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Central America’s dengue epidemic deadly in Honduras
By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN | Fri, September 20, 2019 12:09 EDT
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In a ward usually reserved for juvenile burn victims, children lay listlessly under mosquito nets next to worried parents. On a recent day, 9-year-old Carlos Benítez was headed home after enduring several days of intravenous fluids while doctors waited for his dengue fever to break.
But Dr. Sara Hernández, who supervised the ward at the University School Hospital, knew the bed would immediately be filled, just as all the beds have been since the ward opened in June amid a deadly epidemic of the mosquito-spread virus.
At least 135 people have died from dengue this year in Honduras, nearly two-thirds of them children. Many other suspected deaths await lab confirmation. Honduras already has by far the highest death rate from dengue in Latin America this year, and the country’s most prevalent strain also happens to be the most aggressive and the deadliest.
The epidemic hit a country roiled by social unrest and led by a president who has lacked credibility since he won another term in spite of a constitutional ban on his re-election in 2017. Juan Orlando Hernández has also been named a co-conspirator in his brother’s U.S. drug trafficking case. Doctors and nurses spent weeks marching against his proposed reforms, which they feared were a step toward privatizing the country’s health care system.
A level of complacency also existed among the population after five years in which there were only 16 dengue deaths. But that’s often the way the virus acts — a few years of calm followed by a big outbreak.
As a region, Central America and Mexico have already recorded nearly double the number of dengue cases as the entire previous year. Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua have seen double-digit death tolls.
The last time this many people in Central America and Mexico died from dengue was 2013, according to data compiled by the Pan American Health Organization. That year, Mexico accounted for the majority of the dead with 192.
When outbreaks of this magnitude occur, health officials typically find that the sick do not seek treatment soon enough and then often receive inadequate medical attention, said Dr. José Luis San Martín, regional adviser for the Pan American Health Organization, who visited Honduras in August.
He also noted the country’s “very tense sort of socio-political situation.”
“When we review the history of the virus, we always find there is a group of external factors that could have been manageable,” San Martin said.
Honduran children figure disproportionately among the outbreak’s fatalities this year because children have fewer defenses and greater exposure due to them attending schools and playing outside, said Hernández, the dengue ward doctor.
When an outbreak happens under normal circumstances and is well managed from the outset, dengue should not cause many deaths, San Martín said.
Most people who are infected never get sick, but people who have been infected previously by another dengue strain are more likely to get severe dengue, which is sometimes called hemorrhagic dengue. It can cause abdominal pain, vomiting and bleeding and can damage internal organs.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of emergency workers cranked up howling fumigation machines that looked like leaf blowers and fanned out into a hillside Tegucigalpa neighborhood. As pesticide smoke engulfed her home and street, Ingrid Hartón said she hoped the fumigation would prevent more deaths.
“We always have dengue and every once in a while dengue causes deaths,” she said.
Roberto Herrera Cáceres, director of Honduras’ National Human Rights Commission, said the government needs to be better prepared for epidemics, as well as forest fires, floods and other events in the age of climate change.
“We shouldn’t be suffering the loss of compatriots or the loss of Honduras residents as a consequence of this sort of lack of foresight,” Herrera said.
The government is addressing the problem now through fumigation and education, as well as improving its detection and treatment of dengue cases, San Martín said.
Twelve of the country’s 18 provinces, known as departments, have been under an emergency since June 14. The Honduran government declared a national health emergency July 2. Two weeks later, President Hernández called on Hondurans to treat dengue “with the seriousness it requires.”
New reports of cases have been declining for the past few weeks, but experts said it was too early to think the worst had passed, because the region remains in the heart of the rainy season.
Historically, dengue has been seasonal. Normally, cases would begin to fall off in November with the conclusion of the rainy season and pick up again in June. However, last year an outbreak began in November. Experts will be watching closely to see if that happens again, which could suggest a possible shift in the seasonality of the virus.
