Measles epidemic declared in Ebola-hit Democratic Republic of Congo

Hailshadow/iStock(LONDON) — A measles epidemic has been declared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country struggling to contain the world's second-largest and second-deadliest Ebola outbreak.

The Congolese health ministry said it has recorded 87,000 suspected cases of measles since the start of the year and laboratory tests so far have confirmed 677 of those cases in 23 of the nation's 26 provinces.

The newly-declared measles epidemic is believed to have already claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people, according to the ministry.

"Since the beginning of 2019, we have seen an increase in the number of suspected cases of measles," the Congolese health minister, Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, said in a statement Monday night, officially declaring the epidemic. "This situation is all the more worrying because it represents an increase of more than 700 percent, compared to the epidemiological situation for the same period in 2018."

The Congolese health ministry said it recorded 65,098 suspected cases of measles for 2018, of which 2,908 cases were investigated and 961 were confirmed.

Measles is an airborne virus that easily spreads through coughing and sneezing. It causes fever, runny nose, coughing, red eyes and sore throat, followed by a rash. An infected person will start being contagious four days before a rash appears and will stop being contagious four days after rash onset, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The potentially-fatal disease is preventable by the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

In 2012, the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched a plan to stamp out measles by 2020. Routine immunization activities have intensified in recent years and mass vaccination campaigns have been organized in some provinces.

Yet, the health minister said "enormous challenges remain" in some provinces where children have difficulty attaining immunization services due to insecurity in the region, inaccessibility to vaccination sites, high population movement and vaccine resistance.

"More effective measures are needed to control this epidemic," Kalenga said.

More than 2.2 million children between the ages of 6 to 59 months were vaccinated against measles over a period of four days in April, and another mass vaccination campaign targeting over 1.4 million children will be launched "in the coming days," according to Kalenga.

“Vaccination is the only public health intervention that can end the measles epidemic,” he added. "In order to definitely interrupt the transmission chain of measles, at least 95 percent of the population must be immunized."

International humanitarian aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) warned in a statement Monday that the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could become "the deadliest of this decade" without "massive and immediate mobilization."

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is roughly the size of continental Western Europe and has a population of 81 million, is also grappling with a growing Ebola outbreak.

A total of 2,062 people have reported symptoms of hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's northeastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri since Aug. 1, 2018. Among those cases, 1,968 have tested positive for Ebola virus disease, which causes an often-fatal type of hemorrhagic fever, according to Monday night's bulletin from the country's health ministry.

A third of those who have fallen ill are children, which is a higher proportion than in previous Ebola epidemics, according to the World Health Organization, the global health arm of the United Nations.

The current outbreak has a case fatality rate of about 67 percent. There have been 1,390 deaths so far, including 1,296 people who died from confirmed cases of Ebola. The other deaths are from probable cases, according to the Congolese health ministry.

This is the 10th outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the most severe seen in the Central African nation since 1976, when scientists first identified the virus near the eponymous Ebola River. It's also one of the worst outbreaks ever, second only to the 2014-2016 epidemic in multiple West African countries that infected 28,652 people and killed 11,325, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far, no cases have spread beyond the two affected provinces nor across international borders. But the risk of national and regional spread remains "very high," according to the WHO.

North Kivu and Ituri, the provinces where people have been infected, are rife with conflict and displacement, and the local population has never faced an Ebola outbreak before. This is the first Ebola outbreak in history to occur in an active war zone.

An experimental Ebola vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical company Merck has helped keep the virus confined to the two provinces so far. Since Aug. 8, more than 131,000 people have been vaccinated against Ebola in the outbreak zone, according to the Congolese health ministry.

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Protests continue in Hong Kong over extradition bill: What's at stake?

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images(LONDON) — More protesters are expected to take to the streets Tuesday after hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Hong Kong on Sunday to protest the government’s proposal to change an extradition law.

Protest organizers from the Civil Human Rights Front have also called for a general strike to start Wednesday, with over 100 small businesses, stores and restaurants saying they will take part. If there is a general strike it will be the first in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) since 1967, when it was still a British colony.

The controversial extradition law will be introduced to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on Wednesday and the bill will be voted on June 20. Despite the protests and increased police presence, the bill is expected to become law.

Why is it so controversial? And what is the likely impact of these protests?

The proposal for the extradition bill has been steeped in controversy. It started when Chan Tong-kai, 20, a citizen of Hong Kong, admitted to killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year. Chan, who has since returned to Hong Kong, has only been charged in Hong Kong for money laundering (he allegedly used his murdered girlfriend's stolen credit card). The Taiwanese government has urged Hong Kong to send Chan back for trial, but the Hong Kong government refused, according to the South China Morning Post.

