Month: January 2024

With Bonfires, Hope, Iran’s Minority Zoroastrians Mark Sadeh Holiday

TEHRAN, Iran — Lighting fires that brightened the night sky, followers of Iran’s minority Zoroastrian religion marked the Sadeh festival in several cities Tuesday, celebrating the end of the coldest winter days.

Every year on January 30, Zoroastrians gather after sunset to celebrate the 50 days and 50 nights remaining until spring. Sadah, which means “the 100,” is an ancient feast from when the religion was the dominant faith in the powerful Persian empire, which collapsed after the Arab invasion in the 7th century.

On the southwestern outskirts of Tehran, several Zoroastrian priests and priestesses, dressed in white from head-to-toe to symbolize purity, led young followers to light a giant bonfire in a joyful ceremony.

Around the fire, people listened to bands and theological lectures as they milled about while eating and celebrating.

In a rare move, the Islamic Republic’s air force band played the national anthem, among other tunes, to the excitement of the attendees.

Iran’s 85 million population is mostly Shiite Muslim. The country has been ruled by hardline clerics who preach a strict version of Islam since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They discourage people from following pre-Islamic feasts and traditions.

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that predates Christianity and Islam. It was founded 3,800 years ago by the prophet Zoroaster. It stresses good deeds, and fire plays a central role in worship as a symbol of truth and the spirit of God. Zoroastrians stress they are not fire worshippers but see fire as a symbol of righteousness.

Alongside other minorities, including Christians and Jews, they have one representative in parliament, Esfandiar Ekhtiari.

During Tuesday’s ceremny, Ekhtiari said the celebration belongs to everyone and is a symbol of “felicity, respect to humanity and nature as well as human beings.”

In 2023, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized Sadeh for its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity from Iran and Tajikistan.

Although they have common elements, such as lighting fire, the Sadeh festival is different from Nowruz, which marks the Persian new year.

Remote Washington State Town Becomes Hub for EV Battery Production

Moses Lake, Washington — It’s mid-winter in east Washington state, yet despite the chilly fog, two construction sites in the town of Moses Lake are brimming with activity. Several hundred workers are on an ambitious timeline to complete two new factories slanted to begin production of the next-generation components for electric vehicle batteries later this year.

Two American start-ups, backed by $100 million in federal grants each, in addition to commercial partnerships, are racing to secure the domestic supply chain with the next-generation battery materials for EV automakers.

“That’s going to go into everything from electric vehicles to IoT [Internet of Things] devices to smartphones and wearables and a lot of battery-based applications that we don’t even know exist yet,” explains Nik Anderson, director of program management with Group 14 Technologies, as he walks through the company’s vast construction site.

Washington is one of the American states planning to ban sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035.

For now, electric cars account for 8.6% of new vehicle sales in the United States. Affordable electric vehicles would require a significant scaling of domestic battery production, experts say. According to the Biden administration, affordable electric vehicles and reliable supply chain would require a significant scaling of domestic battery production and the national charging infrastructure.

Once fully operational, the two companies’ factories in Moses Lake will be able to annually produce enough material to make batteries for about 400,000 electric vehicles.

They also promise to produce a better battery, reducing the ‘charge anxiety’ of electric cars by replacing the graphite in conventional lithium-ion batteries with silicon-based components, which will allow for a faster charge.

“The thing that makes our battery better, that uses our SCC55 [silicon-carbon composite] versus traditional graphite, is that it can have up to 50% more energy density, it can allow for extremely fast charging,” said Grant Ray, vice president for global market strategy with Group 14.

“When we think about charge times, you know, right now we’re hearing 10% to 80% in ten minutes. Well, what if that changes and it comes down to five minutes? What if it starts to get closer to what it really is for, you know, the way we think about refueling a car?” he said.

One of the challenges for U.S. EV production with traditional lithium-ion batteries is the need to rely on imports. Daniel Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, says the silicon-based component provides solutions for several challenges.

“The primary mineral for what’s going in Moses Lake is sand, silica — the most widely distributed mineral in the crust of the earth. Graphite is lower performance, and we are trade-exposed as a nation,” he said.

The Biden administration invested in domestic EV battery production as part of its ambitious clean energy agenda. Among the Republican presidential candidates, most reject the urgency surrounding EV adoption, with former President Donald Trump calling it an “all-electric car hoax.”

Last September, speaking in front of hundreds of people attending a rally in Clinton Township, Michigan, Trump called prioritizing EVs a “transition to hell,” telling auto workers that Democrats “want to go all electric and put you all out of business.”

Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies, the second startup planning to start EV battery components production in Moses Lake, says the transition to electric vehicles is going to happen regardless of whether the U.S. is taking the lead in the process.

“Renewables and batteries are really going to form the basis of 21st-century energy,” he said. “It’s critical for the U.S. to build the capacity to be able to have battery production. Catching up to the world leaders in Asia is quite challenging. And so, the way to do that is not to build the same thing, it’s to build the next generation of battery technologies.”

In Moses Lake, a town of about 25,000 an hour and-a-half drive from the nearest city, all-electric cars are not a common sight. Berdichevsky is convinced that EV adoption in the area is just a matter of time.

“We have to recognize that consumers want choice, and some consumers are going to want electric cars with 500 miles (range),” he says. “What we need to do is increase the choices for folks, and the way you do that is through better batteries.”

