REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
12 August 2014
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, World Meteorological Organization, and the World Health Organization.
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO had organized a medical experts meeting the previous day to discuss whether it was ethical to use experimental treatments in the current Ebola outburst in Western Africa. She added that 12 experts and some other advisors had met in the afternoon the previous day and wrote a statement to be released today at 2 p.m. Two main questions were on the agenda: was it ethical to use medicines that had never been tested on humans to fight the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa, and if so, who should receive the experimental treatments, given that very few samples existed in the world.
WHO would organize a virtual press conference today at 2 p.m, where the results of the meeting would be discussed by Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director General for Health Information and Systems. The complete report would be made available by 17 August.
Answering to a question on whether the committee’s decisions had already been overtaken by the events since the ZMapp drug had already been distributed in Liberia, Ms. Chaib said that the question was complex and it was important to discuss the implications of using a drug that had never been tested on humans. She added that the treatment was really very scarce; even the producer had less than a dozen of samples. It was hence important to discuss who should receive the treatment, in which circumstances and whether it was ethical to use it. She reminded that the expert meeting’s purpose was to discuss all those aspects since Ebola would likely still be on the agenda for months to come.
Answering a journalist Ms. Chaib said that the statement to be published would be a non-binding guidance to WHO, which would then be shared with countries affected by Ebola. She said that several ethical aspects would be discussed in the statement: who should receive the treatment, was it safe and was it ethical.
Asked whether the WHO had had a similar committee meeting on ethical issues in the past and why the journalists had not received the Ebola update until this morning when it had already been published during the previous night, Ms. Chaib said that she would revert on the first question [Later on during the briefing, Ms Chaib answered this question by saying that WHO had been convening meetings on ethical issues in relation with most major health issues such as HIV, TBC or the dual use of research, to name a few]. On the second question, she explained that clearance of Ebola updates was a somewhat slow process since several people were involved. WHO was expecting the latest update during the previous day, but it only came late in the night. The journalist added that the WHO should post the information on the main website, not only the WHO African regional website. Asked by another journalist, Ms. Chaib clarified that the figures published on the African regional website were not any less reliable than those issued by WHO headquarters.
In response to whether it could be confirmed that Ms. Chan had authorized the dispatch of the experimental serum to Liberia, Ms. Chaib said that the link had been directly made between Liberia and the US. WHO was not at all involved in the discussions or in the decision of dispatching any treatment to any country requesting it, since they simply did not have the treatments. The WHO Director-General was, however, in permanent contact with the heads of state of the four countries affected by Ebola.
Answering other questions, Ms. Chaib said that for complex cases, WHO had always had the policy of asking experts’ opinion - in the current case, experts in medical ethics. She added that by taking those experts’ opinions, the WHO accepted them and shared them with its Member States as the WHO position. Ms. Chaib added that WHO had a counselling role regarding technical questions on the use of medicines from Member States, but decisions would then be taken by each country.
Ms. Chaib reiterated that WHO did not have treatments in stock to be sent to any country in need. She highlighted that it was not WHO’s role to send treatments, and the decision was that of each country and the pharmaceutical laboratory producing the vaccine or the treatment.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that in northwest Iraq, thousands of people had escaped from Sinjar Mountain via Syria and back into the Dohuk Governorate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq over the previous 72 hours. According to UNHCR’s non-governmental organization partners, there were now as many as 35,000 people there. The new arrivals were exhausted, dehydrated and many had suffered sun or heat stroke, with the daily temperatures reaching 40 to 45 degrees Celsius.
People were moving to places including Zakho and Dohuk towns, where 16 school buildings had been made available. Food, water and medical care were being provided. As of now, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people remained trapped on Sinjar Mountain without food, water or shelter. Access to those families was extremely limited.
According to the mayor of Zakho, his city of 350,000 people just a few kilometres from the Turkish border, was hosting some 100,000 displaced people, mainly from Sinjar and Zumar, who had fled there over the previous week. The local authorities had opened schools and community buildings to house the displaced who were also taking shelter under bridges and in unfinished buildings.
