From ground zero to zero tolerance – how China learnt from its COVID response to quickly stamp out its latest outbreak


Cui Jingying/AP

Michael Toole, Burnet InstituteCases of COVID-19 are surging around the world, but the course of the pandemic varies widely country to country. To provide you with a global view as we approach a year and a half since the official declaration of the pandemic, The Conversation editors from around the world commissioned articles looking at specific countries and where they are now in combating the pandemic.

Here, Mike Toole, Professor of International Health at the Burnet Institute, writes about how China went from pandemic epicentre with a dark history of silencing those who spoke out about the risks of the virus, to rapidly containing the virus in its latest outbreak. You can see the whole collection of articles here.


On January 5, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement that five days earlier, it was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province.

By January 3, 2020, a total of 44 cases had been detected. According to Chinese authorities, some patients were vendors and customers in the Huanan Seafood market.

And so it began

The outbreak was not widely reported at the time, although the BBC posted a piece two days before the WHO statement. I first learnt of it on January 8 from the New York Times. Having been involved in many epidemic responses and knowing that several viral pandemics – such as SARS and avian influenza – had originated in China, the story piqued my interest.

By then, the causative agent had been identified – a novel coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Investigators had not yet found evidence of person-to-person transmission.

And where did this virus come from? Well, we don’t really know. The WHO investigative team came to the following conclusion:

At this stage, it is not possible to determine precisely how humans in China were initially infected with SARS-CoV-2. However, all available evidence suggests that it has a natural animal origin and is not a manipulated or constructed virus. SARS-CoV-2 virus most probably has its ecological reservoir in bats.




Read more:
I was the Australian doctor on the WHO’s COVID-19 mission to China. Here’s what we found about the origins of the coronavirus


China’s response to the Wuhan outbreak

During early January 2020, a group of doctors in Wuhan who had been trying to alert colleagues to the risks of the outbreak were apprehended by security police and forced to sign statements denouncing their warnings. One of them, Dr Li Wenliang, later died of coronavirus infection.

On January 23, authorities sealed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million. However, the mayor estimated up to five million people were able to leave beforehand during Spring Festival and the virus spread to every province and region in the country.

By then, person-to-person transmission had been confirmed.

On January 30, the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern. By this time, China had reported 9,692 cases and 213 deaths.

Among patients, about 20% had become seriously ill and the rest had a mild illness, the WHO said.

On February 11, the WHO announced the official name of the novel disease: COVID-19. While the virus had been detected in more than 20 countries, the majority of cases were in China.

By mid-February, the country had reported more than 66,000 cases and 1,600 deaths. The health system was quickly overwhelmed and measures were taken like building two large new hospitals in Wuhan with a combined 2,500 bed capacity in the space of two weeks.

And then it was over

The seven day rolling average of new daily cases reached a peak of 4,670 on February 13. Just 30 days later it was down to 19. However, it should be noted that China only reports cases that are symptomatic, which may underestimate total SARS-CoV-2 infections.

This remains one of the most rapidly contained outbreaks of COVID-19 in the world during the entire pandemic.

Since that first wave, China has been determined to maintain zero COVID with just an occasional cluster disturbing the peace. By almost every metric, China ranks highly in containing the coronavirus.

Since April 1, 2020, the country has reported just over 12,800 new cases in a population of 1.4 billion. That’s about the same number recorded in Timor-Leste with a population one thousandth the size of China.

Overall, China has reported 66 cases per million population compared to 112,362 per million in the United States. This low number has been due to a combination of quick, early lockdowns, widespread testing and sometimes harsh limitations on people’s movements. The latter have been criticised by human rights advocates.

The vaccine rollout has picked up pace and 1.8 billion doses of CoronaVac and Sinopharm, both manufactured in China, have been administered, enough to vaccinate 66% of the population.




Read more:
What are the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines? And how effective are they? Two experts explain


While there have been concerns about these vaccines, real world data in Chile indicate CoronaVac is 67% effective against infection and 85% effective against hospitalisation.

A study in Bahrain found Sinopharm is 90% effective against infection and higher against hospitalisation.

Since late July, China has faced its biggest challenge since the first wave in Wuhan. An outbreak of the Delta strain, which began at Nanjing airport, led to 526 cases in Jiangsu province in the first two weeks of August and has spread to 12 cities, including Wuhan.

