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Europe’s green brawler

Michèle Rivasi is a familiar face on the frontline of almost every crusade to protect public health ..

Michèle Rivasi is a familiar face on the frontline of almost every crusade to protect public health in Europe.

Only this week, the feisty French member of the European Parliament found herself at the vanguard of criticism of the giant dairy processor Lactalis, which needed to recall 12 million cases of potentially salmonella-tainted baby milk. Taking relish in harpooning a French national champion, she accused the company of “scandalous” negligence and lamented that there seemed to be “no progress in protecting consumers.”

It is just the sort of case that has motivated Rivasi for the past 30 years. While her critics see her as a cranky, clamorous champion of lost causes, even they acknowledge her tireless, stubborn determination to hold big corporates to account.

As a former biology teacher, she still sees her role as an educator out to question conventional wisdom. Following that vocation, she has crossed swords with the nuclear industry, pharmaceutical companies and pesticide producers, both in France and across the Continent.

A member of French General Directorate of Competition, Policy Consumer Affairs, and Fraud Control checks baby milk products in a pharmacy on January 11, 2018, in Orleans, after Lactalis issued a product recall | Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images

Most recently, she has questioned compulsory vaccination, campaigned against the relicensing of the world’s most popular weedkiller and opposed imports of food from Fukushima, which she dubbed “atomic sushi.” That is to say nothing of her support for changes to the formula of a thyroid drug and for the people complaining of health problems caused by electromagnetic waves.

This year, she is pushing ahead with her fight to get the weedkiller glyphosate banned, even though the European Commission decided to relicense it last November. Rivasi is now working to get the nine countries that voted against the relicensing, including France, to ban it locally. That move is gaining traction and even political parties in Germany — the EU’s kingpin — are veering toward eradicating the herbicide.

The big question is why she has kept going when she ultimately ends up on the losing side of most of her battles. Those who have known her for a long time say she is motivated by fear of the extent to which industrial lobbies influence governments.

“Her historical fight is against lobbies related to health [such as] the agrichemical and pharmaceutical lobby,” said Sebastian Barles, one of her parliamentary assistants, who has known her for a decade.

Opposition only emboldens her. “When she thinks she has the right idea, she goes with it and she wants her team to have solidarity with her,” he said.

Take her decision last February to screen a film by a disgraced vaccine skeptic activist, which was a classic example of her willingness to fly in the face of established scientific orthodoxy. Denied a venue for such a toxic event by the European Parliament, she celebrated her 64th birthday in a dingy theater two kilometers away by giving a platform to the controversial British doctor Andrew Wakefield, author of a disproved study that linked the triple shot of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism.

Despite opposition from her own party, public health activists and even some of her own aides, she pressed ahead with the film and insisted on the need to continually question the status quo.

“We give an incredible amount of vaccines, but when we dare to ask questions, we are treated as heretical,” she said in her opening speech at that event last February.

“It was like I had invited the devil,” she said, reflecting on the event nine months later.

Speaking to POLITICO in her Brussels office, Rivasi appeared tired. Two big piles of documents were heaped on her desk. Behind her hung a few posters, one targeting the French electricity company EDF, a longtime foe. With no hippie clothes or dietary restrictions that would place her firmly into the stereotype of a radical green, Rivasi was keeping up with her heavily booked calendar, running from one meeting to the other, even though she was grieving her husband’s death, two weeks prior to the conversation.

While she’s loud and aggressive in parliamentary debates, face-to-face, Rivasi was calm and warm.

But to understand what drives her, we have to go back to an April night in 1986.

Atomic fallout

It all started with Chernobyl.

The 33-year-old Rivasi didn’t buy that the radioactivity it generated across Europe didn’t reach France.

She started an NGO that analyzed radioactivity in the environment after the nuclear disaster. “She showed that it was a lie that the radioactivity had stopped at the [French] borders,” said David Cormand, the national secretary of the French Green party. “She proved that the official version of the nuclear lobby was false,” he said.

Originally from the southwestern French town of Valence, Rivasi was a French parliamentarian between 1997 and 2002. She then led Greenpeace France for a year. She joined the Greens in 2005, after a short stint as a member of the Socialist Party. Rivasi is now about halfway through her second term in the European Parliament.

Speaking to POLITICO in late November 2017, Rivasi was fresh from a defeat on glyphosate, a herbicide that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said in 2015 could cause cancer. She was part of a group of MEPs who fought tooth and nail against the EU reapproving the chemical, even though two EU agencies didn’t find a link between the pesticide and cancer.

“My role is to spread the information,” she said about her involvement in the fight. “We did a urine test [among MEPs] to show glyphosate was everywhere.”

Graeme Taylor, the director of public affairs at the pesticides lobby ECPA, conceded Rivasi had an impact. He said she and other MEPs helped undermine “confidence in the rigorous process that guarantees access to the safest food in the world for Europe’s 500 million citizens.”

Still, the EU finally reapproved glyphosate’s license on November 27, albeit for a shorter period than originally intended.