Mr. Edwards said that the Dohuk Governorate was now hosting close to 400,000 displaced Iraqis, including Yazidis, Christians, Shabak, Kakai, Armenian and Turkman minorities – some of whom had endured repeated displacement. Many were now in the towns of Khanke, Shariya, Zahko, Shekhan and in and around Dohuk town. They were scattered across hundreds of sites, with some staying with relatives and others in schools, churches, mosques, parks and shells of apartment buildings without water or electricity. UNHCR was distributing mattresses, blankets, emergency relief kits, household items and hygiene kits to locations in Dohuk, Zakho, Akre, Shekhan, LKhanke and the village of Bajet Kandela. UNHCR was also witnessing enormous generosity by the local community who were spontaneously handing out aid.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 people were staying at the Bajet Kandela camp – a former reception centre for Syrian refugees, most of whom had passed through there two years earlier after crossing the border at Peshkhabour. While basic facilities were in place, conditions were crowded and local NGOs had been installing family tents on the site wherever space could be found. Site preparations had been completed to extend the camp, and another 5,000 tents were being added to the camp starting today. The camp had water, electricity and other essential infrastructure.
In all, Mr. Edwards summarized, there were more than 1.2 million internally displaced people in Iraq, including an estimated 700,000 in the Kurdistan region which already hosted some 225,000 Syrian refugees.
Another 10,000 to 15,000 Yazidi Iraqis fleeing Sinjar had arrived in Syria. Most were staying in the Newroz camp near Al Qamishli, run by local NGOs. Other refugees were scattered among various Yazidi villages in Qahtania or urban areas. UNHCR teams from its Qamishli field office in Syria had carried out an assessment mission to Qahtania on 9 August and provided aid to hundreds of families staying in three villages and a local school. UNHCR had also distributed tents, hygiene kits, sleeping mats, and other relief items to refugees staying in the Newroz camp which was now overcrowded with people. Both refugees and local communities reported that more refugees were on the way. UNHCR’s field team reported seeing local people from nearby villages distributing water and basic foods to the refugees on their journey.
Paul Garwood, for the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that the health situation for the tens of thousands of people stranded on Sinjar Mountain was precarious, in particular due to the exposure to the high heat and the lack of access to health care. In response, WHO had supported the deployment of two mobile medical teams operating in the mountains to provide health care as best as possible to the affected people. That included replenishment brought in by helicopter flights, medical supplies and other basic supplies including protein biscuits. Further response was provided at the Peshkhabour checkpoint where 16 ambulances, two medical doctors and 10 paramedics were providing health care. WHO was providing support to the people who had left the mountain and made it to the checkpoint. Mr. Garwood added that 10 additional mobile medical teams supported by the WHO with one doctor, one nurse, and one pharmacist for each team, were visiting IDPs in Dohuk. The previous day a polio immunization campaign held in conjunction with UNICEF and local authorities was launched in Dohuk and in other areas of the country.
WHO expressed concern regarding the cancellation or suspension of some air flights from different airlines into Iraq. Mr. Garwood said that there was the feeling that that would impact the delivery of medical supplies. Alternatively WHO would have to consider bringing medical supplies to the country by sea and land.
Answering a question on the immunization campaign, Mr. Garwood said that a campaign had been launched in Iraq. Mr. Garwood added that two cases of polio had been reported in Iraq recently and there was a relative high number of unvaccinated children due to insecurity and difficult access to families and children, especially in conflict zones. Iraq had now become very vulnerable to a wide outbreak of that disease. WHO expressed high concern about the displacement of people and over crowded conditions which could lead to further outbreak of diseases such as polio.
Answering another question about the polio vaccination campaign, Mr. Garwood said that across the country the project was to immunize four million children under the age of five. The country was very vulnerable to the outbreak of that crippling disease.
Asked whether the Yazidis were in any danger from ISIS in Syria, where some of them had ended up, Mr. Edwards said that an estimated 35,000 had left Sinjar Mountain, some of whom had left the Iraqi territory. Most of them were in an extremely precarious situation and in urgent need of medical help, food and water. The situation was extremely fluid.
Mr. Edwards did not have information on the numbers of beneficiaries reached by US airdrops.