Rosendo Alvarado, a Moses Lake native who took a job as a plant manager for Sila Nanotechnologies, says the remote town became an attractive spot for EV production thanks to the combination of several factors: cheap hydro power provided by local dams; existing manufacturing infrastructure and legacy companies, such as REC Silicon that could become a partner in the EV batteries production; and Washington state policies embracing clean energy initiatives.

The cutting-edge industry promises to bring hundreds of new jobs to Moses Lake. Alvarado says he saw the town transforming over time from traditional farming to an industrial community — and expects further change.

“We worked in the fields that this building is sitting on today,” he recalls. “It’s been fast paced, but super exciting — the opportunities that we are able to bring here for the community and for the EV market.”

He says the companies partnered with the local Columbia Basin Technical School and Big Bend Community College to start developing a new workforce as early as during high school classes.

“It’s a small, tight community. Kind of like everyone knows everyone type thing,” shrugs Nicholas Cruz, a young man out of school walking with his friend down the main street of Moses Lake, when asked about the EV projects coming to town.

“It’s gonna be exciting in the sense, like, there’s more job opportunities and new opportunities to go here because Moses Lake is small, there’s not much to it. I am not sure if it will impact me personally — I guess time will tell,” he said.

Kenyan Entrepreneur Makes Snacks from Indigenous Grains

Indigenous African grains such as millet and sorghum are known to be nutritious but are not popular with many, especially the Gen Zers who view the grains as food for the poor. To change this narrative, a Kenyan entrepreneur is using the grains to make snacks and breakfast cereals to promote consumption of indigenous grains and foster environmental sustainability, as Juma Majanga reports from Nairobi. Video by Amos Wangwa.

Third Round of Polio Vaccination Targets High-Risk Counties in Northeastern Kenya

Nairobi — A polio vaccination campaign that was planned for November but postponed due to heavy rains and floods is finally taking place in three high risk counties in the northeastern part of Kenya. This comes after 13 cases of the so-called circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (CVDPV2) were discovered last year in the area. 

This is the third round of polio vaccination targeting three high-risk counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa.

The goal, according to Kenya’s ministry of health and its partners, is to reach about 750,000 children under the age of five. About 238,000 children ages 6 to 15 in certain areas will also be vaccinated.

Aden Ibrahim, Garissa County director of health, explains.

“The first case, the sample was collected in June 2023. It was a child which came from the Somalia side, later became sick and went to a health facility; they [child] were investigated because they were symptomatic, and they were confirmed as having a polio positive,” he said.

Ibrahim said soon after, more cases were detected in some of the refugee camps. 

“In Hagadera camps, there were 13 confirmed cases of polio in the camps last year and that has necessitated 3 rounds of campaign to be conducted where we did the two rounds last year and this one was actually scheduled to take place last year in November,” he said.

But due to heavy rains and floods that killed 130 and displaced 89,000 the November round was postponed.

Kenya is not the only country affected by a resurgence of polio. After three decades of being polio-free, Burundi had 16 cases last year. And as of August 2023, 187 confirmed cases of circulating variant poliovirus have been reported in 21 countries in Africa Region according to the World Health Organization.

Among the many reasons this has been happening are inaccessibility to basic healthcare, conflicts and insecurity in some of the countries, and climate change, said Ibrahim.

“Polio is more of an oral-fecal transmission and because of this climate change, age of drought brings poor sanitation at the end of the day because of issue of lack of water and all those things,” he said.

The Horn of Africa region recently suffered its worst drought in decades.  

To eradicate the disease, Ibrahim points out that countries need to strengthen routine immunization, invest in a robust surveillance system, and improve their respective healthcare systems.

Polio is a highly infectious and debilitating disease that affects children under 5 causing permanent paralysis. It can also cause death in 2 to 10 percent of those paralyzed according to WHO.

Kimchi Consumption Grows, Thanks to K-Content, Health Claims

washington — South Korean kimchi exports hit a record high amid a global surge in the popularity of Korean culture, hitting 44,041 tons in 2023, a 7.1% increase from 42,544 tons exported in 2021. 

Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage or other vegetables, was exported to 92 countries from South Korea last year, with the United States and Japan being the top customers, according to BusinessKorea, a monthly magazine.  

The United States imported more than 10,000 tons of kimchi in 2023, and Japan imported more than 20,000 tons. Kimchi exports to the United States have grown significantly in the past few years, increasing from $14.8 million in 2019 to $29 million in 2022, according to The Korea Daily. 

Some experts see a connection between this rise in exports and the rising popularity of Korean entertainment content, such as K-pop and K-dramas. According to Forbes, U.S. viewership of Korean dramas rose 200% from 2019 to 2021, with TV shows like “Squid Game” topping the Netflix viewership charts in the United States.  

Others attribute the rising popularity of kimchi to its health benefits, as fermented foods expand the diversity of digestive tract microbes.  

Patrice Cunningham, founder and CEO of Tae-Gu Kimchi in Washington, spoke about the increase in popularity of kimchi in the United States. 

“Kimchi is a huge part of the Korean diet,” she said. “They eat it as a side dish with almost every meal. … In the states now, we’re kind of implementing that same style of eating.”  

Cunningham makes and distributes kimchi with her mother, selling both vegan and non-vegan varieties made from napa cabbage.  

