Cuba First Country to Eliminate Mother to Child HIV Transmission

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June 30, 2015 – The Caribbean region has the second highest incidence of HIV after sub-Saharan African but has made steady progress over the past decade in reducing new infections and on Tuesday Cuba achieved a feat that has so far evaded the rest of the world.

The World Health Organization announced that the island nation has become the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The most recent figures from WHO show that 240,000 children globally were born with HIV in 2013, down from 400,000 in 2009.

“Eliminating transmission of the virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” WHO Executive-Director Margaret Chan said in a statement. “This is a celebration for Cuba and a celebration for children and families everywhere.”

An estimated 1.4 million women living with HIV become pregnant annually and, unless treated with anti-retrovirals, have a 15-45 percent chance of transmitting the virus during pregnancy, labor or through breastfeeding. If both mother and child receive antiretroviral treatment during these crucial stages then the risk of transmission is lowered to about 1 percent, according to WHO.

The Caribbean nation has also eliminated mother-to-child transmission of syphilis. Some 1 million pregnant women are infected with the disease annually and it results in early miscarriage and stillbirth, newborn death, low-birth-weight and other serious infection in newborns.

The WHO guidelines for validating elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis notes that as treatment is not 100 percent effective, elimination is defined as a reduction to such a low-level that it no longer constitutes a public health concern. Among the indicators are new HIV infections among infants are less than 50 cases per 100,000 live births or less than 5 percent for women living with HIV who are breastfeeding. These targets must be met for two consecutive years.

In 2013, only two babies in Cuba were born with HIV and only five with syphilis.

– Denis Fitzgerald 
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN to (Again) Call on U.S. to End Cuban Embargo

Nov. 12, 2012 – The United Nations General Assembly will vote Tuesday on a resolution calling on the United States to end its 52-year embargo against Cuba, but there’s little reason to believe the outcome will alter the Obama administration’s Havana policy.

The U.S. bans its citizens from travelling to or doing business in Cuba.

Ending the embargo is seen as a move that could strengthen Obama’s relationship with his Latin American neighbors who are unanimously against “el bloqeo.”

The resolution has been approved every year since first introduced in 1990.

Brazil’s representative said after the vote last year that the embargo “went against international law and inhibited regional relations” while Argentina’s said “it went against the principles of international law and the UN charter.”

After Monday’s success in the General Assembly vote for election to the Human Rights Council, which the U.S. topped with 131 votes in the Western Group, Tuesday’s vote is likely to see the U.S in the tiniest minority when the votes are tallied.

Last year, 186 countries voted for the text while only Israel joined the U.S. in voting against it. Even Canada, normally a staunch ally of the U.S. and Israel, voted for lifting the embargo.

While President Obama has laxed some of the travel restrictions – making it easier for students and religious groups to visit and allowing Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba as much as they want – he has renewed the trade ban each year of his presidency.

Cuba is the only country placed on the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 after the removal of North Korea in 2008.

There’s speculation that Obama’s strong showing among Cuban-Americans in last week’s election will harbor a change in policy but that’s unlikely to include a lifting of the trade embargo.

The continuing detention of Alan Gross is currently the main source of tension between Havana and Washington with the State department contractor reported to have lost 105 pounds since his arrest in December 2009 for crimes against the state.

Arguably, more important factors are that Havana-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), who will continue as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez (D), set to take over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – should John Kerry get a cabinet post, – are both firmly opposed to any easing of the embargo.

The Senate’s two other Hispanic senators, recently elected Texas tea party candidate, Ted Cruz, and Florida’s Marco Rubio, both Cuban-American like Menendez, are also firmly opposed to lifting the embargo.

Cuba says as a result of the embargo the U.S. Treasury department has frozen $245 million in funds destined for Havana as of December 2011.

It also says the embargo is preventing Cuban medical facilities from importing artificial skin for burn patients and faces challenges importing replacement stent valves for heart patients, among other medical restrictions, that all result in delayed treatment and higher patient costs.

Havana made these claims in a report prepared by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which is available here.

– Denis Fitzgerald 

Nov 13 Update: The resolution was adopted by a vote of 188 in favor and 3 opposed – the U.S., Israel and Palau.

Obama’s Next Bid for Re-Election – the UN Human Rights Council

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Ban Ki-Moon addresses the opening of the Human Rights Council’s current session in Geneva on Sept. 10 (photo credit: UN photo)

Nov. 7, 2012 – Among those running for 18 available seats on the UN Human Rights Council in Monday’s election is the United States, whose newly re-elected president, Barack Obama, decided to embrace the controversial body after his 2008 victory, arguing that Washington could better change and influence from inside than from outside.

Former US president George W. Bush boycotted the Council and its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, but Obama reversed course and the US was elected to a three-year term in 2009.

The 47-nation Council has seen its influence grow in the past two years. With the Security Council deadlocked on taking action on Syria, the Human Rights Council appointed a commission of inquiry that’s investigating and documenting allegations of human rights abuses and possible war crimes in the country over the past 19 months. It also suspended Libya’s membership during Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown and prevented Damascus from vying for a seat in 2012, as well as blocking Sudan’s bid.

The Council has won praise too from pro-Israel groups – who’ve criticized the body for its disproportionate focus on the Jewish state – for appointing a human rights investigator on Iran in March 2011 and it has also won plaudits from Human Rights Watch for addressing human rights situations in Guinea, Myanmar and North Korea.

The US is one of five countries vying for three seats available in the Western European and Other States category. The other four candidate countries in the group are Germany, Greece, Ireland and Sweden.

The Western group is the only one with a competitive election as the other categories (Asia, Africa, Latin America/Caribbean and Eastern Europe) are running on a pre-arranged clean slate.

Countries ending their terms this year include China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Each country is elected to a maximum of two consecutive three-year terms.

Among the US allies who will join the Council in 2013 are Japan, South Korea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Estonia.

A list of all candidate countries and the current composition of the Council is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald 

UPDATE Nov 12: US reelected to Council with 131 votes along with Germany, 127, and Ireland, 124 – both serving for first time. Greece, 77, and Sweden, 75, defeated.