Answering questions, Mr. Edwards explained that people were trapped in Sinjar Mountain because of the security situation. Access was very limited, and aid could not be easily organized to tens of thousands of people stranded there. Those who had managed to leave Sinjar were arriving in very bad conditions. Mr. Edwards could not specify how many among the stranded people were Yazidis.
Mr. Garwood stated that the previous day the Regional Director of the WHO East and Mediterranean Regional Office had visited Gaza and toured the damaged health facilities, where he met with local authorities. The day before he had met with the President of the Palestinian Authority and received information about the challenges and impact on the health system of the recent events. The latest figures WHO had showed that as of 9 August more than 1,900 Palestinians had been killed, including 449 children and 243 women. Those figures had come from the Ministry of Health. 9,861 people had been injured.
Mr. Garwood said that the impact on the health system had been great. 15 out of 32 hospitals had been damaged, in addition to 18 primary health clinics and 29 ambulances. At least 5 medical staff had been killed and many more had been injured. WHO expressed concern about the possibility of a health disaster in Gaza, in particular because of the possible spread of communicable diseases. WHO had responded so far by sending 2.5 million USD for medical supplies and other support into Gaza hospitals and clinics during the conflict. There was an urgent need to provide mental health support for all patients, parents, children and especially displaced persons, most of whom did not have homes to come back to in Gaza.
Mr. Edwards said that the UNHCR was alarmed that recent deportations of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka were growing in size and scope despite international calls to stop sending them back to a place where their lives could be in danger. In all, 88 Pakistanis had been sent home since 1 August. Initially, those deportees had been men previously placed into detention, but now whole families were being deported.
The first cases had happened on 3 August, when a detained man had been sent back to Pakistan, followed two days later by his wife and daughter, picked up from their home. A family of six had been sent back on 9 August, followed by others. Some of the latest deportees had their passports and asylum-seeker certificates seized the previous week. They had been told to go to Colombo airport, where they had been placed on flights to Pakistan.
UNHCR staff had heard about families becoming separated as a result of deportation. UNHCR was seriously concerned about such deportations, including of families and vulnerable people whose international protection needs had not been assessed. By sending those people back, the Government of Sri Lanka was in breach of its obligations under international law concerning the principles of non-refoulement.
According to UNHCR guidelines issued to governments and other decision makers on eligibility of asylum claims, members of religious minorities from Pakistan might be in need of international protection and required particularly careful examination of their asylum claims.
Mr. Edwards stressed that UNHCR had reiterated its call to the Government of Sri Lanka to stop the deportations immediately and to grant it access to asylum seekers in detention so that its staff could assess their needs for international protection. Some 157 asylum seekers, including 84 Pakistanis, 71 Afghans and two Iranians remained in detention in the country.
On why Sri Lanka was sending those people back, Mr. Edwards said that it would be up to the Government to explain its actions, but the UNHCR was focused on stopping refoulement at the moment. UNHCR did not have information on the destiny of those who had been forcibly returned, in clear violation of international standards. Mr. Edwards emphasized that anyone who had submitted claim for asylum ought to have that claim properly addressed. For the time being, it was most important to stop the deportations.
Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that it was more than four weeks since the city of Tripoli had slipped into a battle between rival militia that had shaken the city with the ferocious sounds of missiles and rockets had fired indiscriminately into built-up areas. Shortages of fuel and gas were reported, as well as a steep increase in prices, if they were available on the black market at all. Shortages were also reported on basic food supply, including bread and baby food, in all areas of Tripoli, as a result of a looting of the major food stores and warehouses. Food prices were thus also increasing dramatically.
The people in Tripoli were also confronted with a lack of drugs and health supplies, in particular pharmaceutics for chronic diseases (blood pressure and diabetes). Moreover, vaccines had been stolen from private and public warehouses. Both groups had used missiles, rockets and tank shells in the fighting. Many of the rounds had missed their targets and had hit civilian farms and houses. The fighting had resulted in hundreds of deaths. More than 10,000 families, that is to say more than 50,000 people, had been displaced because of the fights. Some of them found shelters on their own because it was very difficult for humanitarian associations to provide them with support.