This prompted the activation of epidemic containment protocols including mass testing, demarcating neighbourhoods deemed risky and restricting movement in affected cities.

The strategy seems to be working – by August 15, new daily cases declined for the fifth consecutive day.

What lessons can China offer the world?

It’s hard to compare China with any other country. Its mass urban testing strategy, for example, is not feasible in most countries.

But, what China has clearly demonstrated is that zero tolerance of COVID-19 reaps enormous health and economic benefits. While China’s economy shrank by 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020, it grew by a record 18.3% in the first quarter of 2021.

By contrast, the Eurozone economy shrunk by 0.6% and the UK economy shrunk by 1.5% in the same quarter.

That should be food for thought for those who agitate for “living with COVID-19”.The Conversation

Michael Toole, Professor of International Health, Burnet Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gastro outbreak: how does it spread, and how can we stop it? A gastroenterologist explains


Shutterstock

Vincent Ho, Western Sydney UniversityOn Monday, Victorian health authorities released figures showing they’d received 389 reports of “gastro” outbreaks so far in 2021.

The health department said this was four times higher than the average.

There are many different types of bacteria and viruses that can cause gastroenteritis. But in this instance it’s most likely to be a virus called “norovirus”.

It’s a very contagious virus that passes between people quite easily. Studies estimate the reproduction number (or R₀) for norovirus in the population to be around 2, but this can go as high as 14 in an outbreak with no intervention. In other words, during an outbreak at a childcare centre without any control measures, one child can potentially infect an average of 14 other children. By contrast, the R₀ for COVID-19 is estimated to be between 2 and 4.




Read more:
Explainer: what is gastroenteritis and why can’t I get rid of it?


How does it spread?

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve learned a lot about how the coronavirus spreads. We’ve learned it transmits mostly by respiratory droplets, smaller aerosols that can hang in the air that you can then breathe in, and less commonly via surfaces.

But what about gastro? Gastro caused by norovirus spreads primarily via the “foecal-oral route” — basically, when particles from someone’s poo end up in someone else’s mouth. You can also pick up the virus by coming into contact with someone’s vomit.

Most commonly this happens because you touch a surface or a person contaminated with this virus and then touch your mouth. It can spread rapidly in childcare centres because kids often play very physically, and they might not understand proper physical distancing and handwashing in the way adults do.

It can also spread very easily in places like cruise ships.




Read more:
Cruise ships can be floating petri dishes of gastro bugs. 6 ways to stay healthy at sea this summer


It can take between 12 and 72 hours to develop symptoms after coming into contact with norovirus. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pains, and nausea. It generally takes a few days to recover, and isn’t doesn’t usually require serious medical attention. But it might be worth contacting your GP if your symptoms haven’t resolved in three days. Make sure to drink as much water as you can so you don’t get dehydrated.

If you have these symptoms make sure you stay home, and don’t return to work, school or childcare until 48 hours after your symptoms resolve. Returning earlier can mean you spread the virus.

Children at a childcare facility
Gastro caused by norovirus can spread very easily in childcare centres. Thorough handwashing and disinfecting are our best defences against it.
Shutterstock

Norovirus is very resistant

Some of you might be wondering how a virus survives in a state that endured such a long COVID-19 lockdown last year.

Well — norovirus is a very hardy virus. Research suggests it’s able to survive long periods on different surfaces and across varied temperatures. It’s often present at low levels across different environments, and in many types of food, for example oysters. It can survive in water for many months.

We can’t really eliminate this virus, but we can mitigate it’s spread.

How can we stop it?

The gold standard method is washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water.

I suspect many of us have become a bit complacent with handwashing and instead are slapping on alcohol-based hand sanitiser when we can, although this is anecdotal.

However, even though hand sanitiser is convenient, it doesn’t work as well against norovirus as thorough handwashing does.

One study even suggests that using both methods simultaneously — washing your hands with soap and water and also applying hand sanitiser — actually increases the number of bacteria on your hands, though the exact way this occurs is unknown.

It’s best to simply wash your hands for 20 seconds. But disinfecting surfaces is also important. If someone in your home or workplace is vomiting due to a gastro type illness, make sure you very quickly disinfect the nearby surfaces. You want to wear gloves and properly disinfect surfaces using hot water with a detergent, or even bleach, both of which can kill norovirus.

Parents, childcare workers and teachers should also teach kids good hygiene and handwashing skills. And, for us grownups, we should follow our own advice.