“I always knew that my mom had a really great kimchi recipe, and I remember saying to myself for a while that I wanted to bottle it one day and sell it,” Cunningham said.  

She attends 15 to 16 farmers markets a week in the main season and has won multiple grants for her business, contributing to its growth. 

She said many of their customers focus on their “gut health … and so they buy our kimchi for that.”   

K-culture boosts popularity

Another Washington business that sells kimchi is Rice Market. Partner Sak Pollert said kimchi sales have increased significantly over the past two years.  

He said more customers come in “with recipes on their phone, looking for Korean and other Asian ingredients, too.”   

As to kimchi’s rise in popularity, particularly in the United States, Pollert said that many in Washington are world travelers already familiar with kimchi but don’t like the smell.  

“But now, they learned it’s probiotic foods that taste good and help with digestion,” he said. “It helps make other foods taste better, so they get over the smell quickly.”  

Pollert said he thinks that K-content has played an important role in bolstering kimchi’s global popularity. K-dramas “did a phenomenal job promoting kimchi and Korean food and drinks, especially soju,” a Korean grain-based alcohol.  

He noted that restaurant and dinner scenes in many K-dramas feature ajummas — Korean for married or middle-aged women — gathering around a table to gossip and make kimchi before winter.  

South Korea promotes its cuisine 

This rise in popularity of kimchi, though influenced by multiple factors, is a part of a broader plan by the South Korean government to push Korean cuisine worldwide.  

“South Korea’s government and corporations are thinking of ways to promote Korean food and profit from it,” National Public Radio’s Anthony Kuhn said in an interview with Yang Joo-Pil, an official at the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.  

Yang said that each year, about 10 food items are chosen for product placement in popular dramas, and Korean foods are sold at K-pop concerts. 

In Washington, efforts to promote Korean food and spread Korean culture are evident in the work of the Korean Cultural Center. Last November, the center partnered with Tae-Gu Kimchi for “DC’s First Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi.”  

Kimjang in Korea is an event that occurs once or twice a year “as a way for communities to collectively stock up on and share essential foods,” according to the Korean Cultural Center’s event page.  

At the kimjang event, participants had the opportunity to try kimchi over rice and make their own kimchi in a hands-on workshop. 

US Syphilis Cases Rise in 2022; Most in 70 Years

new york — The U.S. syphilis epidemic isn’t abating, with the rate of infectious cases rising 9% in 2022, according to a new federal government report on sexually transmitted diseases in adults.

But there’s some unexpected good news: The rate of new gonorrhea cases fell for the first time in a decade.

It’s not clear why syphilis rose 9% while gonorrhea dropped 9%, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, adding that it’s too soon to know whether a new downward trend is emerging for the latter.

They are most focused on syphilis, which is less common than gonorrhea or chlamydia but considered more dangerous. Total cases surpassed 207,000 in 2022, the highest count in the United States since 1950, according to data released Tuesday.

And while it continues to have a disproportionate impact on gay and bisexual men, it is expanding in heterosexual men and women, and increasingly affecting newborns, too, CDC officials said.

Syphilis is a bacterial disease that can surface as painless genital sores but can ultimately lead to paralysis, hearing loss, dementia and even death if left untreated.

New syphilis infections plummeted in the U.S. starting in the 1940s when antibiotics became widely available and fell to their lowest number by 1998.

About 59,000 of the 2022 cases involved the most infectious forms of syphilis. Of those, about a quarter were women and nearly a quarter were heterosexual men.

“I think it’s unknowingly being spread in the cisgender heterosexual population because we really aren’t testing for it. We really aren’t looking for it” in that population, said Dr. Philip Chan, who teaches at Brown University and is chief medical officer of Open Door Health, a health center for gay, lesbian and transgender patients in Providence, Rhode Island.

The report also shows rates of the most infectious types of syphilis rose not just across the country but also across different racial and ethnic groups, with American Indian and Alaska Native people having the highest rate. South Dakota outpaced any other state for the highest rate of infectious syphilis at 84 cases per 100,000 people — more than twice as high as the state with the second-highest rate, New Mexico.

South Dakota’s increase was driven by an outbreak in the Native American community, said Dr. Meghan O’Connell, chief public health officer at the Great Plains Tribal Leaders’ Health Board based in Rapid City, South Dakota. Most Nearly all of the cases were in heterosexual people. O’Connell said STD testing and treatment was limited in isolated tribal communities and only got worse during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year convened a syphilis task force focused on stopping the spread of the STD, with an emphasis on places with the highest syphilis rates — South Dakota, 12 other states and the District of Columbia.

The report also looked at the more common STDs of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Chlamydia cases were relatively flat from 2021 to 2022, staying at a rate of about 495 per 100,000, though there were declines noted in men and especially women in their early 20s. For gonorrhea, the most pronounced decline was seen in women in their early 20s as well.

Experts say they’re not sure why gonorrhea rates declined. It happened in about 40 states, so whatever explains the decrease appears to have occurred across most of the country. STD testing was disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and officials believe that’s the reason the chlamydia rate fell in 2020.

It’s possible that testing and diagnoses were still shaking out in 2022, said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

“We are encouraged by the magnitude of the decline,” Mermin said, though the gonorrhea rate is still higher now than it was pre-pandemic. “We need to examine what happened, and whether it’s going to continue to happen.”

