons as well as highly skilled staff to operate them - none of which can be dropped from the sky. If there isn’t an aid operation on the ground to distribute the aid, airdrops can exacerbate any tense relations within communities, with only the fittest and fastest benefiting.”

Reuters pictures show USAID boxes being dropped by military helicopter, so I asked USAID to respond to this issue, too.

Rebecca Gustafson, press officer for the USAID Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda response management team

“For various reasons, humanitarian airdrops of relief supplies or food aid are considered a last resort option. The U.S. Government is working in support of the government of the Philippines response effort, and I would encourage you to (speak with) them to learn more about their efforts.”

The Philippines government could not immediately be reached for comment.


Following the Philippine typhoon news? U.S. survey says: Not so much

Author: Alisa Tang

Randy Homeres shows a board with the name of his idol, a basketball player LeBron James, and hopes that James will see it and help his community in an area totally devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Super Typhoon Haiyan - one of the strongest storms ever recorded - left at least 5,000 people dead and more than 4 million displaced across the ravaged central Philippines, but few Americans are opening up their wallets or even paying attention, according to a survey.

Fewer than one in three Americans (32 percent) is “very closely” following news about the typhoon, drawing less attention than the 2011 tsunami in Japan (55 percent), the Indian Ocean tsunami (58 percent) or the 2010 Haiti earthquake (60 percent), according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The national survey, conducted Nov. 14 to 17 through telephone interviews with 1,013 adults, found that Typhoon Haiyan tied with economic news as the second-most closely followed story that week, while the Obamacare rollout was the top story, with 37 percent following it very closely.

The share of Americans donating to the Philippines is also trailing giving in the aftermath of other natural disasters: 14 percent say they have donated to storm relief efforts, compared to 52 percent giving to Haiti quake efforts.

An additional 17 percent say they plan to give to the Philippines, but two-thirds (67 percent) say they do not think they will donate right now, the survey found.

Although the number of people killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami - 226,000 - dwarves the Philippines death toll, Typhoon Haiyan has displaced more people than Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami combined, the Wall Street Journal reported.


Initiative to end abuses in Thai seafood sector weak –activists

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An initiative to stamp out human trafficking, child labour and forced labour in Thailand’s multibillion-dollar seafood industry lacks teeth and will do little to end the problem in the Southeast Asian country, rights activists say.

Under the “Good Labour Practices” programme, launched in the Thai capital Bangkok last week, government officials and businesses are meant to work together to ensure international labour standards are met in the industry employing up to 2 million people.

Gross human rights abuses have long tarnished the Thai seafood sector with campaigners documenting many cases of violence and the use of underage workers. Earlier this month, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that one in 10 fishermen were being beaten severely at sea, and many others were going unpaid.

"To date, these violations are systemic - they are part of the labour policies that make these industries function and that make them so profitable," said Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, noting that the abuses he documented "sound like they come out of a medieval dungeon".

Robertson criticised the new initiative as “a cynical charade because there is no effective implementation mechanism with teeth for non-compliance”. He also said there were no clear penalties for not complying with labour standards.

"Sadly, this is more of the traditional Thai practice of ‘pak chee roi na’ - putting a sprig of coriander on top of a food dish that is not so tasty to try and make it look better," he said in comments emailed to Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The production of shrimp here has been classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as an item produced by both child and forced labour since 2009, while fish from Thailand was added to the 2012 list for the use of forced labour.

"When we did our research, we found multiple problems with child labour at multiple factories," said Nick Rudikoff, a global affairs coordinator for Change to Win, a Washington DC-based labour union coalition.


Rudikoff, an author of a briefing paper about violations at the factory of a former Wal-mart supplier, Narong Seafood, said relying on the industry to regulate itself would not guarantee workers’ rights.

"Without workers at the table, their auditing regimes are really nothing but a whitewash because they haven’t been shown to identify problems because it’s in nobody’s interest to find those problems," Rudikoff told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

"Our main point is that the industry is not just driven by Thai producers, but by Western retailers like Wal-mart who buy the vast majority of these goods. They need to be a part of this solution as well," he said.