“The extradition bill does a key thing -- it undermines the validity and legitimacy of the Hong Kong legal system,” Winnie King, a specialist in Chinese international political economy and international relations at the University of Bristol, told ABC News. “One of the key central pillars of Hong Kong's identity and history, it is at the foundation of the island's strengths (be it for international business and contract law, but also for the protection of its own citizens), the extradition bill illustrates how China's influence is no longer 'creeping' in nature.”

Although the extradition law amendment is not China-specific, it is universal, meaning that any country, including China, can request extradition of an individual to their home country from Hong Kong for trial. Many fear that China could use the law to arrest political dissidents. The protests have brought into sharp focus the contrasts between Hong Kong’s and China’s judicial systems.

“The bill is controversial in my view for emotional reasons,” according to Tim Summers, a former diplomat and senior consulting fellow on the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House, which is based in Hong Kong. “It brings to the fore distrust of the authorities in mainland China and highlights differences between Hong Kong’s robust rule of law and the more arbitrary system in mainland China.”

The mass demonstrations have been organized by a group called Civil Human Rights Front, but the sheer numbers involved on Sunday (one million people, according to the organizers), shows that the issue is supported by a cross-section of Hong Kong society.

“Protests are a regular feature of politics in Hong Kong,” Summers said. “The vast majority of these are peaceful and pass off without incident. These protests had wide support across society, so many people just turned up. There was widespread publicity about the protests in advance and people share info rapidly on social media.”

Between 7 percent and 14 percent of Hong Kong’s entire population turned out to protest, according to Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“Logistically it would have been very challenging for the organizers to get such a turnout so quickly,” he said.

What impact will the protests have?

The Hong Kong government has been “very savvy” to use the case of Taiwan as the basis for the extradition law, according to King, and the “results from within the legislature will be exactly as the government want.”

“While the protests are the largest and most significant in decades, the impact on the resulting legislation will be limited,” King said. “This being said, they are being very effective in ensuring that Hong Kong's experience under the 'One Country, Two Systems' model is not forgotten. With real implications for Taiwan, the international community would (and should) be very interested to see where this leads.”

However, introduction of the extradition laws is "ill-advised and unnecessary," according to Tsang, who said it reflects the top down approach of policy making by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. But neither officials in Hong Kong nor China are likely to change their mind, meaning the crisis could escalate further.

“If anything there is a higher than even risk that Xi Jinping will see this as a challenge to his authority and will push the government in Hong Kong even harder to get this legislated,” Tsang said. “Such an outcome would be very disturbing and likely to result in some activists in Hong Kong persisting and even seeking to escalate. I hope wiser heads will prevail in the governments of Hong Kong and China.”

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Canada passes 'Free Willy' ban, making it illegal to hold dolphins, whales in captivity

MarkMalleson/iStock(OTTAWA, Ontario) -- Canada is making strides to help protect marine life.

The country's House of Commons passed a bill Monday that makes it illegal to keep a whale, dolphin or porpoise in captivity.

Bill S-203, nicknamed the "Free Willy" bill after the iconic 1993 movie that portrayed a boy freeing an Orca whale from an amusement park, applies to those who own or have custody or control of a cetacean in captivity. People who breed or impregnate a cetacean or possess/seek to obtain reproductive materials of cetaceans, including sperm or an embryo, were also included in the bill.

Offenders can be fined up to $200,000.

The Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act makes exceptions for cetaceans that are rescued or are in rehabilitation and for researchers who obtain a license from the government.

"A person may move a live cetacean from its immediate vicinity when the cetacean is injured or in distress and is in need of assistance," the bill states.

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Egypt demands halt to London auction of King Tut statue

Christies(CAIRO) -- Egyptian authorities are demanding that the London arm of auction house Christie's halt an auction of a stone sculpture of King Tutankhamun scheduled for next month, Egypt's foreign ministry said.

A 3,000-year-old bust of the famous boy king, who ruled Egypt from 1332 to 1323 B.C., is scheduled to be auctioned on July 4.

The quartzite statue, which portrays the boy king as Amun, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun and air, could generate more than $5 million, according to Christie's.

"The antiquities ministry has contacted the auction house and UNESCO to stop the procedures of selling the ancient artifact as well as demanding that [Christie's] provide the documents of the artifact's ownership," the foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.

"In addition, Egypt claims its right in the piece under the current and previous Egyptian laws," the statement added.