Read more:
Why hand-washing really is as important as doctors say


The Conversation


Vincent Ho, Senior Lecturer and clinical academic gastroenterologist, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Brisbane’s COVID lockdown has a crucial difference: it aims to squash an outbreak before it even starts


Catherine Bennett, Deakin University

Greater Brisbane’s 72-hour COVID lockdown, which takes effect at 6pm on Friday, has a crucial difference from the months-long lockdown endured by Melbourne earlier this year, or the current restrictions aimed at stamping out Sydney’s COVID clusters.

In Brisbane’s case, it’s just a circuit-breaker designed to immediately minimise everyone’s number of close contacts until we can establish whether anyone has caught the virus from the one known case: a hotel quarantine cleaner who was moving around in the community for five days before testing positive yesterday.

Melbourne’s lockdown, in contrast, was about suppressing viral transmission from cases that numbered in the thousands and where workplaces were the main driver of spread. That meant isolating everyone until the continual seeding back into the community could be stopped.

Brisbane’s shorter lockdown allows health authorities to find and test anyone who might, for instance, have been on public transport with the one woman we know has been infected so far.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said authorities were aiming to “go hard and go early”, given the infected woman is known to have contracted the more infectious UK mutant strain of the coronavirus.

This is why the announcement has been prompt: the time frame for circuit-breakers must be short but the list of allowable reasons for leaving the house is relatively generous to compensate. Besides the usual essentials such as shopping, health care and exercise, it also includes attending workplaces when working from home is impractical, and going to weddings and funerals (with restricted numbers) because people may have immediate plans they cannot change.

That said, the panic-buying witnessed in Brisbane’s shops today is really disappointing. The shops will still be open, you can still shop as one of your reasons to leave home, and everyone crowding into shops at the start of lockdown actually increases the risk of infection.

We’ve seen how these things play out – the empty shelves and toilet paper shortages. We wouldn’t wish Melbourne’s situation on anybody, but they have shown it is possible to live with lockdown. It’s actually the panic-buying that causes the shortages in supply. But it just seems to be an instinctive human reaction that can’t be prevented.

Does it matter that the ‘UK superstrain’ is involved here?

The protocol for handling a situation like this should be the same regardless of whether the “UK superstrain” is involved or not.

With a low number of cases, it doesn’t make much of a difference which variant is responsible. It would make a difference if case numbers climbed or the virus got into workplaces and began to get a foothold in the community. Then, the fact this strain spreads more rapidly would become a danger.

The fact that Melbourne’s lockdown successfully suppressed within a matter of weeks a new “mutant” strain with some of the same genetic changes as the UK variant, while the variant responsible for more than 99% of the second wave was a supposedly less infectious strain, shows that what matters most is the how the epidemic seeds, where transmission is established and how it is controlled, not just the COVID strain itself.




Read more:
Finally at zero new cases, Victoria is on top of the world after unprecedented lockdown effort


Brisbane’s current situation does show the value of more frequent testing of hotel quarantine staff. When we had the Adelaide outbreak, I advocated for daily testing, or testing on each shift, to be the national testing standard for all workers on the quarantine frontline. The Victorian government has already applied it, and National Cabinet has now established this as the the national standard.

With more frequent testing, we wouldn’t have the situation we have in Queensland. Instead, the woman who is believed to have been infectious since January 2 would have tested positive on her last shift that day, rather than when she developed symptoms several days later. This would have removed the risks associated with her subsequent movements in the community.

Testing times for air passengers

National Cabinet has also announced a series of new measures aimed at reducing the risks associated with air travel and the potential arrival of COVID cases among returned travellers.

All passengers will be required to test negative before boarding a flight to Australia, and masks will be mandatory on all international and domestic flights and inside airports.

Testing positive for a test completes within 72 hours of a flight will rule that passenger, and any of their household contacts, from boarding the flight. This is a good way of taking the pressure off our returnee quarantine process, although it will not eliminate the risk entirely. It is still possible passengers or crew will bring the virus into Australia as some may still be incubating an infection when in transit.

While it’s impossible to rule out that positive cases will arrive among returned travellers, particularly from the UK, it will undoubtedly reduce the proportion of arrivals who are positive, and PCR testing is much more reliable than screening for symptoms.

Mandatory masks are also a sensible idea – many passengers were already wearing them so this about making it mandatory and consistent across all carriers. If you don’t have the virus, the last thing you want is to contract it on the plane.

