Iraq fights cholera epidemic


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Health officials in Iraq are working to contain an outbreak of cholera that could threaten millions of Shi’ite pilgrims due to visit holy sites in Iraq early next month. According to UNICEF, there have been over 2000 confirmed cases of the disease and two deaths reported in Iraq, as well as individual cases in Kuwait and Bahrain.

“The millions of pilgrims who come will be walking through areas that have cholera,” Jeffrey Bates, the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Iraq told The Media Line. “If these people access contaminated water sources, they could get the disease. We are working with the government and religious sources to make the sure the water systems along the route are clean and that medical facilities along the way are equipped.”

The pilgrims are coming to the Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to mark the “arbaeen”, the end of 40 days of mourning for Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and the founder of Shi’ite Islam.

Outbreaks of cholera in Iraq are frequent, and usually come in the fall and spring, Bates says. This year it is more challenging than the past because the Islamic State controls about a third of northern and Western Iraq. It has been difficult to assess the cholera situation there, and there are fears that the three million displaced people might have less access to clean water than in the past.

Bates says that the key to controlling the spread of cholera is early detection. There is an anti-cholera vaccine that is effective in 50- 60 percent of the cases if two doses are taken. Cholera can be treated with oral rehydration solution, and in severe cases, antibiotics. The disease is spread through contaminated water or food.

Bates says that UNICEF has partnered with the Iraqi government to handle the cholera outbreak.

“The government came on board quickly as soon as cholera was identified in September,” he said. “Because of the conflict going on (with Islamic State) we had to re-gear quite a bit, but the response was rapid. The government responded with a round of oral cholera vaccine aimed at the displaced people and refugees.”

He said the first round of the oral vaccine was completed last week, and the second round is scheduled for early next month. In any case, the cholera outbreak, which tends to be seasonal, is winding down.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it has launched a campaign to encourage families to purify water, prepare food carefully and to wash their hands. The organization said it has launched a campaign to use 510,000 doses from a global stockpile of one million of the anti-cholera vaccination and will use it to vaccinate 255,000 internally displaced people and refugees.

“Five countries – Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – have reported cholera cases. The cholera situation in Kuwait and Bahrain is under control, however we are concerned about the current cholera outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Iraq. If not properly contained, cases could spike and spread across borders,” warned Coordinator, WHO Control of Epidemic Diseases, William Augusto Perea Caro.

He said the WHO needs five million dollars to ramp up its response to the cholera outbreaks. They said the situation in Africa is even worse than the Middle East.

“The cholera situation in the African Region is especially worrisome. WHO is working closely with national authorities and partners to manage the cases and provide access to safe water, adequate sanitation and basic hygiene needs,” said Dr Ibrahima-Socé Fall, Director of the Health Security and Emergencies Cluster at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

In Tanzania, there have been almost 5000 cases of cholera and 74 deaths in the past few months.

Study: Obama’s middle name influences Israeli perceptions


President Obama’s middle name, Hussein, can influence the way he is perceived by Israelis, a new study found.

Researchers at the University of Haifa and University of Texas found that when Obama’s middle name was used to identify him, Israelis saw him as less pro-Israel.

Results of the study, which was published in the journal Political Behavior, were announced Wednesday in a news release.

“Even though the Israeli public has extensive information about the American President and his positions, their opinions can still be swayed by cultural cues, such as a name that in this case is perceived as Arabic,” said the University of Haifa's Israel Waismel-Manor, a co-author of the study, in the news release.

For the study, groups of Israeli Jewish students and Israeli Arab students were shown a 3-minute, 40-second news clip of Obama speaking at an official meeting with Israeli Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Half of each group saw a video in which the president was identified in a caption as “President Barack Obama” and the other half saw him identified as “President Barack Hussein Obama.”

Both the Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews who viewed the video with his middle name saw the president as less pro-Israel than did their counterparts who watched the video that omitted his middle name. But the Israeli Arabs who viewed the video with the middle name also saw Obama less favorably than their counterparts who watched the video without his middle name.

The study also included groups of American college students who sympathized with either the Israel or the Palestinians. Inclusion of Obama’s middle name had no effect on the views of the American students toward him.

Overall, Israeli Jewish participants were more likely to see Obama as less pro-Israel than were Israeli Arab participants, though the Israeli Jews also viewed him more positively than did the Israeli Arabs.

Defending Identity


Natan Sharansky’s previous book, “The Case for Democracy,” changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President GeorgeW. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky’s second book, “Defending Identity,” came out this month, I thought I’d better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

“Yes,” Sharansky says, “a cappuccino.”

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God’s eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky’s. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And he said, ‘That makes sense.’

“So, later, Putin says to me, ‘Why no tie? Is that a protest?’ And I say, ‘No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'”

Sharansky is awake now, and it’s time to talk identity.

In “Defending Identity,” Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains “post-identity” thinking: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil.”

Sharansky’s book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be “used destructively,” he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, “are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities.”

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky’s own life.

“I have been extremely lucky — twice lucky in fact,” Sharansky writes. “I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously.”

The first third of Sharansky’s life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. “The only thing Jewish in my life,” he writes, “was anti-Semitism.”

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. “I started realizing I was part of a unique history … that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope.”

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

“I discovered that only by embracing who I am … could I also stand with others,” he writes. “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

While Sharansky’s biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn’t see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn’t be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in “The Dignity of Difference,” wrote that “universalism can also be deeply threatening.”

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don’t suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

“Exactly!” he says. “Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy.”

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky’s now-classic one on democracy.

“Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian,” he says. “But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let’s have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom.”

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes — Sharansky — trashes another — John Lennon. But if Lennon sang — with a bit of irony — about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

“The free world is in a big, big danger,” he says, “because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don’t.”