The statue is expected to be sold by a private collector, and is part of what is known as the Resandro Collection, according to the Financial Times.

Egyptian officials introduced a law in 1983 to regulate the ownership of Egyptian antiquities, saying that any ancient artifacts discovered in the country are considered state properties "with the exception of antiquities whose ownership or possession was already established at the time this law came into effect."

"For its part, the Egyptian embassy in London contacted the British Foreign Office and the auction house to stop the sale ... and demand the return of the head to Egypt," Monday's statement read. "[The embassy] also demanded that the British side stop the sale of the rest of the Egyptian pieces to be sold at Christie's Hall on July 3-4, 2019, and obtain all of the ownership documents."

Zahi Hawass, a renowned Egyptian archaeologist who has spearheaded numerous campaigns to repatriate Egyptian artifacts, told ABC News in a recent interview that the statue was probably stolen from Luxor's Karnak Temple.

Christie's officials insisted the process was legal, saying in a statement that "ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia. It is hugely important to establish recent ownership and legal right to sell, which we have clearly done."

To mark the centenary of Tutankhamun's tomb discovery, Egypt earlier this year embarked on a world tour of 150 King Tut artifacts that include 60 pieces that have never left the country.

The exhibition kicked off in Paris in March and will move to locations around the world including London, California and Sydney until 2021.

A museum to house those artifacts and many others, the Grand Egyptian Museum, located near the Giza Pyramids, is currently under construction.

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Tree planted at White House by Presidents Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron dies

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A tree that President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron planted at the White House last year -- a symbol of the two nations' long friendship -- has died.

The oak tree sapling, imported from France's Belleau Wood forest, was planted by the two presidents last year as a representation of the two nations' friendship.

The European Sessile Oak originated from the site in France where more than 9,000 U.S. Marines died in battle during World War I. It was planted on the South Lawn of the White House on April 23, 2018 during Macron's state visit, but mysteriously disappeared five days later.

A tweet by French ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud on April 29 indicated that the tree was not missing, but was quarantined. The mandatory quarantine is for any living organism imported to the U.S. The tree was to be replanted later.

The tree was never replanted and died in quarantine, a diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse.

Since the planting of the "friendship tree" the two leaders' relationship has grown rocky over issues including, what to do in Iran, addressing climate change and world trade.

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Church of England backs medicinal cannabis investments

tvirbickis/iStock(LONDON) -- The body responsible for investing the funds of the Church of England has said it is willing to invest in the medicinal cannabis industry for the first time, saying it holds the drug to the same standard as other pharmaceuticals.

The Church Commissioners is the Church’s historic endowment fund and holds assets worth £8.2 billion (nearly $10.4 million). The Church Commissioners is a closed fund, meaning it does not take in new contributions. Profits from the investments are used to pay for bishops and ministry costs, supporting local dioceses and clergy pensions.

The announcement follows a change in the law in the United Kingdom with regards to medicinal cannabis. The U.K. legalized the use of medicinal cannabis in November 2018, following in the footsteps of Canada and many states in the U.S.

"There has been no change to our overall position on medicines," a spokesperson for the Church Commissioners told ABC News. "We will hold medicinal cannabis to the same standards as we hold other pharmaceuticals, and invest only if properly licensed and regulated for medicinal use."

Investments in the medicinal cannabis market will have to fall in line with the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Policy, which places restrictions on how the Church can invest in companies that generate profits from industries such as gambling, alcohol and tobacco.

The Church’s willingness to invest in medicinal cannabis reflects how fast the industry is growing worldwide. The global legal cannabis market will swell from $11 billion in 2018 to over $50 billion in 2029, according to financial services company Jefferies.

Hari Guliani, the chief operating officer of the British medicinal cannabis Grow Biotech, told ABC News the announcement is “indicative that perceptions of medical cannabis are changing across the board."

"There is a lot of research being undertaken globally on medical cannabis that will help everyone's understanding, but it does seem that the distinction between medical and recreational cannabis remains unclear for some people," he said. "With groups like the Church of England considering investments in medical cannabis, we can expect perceptions to continue to change."

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14 lions 'escaped' from South Africa's Kruger National Park were a 'false alarm'

Kenneth Canning/iStock(PRETORIA, South Africa) -- A pride of 14 lions that were reported to have escaped from South Africa's Kruger National Park actually weren't from the park at all, officials said.

Residents of Phalaborwa, in the province of Limpopo, were warned last week to be on alert after the lions were spotted near a phosphate mine.