Border closures still a blunt tool

While Brisbane’s lockdown covers a sizeable area of Queensland’s southeast, wholesale border closures — such as Western Australia’s new decision to bar arrivals from Queensland — is overkill.

We must be able to manage our response to this pandemic nationally. This is not the time for states to be saying “our processes are better than yours”. Instead, we should have a coordinated process, so if you have cases arriving in your state, we can all work together to manage it.




Read more:
Australia’s mishmash of COVID border closures is confusing, inconsistent and counterproductive


Closing the border to travellers from specific hotpots: yes. That’s how you manage risk. But doing it beyond the hotspots, especially if there aren’t even any known exposure sites outside the hotspot, seems unnecessary and counterproductive, especially in the context of a circuit-breaker compared with evidence of unknown community transmission.

Hard border closures bring a host of health and economic consequences.

Masks mean you can reduce transmission risk, keep borders open and contain local clusters that start before you know the virus has landed in your area – masks are absolutely the way to go. It’s just something you can put in your pocket, and authorities can step the rules up and down as required. True, we will see more clusters, but they will likely be smaller and contained more promptly.The Conversation

Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

South Australia’s COVID outbreak: what we know so far, and what needs to happen next


Adrian Esterman, University of South Australia

A COVID cluster linked to a quarantine hotel in Adelaide has today grown to 17 cases.

As a result, the South Australian government has reintroduced certain restrictions, including closing gyms, capping patrons in hospitality venues, and limiting visitors to private homes.

Meanwhile, other states have reimposed border restrictions for South Australians.

After months without any community transmission in the state, this is a big blow for South Australia. But with an effective public health response and cooperation from the community, the hope is we will be able to quickly get this under control.

Seeded in hotel quarantine

The first, or index case, to come to the attention of the health authorities was an 80-year-old woman who attended the emergency department of Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide’s northeast. She comes from an extended family based in the city’s northern suburbs, 15 of whom have now been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Members of this extended family work in aged care, health care and the prison system — all high-risk settings for the spread of COVID-19. It’s possible some of these people worked while infectious, but this information hasn’t been released yet.

It’s been reported the origin of this cluster was one of Adelaide’s quarantine hotels (which in South Australia we call medi-hotels) where one member of the family worked.

It’s likely there’s been some kind of breach in the medi-hotel. We don’t know the exact role this person was working in, but it’s important we find out how they picked up the infection so we can address what went wrong.

From now on, staff working at medi-hotels will be tested for COVID-19 weekly. Before this outbreak, they were only asked to be tested if they had symptoms. In hindsight, regular testing should have been in place months ago.




Read more:
7 ways to better design quarantine, based on what we know about human behaviour


Déjà vu?

We know Victoria’s second wave began with someone working in the hotel quarantine system who passed it to their large family, who then spread it in the community.

While there are similarities between what happened in Victoria and what’s unfolding in Adelaide, there are also some notable differences. The first is that South Australia has a very strong public health system, whereas Victoria’s has had many problems.

Second, South Australia doesn’t have the high-density population Victoria does. The population is smaller and more dispersed, making the virus easier to control.

Although both Victoria’s second wave and South Australia’s current cluster were seeded in hotel quarantine, the road out for Adelaide should be more akin to what we’ve seen in New South Wales.

Over recent months, several clusters have emerged in NSW, but they have been stamped out before transmission got out of control. We stand a good chance of doing the same in Adelaide, and indeed must avoid a situation in which this cluster grows exponentially.




Read more:
Hotel quarantine interim report recommends changes but accountability questions remain


What needs to happen now?

Testing will be crucial to getting a handle on this outbreak, and is already a focal point. Pop-up testing sites have already been established, and public health messaging is encouraging people with symptoms to get tested.

South Australia has a well established contact-tracing team which should manage the daily case load, as long as we don’t see exponential growth. The conventional wisdom in my field is that each case has on average ten or so close contacts. If close contacts of close contacts are investigated too (the “second ring” approach), 100 people need to be investigated for each case. With 17 cases, that’s already 1,700 contacts to deal with. So you can see how easily an outbreak can become too big to track.

It may be possible to avoid any kind of lockdown. If the cluster does get much bigger from here, the government might think about mandating masks. Restricting social gatherings and asking people to work from home where possible are also worthwhile measures. These measures could reduce transmission but won’t deal a major blow to South Australia’s economy.