Malawi Launches New COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Amid Rising Cases

Blantyre, Malawi — The Malawi government and the World Health Organization launched a new COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Monday in 10 of the country’s 29 districts. This is partly in response to new cases confirmed in the past three weeks in several districts across the country.

Nsanje District in southern Malawi currently leads in the number of COVID-19 cases recorded this year.

George Mbotwa, spokesperson for the district health office, said the district has registered 17 new cases in the past three weeks and some are health workers.

“Initially there were two, but we had up to eight cases that were health workers,” he said. “Some of them have now been confirmed as negative, and others are being followed up to ensure that they are fully recovered before they can resume work.”

By Monday, Malawi cumulatively recorded 89,202 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 2,686 deaths, since the first cases were confirmed in the country in April 2020.

Malawi’s Ministry of Health says the new vaccination campaign will help boost the number of people getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination rates in some areas of Malawi are as low as 40%.

It also says the WHO-funded campaign would help avoid waste of the vaccine as was the case in 2020 when the government destroyed nearly 20,000 expired AstraZeneca doses.

Many of those doses expired due to vaccine hesitancy amid concerns of its safety and efficacy.

However, recent government public health campaigns on the importance of COVID-19 shots have helped defeat that hesitancy.

Mary Chawinga, a mother of two of Machinjiri Township in Blantyre, said she has had the vaccine and is awaiting a booster.

“And I am ready to take my children, because prevention is better than [a] cure they say,” Chawinga said. “You never know how the wave will be like this time around considering the way it was way back in 2020. We have had it in 2021, and now this is 2024.”

Another mother of two, Habeeba Nyasulu, said she received the COVID-19 doses during the first campaign and encourages others to get the shot.

“I know that we are not safe until everyone is safe,” she said. “So, let others also receive the vaccine. I know that the vaccine does not prevent us from getting infected, but it helps us when we contract it not to be critically ill.”

Maziko Matemba is a community health care ambassador in Malawi, said the COVID-19 threat is still present in the country.

“Malawi didn’t vaccinate a required number of people against COVID-19, because the targeted population was about 11 million Malawians,” Matemba said. “But we were less than half about 2 or 3 million Malawians who were able to get vaccinated.”

Matemba said the country now needs to have the vaccine in the right places and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

The Ministry of Health says the new campaign targets 10 of the country’s 29 health districts that have recently recorded new cases. These include Machinga, Blantyre, Dowa, Mzimba and Nsanje districts.

Momaday, Pulitzer Prize Winner and Giant of Native American Literature, Dead at 89

NEW YORK — N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, poet, educator and folklorist whose debut novel “House Made of Dawn” is widely credited as the starting point for contemporary Native American literature, has died. He was 89.

Momaday died Wednesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher HarperCollins announced. He had been in failing health.

“Scott was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary poet and writer. He was a singular voice in American literature, and it was an honor and a privilege to work with him,” Momaday’s editor, Jennifer Civiletto, said in a statement. “His Kiowa heritage was deeply meaningful to him and he devoted much of his life to celebrating and preserving Native American culture, especially the oral tradition.”

“House Made of Dawn,” published in 1968, tells of a World War II soldier who returns home and struggles to fit back in, a story as old as war itself: In this case, home is a Native community in rural New Mexico. Much of the book was based on Momaday’s childhood in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, and on his conflicts between the ways of his ancestors and the risks and possibilities of the outside world.

“I grew up in both worlds and straddle those worlds even now,” Momaday said in a 2019 PBS documentary. “It has made for confusion and a richness in my life.”

Despite such works as John Joseph Mathews’ 1934 release “Sundown,” novels by American Indians weren’t widely recognized at the time of “House Made of Dawn.” A New York Times reviewer, Marshall Sprague, even contended in an otherwise favorable review that “American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities, either. But we cannot be patronizing. N. Scott Momaday’s book is superb in its own right.”

Like Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Momaday’s novel was a World War II story that resonated with a generation protesting the Vietnam War. In 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to win the fiction Pulitzer, and his novel helped launch a generation of authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and Louise Erdrich.

His other admirers would range from the poet Joy Harjo, the country’s first Native to be named poet laureate, to the film stars Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.

“He was a kind of literary father for a lot of us,” Harjo told The Associated Press during a telephone interview Monday. “He showed how potent and powerful language and words were in shaping our very existence.”

Over the following decades, he taught at Stanford, Princeton and Columbia universities, among other top-ranking schools, was a commentator for NPR, and lectured worldwide.

He published more than a dozen books, from “Angle of Geese and Other Poems” to the novels “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and “The Ancient Child,” and became a leading advocate for the beauty and vitality of traditional Native life.

Addressing a gathering of American Indian scholars in 1970, Momaday said, “Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves.” He championed Natives’ reverence for nature, writing that “the American Indian has a unique investment in the American landscape.” He shared stories told to him by his parents and grandparents. He regarded oral culture as the wellspring of language and storytelling, and dated American culture back not to the early English settlers, but also to ancient times, noting the procession of gods depicted in the rock art at Utah’s Barrier Canyon.

“We do not know what they mean, but we know we are involved in their meaning,” he wrote in the essay “The Native Voice in American Literature.”