But after closer inspection, authorities found that the pride was not from Kruger, but had been living and hunting in the area for a considerable time. The lions now will be left undisturbed in their home territory.

The Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) says the area where the lions were spotted is a well-known roaming area for various wildlife within the region.

Department spokesman Zaid Kalla told ABC News, "It was a false alarm. The lions were spotted when they started roaming to look for food, but they're still in the area they have been living in for at least the past two years."

Kalla says the animals will not be darted and moved, as was earlier planned.

"The animals will be kept within the area. The Department's role is to enforce control where human lives are threatened and the lions have not been of any threat to humans," he told ABC News, adding that several inhabitants have been interviewed and told officials they're aware the lions are living in the area.

"Co-habiting between wildlife and humans has always been monitored and well preserved by both LEDET and management of various facilities within the area," he explained.

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Investigation into American couple's mysterious death in Fiji could take weeks, officials say

Handout via WFAA(BOSTON) -- The results of an investigation into the death of an American couple in Fiji last month could take weeks, and "possibly longer," according to the country's health ministry.

David Paul, 37, and his wife, Michelle Paul, 35, arrived in Fiji on May 22 and checked into their hotel on Denarau Island, west of the archipelago nation's main island. Soon after, they both became gravely ill and were hospitalized with symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, profound weakness and shortness of breath.

The couple, who lived in Fort Worth, Texas, died just two days apart.

"After reporting feeling unwell, the guests were treated at the local medical facility, where they subsequently passed away," the Sheraton Denarau Villas told ABC News in a statement on June 5. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and loved ones of the deceased. As always, the well-being of our guests and associates remains our highest priority. We are working closely with the authorities as they investigate the matter."

The news of how long the investigation into the couple's deaths may take was released in a statement Sunday local time on the Pacific island.

"At this stage, for reasons of patient confidentiality, and out of respect to the families of Mr and Mrs Paul during this difficult time, the [Ministry of Health and Medical Services] and its partners involved in the investigation will not comment on specific details of the investigation," the country's health ministry said in the release.

The country called the investigation a "priority" and said it continues to work with the World Health Organization, U.S. Embassy, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Fiji police's forensics department.

Five people, including medical staff who came in close contact with the couple at the clinic where they were treated and died, were released from the hospital in good health after being quarantined as a precaution, the health ministry announced Sunday. Relatives had not been allowed to visit them, medical staff at the hospital told ABC News on Wednesday.

"They are being followed up at their homes by Ministry of Health staff as a matter of precaution," MHMS said. "All other people who had contact with the deceased couple during their illness remain well."

David and Michelle Paul are survived by four young children, a 1-year-old boy they had together and three children from previous relationships who are now in the custody of relatives in the United States.

Michelle Paul's father, Marc Calanog, told ABC News that his daughter and son-in-law were perfectly healthy when he saw them before leaving for their overseas vacation.

"They are much in love and they just bought a house in Fort Worth," Calanog said. "And they were enjoying it and this tragic thing happened."

WhatsApp messages obtained by ABC News show that Michelle Paul contacted her parents as she and her husband were on their way to seek treatment at a local clinic.

"We have been throwing up for 8 hours," she wrote in one message. "Dave has diarrhea. My hands are numb. We will text when we can."

Michelle Paul messaged them again after returning to their hotel.

"We just got back from the clinic. They gave us fluids and anti-nausea drip," she wrote. "They gave us electrolyte packets and anti-nausea pills. We still don't feel 100%. Going to rest in our room."

David Paul's sister, Rebecca Ward, told ABC News that her brother awoke after resting in their hotel room and his wife was "clammy and sweating, and he was too weak to take her to the hospital himself."

When the couple returned to the hospital, it was too late for Michelle Paul. She died on May 25.

"They couldn't get her an IV, couldn't revive her, and that's when she passed away," Ward said. "Not long after that, my brother ended up at the hotel, then later on that day he went back to the hospital. He got released again and we thought he would be able to come home."

David Paul died two days later.

"We were hoping to see him in the next few days," Ward said. "Then the next thing we hear he was back in the hospital with shortness of breath and that was the last time we actually talked to him."

An official with the U.S. Department of State has confirmed the couple's deaths and said the department is monitoring the ongoing local investigation, but couldn't offer details about how their trip took a deadly twist.

Michelle Paul's father told ABC News that Fiji's health ministry has agreed to send specimens from the autopsies to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention's headquarters in Atlanta to be analyzed.

A CDC spokesperson told ABC News that the agency is helping investigate the deaths.