Border questions…

The approach from other states to consider South Australia a “hotspot” and restrict entry, while no doubt disappointing for many, is a sensible move.

Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are now asking people arriving from South Australia to self-quarantine. Queensland will require all arrivals to go into hotel quarantine.

Now may be the time to seriously consider rapid antigen testing at all borders. These tests are not as accurate as the traditional COVID tests, but deliver results much more quickly, in as little as 15 minutes. Victoria is considering this tool.

A young man in his car gets a COVID test.
Testing and tracing will be crucial to control South Australia’s outbreak.
Shutterstock

…and broader questions

In a situation like this, we should ask why we continue to operate high-risk quarantine hotels in the middle of a city. It would be much safer to quarantine people away from communities, like we did on Christmas Island earlier in the pandemic.

I also believe we should establish a national centre to oversee contact tracing, hotel quarantine, and other important aspects of the pandemic’s management, ensuring all systems and training are uniform across Australia.

As domestic travel increases, this centre could host a national database with information gathered through QR codes, flight data, and so on. Local hubs in each state and territory would continue to be important.

South Australia’s current outbreak shows us this can happen anywhere — even in a place where COVID-19 is well under control. It’s likely this will be our COVID-normal, at least until we have a vaccine.




Read more:
Where did Victoria go so wrong with contact tracing and have they fixed it?


The Conversation


Adrian Esterman, Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Plague outbreak: where does it still exist and could it spread?



File 20171115 19799 1g1ck15.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Plague still exists in wild rodents and eradication probably isn’t possible.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Allen Cheng, Monash University

An outbreak of plague has been occurring in Madagascar, with more than 2,000 cases and 170 deaths reported since August 2017.

This island nation is one of the few remaining hotspots for plague in the world, with cases usually reported between September and April each year.

But this outbreak has been unusual, as it has affected many different areas in Madagascar, including heavily populated cities.

What is plague, and how is it treated?

Plague is a serious disease caused by the bacteria Yersina pestis. It has a high death rate if untreated. There are several different clinical forms, including bubonic plague (affecting the lymph nodes), pneumonic plague (affecting the lungs) and septicaemic plague (involving the bloodstream).

Outside of outbreak situations, deaths from plague are usually due to delays in recognition and diagnosis, rather than a lack of treatment options. Although antibiotic resistant strains have been described, plague can generally be treated with a number of commonly available antibiotics.

Why does plague still exist?

Plague was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in three devastating pandemics, including the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, the Black Death in the 14th century, and the Third Pandemic that originated in China in the 19th century.

In these pandemics, it’s generally thought plague was introduced by rats (often transported on ships) then transmitted to local rats in domestic settings. Fleas then transmit the bacterium between infected rats and humans. But there’s still some debate on the transmission pathways of plague in these pandemics. The classical cycle between an animal reservoir (rats) to humans through an insect vector (fleas) is common to many animal-associated infectious diseases, known as zoonoses.

The pattern of plague cases seems to have changed to a more complex ecology over the past 50 years. There has been a shift in cases from Asia to Africa and the re-emergence of disease in other areas such as the United States.

It’s now recognised there are many potential pathways of transmission from animals to humans in different settings. In the US, plague is thought to be transmitted from wild rodents in rural areas, such as prairie dogs and rock squirrels.

In some African countries, it’s thought cases arise where there is human encroachment into forest areas. Outbreaks have also been linked to the consumption of infected camel and goat meat in Libya, and from exposure to infected guinea pigs during preparation for cooking.

In recent years, there’s been interest in the impact of climate change on the potential for outbreaks. The prevalence of plague in animals in Kazakhstan is associated with higher temperatures in spring and rainfall in summer, as are outbreaks in the US. Tree ring studies also suggest similar climatic conditions may have triggered the Black Death and the Third Pandemic.

How can it be controlled?

Modern plague control includes finding cases and treating them, and where cases are detected, clearing homes of fleas using insecticides. Plague cases in hospitals need to be cared for safely to prevent spread to health care workers and other patients.

In affected communities, people should act to keep rats out of homes. This includes making sure food is stored and disposed of safely. Avoiding bites from fleas is also important, using insect repellents and ridding animals of fleas. Although rat control using poisons can also be used, this should only be done after fleas have been controlled, as fleas can leave dying rats and make things worse.