"In order to fix the problems in the Thai seafood industry, it will take a collaborative effort between Western buyers, the Thai seafood industry, and grassroots workers’ organisations and NGOs. Without all those ingredients, these problems won’t be solved."

Thai industry and government officials said their participation in the initiative was proof that they took reports of rights violations seriously.

"We are happy to join this Department of Labour and Fisheries Department GLP (Good Labour Practices) programme because no matter what we have said in the past, the media would not believe us," Thai Frozen Foods Association President Poj Aramwattananont said.

"I wouldn’t dare to say that 100 percent of (frozen food processors) are in the right. There may be some businessmen here and there who are unknowingly not in the right, or who may not know they are doing something wrong," he said. "The minority who are not in the right should go and fix it so it is right."


250 Rohingya men from Myanmar swim ashore in southern Thailand

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some 250 Rohingya Muslim men who fled Myanmar by sea and were bound for Malaysia swam ashore in southern Thailand after their boat was hit by a storm and drifted off course, the Nation newspaper reported on Thursday.

The men, ranging in age from 15 to 40, came ashore on Wednesday morning in Satun, a Muslim-majority province bordering Malaysia, and were taken to a public park where locals provided food and medicine, while police and officials “conducted an inspection”, the report said.

The Nation said the men left Myanmar on August 26, and nine days later their food and water ran out. When they saw the coast they swam ashore to survive, and were being “kept at the park, pending further action by Internal Security Operations Command officials,” it said.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea in the past year, in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War. The number of people boarding boats from Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh reached 34,626 from June 2012 to May this year - more than four times the number in the previous year, the Arakan Project says. Almost all were Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

Their exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where communal unrest last year in Rakhine state left 192 dead and 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Rohingya activists put the death toll as high as 748.


Researchers to move ahead with Thai HIV vaccine study

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Researchers in Thailand will move ahead with another phase of an HIV vaccine study, building on a 2009 efficacy trial that provided the first evidence that a preventive HIV vaccine is possible.

The 2009 trial - known as RV144 - involved more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand and found that the vaccine regimen tested reduced the risk of HIV infection by 31.2 percent at the end of the study, though the scientists noted that the efficacy rate at 12 months was significantly higher.

"The RV144 Thai HIV vaccine study results, announced in 2009, showed that a HIV vaccine is possible, and the protective effect at one year may have been as high as 60 percent,” Col. Jerome Kim, principal deputy of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program(MHRP) told Thomson Reuters Foundation by email after the AIDS Vaccine Efficacy Consortium (AVEC) Summit last week in Bangkok.

Later scientific studies told us why the vaccine might have worked. This will allow us to tweak the vaccine and the schedule, which will hopefully increase the level of protection.”

MHRP began a small clinical study, RV305, in April 2012 in Thailand to evaluate re-boosting in volunteers who participated in the RV144 study.

RV306, the immunogenicity study to begin this year, will compare additional vaccine boosts in 360 new volunteers and aims to determine “what types of immune responses the vaccine regimen generates, and which boost combinations generate the strongest response,” said Lisa Reilly, the MHRP’s communications director.

“It is not an efficacy study, so it does not need to be large… We are hoping to conduct an efficacy study with an improved vaccine boost/adjuvant in Thailand, but it will not start until 2016/17,” she said.

The RV306 study will be conducted at three sites:  the Vaccine Trial Centre at Mahidol University and the Royal Thai Army Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIMS), both in Bangkok, and the Royal Institute for Health Sciences (RIHES) in Chiang Mai.

Scientists have long sought an AIDS vaccine, with several failed attempts, including a 2007 trial in which a Merck vaccine appeared to make people more vulnerable to infection, not less.

Since the findings from the 2009 trial in Thailand, discoveries have pointed to even more powerful vaccines using HIV-fighting antibodies.