A spokesperson for the World Health Organization said in a statement Thursday that the agency is "providing access to laboratory and other technical services in Australia" to analyze specimens from post mortem examination.

An official with the U.S. Department of State confirmed the couple's deaths to ABC News and said the department is monitoring the ongoing local investigation, but couldn't offer details about how their trip took a deadly twist.

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Search underway in Mediterranean Sea for woman who fell off Norwegian Epic cruise ship 

Randy Brooke/WireImage(NEW YORK) --  A search was on in the Mediterranean for a cruise ship passenger who went overboard while on a voyage from the South of France to Spain, officials said Sunday.

Norwegian Cruise Line spokesperson confirmed that a woman, whose name was not released, was reported to have fallen off the Norwegian Epic cruise ship hours after it departed from Cannes, France, early Saturday.

“On the early morning of June 8, a report was made that an adult female guest went overboard while the ship was sailing from Cannes, France, to Palma de Mallorca, Spain. The authorities were immediately notified and a search and rescue operation ensued. Sadly, the guest has not yet been found. Our thoughts and prayers are with the individual's family during this difficult time," a Norwegian Cruise Line spokesperson said in a statement.

The missing passenger is a 63-year-old Korean woman, a source briefed on the search told ABC News. The woman, who was traveling with her husband, left her cabin about 1 a.m. to go out for some fresh air, the source said.

The woman's husband reported her missing when he woke up and found she had not returned to the cabin, the source added.

Miguel Chicon, head of Maritime search and rescue in Palma de Mallorca, said the cruise ship crew immediately checked security cameras on the ship and confirmed the woman went overboard.

The cruise ship then turned back and began searching for the passenger.

Chicon told ABC News that the Norwegian Epic contacted his agency about 8:30 a.m. local time and that two helicopters, a search plane and a rescue ship were dispatched to the area where the woman is believed to have gone into the water.

He said an urgency signal was sent out to other vessels in the area to be on the lookout for the woman.

The water is about 20 degrees Celsius, or about 68 degrees Fahrenheit, Chicon added.

Last August, a British woman was pulled out of the Adriatic Sea on Sunday after falling off a cruise ship and treading water for 10 hours. The woman was on the Norwegian Star near Croatia when she fell overboard, according to the cruise line.

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Egypt can demand return of King Tut statue going up for auction: Former antiquities chief

Chesnot/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Egypt has the right to demand the repatriation of a stone sculpture of King Tutankhamun before it goes up for auction at Christie's in London next month, according to the country’s former antiquities chief.

Zahi Hawass, a renowned Egyptian archaeologist, has spearheaded numerous campaigns to repatriate Egyptian artifacts, and alleges the statue was stolen.

"It seems that this sculpture was looted from [Luxor's] Karnak Temple. Christie's would not have any proof whatsoever of its ownership,” Hawass told ABC News.

Christie’s did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

A 3,000-year-old bust of the famous boy king, who ruled Egypt from 1332–1323 B.C., is scheduled to be sold on July 4.

The quartzite statue, which portrays the boy king as Amun, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun and air, could generate at least 4 million pounds (more than $5 million), according to the auction house. Christie's is in contact with Egyptian authorities over the sale, the Financial Times reported.

The Egyptian Ministry of State Antiquities has launched an investigation into the planned sale to take "the required legal measures in coordination with the foreign ministry,” Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, head of the repatriation department, said in a statement last week.

"If it's proven that any piece has been illegally moved out of the country, we will take a legal action with the Interpol,” he wrote. “We will never allow anyone to sell any ancient Egyptian artifact."

The statue is expected to be sold by a private collector, and is part of what is known as the Resandro Collection, according to the Financial Times.

Egypt introduced a law in 1983 to regulate the ownership of Egyptian antiquities, saying any ancient artifacts discovered in the country are considered state properties "with the exception of antiquities whose ownership or possession was already established at the time this law came into effect."

Hawass believes that regardless of any laws, Egypt has an "ethical right" to recover the Tutankhamun bust.

"This piece was smuggled out of the country and Christie's cannot prove otherwise. It's totally Egypt's right," he said.

To mark the centenary of Tutankhamun's tomb discovery, Egypt embarked on a world tour of 150 King Tut artifacts earlier this year, which includes 60 pieces that have never left the country.

The exhibition kicked off in Paris in March and will move to locations around the world including London, California and Sydney until 2021.

A museum to house those artifacts and many others, the Grand Egyptian Museum, located near the Giza Pyramids, is currently under construction.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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