“They persist through time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth and primal song. They are 2,000 years old, more or less, and they remark as closely as anything can the origin of American literature.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Momaday with a National Medal of Arts “for his writings and his work that celebrate and preserve Native American art and oral tradition.” Besides his Pulitzer, his honors included an Academy of American Poets prize and, in 2019, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Momaday was married three times, most recently to Barbara Glenn, who died in 2008. He had four daughters, one of whom, Cael, died in 2017.

He was born Navarre Scott Mammedaty, in Lawton, Oklahoma, and was a member of the Kiowa Nation. His mother was a writer, and his father an artist who once told his son, “I have never known an Indian child who couldn’t draw,” a talent Momaday demonstrably shared. His artwork, from charcoal sketches to oil paintings, were included in his books and exhibited in museums in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota. Audio guides to tours of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian featured Momaday’s avuncular baritone.

After spending his teens in New Mexico, he studied political science at the University of Mexico and received a master’s and Ph.D. in English from Stanford. Momaday began as a poet, his favorite art form, and the publication of “House Made of Dawn” was an unintentional result of his early reputation. Editor Fran McCullough, of what is now HarperCollins, had met Momaday at Stanford and several years later contacted him and asked whether he would like to submit a book of poems.

Momaday did not have enough for a book, and instead gave her the first chapter of “House Made of Dawn.”

Much of his writing was set in the American West and Southwest, whether tributes to bears — the animals he most identified with — or a cycle of poems about the life of Billy the Kid, a childhood obsession. He saw writing as a way of bridging the present with the ancient past and summed up his quest in the poem “If I Could Ascend”: 

Something like a leaf lies here within me; / it wavers almost not at all, / and there is no light to see it by / that it withers upon a black field. / If it could ascend the thousand years into my mouth, / I would make a word of it at last, / and I would speak it into the silence of the sun.

In 2019, he was the subject of a PBS “American Masters” documentary in which he discussed his belief he was a reincarnation of a bear connected to the Native American origin story around Devils Tower in Wyoming. He told The Associated Press in a rare interview that the documentary allowed him to reflect on his life, saying he was humbled that writers continued to say his work has influenced them.

“I’m greatly appreciative of that, but it comes a little bit of a surprise every time I hear it,” Momaday said. “I think I have been an influence. It’s not something I take a lot of credit for.” 

WHO: Great Progress Made in Eliminating Trans Fat

GENEVA — The World Health Organization says great progress has been made in the global elimination of industrially produced trans fat, with nearly half the world’s population protected against the harmful effects of this toxic product.

“Five years ago, WHO called on countries and the food sector to eliminate industrially produced trans fats from the food supply. The response has been incredible,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.

“So far, 53 countries have implemented best practice policies, including bans and limits on trans fats, with three more countries on the way. This removes a major health risk for at least 3.7 billion people, or 46% of the world’s population.

“These policies are expected to save 183,000 lives every year. Just five years ago, only 6% of the world’s population was protected from this toxic additive with similar policies,” Tedros said.

Trans fat is created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature.

“It is also solid in your body, in your coronary artery,” said Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. “And this is why it was at one point estimated to kill half a million people per year.” 

With almost half the world covered, Frieden said millions of deaths will be prevented in the coming decades. He said the next two years will be critical, noting that the original deadline for the global elimination of trans fats has been extended from 2023 to 2025 due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Global elimination, according to published estimates, would prevent about 17.5 million deaths over 25 years. The progress of reducing trans fat globally show that the noncommunicable diseases can be beaten,” Frieden said.

He said this was important because “sometimes when it comes to the noncommunicable diseases, we have the sense that we can describe them, we can predict them, but we cannot stop them. In fact, we can, and the progress stopping trans fat shows that that is possible. And there are other areas, as well, where specific results are available.”

Health officials say no amount of trans fat is safe and regard it as the worst type of fat anyone can eat because it has no known nutritional benefits. Trans fat is cheap to make and is found in margarine, palm oil, fried foods, baked products, pastries and some processed foods. 

WHO reports that a high intake of trans fat increases the risk of death from any cause by 34% and from coronary heart disease by 28%. 

WHO on Monday held an awards ceremony honoring the achievements of the first five countries to have eliminated trans fat from their food supply.  

“Today, we recognize Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Thailand as the first countries to go beyond just adopting policies, to monitoring and enforcing them,” Tedros said.  

“Congratulations to all these countries. You are leading the world and showing what is possible. You are the first countries to be validated, but you will not be the last,” he said.

In accepting the award, Ib Petersen, Danish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said studies show that trans fat elimination policies put in place in his country in 2003 have “led to a reduction of deaths from coronary disease of 11%, which is significant.”

“It also shows that it is the most financially disadvantaged groups that have benefited most from this policy,” he said.

Frieden said he hopes more nations will follow the lead of these five countries in putting in place the policies, regulations and enforcement mechanisms needed to rid the world of trans fat.

“Of the remaining burden, just five countries — China, Pakistan, Russia, Indonesia, and Iran — account for about 60% of the remaining estimated burden. If these five countries were to implement [the best practice policies], the world would get to about 85% of the estimated burden, banned or trans fat-free,” he said.

WHO reports progress remains uneven, and a lot of work is still to be done. While many low- and middle-income countries are advancing, it says there is a long way to go, especially in Africa and the western Pacific.