At a national and international level, systems to respond to outbreaks are required to make sure the public receives reliable information, to deploy logistics and resources to where they are required, and co-ordinate the various national and international organisations involved in the response.

How easily can it spread between countries?

Although the concept of quarantine arose from efforts to control plague spread, travel and trade restrictions are not often warranted given their potential economic impact. The wider fallout from outbreaks can be severe. For example, a relatively small outbreak, mostly localised to the city of Surat in India in 1994, provoked widespread panic. This resulted in a national collapse in tourism and trade that was estimated to cost up to US$2 billion.

In this current outbreak, only the Seychelles has implemented travel bans, and it’s thought the risk of transmission is low. Few confirmed cases have been reported in travellers from Madagascar during the current outbreak.

The World Health Organisation has been working with neighbouring countries to improve preparedness efforts. This includes improving surveillance at airports and sea ports, developing contingency plans and pre-positioning of antibiotics and protective equipment.

What is the future for plague?

It’s not possible to eradicate plague, as it is widespread in wildlife rodents outside the sphere of human influence. Outbreaks generally are managed reactively by “firefighting teams” deployed to clear houses of fleas, identify and treat cases and give pre-emptive treatment to contacts at risk.

The ConversationA more preventative approach, such as the identification of areas at risk using climate models and animal surveys to focus flea and rat control efforts would be better. But this requires a better understanding of transmission pathways in each region where disease persists.

Allen Cheng, Professor in Infectious Diseases Epidemiology, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Two Church of Christ in Nigeria Journalists Killed in Jos


Other Christians murdered in area that continues to be wracked by violence.

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 27 (CDN) — The killing of Christians in Jos, Plateau state in Nigeria continued over the weekend with two journalists and five other persons falling victim to Muslim youth gangs.

Nathan S. Dabak, an assistant editor at a newspaper of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) called The Light Bearer, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, a reporter at the publication, were stabbed to death on Saturday (April 24) at Gado-Bako in Jos North Local Government Area along with an unidentified motorcyclist.

“The staff of the church were murdered in cold blood by some Hausa Muslim youths,” the Rev. Pandang Yamsat, president of COCIN, told Compass today. “This is clear because they have been using the hand phones of the deceased journalists and boasting that they are the ones that killed them.”

The young Muslim men have been boldly answering calls to the cell phones of the deceased journalists, he said; when a friend of Dabak called his cell phone number, an unknown voice responded, “We have killed all of them – you can do your worst!”

Dabak, 36, and the 39-year-old Bwede had left their office on Saturday morning and were on their way to interview local politician Bulus Kaze when they fell into the hands of young Muslim men, Yamsat said.

The church started a search for the two Christians that day but did not discover their bodies until about noon on Sunday at the mortuary of Jos University Teaching Hospital, he said. He added that the church was eagerly waiting for results of a police investigation.

“The security team of the church has been communicating with the police, but they are yet to make any headway on this unfortunate incident,” he said.

Burial of the slain journalists is scheduled for Friday (April 30).

In his statement on Monday (April 26), Yamsat lamented that “while efforts have been tailored towards the return of peace to the state by the military Special Task Force, it is regrettable that the state is confronted with a spate of killings.”

“The church is still mourning the death of its pastor and his wife killed in Boto, Bauchi state,” Yamsat said, in reference to the April 13 kidnapping and murder of the Rev. Ishaku Kadah, 48, and his 45-year-old wife Selina. “It is sad that it should again be left to face another brutal murder of two of their staff.”

The state branch of the Nigerian Union of Journalists also condemned the circumstances that led to the death of the two journalists, expressing deep concern over what it described as “a series of attacks on its members in recent times in the course of carrying out their legitimate duties.”

Four other Christians also were killed on Saturday (April 24) in the Dutse Uku district of Jos’ Nasarawa Gwom area in a revenge attack following the discovery of the corpse of a teenage Muslim who had been missing. Their names were not released at press time.

The four Christians reportedly died, three of them stabbed to death, when hundreds of Muslim youths rampaged throughout the area in protest.

Earlier, police reportedly exhumed eight bodies from shallow graves in a predominantly Christian village near Jos. The discovery of the bodies brought to 15 the number of corpses found in three days in an area fraught with Muslim aggression that has left hundreds of Christians dead.

Jos has become a flash-point for ethnic and religious tensions in Plateau state, which is located between Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north and Christian south. Previously hundreds of Christian villagers were struck with machetes and burned to death on March 7 in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat, three villages in Jos South and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas.