Activists protest against the use of glyphosate on November 22, 2017 in Toulouse, France. Michéle Rivasi has pushed for glyphosate to be banned | Remy Gabalda/AFP via Getty Images

That doesn’t mean Rivasi is giving up. While her arguments may often be shot down in Brussels, she can have a more profound effect in her home country. Like the firebrand José Bové — the notorious sheep farmer MEP who destroyed genetically modified corn — she uses Brussels as a platform for being heard in the French political debate.

France is in many ways more fertile ground for Rivasi’s message. Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot, a popular former television presenter who, like Rivasi would do five years later, ran for the primaries of the French Green party in 2011, is highly opposed to glyphosate and has pushed Paris to phase it out by 2020.

The backlash

Despite seeing eye-to-eye with Hulot over glyphosate, Rivasi is at odds with the French government over the introduction of 11 mandatory vaccines starting this month. The issue touches upon the very thing that makes her tick: her conviction that governments sometimes use people’s fears to favor industry.

Rivasi’s skepticism of what she sees as blanket vaccine policies is in tune with many French citizens, but is more outlandish elsewhere. One parliamentary aide working for the center-right European People’s Party group styled Rivasi as “more of a radical Green.”

While some 75 percent of people in France support vaccination, according to survey results released in October, there is a very vocal minority pushing back. A petition opposing the expansion of the list of mandatory vaccines has gathered more than 600,000 signatures.

“Who can prove to me that the 95 percent vaccination coverage rate [recommended by the World Health Organization] is really necessary?” Rivasi wondered.

While she trusts IARC, the WHO body that declared glyphosate possibly carcinogenic, Rivasi mistrusts the main WHO itself because of the significant funding it receives from billionaire businessman Bill Gates, who she sees as too close to the pharma industry in the health solutions he proposes.

But she says she’s not a anti-vaxxer. “I’m a vaccine critic: I want to know what’s in the vaccines, why they’re putting nanoparticles in them,” Rivasi said.

This stance has however made public health activists sometimes close to the Greens’ ideology keep their distance from Rivasi, especially after the Wakefield event.

“She draws conclusions from wrong science, from anecdotal evidence,” said a Brussels-based public health activist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We hesitate.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s new Sustainability coverage, tracking issues including the circular economy, air and water pollution, nature protection and chemicals, and including the Sustainability Insights newsletter every Monday afternoon. Email [email protected] for more information.

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Burkina Faso: Growing Violence Threatens Health Care

Away from the worlds attention, Burkina Faso has been slipping into violence. In less than a year, t..

Away from the worlds attention, Burkina Faso has been slipping into violence. In less than a year, the number of displaced has increased fivefold, from 50,000 last December, to 270,000 in August. As ever, the most vulnerable suffer most: the very young, and the very old.

When Alidou Sawadogos elderly mother fell ill, he faced a long and dangerous journey to get treatment for her.

“When she collapsed, a friend called me,” he explains. “By the time I arrived she was already unconscious. I decided to take her to the health center and luckily someone who had a motorcycle helped me. Because of the violence many people who are sick wait at home and die. Everyone is afraid of taking the road to the health center in Barsalogho.”

Across Burkina Faso, the rising insecurity has forced over a hundred health centers to close, or to limit their work. Half a million people now have little or no access to health care. Dedicated health workers, among them Dr Bertrand Dibli in Barsalogho, are struggling to meet the needs, and to stay safe themselves.

“This is one of the few health centers that isnt closed,” he says. “We dont have enough equipment. And the insecurity has caused huge anxiety among health workers. Even coming here to Barsalogho is a huge challenge because the route is so dangerous.”

The ICRC has been working to support Burkina Fasos health professionals, with medical kits, and vaccination campaigns. During his visit to the country, ICRC President Peter Maurer expressed his concern at the multiple challenges facing Burkina Fasos people.

“We are very concerned,” he said. “Very worried about the upsurge in violence, its a vicious circle that is trapping the civilian population between armed groups.”

“We also see,” Mr Maurer added, “that it is not only the violence that is affecting the country, it is also under development, and climate change. Together with the violence that is obstructing the health services, its an accumulation of factors.”

And so the ICRC – jointly with the Burkinabé Red Cross – is also delivering food to the displaced, and helping to improve access to water supplies. All of this, says nurse Jeanette Kientega, is desperately needed by a population uprooted by conflict, and denied access to basic health care.

“By the time they are able to get here, it is often too late” she says. “Sometimes we can help, but if they have already been ill a long time, it is difficult. We try to do what we can.” (more…)

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World Bank and WHO Statement on Partnership & Deployment of Financing to WHO for Ebola Response in DRC

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2019—The World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the G..

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2019—The World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the Government and other key partners, are working in close partnership on the Ebola Crisis Response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Central to this partnership is the assessment of the financing needs, and deployment of resources, with the goal to put an end to the current deadly outbreak.

The World Bank is today announcing that US$50 million in funding is to be released to WHO for its lifesaving operational work on the frontlines of the outbreak. The WHO is announcing that this US$50 million in funds will close the financing gap for its emergency health response in DRC through to the end of September 2019, and is calling on other partners to mirror this generous support in order to fund the response through to December.