As many as 34 million people are infected with HIV worldwide. With 2.7 million new infections in 2010 alone, experts say a vaccine is still the best hope for eradicating AIDS.


ILO finds forced and child labour in Thai fishing industry

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new survey has found widespread forced and child labour in Thailand’s multibillion-dollar fishing industry, with one in 10 fishermen being beaten severely at sea, many going unpaid, and in one extreme case, a 12-year-old Cambodian boy who said he toiled 20 hours a day.

The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) report - the largest survey to date of working conditions in the Thai fishing industry - was based on interviews with 596 fishermen, more than 90 percent of them Burmese or Cambodian. Only one of these had a valid work permit, while more than half those surveyed had no documents at all.

“The vast majority of workers were an irregular status and thus more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Max Tunon, senior programme officer with the ILO. “There are a significant proportion who are working against their will and don’t have the freedom to leave.”

The survey found that 16.9 percent of those questioned were working against their will and unable to leave because of the threat of penalties, and 17.3 percent had been threatened with violence by their employer, captain, supervisor or co-worker.

Twenty-four said they had been sold or transferred to another boat against their will, and 33 were under the age of 18, including seven who were under 15. Of those interviewed, 103 had been threatened with violence, and 60 had been “severely beaten”.

“This is one of the main means through which fishers are forced to work in the sector - the threat of violence - and here it shows that that threat is very real,” Tunon said.


With an annual catch of 1.8 million tonnes in 2010, Thailand exports $7.13 billion of fish annually, and the sector employs an estimated 2 million workers, the report said.

Attempts to cut labour costs have led to the large-scale employment of migrant workers, “in some cases using deceptive and coercive labour practices,” it said.

The report cited National Fisheries Association of Thailand estimates of 142,845 fishermen employed on 9,523 boats, and an industry shortage of 50,000 workers.

The survey did not set out to talk to foreigners or migrants, but “…the preponderance of migrant workers in the sample … demonstrates the extent to which the Thai fishing industry relies on foreign migrant labour, with Thai workers making up less than 5 percent of the workers surveyed in three of the sample provinces,” the study said. Overall, 51.3 percent of those surveyed were Burmese and 40.4 percent Cambodian.

One group of seven men, from Banteay Meanchey province in Cambodia, met a broker at the Thai border who offered them construction jobs. They were told that the boat they boarded would be used to haul cement, but they had in fact been sold for 25,000 baht ($800) each and spent more than two years working on a fishing vessel, where they endured increasingly severe physical abuse and verbal threats.

They managed to escape while docked in Indonesia, but their captain refused to pay their wages. After several months in an immigration detention centre, they were repatriated.

From another boat with 23 Cambodians and four Thais, a 28-year-old Cambodian man said he worked 8 to 24 hours a day, with no days off. His boat was seized in August 2012 by authorities in Mauritius, and after seven months he and other workers were repatriated to Phnom Penh, but he was never paid for the 2-1/2 years he worked on the Thai fishing vessel.

The youngest fishermen surveyed were 12 and 14. The 14-year-old had tried to escape once because he was homesick, but said he could not leave because of the threat of violence. Three children interviewed said they were forced to work on the boat by their parents.


Despite these abuses, only 31 of those surveyed (5.1 percent) complained, most of them to their employers or NGOs. Three – all Thai nationals - lodged complaints with authorities, Tunon said.

The report said 84 fishermen did not complain because they did not want to “cause trouble”, 10 thought complaining would not change anything, and 33 did not know where or to whom to complain.

“This shows how inaccessible complaints mechanisms are to irregular migrants and those in the fishing sector as a whole,” Tunon said. “Obviously, as irregular migrants, they are concerned about what will happen to them if they go to authorities. They are afraid of being detained or deported.”

Tunon said the government was establishing seven labour coordination centres for the fishing sector, which would be responsible for registration of vessels, crews and captains, as well as recruitment and training. They will also be the places for fishermen to submit complaints.

