Health Highlights: May 24, 2021

WHO Needs to be Better Prepared Against Pandemics: World Leaders

A number of nations want to strengthen the World Health Organization's ability to prepare for and respond to health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

A draft resolution to create a working group to address the issue was introduced at the U.N. health agency's annual assembly, the Associated Press reported.

The United States, Canada, European Union, U.K., Philippines, Dominican Republic, Rwanda and Vanuatu are among those behind the resolution, which was to be considered during the eight-day meeting.

"We have to have institutions that are up to the task, that meet our ambitions," French President Emmanuel Macron said by video during the mostly virtual meeting, the AP reported.

The WHO must be "robust" and "flexible" in times of emergency and crisis and "it must be completely transparent to make sure that people trust the organization," Macron urged.

"There must not be any political pressure and there must not be any suspicion of pressure that has been exerted," he added, the AP reported.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the concept of a "global health threat council" and said leaders should provide WHO with "lasting financial and personal support."

"We have been talking about this for years, but now it is all the more important to act," she said, the AP reported.

Thousands of 'Black Fungus' Cases in COVID-19 Patients in India

India is struggling with thousands of cases of deadly fungal infections in COVID-19 patients and those who have recovered from the disease.

Nearly 9,000 cases of a fungal infection called mucormycosis, also known as "black fungus," have been reported so far, federal minister Sadananda Gowda said Saturday, the Associated Press reported.

Gowda didn't reveal the number of fatalities, but local media have said there have been more than 250 deaths from the disease.

Mucormycosis is caused by exposure to mucor mold -- commonly found in soil, air and in the nose and mucus of humans -- which spreads through the respiratory tract and erodes facial structures, the AP reported.

In some cases, doctors have to surgically remove the eye to prevent the infection from reaching the brain.

Mucormycosis was already present in India before the pandemic. It is not contagious but it has a high mortality rate and the frequency of cases in the last month has left doctors shocked.

"It is a new challenge and things are looking bleak," Ambrish Mithal, the chairman of the endocrinology and diabetes department at Max Healthcare, a chain of private hospitals in India, told the AP.

Mithal said the fungal infection preys on patients with weakened immune systems and underlying conditions, particularly diabetes, and irrational usage of steroids. Uncontrolled blood sugar can also put immunocompromised people at a higher risk of contracting the disease.

"Earlier, I used to come across just a few cases every year but the current infection rate is frightening," Mithal said.

Pfizer, AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccines Effective Against Indian Variant: Study

Two doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the coronavirus variant first identified in India, according to a new report from Public Health England.

The study was conducted between April 5 and May 16. It found that after two doses, the Pfizer vaccine is 88% effective in protecting against symptomatic disease from the variant, while the AstraZeneca vaccine is 60% effective, the Associated Press reported.

However, both vaccines were only 33% effective three weeks after the first dose, so getting a second dose is essential.

More than 37.7 million people, or 72% of the adult population, have had their first vaccine dose in the U.K. About 42% have had their second dose, the AP reported.

British authorities have expressed concern in recent weeks that increasing cases of the Indian variant could jeopardize the U.K.'s plan to reopen its economy, the AP said. More than 2,880 cases of the Indian variant have been recorded in England to date, figures show.

After the findings were announced, British health officials said they were optimistic that remaining pandemic restrictions in England can be lifted in June, the AP reported.

Latin America's COVID-19 Death Toll Climbs Above 1 Million

The COVID-19 death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean has surpassed 1 million, Johns Hopkins University data shows.

The region has only 8% of the world's population, but has accounted for about 29% of COVID-19 deaths worldwide, according to CBS News.

Brazil's death toll of more than 446,000 is the highest in the region (44.5% of Latin America's deaths) and the second highest in the world, behind only the United States. Mexico has the second highest number of deaths in Latin America with more than 221,000, and the fourth highest number of deaths in the world.

"This is a tragic milestone for everyone in the region," Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne said Friday in a statement, CBS News reported. "This pandemic is far from over, and it is hitting Latin America and the Caribbean severely, affecting our health, our economies, and entire societies."

CDC Investigating Heart Problems in Teens and Young Adults After COVID-19 Vaccination

Reports of a heart problem called myocarditis in a small number of teens and young adults who've received COVID-19 vaccines are being investigated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The condition is an inflammation of the heart muscle and can occur after certain infections, The New York Times reported.

In a statement, the CDC's vaccine safety group said there were "relatively few" cases and that they may have no connection to COVID-19 vaccination. Still, the CDC says health care providers should watch for unusual heart symptoms among young people who've just received COVID-19 vaccines.

"It may simply be a coincidence that some people are developing myocarditis after vaccination," Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, told the Times. "It's more likely for something like that to happen by chance, because so many people are getting vaccinated right now."

The cases, which are more common in males, seem to have occurred predominantly in adolescents and young adults about four days after their second dose of one of the mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer, the Times reported.

"We look forward to seeing more data about these cases, so we can better understand if they are related to the vaccine or if they are coincidental," said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics's Committee on Infectious Diseases, told the Times. "Meanwhile, it's important for pediatricians and other clinicians to report any health concerns that arise after vaccination."

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