The funding comprises US$30 million from the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) and US$20 million from the World Bank. The US$50 million in grant funding is part of the larger financial package of approximately US$300 million that the World Bank announced last month to support the fourth Strategic Response Plan for the DRC Ebola outbreak.

“WHO is very grateful for the World Banks support, which fills a critical gap in our immediate needs for Ebola response efforts in DRC, and will enable the heroic workers on the frontlines of this fight to continue their lifesaving work,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization. “We keenly await further funding from other partners to sustain the response through to the end of the year.”

The DRC government, working in collaboration with the World Bank, WHO, and other key partners, has finalized the Fourth Strategic Response Plan (SRP4), which outlines the total resources needed for the DRC Ebola Crisis Response from July to December 2019. The financing announced today is part of the World Banks previously announced financial package of up to US$300 million and covers over half of SRP4s needs, with the remainder requiring additional funding from other donors and partners.

“The World Bank is working closely with WHO, the Government of DRC, and all partners to do everything we can to put an end to the latest Ebola outbreak,” said Annette Dixon, Vice President, Human Development at the World Bank. “The partnership between our organizations and the Government is critical for responding to the emergency as well as rebuilding systems for delivery of basic services and to restoring the trust of communities.”

The Government of DRC requested US$30 million from the PEF Cash Window to be paid directly to WHO. The PEF Steering Body approved the request bringing the PEFs total contribution to fighting Ebola in DRC to US$61.4 million. The PEF is a financing mechanism housed at the World Bank; its Steering Body is co-chaired by the World Bank and WHO, and comprises donor country members from Japan, Germany and Australia. The quick and flexible financing it provides saves lives, by enabling governments and international responders to concentrate on fighting Ebola—not fundraising.

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Borno State launches first Malaria Operational Plan, reawakens fight against malaria

Maiduguri, 13 August 2019 – Following recommendations from malaria interventions in Borno State Nige..

Maiduguri, 13 August 2019 – Following recommendations from malaria interventions in Borno State Nigeria, the Malaria Annual Operational Plan (MAOP) was developed and launched on 08 August 2019 with technical support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners. Aligned to the National Malaria Strategic Plan (2014 -2020), MAOP was developed through a broad-based stakeholders workshop involving malaria stakeholders, reviewed on different thematic areas and endorsed by the Commissioner for Health and Permanent Secretary, Borno State Ministry of Health.

Speaking during the launch, the Borno state Malaria Programme Manager, Mr Mala Waziri described the MAOP as the first to be endorsed and disseminated in Borno State. “WHO has made us proud by supporting the first ever Malaria Operational Plan right from development, review, printing to dissemination.”

Dr Ibrahim Kida, the Ministerial Secretary Borno State Ministry of Health and Incident Manager of the state, described the launch as “an historic event as stakeholders across the health sector made commitments to use the document as an implementation guide for all malaria programs”. The plan was also described as an advocacy tool for planning domestic funds mobilization.

The MAOP has seven objectives among which are: provide at least 50% of targeted population with appropriate preventive measures by 2020; ensure that all persons with suspected malaria who seek care are tested with Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) or microscopy by 2020 and all persons with confirmed malaria seen in private or public health facilities receive prompt treatment with an effective anti-malarial drug by 2020.

The MAOP will further ensure that at least 50% of the population practice appropriate malaria prevention and management by 2020, ensuring timely availability of appropriate anti-malarial medicines and commodities required for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malaria in Borno State by 2020.

In addition, it seeks to ensure that all health facilities report on key malaria indicators routinely by 2020 and finally strengthen governance and coordination of all stakeholders for effective program implementation towards an A rating by 2020 on a standardized scorecard. These strategic objectives have specific targets and the MAOP takes into account the humanitarian response.

“Malaria remains a leading cause of poor health in Nigeria. According to the 2018 WHO Malaria Report, 53million cases are recorded annually in Nigeria, roughly 1 in 4 persons is infected with malaria contributing 25% of the global burden,” says Dr Nglass Ini Abasi, WHO Malaria Consultant for the North East.

“Furthermore, 81,640 deaths are recorded annually (9 deaths every hour), which accounts for 19% of global malaria deaths (1 in 5 global malaria deaths) and 45% malaria deaths in West Africa. The Nigeria Malaria Strategic Plan (NMSP) 2014-2020 has a goal to reduce malaria burden to pre-elimination levels and bring malaria-related mortality to zero and WHO is working assiduously with Government to ensure the burden is reduced accordingly.”

Results from WHO’s Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) week 30 report from 223 sites, (including 32 IDP camps) show that malaria was the leading cause of morbidity and mortality accounting for 35% of cases and 46% of reported deaths. In addition, results from the Nigeria Humanitarian Response Strategy (NHRS 2019-2021) indicate 7.1million people are in dire need of healthcare and 6.2million are targeted for immediate attention.

Despite recent improvements, insecurity remains a challenge limiting access to the functional health facilities. Easily preventable and treatable diseases such as malaria, acute respiratory infection and diarrheal diseases account for the greatest proportion of morbidity and mortality among the vulnerable population. Furthermore, Malaria is endemic in North East Nigeria and the transmission is perennial with a marked seasonal peak from July to November every year. (more…)

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