There also needs to be a mechanism to handle complaints from the most vulnerable fishermen - those on long-haul vessels who do not set foot on land for months or even years, said Supang Chantvanich, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Asian Research Center for Migration, which co-authored the study with the ILO.

“When those people are in the fishing boats, and when they go very far, some kind of complaints mechanism must be established so that people can contact the shore at all times,” she said, otherwise they have no protection.

Supang said they should be able to contact either their embassy or NGOs, so they can report labour violations and get help.

The report also recommends setting and enforcing standards for the maintenance of crew lists, payment, contracts and rest hours, and guidelines for labour inspections on shore and at sea.


Lao boy killed, friends wounded playing with cluster bomb - report

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A 13-year-old boy was killed and five other boys wounded in northern Laos after a cluster bomb exploded as they were trying to open it with a knife, the Vientiane Times reported Thursday.

The boys, aged 5 to 13, had been foraging for bamboo shoots in Huaykhae village of Luang Prabang province over the weekend when they found the unexploded ordnance (UXO), the report said.

The surviving boys told officials that they threw the bomb back and forth while walking home, and when they arrived back in the village, tried to open it to see what was inside. They tried to cut it open with a knife, striking it a few times until it exploded, according to the report.

During the Vietnam War, more than 2.5 million short tons of U.S. munitions were dropped on Laos - more than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world.

According to the Lao government, a quarter of the country’s villages are contaminated with UXO.

The Vientiane Times reported that deminers have cleared more than 39,821 hectares of land (98,400 acres) since 1996, and identified and destroyed 1,345,431 items of UXO.

UXO in Laos maims an average of about 300 people every year, though that figure dropped to 56 in 2012, and to 16 in the first six months of this year, the Vientiane Times said.

Nearly a quarter of the casualties are children.


As millions go hungry, Asia battles food waste

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than half a billion people in the Asia Pacific region suffer from hunger, yet an estimated 42 percent of fruit and vegetables and a fifth of the grains produced here are lost or wasted, U.N. food experts said as they kicked off a campaign to cut the region’s massive food waste and feed its growing population.

“The Save Food Asia-Pacific Campaign seeks to raise awareness about the high levels of food losses - particularly post-harvest losses - and the growing problem of food waste in the region,” Hiroyuki Konuma, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assistant director-general, said in an FAO statement.

Worldwide, 1.3 billion tonnes of food - enough to feed 3 billion people - is lost every year.

“FAO estimates that if the food wasted or lost globally could be reduced by just one quarter, this would be sufficient to feed the 870 million people suffering from chronic hunger in the world,” said Konuma, who is the FAO regional representative for Asia and the Pacific.

With the world population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, he emphasised the need to increase food production by 60 percent, amid constraints such as the decline of arable lands, scarcity of water and the impact of climate change and natural disasters.

“We have to attain this goal and produce and supply sufficient food to meet the needs of our future generation. Otherwise, social and political stability and world peace and stability would be compromised, as we already witnessed in the recent past,” he told 130 representatives from 20 countries at the meeting.

“There is no room to entertain food losses and food waste any more in the future.”


While the region’s economies expanded rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century, the benefits of the growth were unevenly distributed, resulting in a wider income gap in several countries, so the economic growth did not alleviate hunger and poverty, Konuma said.

According to U.N. statistics, an estimated 653 million people across the region lived below the national poverty line in 2010. In 2012, the Asia-Pacific region was home to 536 million hungry people, or 62 percent of the world’s undernourished.

The problem is the amount of food wasted, not inadequate production.

“The world produces more or less sufficient food to meet the demand of its current population of 7 billion. However, 12.5 percent of the global population, or 868 million people, equivalent to one in eight people, go hungry every day,” Konuma said.

Some households waste food because they buy too much, do not store it properly, or fail to eat it before the expiration date.

“At our dining tables, nearly 15 to 20 percent of foods cooked are left over, thrown away and wasted in Europe, North America and industrialized Asia,” he said.