On March 17, Muslim Fulani herdsmen assaulted two Christian villages in Plateau state, killing 13 persons, including a pregnant woman and children. In attacks presumably over disputed property but with a level of violence characteristic of jihadist method and motive, men in military camouflage and others in customary clothing also burned 20 houses in Byei and Baten villages, in the Riyom Local Government Area of the state, about 45 kilometers (29 miles) from Jos.

On Jan. 17, two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in an outbreak of violence in Jos triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church. Police estimated over 300 lives were lost in subsequent clashes, in which 10 church buildings were burned.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians in Nigeria Decry Police Inaction in Church Burnings


Zamfara state assailants emboldened by lack of prosecution in Jos mayhem, CAN leader says.

LAGOS, Nigeria, February 26 (CDN) — The head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Zamfara state told Compass that he was disappointed in the lack of response by state police to recent church burnings by Muslim youths.

“It is unfortunate that there has been no response from the police, and even the state governor has refused to meet with us,” said the acting state chairman of CAN, the Rev. Edwin Okpara.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God building in Tudun Wada was partly burnt on Jan. 25, and Christian Faith Bible church and the Living Faith Foundation Chapel, both in Gusau, were partly burnt in attacks on Jan. 20 and 24 respectively. Zamfara state, one of the predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria, was the first in the country to implement Islamic law (sharia).

In the petition dated Jan. 26, CAN stated that the church burnings came in the aftermath of “a grand plot to unleash mayhem on churches and Christians in the state due to the religious clash in Jos, Plateau state.”

The association alleged that those who attacked the Zamfara churches were emboldened because officials made no serious move to arrest those who carried out the Jos attacks. Two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in the outbreak of violence in Jos on Jan. 17, triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church; 10 church buildings were burned, and police estimated more than 300 lives were lost in the clash.

“We are seriously disturbed by the restlessness and panic these attacks have created among the Christian community and ask that every necessary and urgent step be taken by your command to secure the lives of both Christians and Muslims in the state as citizens of Nigeria,” the CAN petition states. “Despite these attacks and provocation, the church and Christians as peaceful people have remained calm and have no plans to retaliate, but [we are] appealing to you to act and protect our interest.”

The State Police Command was not available for comment on the CAN request.

Okpara lamented that Christians in the state have been suffering in silence with little means of drawing attention to their plight.

“The level of persecution in Zamfara is alarming, more than in any other state in the country,” Okpara said. “Not even in Sokoto or Kano are Christians subjected to the kind of discrimination we are subjected to.”

He said it was impossible to get land to build churches in Zamfara state; Christians are forced to sign an understanding binding them to refrain from using land in the state for church buildings.

“We are more or less operating underground churches in the state,” he said. “The present state government has turned out to be more anti-Christian than the former government in the state, which introduced the sharia law.”

Leaders of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) on Tuesday (Feb. 23) decried cases of persecution and discrimination against Christians and called on the federal government to put an end to it. Virtually all churches in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria have been refused certificates of occupancy for their buildings, they said.

“There seems to be an unwritten law that churches are not welcomed in the northern part of the country,” the PFN leaders noted in a statement.

Report from Compass Direct News 

More Christians die in Eritrea’s military concentration camps


Open Doors says at least seven prisoners held at Wi’a Military camp in Eritrea have died in an outbreak of meningitis, reports MNN.

By the time the government relocated the prisoners and staff to Mitire Military Concentration Camp, at least one of them, Mesfin Gebrekristos, was among those who succumbed to both weakened health and the illness. Mesfin was a believer who spent the last year imprisoned for his faith.

He died on September 3 and leaves behind a wife and two children. He is the tenth reported Christian to have died while being incarcerated for his worship outside of the state-approved Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Open Doors also reports that two weeks ago, the Eritrean government called on all its citizens to inform the police of any illegal gatherings of Christians in their neighborhoods.

According to their sources, the call was made during a meeting titled, “Working Along With The Police To Prevent Crime In The Country.” Authorities said meetings by unregistered groups in homes is a criminal act and asked civilians to also regard them as such. The government then took that a step further by indicating that such criminal acts deserved to be punished by law.

Christians belonging to unregistered groups are fearful. Open Doors says Christian leaders are encouraging believers to be bold and ask prayer for God’s strength for these believers.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News