“Africa has the lowest policy coverage, but there have been leaders with Nigeria and South Africa implementing,” said Frieden. “South Africa is beginning the enforcement process, and Ethiopia, Ghana and Cameroon are considering regulations in the near future.  

“They understand that trans fat is not only a toxic product, but one that might be dumped on them if they do not take action when the rest of the world is banning it,” Frieden said, adding that governments and the food industry have a responsibility to ensure that does not happen. 

Revelers Pack Tampa, Florida, Waterfront for Gasparilla Pirate Fest

Tampa, Florida — Revelers clad in pirate finery packed Tampa’s waterfront this weekend as a flotilla of boats arrived for the city’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

Led by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the invading pirates docked to make a final demand for the key to the city. Once ashore, the festivities celebrating their annual invasion included a Saturday afternoon parade through downtown and live music and bead throwing that lasted well into the night.

A fixture nearly every year since 1904, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest is named for the mythical pirate Jose Gaspar. There’s not much evidence he actually existed, but according to legend he plundered ships and captured hostages in the Gulf of Mexico from the 1780s until around 1821.

The colorful account of his supposed life first surfaced in the early 1900s in an advertising brochure for the Gasparilla Inn, which was located south of Tampa in Boca Grande at the end of a rail line and in need of an exciting promotion to lure in guests.

Called the “Last of the Buccaneers,” Gaspar’s memory lives on in the name of Tampa Bay’s NFL team.

New Orleans Thief Steals 7 King Cakes From Bakery in Very Mardi Gras Way

New Orleans, Louisiana — With their purple, gold and green colors and toy babies hidden inside, king cakes are staples of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, but apparently they’re also valuable enough to steal — at least this time of year during the Carnival season.

A thief stole seven king cakes — about as many as he could carry — during a break-in last week at a New Orleans bakery. The thief also took cash and a case of vodka from Bittersweet Confections last Wednesday, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

“Our king cakes are just that good,” the bakery wrote on social media. “But please come and purchase one during our regular store hours.”

While it’s a secular celebration, Carnival in New Orleans — and around the world — is strongly linked to Christian and Roman Catholic traditions. The season begins on Jan. 6, the 12th day after Christmas, and continues until Mardi Gras, known as Fat Tuesday, which is the final day of feasting, drinking and revelry before Ash Wednesday and the fasting associated with Lent.

King cakes are among the foods most associated with Carnival in New Orleans. The rings of pastry are adorned with purple, green and gold sugar or icing, and they often have a tiny plastic baby hidden inside as a prize.

One wisecracker responded to the bakery’s social media post with a tongue-in-cheek false admission that he was the thief.

“It was me. …I’m holding all seven babies hostage until I get a lifetime supply of King Cakes from you every year,” the man posted.

Artist Who Performed Nude Sues Museum Over Sexual Assault Claims

albany, new york — A performer who appeared naked in a show by world-renowned performance artist Marina Abramovic at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is suing the museum, saying it failed to take action after he was sexually assaulted multiple times by attendees during the performances nearly 14 years ago. 

The suit was filed in Manhattan on Monday under the New York Adult Survivors Act, a special state law that created a yearslong suspension of the usual time limit for accusers to sue. Although the law expired last year, the suit says the parties agreed to extend the window closing. 

John Bonafede alleges in the suit he was sexually assaulted by five public onlookers who attended a show he was hired by the museum to perform in as part of Abramovic’s retrospective “The Artist Is Present.” 

Email messages sent to the museum this week were not returned. Abramovic is not named as a defendant and did not immediately return a request for comment. 

The work, titled “Imponderabilia,” saw Bonafede and another performer standing face-to-face with each other in a doorway about 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) apart, fully nude, silent, and still. The exhibition, which ran from March 14, 2010, through May 31, 2010, was curated by the museum in a way that encouraged visitors to pass in between the performers as they went from one gallery to the next, the suit alleges. 

Mostly older men involved, says suit

The people who assaulted Bonafede were mostly older men, the suit says. One of the perpetrators was a corporate member of the museum, who was ultimately kicked out and revoked of his membership, according to the suit. 

During the final weeks of the exhibition, another attendee non-consensually groped Bonafede’s private areas three times before they were finally stopped by security, the suit said. 

Bonafede reported four of the individuals to the museum staff and security immediately, according to the suit, while the fifth was witnessed personally by the museum security staff. 

Female performer also assaulted, suit says

At one point, Bonafede also witnessed a public attendee sexually assault his female co-performer by kissing her on the mouth without her consent, the suit said. 

Prior to the exhibition, the performers had voiced their concerns about nude performers being subject to harassment in a letter to the museum during contract negotiations, the suit said. 

Once it began, several news outlets including The New York Times reported on the inappropriate behavior by visitors, and the sexual assaults on “Imponderabilia” were discussed within New York City’s art and performance communities, the suit says. 

Despite the museum having knowledge of the issue, it failed to take action to protect the performers and prevent further sexual assaults, such as telling visitors ahead of time that touching was not allowed, the lawsuit said. 

About a month into the exhibition, the museum created a handbook outlining protocols for the performers to alert museum staff if they felt unsafe or were inappropriately touched. 

Bonafede agreed to continue the performance after he was assaulted because of the “tough it out” culture of the exhibition, the suit says, but suffered for years from emotional distress, and his mental health, body image and career were damaged as a result. 