In Asia, food is lost in transit from rural production areas to urban consumers because of poor quality roads, hot and humid weather conditions and poor packaging, he said.

“Not only do these food losses increase the cost of food for consumers and reduce incomes for producers, they threaten food security as a whole.”

The meeting’s delegates pledged to support research into farming practices that would prevent food rotting in fields or being attacked by pests, and the improvement of infrastructure and development of farm machinery, packaging, storage and transport systems to prevent post-harvest losses along the supply chain to the consumer.

“In view of consumers wasting food, we campaign for greater respect for food and behaviour change of consumers,” they said in a conference closing statement late on Wednesday.


By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Focusing the lens of social and economic development on women and girls is the most inexpensive and effective tool in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, says a new study on gender and food security in the Asia Pacific region.

Women’s education alone resulted in a 43 percent reduction in hunger from 1970 to 1995, while women living longer led to an additional 12 percent decline in hunger levels, according to the report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Gender equality is “the single most important determinant of food security”, wrote Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report, Gender Equality and Food Security: Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger, released this week.

Increasing economic growth or improving people’s access to food were not enough on their own to combat hunger, he said.

The Asia Pacific region “is particularly illustrative of the fact that neither strong economic growth nor increased food availability per capita are sufficient to reduce hunger, and especially child malnutrition, unless we integrate the gender dimension more fully,” De Schutter told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He specifically noted a shift five years ago in the understanding of the causes of hunger and malnutrition: the 2008 global food crisis led to a realisation that there was an underinvestment in agriculture, and especially in small-scale family farms, in which women play a key role as food producers.

Also that year, a series of studies in the Lancet highlighted the importance of nutrition during pregnancy and the first 24 months of a child’s life on a child’s development.

“Bring these two shifts together … and you see why, suddenly, the intersection of gender and food security becomes key,” De Schutter said. “The report builds on these shifts, providing compelling evidence, I think, that empowering women and achieving gender equality is the most cost-effective measure to ensure food security.”


In the Asia Pacific, widespread discrimination against women and girls – socially, culturally and legally – results in lower agricultural productivity and poorer health and nutrition, especially among women and girls, who make up 60 percent of undernourished people worldwide, the report says.

It details how three crises – the spike in food prices, the global economic downturn and climate change – disproportionately affect women and girls. They are given less food than men and boys, are not sent to school when household funds are low and are the first to be laid off when employers suffer financial setbacks.

Amid more drought and floods, women, who make up the bulk of small-scale farmers, are hard hit in both their loss of income and their ability to feed their families.

De Schutter proposed the establishment of school-feeding programmes that source food from women farmers. In the report, he describes a school-feeding programme at 81 schools in India that offers employment to poor women, who make up two-thirds of the programme’s cooks.

“It does not require massive investment. In fact, some measures are costless, yet their impact can be huge in improving nutrition within the household,” he said.


The removal and amendment of discriminatory land and labour laws would also help women farmers and food producers, said De Schutter and ADB food security and agriculture specialist Lourdes Adriano, who provided technical support for the report.

“Paying women a decent wage, improving their access to tools, fertilisers, and credit, and guaranteeing their right to own and access land will have a huge multiplier effect on food security and hunger reduction,” Adriano said.

Change might not be easy to achieve because “it requires socio-cultural paradigm shifts and political commitment,” Adriano told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But investing in rural women to have equal access to inputs and other productive resources is cheap and will take a shorter time to achieve more wide-reaching, multiple, and long-lasting developmental outcomes.”

She cited a $1 million, 6-year ADB project in Nepal that reached 12,150 people, 70 percent of them women. For about $100 per person, the project enabled them to organise self-help groups and access funds for quality seeds, irrigation tools, fertilisers and technical skills for cash crop production and financial management. Their incomes increased by more than 33 percent and more than half of the households moved out of poverty.

“The next agenda is to up- and out-scale these experiences,” she said.

Page 1 of 6