Back at the University School Hospital, the capital’s largest, Carlos Benítez’s mother replayed her son’s weeklong ordeal. Dulce María Jiménez said Carlos had gotten sick on a Monday night with a fever and aching body. She recognized the symptoms of dengue and took him to a local health clinic, but watched his condition worsen. He weakened to the point that he couldn’t stand and he stopped speaking to her.
On that Friday, she brought him to the hospital and on the following Tuesday he walked out under his own power.
At home, Jiménez said she would clean her home’s water tanks and make sure Carlos slept under a mosquito net.
“It’s really hard, sometimes you don’t even get it at home, or where you live, but maybe when you go other places and the mosquito bites you,” she said.

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China: FedEx pilot suspected of ‘smuggling weapons’
Fri, September 20, 2019 05:18 EDT
BEIJING (AP) — A FedEx pilot who was detained in southern China is under investigation on suspicion of “smuggling weapons and ammunition” after air gun pellets were found in his baggage, a foreign ministry spokesman said Friday.
The pilot was detained Sept. 12 in Guangzhou while boarding a flight to Hong Kong, said the spokesman, Geng Shuang. He said customs inspectors found a box holding 681 air gun pellets in his bag.
The pilot was questioned and released on bail on “suspicion of smuggling weapons and ammunition,” Geng said at a regular news briefing. “The case is under investigation.”
The Wall Street Journal identified the pilot as Todd A. Hohn. It said he was told he can’t leave mainland China until the investigation is finished.
“We are working with the appropriate authorities to gain a better understanding of the facts,” a FedEx Corp. spokeswoman said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.
FedEx, headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, has been caught up in U.S.-Chinese trade tension.
This year, Chinese technology giant Huawei complained about deliveries that FedEx misrouted. In June, FedEx sued the Commerce Department to stop enforcement of export rules that restrict shipments to Huawei and other entities. Huawei is on a list of companies barred from receiving U.S. technology without a Commerce Department license.

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Kennedy mystique could factor into Massachusetts Senate race
By STEVE LeBLANC 06:05 EDT
BOSTON (AP) — When Edward M. Kennedy was running for the U.S. Senate for the first time in 1962, his Democratic primary opponent turned to him during a debate and said if his last name was Moore — Kennedy’s middle name — his “candidacy would be a joke.”
Fortunately for Kennedy, he shared a last name with his brother John F. Kennedy — then the U.S. president — and went on to win the Senate seat he held for the next 47 years.
More than half a century later another Kennedy — U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III — is testing the staying power of his family’s political mystique in a state that’s nearly synonymous with the Kennedy clan as he prepares to launch a Democratic primary challenge against incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward Markey.
Kennedy is expected to formally announce his decision Saturday morning in Boston. If successful, he would be the fourth member of the Kennedy family to win a seat in the Senate.
It’s a battle that assesses not only the post-Camelot strength of the Kennedys but also whether the 38-year-old congressman can join the ranks of a changing Democratic party that has rewarded younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts for successfully challenging incumbent Democratic members of the U.S. House.
Last year, underscoring how Kennedy’s star has been rising, he was tapped to deliver the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.
While his name is undoubtedly an asset — he’s the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and son of former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy II — many of those watching the budding contest say Kennedy, who has served in Congress since 2013, still needs to make a convincing case to voters.
“Of course people in Massachusetts know the Kennedy name, but it’s largely historical at this point,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts. Marsh noted that Edward Kennedy died a decade ago.
Marsh credited the younger Kennedy for working hard to win his House seat — shaking hands, traveling throughout the district and listening to voters — and said that work appears to be paying off as he weighed a run for Senate, noting two recent polls that showed Kennedy ahead of the 73-year-old Markey.
Marsh also said the single biggest goal Democrats have in the coming election — defeating Trump and undoing his legacy — may play to Kennedy’s perceived strengths if he can bring a sense of urgency to the race. That message may be a tougher sell from Markey, she said.