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly. Bonafede gave consent through his lawyer, Jordan Fletcher. 

Fletcher declined to comment further on the suit, but said they will be seeking a jury trial and compensatory damages. 

Iran Launches 3 Satellites Into Space

JERUSALEM — Iran said Sunday it successfully launched three satellites into space, the latest for a program that the West says improves Tehran’s ballistic missiles.

The state-run IRNA news agency said the launch also saw the successful use of Iran’s Simorgh rocket, which has had multiple failures in the past.

The launch comes as heightened tensions grip the wider Middle East over Israel’s continued war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

While Iran has not intervened militarily in the conflict, it has faced increased pressure within its theocracy for action after a deadly Islamic State suicide bombing earlier this month and as proxy groups like Yemen’s Houthi rebels conduct attacks linked to the war.

Footage released by Iranian state television showed a nighttime launch for the Simorgh rocket. An Associated Press analysis of the footage’s details showed that it took place at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province.

State TV named the launched satellites Mahda, Kayhan-2 and Hatef-1. It described the Mahda as a research satellite, while the Kayhan and the Hatef were nanosatellites focused on global positioning and communication respectively.

There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another satellite-carrying rocket. The Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” rocket failures have been part of a series of setbacks in recent years for Iran’s civilian space program, including fatal fires and a launchpad rocket explosion that drew the attention of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The United States has previously said Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to undertake no activity involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. U.N. sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program expired last October.

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2023 worldwide threat assessment said the development of satellite launch vehicles “shortens the timeline” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology.

The U.S. military and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, the U.S. military has quietly acknowledged a successful Iranian satellite launch from January 20 conducted by the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Some Mayan Ruin Sites Unreachable Because of Gangs, Land Conflicts, Mexico Says

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s government has acknowledged that at least two well-known Mayan ruin sites are unreachable by visitors because of a toxic mix of cartel violence and land disputes.

But two tourist guides in the southern state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala, say two other sites that the government claims are still open to visitors can only be reached by passing though drug gang checkpoints.

The explosion of drug cartel violence in Chiapas since last year has left the Yaxchilán ruin site completely cut off, the government conceded Friday.

The tour guides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they must still work in the area, said that gunmen and checkpoints are often seen on the road to another site, Bonampak, famous for its murals.

They say that to get to yet another archaeological site, Lagartero, travelers are forced to hand over identification and cellphones at cartel checkpoints.

Meanwhile, officials concede that visitors also can’t go to the imposing, towering pyramids at Tonina, because a landowner has shut off across his land while seeking payment from the government for granting the right of way.

The cartel-related dangers are the most problematic. The two cartels warring over the area’s lucrative drug and migrant smuggling routes set up the checkpoints to detect any movement by their rivals.

Though no tourist has been harmed so far, and the government claims the sites are safe, many guides no longer take tour groups there.

“It’s as if you told me to go to the Gaza Strip, right?” said one of the guides.

“They demand your identification, to see if you’re a local resident,” he said, describing an almost permanent gang checkpoint on the road to Lagartero, a Mayan pyramid complex that is surrounded by pristine, turquoise jungle lagoons.

“They take your cellphone and demand your sign-in code, and then they look through your conversations to see if you belong to some other gang,” he said. “At any given time, a rival group could show up and start a gunbattle.”

The government seems unconcerned, and there is even anger that anyone would suggest there is a problem, in line with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s policy of playing down gang violence — even as the cartels take over more territory in Mexico.

“Bonampak and Lagartero are open to the public,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement Friday.

“It is false, biased and irresponsible to say that these archaeological sites are in danger from drug traffickers,” added the agency, known as the INAH, which claimed it “retains control of the sites.”

Both guides stressed that the best-known Mayan ruin site in Chiapas, the imposing temple complex at Palenque, is open and perfectly safe for visitors. But starting around December, tourists have canceled about 5% of trips booked to the area, and there are fears that could grow.

Things that some tourists once enjoyed — like the more adventurous trip to ruins buried deep in the jungle, like Yaxchilán, on the banks of the Usumacinta river and reachable only by boat — are either no longer possible, or so risky that several guides have publicly announced they won’t take tourists there.

Residents of the town of Frontera Comalapa, where the boats once picked up tourists to take them to Yaxchilan, closed the road in October because of constant incursions by gunmen. 

Even the INAH admits there is no access to Yaxchilan, noting that “the institute itself has recommended at certain points that tourists not go to the archaeological site, because they could have an unsuccessful visit.” But it said that the problems there are “of a social nature” and are beyond its control.

Cartel battles started to get really bad in Chiapas in 2023, which coincides with the uptick in the number of migrants — now about a half-million annually — moving through the Darien Gap jungle from South America, through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border.

Because many of the new wave of migrants are from Cuba, Asia and Africa, they can pay more than Central Americans, making the smuggling routes through Chiapas more valuable. The problem now seems to be beyond anyone’s control.

The National Guard — the quasi-military force that López Obrador has made the centerpiece of law enforcement in Mexico — has been pelted with stones and sticks by local residents in several towns in that region of Chiapas in recent weeks.

The other tour guide said that was because the two warring drug cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco, often recruit or force local people to act as foot soldiers and prevent National Guard troopers from entering their towns.