Ms. Berthiaume said that the IOM had been helping people in need as much as possible, but it was practically impossible to monitor the situation in the migrant detention facilities. IOM was also helping associations of psycho-social support because the situation was very stressful, and the main psychiatric hospital El Razi in Tripoli had not been operational over the previous week. There had been a steady flow of Libyans, Tunisians and other third countries nationals across the Tunisian border. Those numbers which had increased just prior to the Eid holidays, had peaked at about 16,000 per day, but had significantly slowed since the previous week. The Government disposed of approximately 18 centres of detention in Libya, containing about 5,000 people. Migrants and asylum seekers were suffering violence and stealing. Many of them were too scared to leave their homes because of the fear of being kidnapped by militias and having to pay ransom for their freedom. Ms. Berthiaume said that one could expect an increase in terms of number of people fleeing to Italy by boats.
World Weather Open Science Conference
Michael Williams, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), stated that, eager to move weather forecasting skill rapidly forward over the next few years, some 1,000 scientists and experts were meeting in Montreal from 16 to 21 August for the first World Weather Open Science Conference to chart the future course of scientific research and its potential for generating new and improved weather services.
Until recently, weather forecasting and climate prediction were treated as separate scientific disciplines, in part because they faced different scientific challenges, but also because weather forecasting had always been designed as an operational service, whereas climate prediction was only now leading to services.
Science had progressed, assisted by advances in computing power, so that today, conceptually, the traditional boundaries between weather and climate were increasingly viewed as artificial. The weather and climate communities were working together to extend the reliability and usefulness of their forecasts to levels beyond what has previously been thought possible.
Mr. Williams said that one of the issues to be explored in Montreal was how to build on recent research into the extension of forecasts of tropical cyclones and other high-impact weather events out beyond two weeks, while at the same time improving the site-specific accuracy of very short-range forecasts.
For example, Numerical Weather Prediction centres around the world had been developing “ensemble forecasts” consisting of as many as 50 or more simulations of events such as a storm’s potential path. Based on these predictions, probabilities could be assigned to the various possible tracks a storm might follow as well as to its future intensity. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the Caribbean and the eastern United States in 2012, that approach had succeeded in providing early predictions of the storm’s highly untypical path.
Looking further ahead, over the next 20 years forecasters were likely to move towards Earth system modelling, so that today’s seamless weather forecasts and climate predictions could evolve towards seamless weather-climate-impacts forecasting. Highly sophisticated models will incorporate more and more of the Earth system's components and processes. In addition to the atmosphere and oceans, they will integrate increasingly accurate information on topography, land-use change, vegetation, rivers, lakes, clouds and socio-economic trends to provide user-specific decision-support services that will touch almost every part of our lives.
Mr. Williams added that starting 1 September, and in view of the 23 September Climate Summit WMO would be rolling out the YouTube channel “Weather Forecast from the Year 2050” with the participation of 15 weather presenters all very well known in their own countries (Japan, Philippines Denmark, USA …), who would be doing a three-to-five minute presentation from the year 2050 to bring climate change alive for the general public as a way to support the summit.
Answering a question about the availability of this You Tube Channel, Mr. Williams said that WMO would advertise the link once it was made available.
Ms. Vellucci informed that the Conference on Disarmament was currently holding a public session. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and Cuba had taken the floor.
The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had commenced its session the previous day, and had heard NGO representatives describing the situation from El Salvador, Peru and the United States. The Committee would then consider reports of these countries.
The Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council was holding its 13th session in Room XX this week. Topics discussed included fight against corruption and the promotion of human rights through sports.
Ms. Vellucci informed that today, it was the International Day of Youth which was dedicated this year to the issues of mental health and youth. The Secretary-General’s message on that occasion was available at the back of the room.
A briefing on climate change by the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team, via video link, would take place in Press Room 1 on 14 August at 3 p.m. Geneva time. Journalists should send requests to attend as the number of places was limited.
Asked about the composition of the Commission of Inquiry in breaches of human rights and humanitarian law in Gaza, Ms. Vellucci referred the journalists to Rolando Gomez, the spokesperson of the Human Rights Council, who had just returned to Geneva.
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The representative of the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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The webcast for this briefing can be found here