“This election cycle is so different. The test isn’t what your name is and where you come from but what you can do to stop Donald Trump,” Marsh said. “For Markey, the good news is that he has a long record over 40 years, and the bad news is that he has a long record over 40 years and he’s still working on some of those issues.”
Others see a tighter contest between the two, despite the Kennedy legacy.
Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, cautions against counting Markey out, pointing to what she said is a generational split among the electorate. Older voters may have an emotional connection to the Kennedy clan that younger voters don’t share.
“Younger Democrats care more about the environment and climate change,” she said. “At least initially they’re rallying around Ed Markey.”
O’Brien said that Kennedy — unlike U.S. Reps. Seth Moulton and Pressley, who also defeated Democratic incumbents in Massachusetts — has yet to come up with a strong argument about why voters should dump Markey.
“He is trying to capitalize on squad energy when he has no authenticity to be a member of the squad,” she said, referring to a group of four Democratic members of the U.S. House including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez.
By challenging Markey directly rather than waiting for an open seat, Kennedy also avoids having to run in a crowded primary, which could include other members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Unlike Kennedy, Markey didn’t inherit a famous political name. His father drove a milk truck and he was the first in his family to get a college degree.
He had been trying to shore up his political support before Kennedy’s announcement. Markey has been quick to point to the endorsement of his campaign by fellow Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who taught Kennedy at Harvard Law School, endorsed Markey in February. She’s spoken highly of both candidates.
Equally important for Markey as he tries to woo younger and more liberal Democrats may be his endorsement by Ocasio-Cortez, who teamed up with Markey early on to push the “Green New Deal” climate change initiative.
It’s unusual for an incumbent senator to have a serious primary challenge, and most recently, it’s happened far more to Republicans.
Markey already faces two lesser-known candidates: Shannon Liss-Riordan, a workers’ rights lawyer, and Steve Pemberton, a former senior executive at Walgreens.
Given that there are few strong ideological divides between the two candidates, voters may end up choosing sides quickly, said John Cluverius, associate director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion.
“This primary isn’t about substance or even style, really. It’s shaping up to be a ‘Seinfeld’ primary: In most ways, it’s about nothing, but it’s going to deeply divide people strongly attached to one side or the other,” he said.

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Kiribati cuts ties with Taiwan, presaging switch to China
By RALPH JENNINGS 05:09 EDT
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The Pacific island nation of Kiribati cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan on Friday, becoming the second country to do so this week and strengthening Beijing’s hand.
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that Kiribati had officially notified his government of the decision.
Kiribati is expected to recognize China, which has pledged billions of dollars in aid to help lure it and six other countries into switching allegiance since 2016, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office.
Taiwan “deeply regrets and strongly condemns the Kiribati government’s decision, which disregards the multifaceted assistance and sincere friendship extended by Taiwan to Kiribati over the years,” Wu said at a news conference.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang commended Kiribati’s switch, which comes four days after the Solomon Islands, once Taiwan’s largest ally in the South Pacific, severed ties in favor of China.
“This fully testifies to the fact that the one-China principle meets the shared aspiration of the people and constitutes an irresistible trend of the times,” he said.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and wants the island to reunite with the mainland. The two split in 1949 during a civil war. Beijing resents Tsai for rejecting its precondition for dialogue that both belong to a single China. It has flown military aircraft near the island and pared back Taiwan-bound tourism to add pressure on her government.
Taiwan has 15 allies left, compared to about 180 countries that recognize China.
“China has made the point that it can snatch as many diplomatic allies of Taiwan as it wishes,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow who specializes in the Pacific.
Taiwan looks to its allies, mostly small, poor countries, for international legitimacy and a voice in the United Nations. Taiwan left the United Nations in 1971 as the international body recognized China.
A total loss of allies would cut all formal outside recognition of Taiwan’s government, formally called the Republic of China, and make it easier for Beijing to claim it, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at the Chinese Cultural University in Taipei.