In Chiapas, residents are often members of Indigenous groups like the Choles or Lacandones, both descendants of the ancient Maya. The potential damage of using them as foot soldiers in cartel fights is grim, given that some groups have either very few remaining members or are already locked in land disputes.

The guide said the ruin sites have the added disadvantage of being in jungle areas where the cartels have carved out at least four clandestine landing strips to fly drugs in from South America.

But the damages are mounting for the Indigenous residents who have come to depend on tourism.

“There are communities that sell handicrafts, that provide places to stay, boat trips, craftspeople. It affects the economy a lot,” said the first guide. “You have to remember that this is an agricultural state that has no industry, no factories, so tourism has become an economic lever, one of the few sources of work.”

Avian Flu Outbreaks Roil US Poultry Industry

PETALUMA, Calif. — Last month, Mike Weber got the news every poultry farmer fears: His chickens tested positive for avian flu.

Following government rules, Weber’s company, Sunrise Farms, had to slaughter its entire flock of egg-laying hens — 550,000 birds — to prevent the disease from infecting other farms in Sonoma County north of San Francisco.

“It’s a trauma. We’re all going through grief as a result of it,” said Weber, standing in an empty hen house. “Petaluma is known as the Egg Basket of the World. It’s devastating to see that egg basket go up in flames.”

A year after the bird flu led to record egg prices and widespread shortages, the disease known as highly pathogenic avian influenza is wreaking havoc in California, which escaped the earlier wave of outbreaks that devastated poultry farms in the Midwest.

The highly contagious virus has ravaged Sonoma County, where officials have declared a state of emergency. During the past two months, nearly a dozen commercial farms have had to destroy more than 1 million birds to control the outbreak, dealing an economic blow to farmers, workers and their customers.

Merced County in Central California also has been hit hard, with outbreaks at several large commercial egg-producing farms in recent weeks.

Experts say bird flu is spread by ducks, geese and other migratory birds. The waterfowl can carry the virus without getting sick and easily spread it through their droppings to chicken and turkey farms and backyard flocks through droppings and nasal discharges.

California poultry farms are implementing strict biosecurity measures to curb the spread of the disease. State Veterinarian Annette Jones urged farmers to keep their flocks indoors until June, including organic chickens that are required to have outdoor access.

“We still have migration going for another couple of months. So we’ve got to be as vigilant as possible to protect our birds,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.

The loss of local hens led to a spike in egg prices in the San Francisco Bay Area over the holidays before supermarkets and restaurants found suppliers from outside the region.

While bird flu has been around for decades, the current outbreak of the virus that began in early 2022 has prompted officials to slaughter nearly 82 million birds, mostly egg-laying chickens, in 47 U.S. states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whenever the disease is found the entire flock is slaughtered to help limit the spread of the virus.

The price of a dozen eggs more than doubled to $4.82 at its peak in January 2023. Egg prices returned to their normal range as egg producers built up their flocks and outbreaks were controlled. Turkey and chicken prices also spiked, partly due to the virus.

“I think this is an existential issue for the commercial poultry industry. The virus is on every continent, except for Australia at this point,” said Maurice Pitesky, a poultry expert at the University of California, Davis.

Climate change is increasing the risk of outbreaks as changing weather patterns disrupt the migratory patterns of wild birds, Pitesky said. For example, exceptional rainfall last year created new waterfowl habitat throughout California, including areas close to poultry farms.

In California, the outbreak has impacted more than 7 million chickens in about 40 commercial flocks and 24 backyard flocks, with most of the outbreaks occurring over the past two months on the North Coast and Central Valley, according to the USDA.

Industry officials are worried about the growing number of backyard chickens that could become infected and spread avian flu to commercial farms.

“We have wild birds that are are full of virus. And if you expose your birds to these wild birds, they might get infected and ill,” said Rodrigo Gallardo, a UC Davis researcher who studies avian influenza.

Gallardo advises the owners of backyard chickens to wear clean clothes and shoes to protect their flocks from getting infected. If an unusual number of chickens die, they should be tested for avian flu.

Ettamarie Peterson, a retired teacher in Petaluma, has a flock of about 50 chickens that produce eggs she sells from her backyard barn for 50 cents each.

“I’m very concerned because this avian flu is transmitted by wild birds, and there’s no way I can stop the wild birds from coming through and leaving the disease behind,” Peterson said. “If your flock has any cases of it, you have to destroy the whole flock.”

Sunrise Farms, which was started by Weber’s great-grandparents more than a century ago, was infected despite putting in place strict biosecurity measures to protect the flock.

“The virus got to the birds so bad and so quickly you walked in and the birds were just dead,” Weber said. “Heartbreaking doesn’t describe how you feel when you walk in and perfectly healthy young birds have been just laid out.”

After euthanizing more than half a million chickens at Sunrise Farms, Weber and his employees spent the Christmas holiday discarding the carcasses. Since then, they’ve been cleaning out and disinfecting the hen houses.

Weber hopes the farm will get approval from federal regulators to bring chicks back to the farm this spring. Then it would take another five months before the hens are mature enough to lay eggs.

He feels lucky that two farms his company co-owns have not been infected and are still producing eggs for his customers. But recovering from the outbreak won’t be easy.

“We have a long road ahead,” Weber said. “We’re going to make another run of it and try to keep this family of employees together because they’ve worked so hard to build this into the company that it is.”