“Other countries will call you a non-state and then what happens?” he said. “Let’s say the People’s Liberation Army uses non-peaceful means for an activity in the Taiwan Strait. The United Nations can’t do anything. If other countries get involved, what legitimacy do they have to help Taiwan?”
The Chinese pressure is scaring ordinary Taiwanese, he said.
In the Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in a statement Friday that his country had recognized China to ensure stability and avoid uncertainty over what might happen if Taiwanese decide to unite with China.
Wu remained defiant, saying that Taiwan is not a province of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist government that took power in 1949.
“China’s international pressure will only consolidate the Taiwanese people’s determination never to capitulate to the Chinese government,” he said.
Some analysts believe Taiwan has built legitimacy by strengthening an informal alliance with the United States, its chief arms supplier, and joining the World Trade Organization and the inter-governmental Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
“Taiwan is globally relevant economically, geopolitically and geo-strategically,” Bozzato said. “It is indisputable that the Republic of China would continue to be independent, effectively exerting civil and military jurisdiction over a territory and a population.”
Wu said China had used investments in fisheries and other industries to build up a presence in Kiribati, penetrating political circles and extending its influence.”
Kiribati President Taneti Mamau requested “massive financial assistance” from Taiwan to buy commercial aircraft, he said, a request inconsistent with Taiwan’s international aid law.
China’s Geng said that “those used to dollar-diplomacy may not understand that certain principles cannot be bought with money, neither can trust.”
China and Taiwan competed for South Pacific allies before 2008, often using aid to motivate switches in recognition. The two sides observed an informal diplomatic truce from 2008 to 2016, during China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s term.
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Associated Press news assistant Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this story.

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Mechanic pleads not guilty in airliner sabotage case
By CURT ANDERSON 11:29 EDT
MIAMI (AP) — A former American Airlines mechanic who prosecutors say may have some links to terrorists pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he sabotaged an aircraft with 150 people aboard.
The plea came at a hearing in Miami federal court for Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, 60. He’s charged with deliberately disabling a key navigation component inside the Boeing 737 at Miami International Airport in July because, he told investigators, he was upset an ongoing labor dispute was denying him overtime work.
Prosecutors unveiled evidence earlier this week indicating Alani, an Iraqi-American, may be sympathetic to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Alani purportedly told co-workers his brother is a member of the extremist group, stated that he hoped Allah would harm non-Muslims and the FBI reported finding violent Islamic State videos on his cellphone.
No terrorism-related charges have been filed. Alani’s new private lawyer, Jonathan Meltz, said the claims by prosecutors about possible terrorism connections are unfounded.
“Some things that may have been alleged are not true,” Meltz told reporters after the brief hearing. “It has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.”
He added: “We’re looking forward to the whole truth coming out.”
Alani, wearing tan prison garb and listening via headphones to an Arabic interpreter, did not speak at the hearing.
An aircraft mechanic for 30 years with no prior criminal record, Alani is charged with sabotaging the airliner because ongoing labor negotiations were jeopardizing his chances at earning overtime, according to a criminal complaint. The aircraft did not take off and no one was injured. And Alani did work overtime to help fix the plane.
He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the charge of “willfully damaging, destroying or disabling” an aircraft used in commercial aviation, or trying to do so.
The sabotage involved gluing a piece of Styrofoam inside the nose of the aircraft that effectively disabled a navigation component pilots depend on to gauge such things as airspeed, the pitch of the plane, and other key data. Authorities say the problem was detected just before takeoff, when an error message appeared on a screen in the cockpit and the jet returned to a gate. It had been bound for Nassau, Bahamas.
Airport surveillance video showed Alani working on the aircraft’s nose compartment for seven minutes, even though there was no repair issue with the plane. He was later identified by co-workers from that video and was arrested earlier this month after returning from a trip to visit family near San Francisco.
Other actions prosecutors say raise terrorism concerns about Alani is a visit to Iraq in March and a recent wire transfer of $700 to an unknown person in that country. Alani does have extended family in Iraq, his lawyer said.
No trial date has been set.
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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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